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Class Is in Session

He’s changing the world, one hip-hop hook at a time

A night after the Democratic National Convention came to a close, hip-hop artist SCS took the stage at Showdown in San Francisco to celebrate the release of his debut album, First Day of School

The messages of the preceding weeks weren’t far from the rapper’s mind as he delivered his own political platform through socially conscious rhymes and catchy beats, dropping knowledge on the crowd as he welcomed them to “sit back, marinate / as thoughts elevate.”

In “Unity 101,” he spits, “A nation divided against itself can’t stand / Frustrated the situation’s gotten so out of hand / Can’t continue to be conned by duplicitous behavior / While a traitor like Trump touts himself as our savior.”

The longtime producer and founder of Richland Records, Scott “SCS” Samels ’99 is taking a risk by stepping to the other side of the recording studio glass. Though he has rapped off-and-on for 20 years, beginning with early freestyle battles with his friends at South High School in Minneapolis, he never felt the need to pursue his own art more seriously until now.  

“I didn’t feel like the hip-hop that we were making and that the music industry in general was making did much to address the major problems of the day,” explains Samels, formerly known as S-Class. “Certain topics—cars, money, clothes, clubs—tend to be recycled from song to song. While it can be fun to talk about these topics, to drone on about them incessantly is ultimately a disservice to the art form and to our collective progress.”


Music for the greater good

The urgency Samels feels as an artist comes through on the album, which he wrote and recorded within a three-month span. On it, he takes on major societal issues from the environmental crisis (“Nestlé”) to animal rights (“Man’s Best Friend”), racism (“Unity 101”), banking fraud (“The Federal Reserve, Part 1”), and mass incarceration (“Prisons for Profit”). 

Inspired by the success Sofia Ashraf had with her song “Kodaikanal Won’t”—which called out Hindustan Unilever for dumping mercury in India and whose viral video resulted in a company response and a landmark settlement for factory workers there—Samels hopes to also effect tangible societal change through his music. 

“Whether it puts pressure on a local politician and forces them to change their stance on a particular issue or gets a huge multinational to alter policy—minor or major—I still count it as a win,” he says. “It adds fuel to the fire to make more records and videos for the greater good.”

Accordingly, the release of First Day of School coincides with Samels’s provocative music video for “Housing Crisis,” a topic that’s dear to his heart. Samels made his way to San Francisco the summer after he graduated from Swarthmore, and credits the bastion for progressives and liberally minded people with making him who he is today. That said, he’s upset with what he sees as the city’s grim future.

“A lot of San Franciscans have been displaced and forced to live elsewhere due to the skyrocketing cost of living,” he says, “which has been detrimental to the heart and soul of our beautiful city.”

In “Housing Crisis,” the emcee calls out San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee and developers for turning the city into a playground for the rich, where elites feast on $10 cupcakes while the peasantry ends up priced out. 

“Double, double, toil and trouble, the city burns, technology bubbles,” he raps in the video. “They’re ushering in new firms nonstop; what happens when that bubble goes pop?”


The medium is the message

Samels, who graduated with honors in French and minored in English literature, has always had a thing for words. 

“The English language lends its speakers vast amounts of creativity, as a single word can mean many different things, and the way in which one says something can also drastically change its meaning,” he explains. “Combined with the further freedom that poetry affords its writers, one has nearly limitless amounts of creativity at one’s disposal.”

Hip-hop became a natural outlet for Samels’s wit and wordplay, while also granting him a space to express every emotion imaginable in service of creating art with an outcome. It also provides an outlet for the values he developed at Swarthmore: his unquenchable thirst to keep learning, his concept of working to serve the greater good, and his respect for community and meaningful friendships.

This genre proved a natural medium for his message. 

“Hip-hop is a global phenomenon,” he says. “It can reach people in ways that a thoughtfully composed white paper or news article simply can’t do, both in terms of reach and engagement.”

He’s right: As I write this, I’m listening to First Day of School and find myself bobbing along to “Corporatocracy,” a song about corporate welfare with a surprisingly catchy hook: “Subsidies, tax breaks, loopholes, bailouts / We gotta put a stop to these government handouts / At the end of the day we all got to eat / Not just big corporations and Wall Street.” 

After all, music has the power to reach people—to stick with us, shape us, maybe even save us. 


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