Earlier this month, a boy with spiked hair and bright blue eyes sat at a table in the North-East Branch  of the Kansas City Public Library, sketching his next piece of public art. The word READ burst from the page in red-orange lettering. Now, it blazes on a wall for the whole neighborhood to see.
Thanks to the guidance of the Hip-Hop Academy , kids like 17-year-old Giovanni may be KC’s next mural masters.
The Hip-Hop Academy was founded in 2005 by three friends -- musicians Aaron Sutton  and Roscoe Johnson  and visual artist Jeremy McConnell – who wanted to show that hip-hop is not all about the negative messages that blast on urban radio waves.
When the Hip-Hop Academy’s kids write a rap lyric, it’s always about something real happening in their lives – and it’s always positive. “We want it to be something they’re proud to share with their family, something their grandparents could listen to,” McConnell says.
Conducting regular classes for kids and teens at places like the North-East and Southeast branch libraries, the Academy’s streetwise instructors channel students’ youthful energy into the creative elements of hip-hop: rhyming, DJing, breakdancing, and turning boring old walls into resplendent works of art.
That’s what McConnell, Sutton, and some Library kids did to a retaining wall bordering the North-East parking lot several years ago. Now, with that original mural’s paint peeling, McConnell and his crew are devoting a series of Wednesday afternoons to giving the wall a makeover, Hip-Hop Academy style.
The project also has a practical benefit. North-East Branch Manager Claudia Visnich says that having walls tagged with illegal graffiti can be costly to property owners -- this is particularly troublesome in areas like Northeast Kansas City, where tagging is a frequent phenomenon. But, she says, most fly-by-night artists won’t touch a wall that’s already covered with a mural.
For the mural’s design, the Hip-Hop Academy has asked kids for ideas inspired by their reading and lives in general. Aroni’s READ design is the centerpiece, surrounded by other designs from stencils the kids drew and cut with help from their parents and instructors.
The Hip-Hop Academy will paint the mural in segments over the next few weeks. Kids of all ages are welcome to participate. The official unveiling party is on Sunday, October 24, from 1 to 3 p.m., with activities, snacks and programs by local teen organizations.
Whatever the finished mural looks like on October 24, it’s sure to reflect the community that surrounds it.
-- Jason Harper