Penn Grad’s Thesis Work With German Youth Leads to Anti-hate Campaign

Doing doctoral research in a ninth grade music classroom in Hamburg, Germany, set Emily Joy Rothchild on a path to work with students on a recently released CD and music video that tackles the tough topics of terrorism, Islamophobia and hate.

Rothchild, a singer and pianist from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, earned her Ph.D. in anthropology of music from the University of Pennsylvania this spring after conducting research in Hamburg, for three years. Her dissertation is titled Sampled Identities: The Micro and Macro Political Integration of Migrant Descendants at the Hamburg Hip Hop Academy. It examines a Hamburg government funded school that was established to integrate the children and grandchildren of migrants into German society.

Students are taught socially acceptable German norms of discipline, punctuality and professionalism. They take classes in rap, dance, “beat-box” and graffiti art. Top students are selected to become part of an elite group of Hip Hop Academy students who travel to other countries as cultural diplomats. Most of the students are Muslims of Turkish, West African or Middle Eastern descent.  

In her research at the Academy, Rothchild found that the top students were already well integrated into German society. The children who did not “succeed” in the sense of moving up the Academy’s hierarchy and being “the best” were from segregated neighborhoods with predominantly migrant-descendant populations.

Rothchild gained a deeper understanding of the children with migration backgrounds when she taught song writing and video production at the Stadtteilschule Wilhelmsburg. The district has a large Muslim community. Nearly 60 percent of the population has a migration background.

Through her research, Rothchild learned that at least 30 young boys from Hamburg and at least three from the district had been recruited to fight for ISIS, the Islamic State.

“Let Me Speak,” an album against ISIS, sprang from the class of 24 students’ commitment to stand up to terrorism, ISIS and daily discrimination based on religion or ethnicity.

The backstory of “Let Me Speak” is a testament to Rothchild’s passion to connect with people across cultures.

The story began one night when she rode her bike to an art exhibition in Hamburg. It was the Nacht der Kirchen or Night of the Churches, a large ecumenical celebration in northern Germany with 80,000 visitors. As she was leaving, a German woman complimented her on her bike helmet and struck up a conversation that ended in a discussion about Rothchild’s research on the social integration of migrant youth.

The woman, a former high school principal, suggested that Rothchild interview a Turkish-German teacher she knew at a migrant-majority school. The teacher was instrumental in connecting Rothchild with a music teacher who taught students to write their own songs and raps. Rothchild visited his music class in which every student had a migration background.

“I was shocked,” she says. ”I knew I wanted to work with these kids and understand their lives more.”

The story would have stopped there, but some time later Rothchild attended a social entrepreneurship event where she met the local director of the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung (Foundation) of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union party.

A few weeks later, Rothchild arranged a meeting and told the director about the school and the music teacher she’d interviewed. As a result of the meeting the school received funding to produce an album of songs written and recorded by students.

Rothchild coached the students in writing songs in German and English for the CD, which was professionally recorded and digitally remastered.

Lyrics describe what it’s like living in Germany as outsiders, being victims of racism, or Rassismus, a word rarely spoken in the country. An emotion-filled English language song, “Let Me Speak," contains these lyrics: "Terror is the method of the weak, inhibiting the basic right to speak."

The song’s video is posted on YouTube. Students conceptualized music videos to accompany their songs with Rothchild’s help. A second music video recorded in German is called “Alle Gleich,” or “All Equal.”

“My aim is to help migrant youth show their opinions to politicians and the general public about ISIS, racism, xenophobia and Islamophobia,” she says. “The media often show only the negative aspects of these children’s lives and very rarely shares their opinions on their own levels of integration.”

Rothchild wants to found a small private school in Hamburg to meet the educational needs of talented and gifted youth, specifically migrant youth. 

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