Front to back Jenny Gray, Anitra Luree Isler, Dan Levy, Ben Good and Andrew O’Brien. Photo courtesy of Northwestern University’s School of Education and Social Policy

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Five Evanston Township High School students who won a hip-hop design challenge traveled to Washington, D.C., for a day of design workshops and a performance by hip-hop artist Nas. The design challenge was offered online by ARTSEDGE, the Kennedy Center’s arts education program, in cooperation with Northwestern University’s FUSE program and the Chicago-based Digital Youth Network.

The challenge invited all Chicago and Evanston teens ages 15 to 19 to call upon their own artistic voice to design T-shirts or 3-D printed jewelry inspired by the five elements of hip-hop culture: graffiti, DJ-ing, rap, breakdancing and knowledge.

NU-ETHS Partnership Coordinator Kristen Perkins worked with ETHS staff to encourage students to submit their original designs in the challenge. The contest information was shared in ETHS classrooms and on the school’s social media sites. The hip-hop design challenge winners from ETHS were Jenny Gray – “Knowledge”; Dan Levy – “Graffiti”; Ben Good – “Spirit”; Andrew O’Brien – “Voice”; and Anitra Luree Isler – “Art.” Margaret Waldron of Northwestern University’s School of Education and Social Policy told the RoundTable that she added the titles to the students’ works “based on their artist statements,” since the teens themselves did not give titles to their works.

During the Washington trip, the ETHS students attended the Kennedy Center for workshops on graffiti design and the critical theory of hip-hop, as well as a live performance by Nas, celebrating the 20th anniversary of his album “Illmatic.” In addition, the students toured Washington monuments and visited the Hirschhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

The winning hip-hop-inspired designs may be viewed at

Students Reflections on Their Designs

With their designs, each student submitted a short piece describing what aspect of hip-hop resonated with him or her.

In his submission, Ben Good wrote, “I wrote the word ‘SPIRIT’ because I believe that whenever someone creates visual art or music, they put their spirit into it and really put their own personality into whatever they are creating. I am celebrating graffiti because it is something that I love to do, that really shows what I find beautiful, and is the art that I find the most moving. I have always loved looking at pictures of graffiti from all over the world. I love the way in which no writers have the same style. I think that inspired me to write the word ‘SPIRIT.’” 

Andrew O’Brien (“Voice”) wrote, “The design celebrates the graffiti element of hip hop. When I first started writing I felt so good and I couldn’t figure out why. It took me a while to figure out it was because I had never expressed myself in such a free and raw way. Graffiti gave me a voice where I could express myself in a way that would otherwise be impossible to do. That is the thing I love the most about hip hop. It gives me a creative voice unlike any other.”

About “Graffiti” Dan Levy wrote: “My design celebrates what is, to me one of the most important aspects of hip hop culture. Graffiti not only brings life to barren walls and underpasses, but lets kids such as me realize that we have a potential to do something great.  One of my favorite things about writing is the inspiration that comes from generations of writers before me, in my hometown, and other parts of Illinois, and how their styles influence mine. Even better, being able to paint with some of the guys I look up to is one of the most amazing and inspirational things I can think of. Even though I may have only been writing for a few years, some of my best relationships have been built through graffiti, and I know those relationships will definitely influence the adult that I grow into.  

Anitra Isler wrote, “Since I have an old soul I thought I bring a  modern and contemporary feel to the past. As for the element that I’m representing I chose Art. The whole hip-hop world was based upon art. The art of movement and motion –  the way a person could have so much control and power when dancing – art and influence of a verse; even the art of collaboration and togetherness. During my senior year I chose to take a global dance class. One of our final units happened to be a hip hop unit. It was something you had to be free with … Yes you’d have control, but [you] had to know how to have fun if you wanted your moves to come across the way you imagined, and I dug that. So my piece was inspired by that ‘fun vibe’ you get when you finally feel free and comfortable in that moment.” 

Jenny Gray wrote about “Knowledge”: “When making this piece, I read about the hip hop element of knowledge. I kept circling back to Bambaataa’s quote about negativity and positivity. 

All around me, positivity and negativity often comes in the form of verbal exclamations. A mean word or the act of putting someone down really has an effect. But so does a kind compliment or the act of standing up for someone else.

I filled speech bubbles to represent the negativity and flowers to represent the growth of positivity. Like wildflowers, positivity adds color and brightness to our lives and, like flowers, can spread and grow. 

My message is ‘Embrace positivity! Combat negativity!’ We can do these things through hip hop culture.”