When talking to Mervin Jenkins, one notices the excitement he projects when discussing those topics close to his heart. Maybe it is the glint in his eye as he strokes his beard or the slight rhythmic movements of his body language as he nods during conversation. Jenkins' penchant for communicating with people and expressing himself comes in handy in his two main passions; as assistant principal at Chapel Hill High School, and as Spectac, hip-hop MC.
Sitting outside the Cat's Cradle after a recent performance, Jenkins shot a proud grin when asked if the students at school are fans of his music. "Some of them are in there right now!"
The microphone is an extension of the MC, and Jenkins sees hip-hop as another tool in his educational work. He knows first-hand the link between the two: gaining young peoples' trust in the fragile relationship between educator and student. Growing up in the small community of Eutawville, S.C., Jenkins found music, like many teens, as a pleasurable distraction from daily life.
"Like every big city and small hick town that I've been able to spend some time in doing hip hop, Toronto, Canada down to Atlanta, GA, there's always a ghetto. This is not only the physical condition of a place but also the mentality of its people," he says.
Early classics moved him, like Run DMC's "Sucker MC" in 1983, when he was 13. His knowledge of hip-hop culture soon grew with cousins transplanted from New York City. Immediately after high school, he wanted to make the leap into entertainment in the Big Apple. But his mother had other ideas.
"Mom filled out college applications without my knowing (about it), and wouldn't you know it, Benedict College for the next several years. Thanks Mom!"
He divides equal time between being counselor and administrator at CHHS, and working on his music. These days, he finds that both of his life's passions complement each other in ways he had not fully realized.
"I think anyone who is dealing with kids in any positive capacity is teaching. I promised myself that as an assistant principal I would not let that stop me from being out and about with the students ... Considering the numerous meetings with parents, other administrators, community leaders, etcetera. I (still) focus on them--the students," Jenkins says.
Gaining the trust of those individual teens is where his secret lies. "Music is the key to the soul, no one excluded. The younger generation just prefers hip-hop. It is their way of saying what they often feel they can't among other audiences. I blend the elements of hip-hop into school seminars and sometimes just one on one talks with the students... they love it and so do I."
With his new independent project, "Life Through Music," Jenkins uses his own example as a teen positively shaped by hip-hop. In the process, he hopes to persuade other adults to do the same. Jenkins says, "I saw the potential for this type of thing last year when I spoke to a group of UNC students in Chapel HillÉ(about) my experiences as a minority going through the public school system of the South, the strong influences of getting involved in negative behaviors, and how hip-hop music helped me to focus during this critical time." Jenkins offers these lecture-performances to all age groups from kindergarteners to college students. He'll be presenting one in Columbia, South Carolina next month as a part of a Black History Month program. Jenkins is attempting to realize the mission of "edutainment" in our own community. The term was coined by KRS One (of positive hip-hop pioneers-for-change Boogie Down Productions) to describe valuable lessons learned about heritage and experience through hip-hop.
Jenkins doesn't relegate his music to a mere basement studio hobby, despite so many other commitments. His only five-song EP thus far has sparked national acclaim, charting on Billboard's Top 100 Singles. Lessons From Da Ghetto, shows a reverence for old story-telling hip-hop of the Eighties, with vivid lyrical snapshots of a neighborhood. He eases from deadpan, stern declarations like "This is a junkie, they stay strung out," or "Here's how some braids look, here's how a fade looks," to "This is a grade book, use this in public school" or humorous lines like "This is Biz Markie, watch out he's flickin' boogers." Another cut, "Lessons From Da Yard," features rough dancehall percussion and crisp delivery with collaborators Mayoral and Adrian Bryant, some rapped in Spanish.
Collaborators in his career include producer Large Professor, (Eric B. and Rakim to Nas), and A Tribe Called Quest's Phife. Last summer, Jenkins was invited to the ultra old-school hip-hop event, the reunion of original breakdance b-boys Rock Steady Crew. He was one of the only non-signed performers alongside groups like members of Wu Tang Clan, Curtis Blow, DJ Red Alert, and b-boys like Crazy Legs at the weekend-long event. Close to 20,000 attended in New York City. Here at home, he collaborates regularly with beat genius 9th Wonder of Durham outfit Little Brother, a slew of local MCs and producers, and has a new single coming in the spring with a full length in the works.
The secret of Jenkins' smile when he's bending an ear about his passions might just be that he knows something he's not telling. Maybe he knows that he's making a difference in people's lives, and that music is a part of it. The marriage of those things is something to grin about indeed.
Spectac backed by live band The Remix Project, with Median, Dan Johns, Lyrikal Buddah, and others are at Kings Barcade Friday, Jan. 30.