Crunch! The hip-hop stars of the moment are the Y.N.RichKids, thanks to their breakthrough video for "Hot Cheetos and Takis." Now at 300,000 views on YouTube and rising with viral speed, it’s a tribute to spicy snacks that dye your fingers red… and it’s just about the greatest thing you’ve ever seen. But who are these budding superstars?
Not to blow their street cred, but secretly, they’re students from an after-school program called Beats and Rhymes, based out of the North Community YMCA in Minneapolis. The program was created six years ago by an AmeriCorps vet named Alicia Johnson, herself a North Minneapolis native, who volunteered at the Y as a way to put off going to law school. She says she can’t really take credit for the concept. "When you work with young people, you always want to know what kids truly are interested in," she says. "What do they want to do when they grow up? Over and over again with my boys I kept getting, ‘I wanna be a rapper.’ And I’m like, What does that mean? And they’re like, ‘Oh, I just want to write my raps and be on TV and be famous.’ But there’s a lot more to it." So Johnson reached out to local producers King Ralio and J.T. Evans, received a grant of top-notch studio equipment from Best Buy, and set about teaching her kids how to make music.
Beats and Rhymes serves students from kindergarten to eighth grade, and they write all their own material. They’ve become remarkably skilled. In fact, the beat for "Hot Cheetos and Takis" was actually produced by another Beats and Rhymes student. (Listen to it again: Yeah. Someone under the age of 15 made that.) Over the past six years, they’ve released 10 CDs, designing much of the cover art and packaging themselves. More than that experience, though, is the fact that Johnson’s program has given the kids a glimpse of a future that’s very much within their reach. She calls their North Minneapolis neighborhood "a little bit challenging." "There are not a lot of jobs, and the housing is sometimes spotty at best for the families," she says, but she knows just a little bit of care can go a long way. "It goes much beyond just having fun doing music, which is the initial hook for them," Johnson says. "I’m really just about empowering young people, especially in Minneapolis where the north side is plagued with lots of negative stereotypes about people and race, and everything that you can think of happens. It helps that I grew up here. Kids are like, ‘I didn’t even know black kids went to college.’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, I went to college. You can go to college. It’s not that hard.’"
Johnson also reports that the stars of "Hot Cheetos and Takis" have no idea of their sudden Internet fame. "They’re in middle-of-nowhere Minnesota, camping," she laughs. "When they come back, they’re gonna freak out." Best of all, she says, "This will get them a million more adults to care about them, who will hold them accountable whenever we all get old. There will be lots of people to keep them in line and say, ‘Hey. Don’t you have stuff to do?’"
This piece is part of Change Generation, our series on young, change-making entrepreneurs. Read the rest here.