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POP MUSIC

Senior citizens rap: the new old school

A rap class at the Watts Senior Community Center run by Keith Cross enables senior citizens to relate to the young people in their lives.

August 04, 2009|Juliette Funes

No one can rock it on the mike like Patsy Cole, also known as Lady P, a 48-year-old rapper and grandmother of 28, with two more on the way. She hustles, flows, rhymes and raps, all with the intention of conveying an important message to kids and teens: If the youngsters can do it, so can she.

Two summers ago, Cole began attending a class developed by local hip-hop artist Keith Cross called the "Senior Citizen Rap Class," a monthlong community project in Watts that attempts to bridge the gap between young and old through a shared love of music.

"The first day was awesome," she said. "I wrote my first rap, and I thought, 'I did that.' " She has since formed a gospel rap group to positively influence the young people in her life.

"Sometimes when we're young we have dreams and don't get to pursue them. We let them go," she said. "But it's never too late, no matter your age, to pursue your dreams."

About 40 family members and friends gathered Friday at the Watts Senior Community Center to watch the rappers perform their original pieces at the conclusion of this summer's class.

Cole was joined by Aline Murphy, 73; Sarah "Sneedy Weedy" Sneed, 75; Charles "Gentle Ben" Herbert, 50; and Mary Franklin, whose age remained a mystery as she brought the audience to its feet with her freestyle dancing and upbeat rapping.

Murphy, Cole's mother, thought she was too old to be in the class and initially couldn't stand rap, but she has been attending the event since its inception in 2004. A blues and R&B singer originally from Memphis, Tenn., Murphy was enthusiastic to be on the stage.

"It was great," she said afterward. "I've always sang, but not rap. It's a great experience to be able to get through to the kids."

The program targets senior citizens who have little tolerance for the music their grandchildren listen to daily.

"I think they're the furthest removed from rap music," Cross said. "There's not a knowledge passed on from old to young, and that's because we're pointed in two different directions. Teaching them how to rap would be perfect."

Through an Artist in Resident grant from the Los Angeles City Department of Cultural Affairs, which enables a local artist to implement a cultural program in a community that doesn't traditionally focus on the arts, Cross has been able to teach the class every summer.

However, it isn't easy to get seniors into a class that focuses on rap, mainly because of what it's associated with -- gangs, drugs, violence and the exploitation of women.

"A lot of seniors now are turned off by a lot of the negativity you hear in rap music," Cross said. "What they hear now is disrespectful rap music on the radio. They have a misconception that all rap is bad."

Cross instead uses music like blues and soul to compare their lyrical and musical elements to that of hip-hop.

"Music is something we all have in common . . . and is something we can all get together around if it's presented right," Cross said.

Learning how to analyze music also encourages them to find other musical influences for their children and grandchildren, Cross said.

"There is positive rap out there; we just have to look for it," he said. "I want them to know that it's out there, and it doesn't have to sound disrespectful."

Still, Cross understands the older generation's dislike for contemporary rap. His rap music used to be graphic, but that changed when he became a substitute teacher and saw the influence hip-hop music had on his students.

About 20 people attended the class this year, Cross said. That only five chose to perform isn't unusual -- it averages about seven, he said.

"For those who do come and do stay, it's not about the music," Cross said. "They come and do it because they care about young people . . . it's a means to help connect with the young people in their lives."

Murphy hopes to pass on some wisdom to the younger generation through the themes exhibited in her music.

"You can do and be anything you want to," she said. "There's nothing you can't do. And whatever you do, just stick with it and do it well."

Sneed has a similar message.

Young people "can do whatever they want to do in their life," she said.

She and the others who performed Friday plan to continue participating for as long as the program is available.

"I'll keep doing it until I can't stand up," Sneed said. "I might need a cane next time, though."

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juliette.funes@latimes.com

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