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Born for a reason

Figureheads concert
Photo courtesy of Anne Shapiro

Hip-hop group Figureheads perform with purpose

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By Felicia Hudson

The staccato thumping of the drum beat is familiar. It spells hip-hop, now synonymous with “bling” – fat rocks, flashy chains, gaudy grills, the gold-and-diamond braces affixed to artists’ teeth. The genre means gritty themes, easy expletives and scantily clad women gyrating on stage.

On a warm autumn day in Madison, the stage promises hip-hop, promises the beat, promises the energy, but the stage holds no bling, no expletives. Today the only gyration comes courtesy of a 4-foot-9-inch girl, bubbling with enthusiasm.

As she takes her place on the street level stage of concrete, a chime-like melody begins playing from an electronic keyboard, meshing the sounds of xylophone and harp. The beat feels hip-hop, but the culture does not. And then come the lyrics:

“This song is for the kiddos we believe in
“Kiddo, you were born for a reason
“Even if you can’t see it, we can
“Kiddo, you were born for a reason”

On this day, on this stage, heart replaces bling.

It’s the stage of Figureheads, a three-man band bent on using hip-hop to transform young lives. And although they call themselves “underground,” their fans find the messages anything but subverting.

Formed in 2004, Figureheads — Greg Marshall, 26, Jeremy Bryan, 28 and Dave Olson, 32, came together with a common desire to change entertainment and education through their music.

On today’s stage at the first Walk for Autism, sponsored by Friends of Autism, fans of all ages – male and female – are jumping, swaying, stomping and dancing. The group’s good looks, charm and charisma are not lost on this crowd —and neither is their message.

Advocates of children with disabilities, Figureheads are already making a name for themselves in the Midwest for writing, producing and performing music that improves the lives of families and children, particularly those who are autistic. The use of hip-hop music to share their vision was unorthodox and the group was not prepared for the response it would receive.

Initially, the group was unsure of how to combine their love of hip-hop with their goal of education and entertainment.

“We didn’t know what that meant,” Marshall says. “But it meant everything from wanting to discuss literature with college students and talk about the impact of that, but also to work with young kids.”

They are doing that by proving that poetry, which was originally inherent in this music, can be reclaimed through thoughtful and poignant lyrics and unique electronic music to connect with, and empower, children – particularly those with special needs. The desire to write, produce and perform music for children grew from the trios’ own experience in working with them – Marshall as an in-house therapist, Bryan as a substitute teacher and an after-school program coordinator and Olson in at-risk youth programs.

Marshall and Bryan met as English majors at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and discovered they also shared a passion for hip-hop, literature, English and literacy. They started performing together in local coffee shops but needed a producer, which led to a meeting with Olson.

Olson, the group’s producer, who only started listening to and making hip-hop four years ago, already had an impressive production background in his hometown of Minneapolis, Minn., where he had spent time over the last 10 years touring the States and Europe as part of an experimental electronic music scene while working at an outreach organization for homeless youth. Source, the organization Olson worked for, connected with some groups in Madison through music festivals, and Olson met Bryan. Olson was plenty busy with his work, but no longer felt inspired. The three decided to collaborate.

“I had, obviously, a palate for hip-hop for years, but I wasn’t focusing on it. So, I have spent the last four years really trying to become a student of hip-hop production,” Olson says.

Marshall, husband of Laura and father of baby daughter Genevieve, developed a love for hip-hop in high school and into college and admits that though early on he succumbed to the vulgarity and degradation of women that has been typical of rap, his growth in life changed his perspective.

“There was a point where I didn’t learn to become socially conscious through my music. It was more like my life on a very deep level changed,” he says. “My perspective changed and then I was able to use music as a tool to sort of communicate what was happening inside of me.”

Bryan, whose family moved from rural Idaho and Vermont, spent his formative years in upstate New York, specifically Binghampton and Syracuse. He moved to Milwaukee during his junior year of high school. He was drawn to hip-hop as a child, raised by an inner city minister. Later, his mother worked with many international students.

“My context early on was inner-city living,” he says. “Multiracial, multicultural – and so right away, at a very young age, I was attracted to hip-hop almost as something that I felt so deeply that I felt like this is what I was born to do; it resounded in me so strongly.”

Bryan says that from the age of nine, he knew his life had something to do with hip-hop. It was a way for him to express angst, frustration and all the feelings he was experiencing. And his pastor father encouraged him by inviting him to rap at Sunday morning church services, which was controversial.

“There was a lot of racial tension around hip-hop at the time, so for a white kid to try to do it at the time was frowned upon,” Bryan says. “ And then specifically within the context of Christianity and church, it was controversial to bring a new form of music that was gaining momentum – that was mostly being used, at least mainstream, as really negative – when at its roots and at its core is really celebratory and really seeking out the bigger questions in life and social responsibility.”

The husband of Johanna and father of baby Samuel and Remnant, credits his solid family life and the love and support of his mother and father with encouraging him to pursue hip-hop and says that living in the inner city and being around people whose struggles were greater than his own also played a part in his wanting to give a voice to those who struggle. Soon the three were working together to create that voice.

“We started working together and pretty soon the three of us were just vibing over a vision for doing music together full time and that brought us all to Madison,” says Bryan. “Long story short – we put a mission statement together about working with education and entertainment and trying to affect change in those domains of society and that’s where Greg’s story picks up with Annie – the girl that he worked with that led us to this opportunity.”

