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September 24, 2018 | Length: 56m 46s

Hip-Hop U: The First Wave Scholars

A film exploring the innovative work of students in the University of Wisconsin-Madison First Wave – Office of Multicultural Arts Initiatives program.


“I want to learn about myself, and I want to learn about my culture and my history … if we can examine these art forms in a positive way and we can build an education around it, I think that it will enrich us.”

-Shasparay Light, 11th Co.


WPT has annotated key portions of the full transcript. Click on the yellow highlighted open or close the annotations.

Michael Penn:


[electronic hip-hop music]

Miona Short:

There are artistic programs that exist all over the country, but there are none, nada, zero, nilch that are like this.

Willie Ney:

First Wave is a revolutionary scholarship program focused on hip-hop, spoken word and multicultural arts.

Chris Walker:

It was an experiment in the beginning of looking at the role of the arts, social activism, and how those practices could come together to create a more embodied involved academic experience.

Gia Euler:

From singing and poetry DJs, artists, producers, writers, actors.

“Hip-hop is really all about being yourself, I feel. Being yourself, and being honest to yourself and being authentic to yourself.”

-Nia Scott, 8th Co.


“Hip-hop formed out of this place of essentially abandonment. New York is just left to burn. And people have to make a way out of all this nonsense because the institutions and people and folks in power aren’t looking out for us.”

-Deshawn McKinney, 7th Co.


Hip Hop U logo

Hip-Hop U features the story of the University of Wisconsin-Madison First Wave scholarship program. The PBS Wisconsin documentary explores how pioneering program empowers students to pursue a degree while developing their skills in the hip-hop art forms of spoken word, rap, writing, poetry, singing, producing and acting.

The film showcases the innovative approach to creating a community of scholars around hip-hop and multicultural arts, featuring performances by and interviews with current and former students in the First Wave program and insights from artistic leaders and administrators.

Since its first cohort arrived on the UW-Madison campus in June 2007, the scholarship program has inspired and empowered students from across the country to explore their artistic and academic passions, confront difficult realities facing underrepresented groups, and engage in activism around social justice issues at the university and in the community.

Jean Paul Alenjandro

John Paul Alejandro


B.A. Dance ’18

Bay Area, CA

John Paul Alejandro arrived in Madison as a spoken word artist planning to major in biology, but after exploring multiple majors, discovered a love for dance. He graduated in 2018 with a degree in dance and a certificate in digital studies.

“I was not technically trained in contemporary or modern dance and ballet, but once I found that appreciation, I was able to put myself in those spaces and really thrive.”

Mackenzie Berry

Mackenzie Berry


Majoring in Creative Writing

Certificate in Afro-American Studies

Louisville, KY

Mackenzie Berry is a writer, poet and filmmaker. She founded “Young Poets of Louisville,” a non-profit that gives Louisville teenagers a space to write and perform poetry. In 2018 she produced “The Louisville Lip: MC Muhammad Ali,” a documentary that explores Muhammad Ali’s influence on hip-hop culture. Berry’s also served as a Wisconsin Idea Fellow, using art to address the health effects of incarceration on marginalized populations

“I think art provides a window, and so that’s why I think it’s very effective. Art is specifically effective for marginalized people to talk to other marginalized people, to engage in healing processes.”

Jamie Dawson

Jamie Dawson


Majoring in Psychology

and Afro-American studies

Tampa, FL

Jamie Dawson is a spoken word poet, performer and playwright. Her freshman year she organized “Unhood Yourself: The Real UW One Day Exhibition,” a multimedia and performance event at the Chazen Museum Of Art in Madison. Its goal was to raise awareness and spark conversation about social injustices on campus.

“It has to be truthful, any art has to be truthful. Honestly, you have to believe in it. That’s it.”

Tiffany Ike

Tiffany Ike


Majoring in Psychology

and Communication Arts

Houston, TX

Tiffany Ike is a spoken word artist, writer, filmmaker and playwright. She also spent three years as a triple jumper on the UW-Madison track team. In 2017 Ike wrote and directed “Ball & Chain,” a play that explores black masculinity through the story of a basketball player. In 2018 she co-directed “Draping,” a short film series that examines a variety of topics through the lens of black womanhood.

