Dahnayl Champine had been working on a new song for some time. But Dj Loveasy just couldn’t finish it.

“I had the words and thought this would be good,” said the 16-year-old musician, emcee and producer who is a junior at Woodland Hills High School. “I just missed the lead, and I didn’t have a hook.”

He joined the KRUNK Movement in Hazelwood in January, and the teachers and mentors there helped him refine his song and those created by his fellow students for a new original hip-hop album centered on issues of social and environmental justice, among others.

Dahnayl did come up with that hook and finished it — “It might be corny, but it’s my legacy. We can reduce, reuse and recycle the truth for a future that we can all groove.” It became the first song, “Stained Melody,” dropped for that album, “Su(stained) Reality,” which will be released on Monday, Earth Day. The song is streaming now on Spotify and Apple Music and the KRUNK website.

And they are beyond excited for happens in under two months: Dahnayl and his fellow students will perform the album live at the National Museum of African American Music in Nashville June 1-2 in its Rechter Family Concourse/Lobby, thanks to the Center of Life in Hazelwood and the Green Building Alliance Sustainable Communities collaboration that led to its creation. The students will perform the album live at Center of Life’s end of year Block Party on Friday, May 24, too, in addition to their other live performances and concerts around the city.

KRUNK, which stands for Kreating Realistic Universal New School Knowledge, is a year-round youth production program at the center, a nonprofit that serves Hazelwood and its surrounding communities with rich academic out-of-school programs and outstanding experiences in music and arts. It explores the elements of hip-hop through songwriting, production, art and technology, and students must audition to join. The KRUNK Movement program is run as a student-led initiative, where they learn the skills, professionalism and financial literacy necessary to succeed as artists, according to the center’s website and a news release announcing the album.

“Working with these remarkably smart and talented students has been an inspiration to our entire team at the Green Building Alliance,” Dionna Reynolds, GBA senior director of social impact, said in the news release. “While our initial goal was to equip these young people to understand how the environments in which we learn, live and play affect health, well-being and economic opportunity and to empower them to take action in their communities, it is the students who have given us hope through their commitment and energy.”

GBA leaders pointed to the nonprofits’ history of working together as impetus for the album and performance. “Our youth are our future, and community-based partnerships such as this provide opportunities to engage with young people around the concept of sustainability in ways that are relatable and real,” GBA President and CEO Jenna Cramer said in the news release. “This project emerged from 15 years of working with Center of Life and the Hazelwood community to positively impact the built environment in the neighborhood, and we are so inspired to see young people connecting with environmental issues in a personal way.”

Shundeena Beard, KRUNK music and arts program manager, explained that work on the album started in the fall but officially got underway in January. “We talked with them about what sustainability means to them and their culture and applications of it,” she said as the students launched their work on it in earnest.

Reynolds said the album was her brainchild. “I was thinking about ways to engage [the students],” she said. “GBA has a long history with Center of Life, but after looking at KRUNK overall and what they have done previously, I thought this would be a great way to bring sustainability to young people, especially with music. With their gifts and talent, it was a great way to approach them. It has been engaging, inspiring and educational.”

She provided Beard and the other teachers with sustainability information to review with the students, including visuals like PowerPoints and the U.N. Sustainable Development goals. Reynolds said she suggested the goals as inspiration because they can be scaled to what communities and individuals can strive for and because climate impact and sustainability can be big terms, especially for young people. “I asked them to think about that and present it through music,” she said. “They’ve done a great job.”

Beard said as the students wrote and started with their own songs, the KRUNK mentors and coaches helped them with their lyrics and beats, and through trial and error together they polished them. It was important to do so, she said, especially because many have learned only a little about sustainability in school.

The KRUNK production staff helped edit, clean up and master the students’ songs, showing them a professional standard as the students mainly record their songs on their phones, using the BandLab app, according to Jory Akier Strothers, a KRUNK staff engineer and emcee coach. It is also a social media platform where they can share their work.

“Production is a beast,” he said, explaining that he dips into his own background, which includes making music since he was 11, to explain music theory to the students as well. He and other KRUNK staff worked with the students first to rewrite their songs by tweaking the lyrics. “Basically we’re just polishing them off. We want to show them an industry standard,” Strothers said.

The Trunk Movement Su(Stained) Reality graphic.

The album has 10 tracks, Beard said, and within it are some spoken word poetry pieces.  The result is the students get their message about sustainability out in a different way, one they and their peers understand easily.

The students toured GBA’s headquarters on the South Side before they finished it, and Reynolds said the students saw some sustainable products there and watched “Hip Hop Forestry: Stories Happen in Forests,”  a video created by Thomas Easley, who has been a forester, a hip-hop artist, a professor and an assistant dean at Yale. He currently has his own firm, Mind Heart for Diversity. “I thought it was a natural fit with this project to come in and share some of his stories with the students,” Reynolds said. 

