Tough and streetwise, Vincent, Antonio and Charles have never met before. Yet, gathered around a boom box in a Baltimore classroom, they take turns improvising to a hip-hop beat.
Their language is foul, their rhymes full of violent images. And Eleshiea Goode, a former high school teacher supervising them at Maryland New Directions, a nonprofit organization, couldn't be prouder.
Hip-hop music, some of it known for its unprintable lyrics, denigration of women and exaltation of the power of guns, is trying on a new role -- turning around the lives of troubled young listeners.
Within the past few years, a host of new nonprofit organizations funded by hip-hop musicians, record labels and a major industry magazine have started spreading what they call a "positive" message, one that aims to redirect the anger of the streets from violence to success.
The frankness of the music's language -- and its depiction of the realities of urban life -- make it an ideal way to reach teens who have tuned other messages out, says Edward DeJesus, director of the Source Youth Foundation, a nonprofit group started in Gaithersburg two years ago with support from The Source, a hip-hop magazine.
Around the country, other efforts have developed. Rap star Sean "P. Diddy" Combs started Daddy's House, a program that runs boys' and girls' clubs. Another artist, Lauryn Hill, founded the Refugee Project, which sends inner-city kids to a camp in the Catskills. And Dr. Dre, one of the founders of gangsta rap, pledged $1 million to the relief effort after the attacks Sept. 11.
Some say the new charities are just another means of marketing for an industry that has been under fire from Congress for its explicit lyrics.
"My gut reaction is that some of them are primarily promotional vehicles to help certain artists or entities smooth out their public image," says Yvonne Bynoe, president of Urban Think Tank, a Brooklyn nonprofit organization that calls itself a "home for a body of thinkers for the hip-hop generation."
But DeJesus, who also runs a for-profit group called Youth Development and Research Fund, says the trend is serious.
He and other staffers from the Source Youth Foundation visited Maryland New Directions in Baltimore recently to launch the "Makin' It Movement," a series of workshops planned across the nation to create a corps of young volunteers who will spread positive messages about hip-hop.
One of the movement's themes -- teaching kids to make decisions that will keep them "alive and free" instead of "dead and incarcerated" -- involves analyzing hip-hop music for clues to good and bad decisions young people in urban neighborhoods make every day.
"We're looking for hip-hop youth leaders," DeJesus tells the group of about 30 young men and women, some of whom have spent time in jail. "We don't want no knuckleheads with us."
At Maryland New Directions, Goode gives the members of her career training program a period every week when they can "freestyle" -- improvise raps with no holds barred. It's a way of honoring what has become a culture, even as Goode teaches the same youths how to dress up their clothing and tone down their language for job interviews the rest of the week.
"This is what hip-hop does," Goode says, as the newly acquainted young men laugh and slap one another on the back. "Normally, they would be really standoffish with each other."
The young people at New Directions say the music describes their experiences in a way nothing else can. They say they don't take the violence it expresses literally, but as a metaphor for standing up to those who would put them down.
"I think we are living a hip-hop life, me and my peers," says Nicole Mitchell, a 21-year-old single mother who says many of her friends are in jail or dead. "It is a struggle out there, and hip-hop is telling about the truth."
Jason King, an adjunct professor who teaches a course on hip-hop culture at New York University, says the potential to reach young people using the music is huge. "Hip-hop is the global youth music at this point," he says.
But the real question, King says, is what message the nonprofit effort will send, and how the raw nature of hip-hop fits in with notions of peace and cooperation. "Hip-hop in general, from its outset, is always a sort of antisocial form," King says. "How do you add now the sort of social aspects of it?"
That tension plays out in the freestyle session at New Directions.
Some of the rhymes are about a brighter future. "I'm here to get my GED," sings Antonio Salisbury, a 17-year-old who goes by the rap name "Luciano." "Catch me writing my name on a Ph.D."
But a moment later, Luciano's rhymes turn tough again. He talks about crushing opponents with "my size 16 boot."
And though he says that seemingly violent message is just a way of conveying strength, Luciano makes no apologies for his words. "I'm from the streets, and we're raw in the streets like that," he says. "It's just something on my mind I had to get off."