“My goal is to mix both majors in ways where we can talk about mental health, but communicate that well. Like, through videos and thinking about how people misrepresent a lot of mental health situations.”

Shasparay Light

Shasparay Light


Majoring in Theater

and Education

Austin, TX

Shasparay Light launched a career in performance poetry before she stepped foot on the UW-Madison campus. Now she balances school with touring and performing in poetry competitions around the United States. Her goal is to own a theater one day.

“I’m an entertainer, so any way I can do that and any space I can navigate, I leap to it because I think that’s just how I change the world.”

Deshawn McKinney

Deshawn McKinney


BA Creative Writing

Milwaukee, WI

Deshawn McKinney is a poet, writer and activist. While at UW-Madison he received two prestigious scholarships, the Truman Scholarship and Marshall Scholarship. He also served as president of the Wisconsin Union. He is now pursuing a double master’s degree from the London School of Economics and Political Science in London, England.

“First Wave is important because it disrupts the status quo. I think that’s the base of it. It brings these students and this theory and this art and this action into a space that it doesn’t belong.”

John Vietnam

John “Vietnam” Nguyễn


Chicago, IL

John “Vietnam” Nguyễn was a writer, poet, musician, dancer, community organizer and filmmaker. His budding career was cut short on August 30, 2012, when he passed away while saving a friend from drowning in Madison’s Lake Mendota. He is the first Vietnamese-American person to be honored with a street name in Chicago. The 5000 block of Winthrop Avenue where he grew up was named “Honorary John ‘Vietnam’ Nguyễn Way” in 2014.

“If you can inspire change with music and poetry, you have been a service to your community.”

Michael Penn

Michael Penn


BA Journalism Reporting

Prince George’s County, MD

Michael Penn, aka CRASHprez, is a rapper, poet, teacher and performer. His work is rooted in the traditions of protest music and remix culture, and has earned him a dedicated following in Madison and other parts of the Midwest. In 2017 he performed for Wisconsin Public Television’s 30 Minute Music Hour.

“Activism really, it involves everyone. Like if you can provide a couch to somebody, that’s activism. If you can cook food for somebody, that’s activism. If you can write policy, that’s activism.”

Zhalarina Sanders

Zhalarina Sanders


BA in Psychology

MA Counseling Psychology

Tampa, FL

Zhalarina Sanders is a rapper, writer and playwright. In addition to her music career, she also wrote and produced “Rose Gold,” a one-woman show that explores black motherhood and mental health. She also founded the JVN Project, a non-profit that seeks to honor the legacy of First Wave student John “Vietnam” Nguyen by using hip-hop as a tool for positive change.

“My dream is to be a performance artist and writer, for forever, and to integrate everything that I’ve learned and experienced as a student of psychology and a nonprofit organizer into my life on stage. That’s the dream.”

Nia Scott

Nia Scott


Majoring in Art

Tampa, FL

Nia Scott arrived at UW-Madison as a spoken word artist but has turned her attention to filmmaking. Scott is the creator of “[Blank] For Yourself,” an online video series that explores black identity in Madison. She also served as a video editor on “The Louisville Lip: MC Muhammad Ali,” a documentary produced by fellow First Wave student Mackenzie Berry. It explores Muhammad Ali’s influence on hip-hop culture.

“Art is a great medium for expressing yourself, but someone could express themselves that way through math, or someone could express that through their research. It’s really about what helps you find yourself.”

Miona Short

Miona Short


BA Astronomy-Physics

BA Spanish Literature

Chicago, IL

Miona Short decided at age two that she wanted to be an astronaut, and that sparked a lifelong interest in science. She is believed to be the first African-American woman to earn an astronomy-physics degree from UW-Madison. She says First Wave allowed her to pursue a science degree while continuing her work as a poet, writer and actor. Miona also served two years for Associated Students of Madison, UW-Madison’s student government association.

“Where can you maneuver your tongue around your words in order to most affectively get your message across, that’s what power is.”

Danez Smith

Danez Smith


BA Creative Writing

St. Paul, MN

Poet Danez Smith was part of the first cohort of First Wave in 2007. Their work has been featured in and on the New York Times, PBS Newshour and the Late Show With Stephen Colbert. Danez has published two award-winning poetry collections, [insert] boy (2014) and Don’t Call Us Dead (2017). In 2018, Don’t Call Us Dead won the Forward Prize, making them the youngest-ever winner of the prestigious award. Don’t Call Us Dead was also a finalist for the 2017 National Book Award, one of the most esteemed literary awards in the United States.

