“We want it all so we got to grab it / We gotta do anything, make sure we have it / Want no money or no cars, just wanna hang out / We all have our voices so we’re gonna sing out.”
Those lyrics come from “We Want It All,” and they’ve been echoing in my head since they first blared out of my speakers. Featuring students from Atlanta, the song is one of 13 tracks off Child Support, the latest release from Chicago-born rapper Psalm One. All told, kids from eight cities across the U.S. contributed rhymes and vocals.
For the last four months of 2011, the 32-year-old artist traveled to underserved areas across the country to record the album, working with more than 200 students in after-school programs. A collaboration with the ASCAP Songwriter Residency and America SCORES, the tour allowed children to write and record their own raps alongside Psalm One.
“We decided to not only do a song but maybe try a tour,” says the rapper about planning with ASCAP and America SCORES, which offer annual programs to let artists give back to their communities. “I never knew it would culminate in an Apollo Theater appearance. This album’s been doing really well, and we’ve actually been able to touch a few lives.”
Each stop on the tour entailed at least three days of creativity, starting with writing exercises and ending with recording sessions in local studios. Eight-year-olds to eighth graders made their way onto the album, which includes two songs from Chicago students. “Smarter Gang,” a funky, fast-paced track, speaks to the positive influence that rap can have in schools, while “Best Friend” is an upbeat ode to true friendships.
Part of Psalm One’s artistry was bringing beats for the kids to choose from and then compiling their lyrics into a final, cohesive rap. When sixth and seventh grade at-risk girls in Chicago only wanted to sing about guys and money, Psalm One produced “Stupid Girls Never Win,” which warns about the dangers of those kinds of obsessions. Another challenge throughout the entire creative process, she says, was “making sure the kids didn’t all talk about soccer,” since America SCORES is a network of after-school programs that combine soccer and poetry.
Psalm One’s favorite track is “We Want It All”—so much so that she listened to it for three hours straight waiting for her flight out of Atlanta the day it was finished. “It’s infectious,” she says. “Those kids were really good at rapping, and their accents were so cute.” Those Atlanta students were such seasoned rappers, they held an American Idol–esque competition to choose which kids would be featured.
Born Cristalle Bowen, Psalm One was raised in Englewood and attended the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she majored in chemistry. She released her first full-length album, Bio: Chemistry, as a senior in 2002. After graduation, she worked as a chemist testing food quality and working on nutrition labels, but the stint lasted less than two years before she decided to pursue a full-time career as a musician. Since then, she has released more than ten albums. She currently lives in Edgewater and mentors on the South Side through her nonprofit organization Charm Lab.
“I did feel that I was putting my Psalm One efforts for my own personal adult music on the back burner,” says the rapper about touring for Child Support. “Any artist is going to feel a different sort of way about that, but I didn’t let it get me down because I was still doing the one thing that I love to do, which is make music, and I love kids.”