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Rapping it up

Marc Graham
Marc Graham

Marc Graham's new book and CD, "Journey of The Lost Souls" combines rap poetry and music to portray the pressures he felt growing up in East Cleveland, Ohio, the delight and pride he's experienced working toward his doctorate in mechanical engineering, and the bittersweet balancing act of nourishing old and new ties.

Graham will be performing selections from "Journey of The Lost Souls" on Tuesday, May 4 from 6 to 8 p.m. in the Wiesner Gallery (second floor of MIT's Stratton Student Center). Images from the book will be on display there until May 13.

An engineer since childhood--"only back then I didn't know that's what it was. I just always invented things and built them," he said--Graham has already earned two MIT degrees: an S.B. in 1995 and an S.M. in 1997. His research focus is product design.

School of rap

Graham's artistic focus has been as consistent as his design and engineering. He started break dancing in fifth grade, performing in "shows and on the streets. Break dancing was a form of battle--people didn't fight, they danced--but words could do a lot more than dancing," he said.

Inspired by 1980s rap artists Run-DMC and LL Cool J, Graham started; he can still perform his first rap, which he wrote when he was 11.

As rap evolved, so did Graham's love for creative writing and movies; he found himself more drawn to story tellers. He was inspired by many artists, particularly Rakim, Public Enemy, Scarface, Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G.

"Tupac and B.I.G. are based in something real--their own experience. They went through the era of Run-DMC and you can hear they're building on that. Many others do what the market wants. That's not what I wanted to do," said Graham.

What Graham does want to do with "Journey of The Lost Souls" is share his gifts, experience and success to encourage and guide others, much as he saw his childhood role model Bill Cosby doing.

"Sometimes the best way to give back to the community is to show others you can make it out," said Graham, who spends countless hours mentoring and teaching urban youth.

The electric fence

"Journey of The Lost Souls" portrays the love and feeling of security a neighborhood provides; it also portrays the difficulty of leaving important relationships behind.

"It's like there's an invisible electric fence around the neighborhood," Graham said. "People are afraid to leave."

"Institutionalized" is a poem about "getting free of the ghetto," a meditation and a call to change. "Penitentiaries, schools, neighborhoods that we live in" are external prisons, Graham writes, but "we're institutionalized and locked inside/Of the prisons of our minds and that's why we stay behind."

The musical version has a refrain, "When will we rise? RISE!" that breaks into the text like a wave.

Design for living

Graham's sense of humor and pride shine in his poems about his roller-coaster education (he was placed in remedial classes one year and honors classes the next). A gifted student, he attended both prestigious public (Shaker Heights) and private schools (Phillips Andover's MS2 program) and the "worst high school in Ohio."

As for the chances of his ever coming to MIT-- well, let him tell it, in "It Never Ends":

Learned in the fifth grade the world was against me,

Teacher must have hated me, placed me in LD

Counselor's words in my head linger

Take this school's offer it's the best it's gonna be

You haven't got a chance of being let into MIT

The jealousy is funny, though it's not from my peers

It's from the people not content in their elder years

In "My Home," he writes, "I go to school in the ruins," then goes on to mock the verbal portion of standardized tests:

I missed the words but don't think I'm dumb 'cause

They don't get used in the place that I come from

Words we speak ain't derived from the Greek

Naw, they been developed in the slang of the streets

Even the English we study is so basic,

That if I go to college, I might take it as a second language

But it is the triumphant "It's Time" that reveals the fullness of Graham's message in "Journey of The Lost Souls." Originally performed at the 2.007 contest, the song is both an autobiography of participation in MIT's annual engineering design challenge and an extended metaphor for Graham's beliefs about what may actually find and even save the lost souls.

"It's a message of hope. It's time to go forward. Success is about setting a goal, completing the work. It's about having a plan, using the tools we've got to design our own future. And for those who have been successful, 'Journey of The Lost Souls' should be a reminder: there are still lost souls, and if you forget that, you're lost, too," said Graham.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on May 12, 2004 (download PDF).

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