Hip-hop Sholom: Urban youth arts center and suburban synagogue unite to make short documentary

Elementz and Temple Sholom: A cultural exchange

CINCINNATI - Suburban Jewish seniors collaborating with Cincinnati’s inner-city youth? It sounds like the premise of a sitcom, but the mission is serious. 

Elementz Urban Youth Arts Center , in Over-the-Rhine, is producing a short video documentary about one of its frequent visitors. Members of Temple Sholom , in Amberley, are lending financial and personal support to help bring the video to fruition.

Project insiders hope the story of Tafari Amenenhet McDade, 22, enlightens and engages viewers about the struggles and challenges he and other black youth experience.

The documentary will also showcase Elementz as a vital outlet for youth to explore and grow as artists. A Kickstarter campaign for “The Spirit of Tafari” launched earlier this week.

“There’s a divide—a geographic and social division—between our community at Sholom and the clientele of the Elementz community, and that divide is a problem,” said Chris Kraus, director of lifelong learning at the synagogue.

“That’s something that, as Jews, doesn’t sit well with some of us,” he said. “We have a concept of justice that our community is defined by our neighbors, and (we) view Elementz as our neighbors. It’s (an) opportunity to befriend and learn from other people in our community who, on the outside, seem very different, but inwardly, in terms of our spirit, many of our goals share some similarity.”

'Humanity To Humanity, That Is My Goal'

The synagogue and Elementz have already collaborated on less ambitious projects—a Temple Sholom member serves on Elementz’s board—when leaders at Elementz approached Krause and others with the concept for this documentary.

Abdullah Powell, creative director at Elementz, thought it best to tell one member’s story rather than create an overarching look, and he zeroed on McDade, an aspiring hip-hop artist who often writes and raps about inner-city struggles.

“Tafari had a specific skill that was really insightful, and he would express what he saw around him in his neighborhood, things he’s been through, and speak about his story of redemption through his music,” Powell said. “He just had a unique talent we don’t see in a lot of artists, period, not just at Elementz.”

Initial footage revolves around McDade’s creative flow through Elementz, and it follows him in his interactions with family and with members of the synagogue. One of those is Werner Coppel, an 88-year-old Holocaust survivor, who has taken a deep interest McDade and champions both his creativity and determination to keep his life course on the upswing.

“At an age when (life) was over for me, when I was 19, and this man, with all the talents he has, coming out of a broken home, and having problems in his youth, I thought I could contribute to help him overcome his past and look forward to the future,” Coppel said of McDade.

“When I came to Cincinnati, in 1949, I came with a wife, a baby and a suitcase, and I had to work, and I worked, and Cincinnati was good to me, and there’s no reason for Tafari not to do the same,” Coppel said.

“That is my goal. I don’t know anything about the music—I know Beethoven—but humanity to humanity, that is my goal.”

Campaign To Fund Production

Producers are hoping to raise $6,000 through their Kickstarter campaign, which runs through Oct. 9. If successful, the money will go toward general production costs. Producers estimate the finished video will run about 15 minutes. 

For his part, McDade seems nonplussed as the focus of this documentary, and he says his emergence from a youth of marijuana, truancy and other “things I shouldn’t have been doing,” is a work in progress. He’s still inching toward his general education developmental certificate.

McDade, who grew up largely in Walnut Hills and Evanston and now lives in Westwood, considers his relationship with Coppel and others at Temple Sholom as “a brotherhood.”

He hopes the finished documentary allows other black youth in Cincinnati to see some of themselves in him.

“The biggest challenge for me is fear and doubt,” McDade said. “I’m definitely afraid of God, but I’m also afraid some things might not go the way I expect them to go. It's been a real rough journey for me, but I can still overcome it.”

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