“There would be no National Book Award-nominated Danez Smith without First Wave and the people I met here and how they completely turned my art world upside down.”

“Hip-hop necessitates community. It necessitates rigor. It necessitates a political mind frame when it’s at its best.”

– Danez Smith, 1st Co.



First Wave is a full-tuition, four-year scholarship program inaugurated in 2007 and sponsored by the University of Wisconsin-Madison Office of Multicultural Arts Initiatives (OMAI). It is nationally and internationally renowned for integrating traditional academics with cutting edge spoken word, hip-hop and other emerging arts. First Wave treats the hip-hop arts as subjects for serious, critical academic and artistic inquiry. The program is celebrated for its development of young thinkers, performers, professionals and leaders who combine multicultural arts with activism and community building. First Wave students perform across the world at festivals and events and have been featured on BET, the National Battle of the Bands and Broadway. They are published authors, nationally renowned and internationally ranked poets, prolific performers, and dynamic community organizers.


The Keepers: Ep. 1 Archiving the Underground — The Kitchen Sisters launch a new podcast on NPR telling the stories of activist archivists, rogue librarians, curators, collectors and historians. Keepers of the culture and the cultures and collections they keep. Guardians of history, large and small. Protectors of the free flow of information and ideas. The first episode takes listeners to the Hiphop Archive and Research Institute at Harvard University.

The Rap and Hip-Hop Research LibGuide — As popular music studies become more recognized in music academia, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign invites you to research the deep compendium of hip-hop music and culture. The U of I’s Music and Performing Arts Library, Undergraduate Library, Main Library and Residence Hall Libraries hold many helpful resources about rap and hip-hop, such as books, sound recordings, and journals.


The JVN Project is a non-profit collective centered on using the genre and culture of Hip-Hop as a tool of empowerment. It was founded by UW-Madison First Wave scholars inspired by the life of 19-year-old Chicagoan artist and member of the First Wave 5th cohort, John “Vietnam” Nguyễn — emcee, poet, dancer, music engineer and activist.  The project’s mission is to use hip-hop’s core values as a framework for developing its programs and initiatives. These include a commitment to literacy, the uplifting of underprivileged communities through the arts, the redirection of violent, unproductive, and/or self-destructive energies, youth mentorship, social justice initiatives, and the provision of platforms for others to share their story.

Wisconsin Life

TRUE Skool Students Say What They Like About Their School

TRUE Skool is a non-profit organization mentoring students in the Milwaukee public school system. Their mission is to engage, educate and empower youth and communities through the creative arts and hip-hop culture.

Urban Community Arts Network (UCAN) is a Madison-based non-profit with a mission to empower and unify youth and adults through urban arts, specifically hip-hop. UCAN  collaborates with educators to bring emcees into the classroom, teaching students to write raps about their subjects such as greenhouse gases and climate change.

Young Poets of Louisville, founded by Mackenzie Berry (10th Cohort), is a non-profit organization which provides a safe space for young people ages 13-19 to develop themselves through the written and spoken expression of poetry.

Youth Speaks is a leading presenter of Spoken Word performance, education and youth development programs. They produce local and national youth poetry slams, festivals and reading series, alongside a comprehensive slate of arts-in-education programs during the school day, in the after-school hours and on weekends. In addition, Youth Speaks creates internationally-recognized theater and digital programming and helped launch a national network of over 70 programs who believe in the power of young people.


After School Matters® is a non-profit organization that provides life-changing after-school and summer program opportunities to more than 15,000 Chicago high school teens each year. Their mission is to provide Chicago public high school teens with opportunities to explore and develop their talents, while gaining critical skills for work, college and beyond.

Medium.com: Voices from Chicago is a collection of brilliant new work done in collaboration with the nonprofit Young Chicago Authors, whose mission is to cultivate young voices through writing, publication and performance education.

Funding provided in part by:

The DeAtley Family Foundation, Mary Ellyn and Joe Sensenbrenner, The Evjue Foundation, American Family Insurance Dreams Foundation, Wisconsin Arts Board, and Friends of Wisconsin Public Television.