She also had a secret: Reynolds had arranged for Easley to address the students via Zoom. “They were surprised. [There] was an audible gasp in the room. At that point, he had their attention, 100%. It was a great conversation,” she said. He explained that he got where he is through sustainability and led the students in a lively question and answer session. 

Beard said one track near the end of the album includes every student involved in the project. They passed the microphone around to tell their sustainability story together. “It was so fluid,” she said. “In most group projects you don’t see that ease. … They just built on top of each other’s strengths.”

Strothers said he was pleased how the students committed to the project. He said he told them the work was just like athletics: You have to practice and practice and persevere.

Albert Felipe, a KRUNK Movement coordinator, agreed. He said KRUNK’s overall goal is to serve as an incubator for the students, and they all saw the students “grow in themselves” with this project.

Felipe and Strothers both stressed how blown away they were with Dahnayl’s song when he shared it with them in February. He had done all the instrumentals — Dahnayl plays alto, tenor and baritone saxophone, acoustic and electric guitar, “some piano and a little bit of drums.” A member of Woodland Hills’ jazz band, he worked on the song at home on his computer, then finished it with the production equipment available at KRUNK.

Dahnayl said he was not expecting his song to be released first because he is so new to KRUNK.

Felipe said, “We already had a set of songs. [But] He brought it to us. It hit the nail on the head [of the album theme].”

Strothers added, “It sprinted off the flow of the album. It went hand in hand with our work.”

In addition to Dahnayl, the 13 other KRUNK Movement students who contributed to the album are: Shombay Akoben, emcee, 16, home school; Aryana Booker-Gamez, emcee/vocalist, 17, Westinghouse Arts Academy; Te’Mar Carlisle, vocalist, 17, Pittsburgh CAPA; Anjali Dixon, artist, 16, Pittsburgh CAPA; Bayjai Germany, artist, 14, Propel Hazelwood K-8; Julai Germany, artist, 17, Pittsburgh CAPA; Dilana Gray, poet/artist, 17, Allderdice High School; Shailynn Mwangi, poet, 16, Jefferson High School, Indiana; Ava Paredes, artist, 17, Pittsburgh CAPA; Micha Pinnix, emcee, 17, Pittsburgh Science & Technology Academy; Hanae Rayzer, poet, 18, Pittsburgh CAPA; Raujenay Rixey, emcee/vocalist, 17, Pittsburgh CAPA; and D’Asia White, artist, 17, Pittsburgh CAPA. 

Some of the artists have worked to design the album cover in addition to their other work at KRUNK, as they can learn about photography, videography, art and mixed media and multimedia there. Some of their creations have been the focus of one art show, and another one is planned for June, Beard said.

The work each contributed to the album touched on issues important to them. Te’Mar said her song, “Feeling Alone,” came from “wanting someone to talk to and having a safe haven to go to. KRUNK is a safe haven.”

Raujenay said she had the beats for her song, and she knew she wanted it to be about relationships, but she needed help although she had written songs before. She found the album process interesting.

Micha, a senior who lives in the Hill District, said he has a verse in the group song.  His inspiration for it came from traveling through Hazelwood and seeing abandoned buildings. He said he knows people want to live in better neighborhoods, “but they can’t get there.” But he also “sees the kindness in Hazelwood,” so he wants better housing there for its residents.

The students won’t have a big celebration the day of the album release, Beard said, but they will gather and reflect on their work together at KRUNK in their safe haven.

The effort has been enriching to all. “The KRUNK Green Building Alliance partnership has taken our outreach to families and youth to a new level,” Center of Life CEO Tim Smith said in the news release. “GBA has provided vital information about green infrastructure and renewables to our students, and the students have taken the technical language from GBA and translated it into youth-friendly HIP HOP language and produced an amazing album to be released on Earth Day.”

Center of Life and GBA need to finish the fundraising needed to send the students and their teachers to Nashville. The Forbes Fund had already contributed, and individuals can donate here through Center of Life’s website. Reynolds will join Beard and the other KRUNK staff members on the trip.

And besides the Nashville trip and performance, the students who aren’t graduating have another big event to look forward to in the fall. KRUNK and the Center of Life Band is among the list of musicians, artists and bands who will be part of the Sudden Little Thrills Festival coming to Hazelwood Green on Sept. 7 and 8.

That lineup includes Pittsburgh native Wiz Khalifa, who will be celebrating his birthday in his hometown; SZA; the Killers; St. Vincent; and another hometown musician, Girl Talk.  Tickets for the new festival are on sale now.

Anyone who would like to help the students get to Nashville can donate at this link: https://www.centeroflife.org/krunkxgba. Just click the donate button at the top of the page.

Students in the KRUNK Movement and jazz programs at Center of Life perform at a past concert in Hazelwood. (Courtesy of Center of Life)

Helen is a copy editor at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but she's currently on strike. Contact her at hfallon@unionprogress.com.

Helen Fallon

Helen is a copy editor at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but she's currently on strike. Contact her at hfallon@unionprogress.com.