Hill-Freedman teacher helps students find their voice in original music

He founded the Hill-Freedman record label, which is about to release its second album.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

This profile of an outstanding Philadelphia teacher is made possible by a grant from the Lindback Foundation. To read another one of these profiles, click here.

Ezechial Thurman is a music technology teacher at Hill-Freedman World Academy who also founded a record label at the school.

Last year, Hill-Freedman Records released its first album, titled First Verse, which featured 29 original spoken-word poems by students at the Northwest Philadelphia school. This year they will release their second album, called, What’s Going On? featuring about 21 original songs that were written, edited, and sung by the students. Unlike the last album, What’s Going On? will be sold to raise money for the program next year.

Thurman said he had the students listen to the music of Motown for inspiration. A lot of their music has to do with the problems facing both teenagers and society as a whole.

“Music can be used divisively, it can be something that helps rally a particular clique or group of people in their own ideas, but music can also provoke people in a way that helps bring everyone together,” Thurman said. “In a day when we’re seeing so much tension, with police brutality and even just racial tension in Philly and the country, that was a relevant subject that the students want to talk about. But it also comes at it from the angle of ‘are there themes and ideas and concepts that we can use in our music that will provoke people to think in a different way about race?’”

Students took particular inspiration from Marvin Gaye and the music about social justice that he made for Motown.

Many of the songs on the album address personal and societal issues that the students see as important. The title song,“What’s Going On?” talks about climate change and police brutality, and another song, “Perfectly Imperfect,” addresses self-esteem and body-image issues.

The album’s production took place over eight months, and 125 students made songs for it. However only 79 minutes worth of music will fit, so not all the students’ work will be included on the album.

The record label has also received funding from several outside groups. NBC Universal gave the studio $25,000, which prompted the singers of “Perfectly Imperfect” to be invited to the NBC studio for an interview. The total cost Thurman estimates for the project is $35,000, with a fundraising goal of $60,000.

Thurman said the amazing work that the students are doing has a backdrop of hardships that they face while living in the community.

“We lost our school police officer this year. He committed suicide,” Thurman said. “In fact, some of the students used songwriting and the creative process to process that. The kids wrote lyrics and used this album as a way to reflect. There’s no easy way to deal with loss. It’s painful no matter what you do.”

Over the course of the album’s creation, the students worked with many well-known artists. Thurman said these talented artists have helped the students make their music even better than it would have been.

“I’m happy that we had Yolanda Wisher here for a good part of the year, Kristal Oliver, a gifted guest artist,” Thurman said. “These are top-tier, focused, engaged folks that are doing it, making it happen. Grammy-nominated, celebrated by the Kimmel Center, poet laureate in the city of Philadelphia – so we’re talking people that we can set up as mentors and models.”

On June 7, the school is holding an official release event for the album, which came out on June 2.

Take a listen.