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After watching the damning 2010 documentary Waiting for Superman, Questlove (nee Ahmir Thompson, 40), the drummer for the Roots and Late Night With Jimmy Fallon was inspired to raise money for Harlem Village Academies, a group of charter schools that boast top-tier performance while defying socio-economic expectations (74 percent of students enrolled qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch).
Growing up, Thompson attended a creative arts program, sidestepping public school in West Philadelphia, which he describes as “season four of The Wire but worse. … Forget an education, your goal was not to get stabbed, killed, raped, humiliated — just to survive for seven hours,” he says, adding that HVA’s emphasis on quality teachers gets to the heart of the issue. “Success starts from the top, and our school system needs a complete retooling.”
For The Hollywood Reporter’s special philanthropy issue, Thompson tells how he took his conviction to the next level by allowing a group of neighborhood kids to use his address as their own, an act that changed their lives forever.
The Hollywood Reporter: How did you get involved with Harlem Village Academies?
Ahmir Thompson: John Legend told me about it while in the process of creating the Wake Up! album, and later I was shown the film Waiting for Superman which just left me floored. I was like, “Alright, where do I sign? What do I do?” So immediately, we started doing a string of benefits.
THR: What about the movie made such an impact on you?
Thompson: I gravitated towards it because I saw myself. In the movie, their fate was dependent on a kind of lottery system, where it’s that Russian Roulette theory that a lot of inner cities still have. There’s a very slim chance that you’ll get out — literally, survival-wise because of a dangerous neighborhood — get into a good school and stay motivated enough to get you to college. It really spoke to me… I was hoping it would have the same impact that An Inconvenient Truth had, if not a more urgent effect on the U.S. With Inconvenient Truth and Fahrenheit 911, the theaters were packed, but opening night of Waiting for Superman, I was one of seven people in the theater.
THR: What was your school experience like?
Thompson: My parents were overly protective and shielded me from those trappings. For two years, I attended a college prep school called City Center Academy for just 15 students. One of the biggest threats of my high school existence was, “You’ll be forced to go to your local school.” To be sent to West Philadelphia high school was like being thrown in jail — you had to watch your back. It’s literally not safe.
THR: Was there a teacher who had a profound impact on your life?
Thompson: Linda Boyce, who was my 9th and 10th grade high school teacher at Center Academy, she’s the one that kind of started my writing career. She would say, “I want you to read a book a month, write me a three-page review and write in this journal everyday.” Of course, as a 13 year-old, you’re stomping your feet, but now I have a book deal, because of the Twitter account. Of all the facets of my career, I’m proud of the fact that I’m writing a book now and she was very instrumental in encouraging me.
THR: Have you spent time at any of the HVA schools?
Thompson: Yes, they asked me to come down and meet the few children that had musical aspirations. Everyone who knows me knows that I’m afraid of children more than anything — because children can be brutally honest with you to a fault. So it took a while, but I’m glad I did and I’m wiser for it.
THR: You’ve performed in several benefits, along with the likes of Sting. Do you know how much was raised by those concerts?
Thompson: I know we raised serious millions. I remember when I came into the theater at Lincoln Center, I told John that I thought the room was sort of small, and he said, “Don’t worry, the poorest person here is like eight figures.” Then Sting was, like, “Yeah, I’m here to entertain you, and you’re here to write checks and I want big checks.” I think he made a joke about Donald Trump being the poorest person in the room. It’s our job as entertainers to capture the imagination and guilt of the one percentile of America and get them to see what’s going on. I know we’re raised somewhere in the mid eight figures and Sting and John Legend showed me it was possible.
THR: You’ve been applauded for giving back to your hometown of Philadelphia, in what ways have you tried to help?
Thompson: Maybe the best story I can tell is that there’s four people in my circle, and I met them all when they were seven and eight years old. Being in The Roots, it was like the Grateful Dead of hip-hop. I’d go away for four months at a time. One year, I come home and there are these eight year-old sleeping on my floor and playing X-Box. The person watching my place was like, “They’re neighborhood kids, I felt bad for them,” and he was trying to convince me that they’re musical and have something. But my attitude in the beginning was: they’re not my kids. I was a grouch, like teachers I knew in the high school system.
But my house was a refuge for them. One of them asked, “Can I have this coat?” He’s 83 pounds, I’m almost 300 pounds and 6’3, so I’m like, “Dude, this coat’s gonna fit like a truck on you.” He says “We don’t have any windows, so snow and water and birds come in….” One of them brought his school lunch home one day and the bologna had mold on it… Once I found out about the deplorable system, the first thing I did, albeit illegal, was I wrote six recommendation letters to safer schools and they used my address.
That was in 1997. Cut to 16 years later, those same snotty-nosed 8 to 10-year-olds are now in their late twenties and they work for me as producers. One of them scores films and another is training for the Olympics right now.
THR: You campaigned with Obama about this issue, how do you see the state of education now?
Thompson: There needs to be an absolute makeover. My high school still comes to me to contribute instruments for their class. They’re underfunded and underappreciated and this is why we’re No. 17 in education now. We were once in the top 10 and of the smartest countries in the world. In Philadelphia, they project that the dropout rate will be 51% soon. Right now, we’re at 48%. What people don’t understand is this is how crime goes up. Philadelphia at one point was the proud recipient of, “We’re the murder capital of the U.S.” Like, we made something — we don’t have a championship team, but we’re No. 1 in murders. Education is the solution. People don’t seem to think long-term, but it’s the solution to crime, joblessness, homelessness…
THR: Who’s a philanthropist that you look up to?
Thompson: I will never forget Bill Cosby‘s contribution to Spelman College in Georgia [in 1988]. His philanthropy saved the school from going under. He made out a check for 20 million dollars and that, to me, was amazing.
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