Annie’s Song

Two years before Figureheads would become a force in local hip-hop, Marshall wrote a song with 9-year-old Annie O’Brien. Annie, who is autistic, struggled with her morning routine and getting ready for, and off to, school on time. With the persuasion of her husband, Annie’s mother Becky consented to let a male counselor from Integrated Development Services (IDS), a multi-disciplinary clinic providing direct and consultative services for over 350 families and their children with behavioral and developmental challenges, come in and assist her daughter in creating a morning routine. That counselor was Greg Marshall.

Annie liked music and so did Marshall, so they wrote a song together to Marshall’s guitar. The song used hip-hop lyrics to give structure to Annie’s morning routine. Before long, Annie was not only singing along to the song and dressing in a timely manner, but exceeding expectations. Annie did not like to rush in the morning and sometimes became violent from the pressure. Annie’s mother credits Marshall and the music for turning around a difficult situation, even though she was initially skeptical of having a male assist her daughter in developing a morning routine.

“We began to love [Greg] instantly,” O’Brien says. “And Annie loved him. Annie responded to [the song] instantly. She instantly was just attracted to it the first day.”

O’Brien says that prior to Marshall writing the song with Annie, she and her husband had tried everything from step-by-step instructions to rewards and role playing with Annie in the role of teacher with her stuffed animals, and nothing worked.

“This was the first thing that ever made a difference,” O’Brien says. “It was the rap music that she could relate to.”

O’Brien says that before Marshall and her daughter wrote Annie’s Song, getting Annie out the door to classes that began at 7:30 a.m. took over two hours.

“If someone had said ‘get her ready or roll down in front of a moving car,’ I would have gotten down in front of the car,” she says.

Annie is now 12 and in seventh grade. Although she no longer needs the assistance of Annie’s Song to get ready for class, Marshall still visits her regularly and gives her guitar lessons.

This opportunity with Annie led to the founding of Kiddo Publishing.

You Come Too

Marshall and the Figureheads met with Andy Paulson, founder and president of IDS. Paulson’s financial backing provided the group the chance to launch Kiddo Publishing with a vision of representing other artists within a community of therapists.

“We could publish artists within a community of therapists that he was with and he [Paulson] loved that idea and gave us the green light to basically be the staff that would start Kiddo Publishing,” Marshall, who is also Kiddo’s creative director, says. “So he founded it, in that regard, and we did the work of creating the first products, creating the mission statement, getting all those things started. We came up with the name Kiddo Publishing and so our sustaining relationship with Andy started Kiddo Publishing and now it’s gone beyond that.”

In December 2005, the group released their first CD for children, You Come Too. The CD contains 14 tracks with titles such as, Kiddo Anthem, Stretching Song, Manners and the winner of the 2006 Peoples Choice award for International Songwriters Competition, Born for a Reason. And Kiddo Anthem recently won "best song" in the Children's Music Web Awards of 2006. They have been traveling to schools throughout Wisconsin performing and earning new fans each visit.

Although the music appeals to all children – not just those with disabilities, Katherine Rybak, a special education teacher at CH Bird Elementary School in Sun Prairie says the Figureheads really know how to involve the children in the performances.

"We had a couple of children with disabilities and I think one of the most important things they did was to make a point to include them,” Rybak says. “They modeled that it was really important to have inclusion, not just have them [the children] in the room.”

Carolyn Lengh, head of lower school at University School of Milwaukee, a private independent school for grades PK – 12, says the students found the Figureheads performance at her school exhilarating.

“The performers are very engaging with the children,” Lengh says. “One of the things that strikes me is that children can tell if adults are being sincere. There is an authentic interaction with them. I think it [the music] is a powerful thing.”

The school even purchased some of the CDs to play in the classrooms.

Stretching Song

Figureheads already perform what has been described by fans as socially responsible hip-hop for adults, but in November will release their second young peoples’ CD with Kiddo Publishing called “The Movement,” which targets young people in the pre-teen and teenage group.

“Last year when we did a bunch of school shows we found that the music connected well with Kindergarten through 3rd or 4th grade and it kind of missed beyond that – 5th and 6th or 7th grade – it was a little too much for kids,” Olson says. “So we wanted to write an album that some of those older kids could listen to and recognize.”

To those of us who have only seen or heard mainstream hip-hop, a group of young, morally conscious and socially responsible hip-hop performers might sound like an oxymoron, but the Figureheads have earned respect of fellow performers in Madison’s hip-hop community.

Hip-hop artist and freelance music critic for The Isthmus Kyle "El Guante" Myhre says the group is very well respected in the close-knit community both as people and as artists – particularly their activism.

“They are able to do interesting things rhythmically while also still saying something meaningful,” Myhre says. “I think the most amazing thing about them is that a lot of artists say they are progressive or that they are doing something revolutionary, but Figureheads is one of the few examples I can think of, of artists who have a real physical impact on peoples’ lives because the music is not only inspirational, but at the same time is helping children with developmental disabilities have order in their days and process information.”

Myhre also says that the group’s futuristic electronic sound and precise rhymes make the group stand apart from others.


The group would like to see their publishing company create a platform for differing types of therapy, views on parenting, teaching and a venue for those different views to be discussed. And they would like to bring innovative thinkers together.

“The process that I went through with Kiddo was a real eye opener to see what I could use my gift for, other than just myself,” Olson says.

The group would like the future of Kiddo Publishing to be that of a publishing house that endorses this generation of artists and publishes the work of other gifted artists who want to help others.

“We hope that Kiddo becomes a platform for them [artists] to use their art in development and transformation and not just settle,” Brian says. “We want alternative opportunities created for our generation to give voice to their gifts.”

Click here to sample some of The Figureheads' music.

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(c) curb magazine 2006