How chess provides lessons in hip-hop to Denver teens

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(Photo: Courtesy of Ange-Aimée Woods)
<p>Denver hip-hop artist Adrian Molina, aka Molina Speaks, rehearsing with his class of high school students at Venture Prep.</p>

Denver hip-hop artist Adrian Molina is using the unlikely vehicle of chess to teach a group of high school students at Venture Prep, a public charter school in Denver, the art of the emcee.

The course is called “Chess, Civics and Hip-Hop.” It covers the political and socio-economic roots of hip-hop in African American history. Molina is with "Youth on Record," a non-profit group that promotes music education for young people in Colorado.

Molina, who performs under the moniker “Molina Speaks,” wants his students to feel confident enough to write and perform their own songs by the end of the term. But his aspirations for the students do not end there.

He sees his class as a means to turn his students into better critical thinkers and also wants his students to learn strategy and focus. That is where the game of chess comes in.

“Chess helps the students to meditate, focus and takes things seriously,” Molina says. “I want the chess and the history of hip-hop to give them a sense of boldness and possibility. I want them to challenge themselves and take risks.”

The experiment appears to be working. Students in Molina’s class are reporting higher levels of concentration.

“Chess helps me focus, so when I sit down to write a song, my mind is more open,” Hakeem Thomas, an 18-year-old senior, says.

Students also say playing chess has taught them to be more open to the creative muse when it calls.

“Chess teaches you about risk,” De’jante Tramble, a 16-year-old sophomore, says. “Sometimes you just have to throw out what you are feeling and take that chance.”

Todd Bardwick, a national chess master and the founder of the Chess Academy of Denver, isn’t surprised by Molina’s mixture of hip-hop and chess in the classroom, because chess like math and music uses both sides of the brain.

Music, chess and math are all comprised of a series of rhythmic sequential patterns. François-André Danican Philidor, an 18th-century opera composer, was the unofficial chess champion of the world in his day. David Bowie and Bob Dylan are both avid chess fans. And one of Bardwick’s former students is now an opera singer.

“As far as creativity and logic go, those parts of the brain overlap,” Bardwick says. “Chess is the best tool out there to teach just about anything.”

Some major Colorado arts institutions are taking note of Molina’s approach to teaching the arts. Representatives from the Colorado Symphony and The Denver Center for the Performing Arts have sat in on his class.

Molina and his students are now preparing for an end of the year production combining symphonic music, theater, hip-hop and vocal performance.