It's rare that a high school graduate genuinely feels excited to be back on school grounds years later, but when Kendrick Lamar decides to grace your halls for an impromptu visit, emotions are adjusted. New Jersey High Tech High School alum Greg Aram has been out for a couple of years. But he happily returned for a day when his former teacher Brian Mooney, who wrote an article that caught Kendrick's attention regarding his use of To Pimp a Butterfly as part of his English class curriculum, gave him the scoop on an upcoming special visit that Greg, himself a singer/songwriter, would surely appreciate. After an amazing and inspiring interaction with King Kendrick, Greg reached out to us to shed more light on Mr. Mooney's program, Kendrick's visit, and how he ended up in a cypher with one of the game's best lyricists out.
Frazier Tharpe is a staff writer for Complex. Follow him @The_SummerMan.
How did you know Kendrick would be at the high school?
Basically, my senior year of high school I had a teacher named Mr. Mooney. It was his first year there, he was an English teacher, and he created an after-school program that was for slam poetry and hip-hop education. So basically, he was like teaching societal ideals through hip-hop. We would analyze videos, we would analyze lyrics and just go into different themes, like feminism, race. And besides that, we would do poetry—for me I would do lyrics and songs—and we would perform them every semester.
So, I graduated and I just stayed in touch with him ’cause I kind of helped build the program from the start. And then I guess last semester—he also teaches English—when Kendrick released To Pimp a Butterfly he dropped the whole curriculum and taught the English class based off of the album. In the middle of doing that, he wrote an article about it, which went viral, and then Kendrick reached out to him and was like, “Look, I want to come talk to your class.”
From there, [Mr. Mooney] reached out to me, and he was like, “Hey, you know, you were one of the first students that helped me build this program. I want you to come, I want you to be on the panel.” And basically, what would happen with the whole event was, he’d talk to the class, the after-school hip-hop program, first, and then in front of our whole school, there was a panel that included me, Kendrick, my vice principal, Mr. Mooney, and then two hip-hop educators. And then basically, students from that after-school program would perform slam poetry and analyze, or present work they analyzed with Kendrick’s, and we would analyze their poems and what they had to say, and we went into discussion about everything and just tied it back to the album.
Take me through the day.
So [Kendrick] came, he showed up, a couple of us performed for him really quick, really personal, a cappella-type things.
Just pre-written lyrics and stuff for him. Really quick, like a minute. And then he got into a discussion about the whole album, there was kind of like a Q&A between the hip-hop class, a couple of the professors, the hip-hop educators, and then me. It was just kind of like a Q&A about how the album came about, how it was different from his first album. And then, my teacher, Mr. Mooney, was like, “Hey, Greg raps, another kid raps, do you guys want to cypher for a couple of minutes?”
Wow. That’s major.
Yeah, it was crazy. Kendrick was straight off from the top.
He rapped first?
Yeah, he rapped first. He set the bar.
With Kendrick rapping first, were you nervous getting ready to rap after him and in front of him?
I mean, honestly, he could be considered the greatest bar for bar right now. So just with that in mind, it was kind of crazy. But he was interacting with us, which made it more comfortable, like talking about me, talking about other people in the circle. And you know, he was just so personable that just made it…. It was like he was just another homie and we do this rap thing all the time. We were throwing down words, just freestyling off of those, but it was just a comfortable, familiar environment that no matter who he was he was just a human in that moment.
What happened after that?
So I was next, and I follow with what I could and freestyle.
How many bars did you spit?
I spit a sweet 16 or something like that.
Was he responsive? Was he reacting?
Oh, yeah, definitely. He was doubling my words, he was throwing in ad-libs in between my bars.
It was crazy.
And then he left after that?
Yeah. So after that they did a little press thing for Kendrick with the New York Times, NPR, or something. Then from there there was a whole field house—basically, at the basketball courts of our school, they had a whole stage set up, and then I went down there first, and I ended up opening for Kendrick. I just performed one of my songs and from there Kendrick came in.
So you opened for Kendrick?
Yeah, exactly. That was crazy.
I just basically welcomed him with a song, then we did that panel for about an hour and then he end up performing “Alright.” From there, he left. It was crazy.
So what’s this experience like, moving forward and making your own music? Does this give you a big confidence boost?
I mean, honestly, yeah. The way he interacted with me and just appreciated me for who I was, there was just no sense of celebrity there, so that was just kind of crazy. But yeah, definitely a confidence boost. Seeing everybody’s reaction and media reaction was crazy. It definitely gives me more drive—I don’t want someone else to make me more relevant, but it gives me more motivation to follow it up with good product of my own.
What’s your favorite track on To Pimp a Butterfly?
It depends on what mood I am, you know? Lately—it’s summertime, I’m in the mood to party, and “Alright” is definitely the banger of the summer.
Is Kendrick one of your favorite rappers out?
Bar for bar, he could be the greatest.
Of all time?
Bar for bar, lyric for lyric...yeah.
Are you working on your own music?
I’m making singles right now, I’m about to shoot a video for my song called “Mr. Jones,” that should release in a month or two. I released a project last winter called Loser. I rode that out for awhile, now I’m just working on music for a different season. I’m ready to drop summer songs, summer singles. That’s the mindset I’ll be in for the next couple of months.
Did Kendrick say anything to you specifically that really inspired you, after you told him you were a rapper?
I told him “I’m gonna work with you,” and he said, “I wouldn’t doubt it.” And looked me right in my eyes. That was—it was just real.
Would you say Mr. Mooney inspired the career path you’re on right now?
I mean he definitely inspired me, being a white teacher fresh out of NYU and teaching hip-hop education, it just in itself said that there aren’t any limitations to anybody, you don’t have to follow any stereotypes.
What’s your relationship like, with him being an NYU alum then you going there yourself?
He was the one who convinced me to go to NYU. He made me realize how crazy this city is and how many opportunities are available. He definitely influenced my college choice.
Is High Tech a dope place to go to school? Are there other teachers like Mr. Mooney doing dope shit like this?
Education is usually so institutionalized, and there’s usually a format. Whereas, my high school, you were free to be liberal and find yourself. Although there were rules, teachers were more friends than like, oppressors. That helped me find who I was from an early age and do what I wanted to do without thinking that I couldn’t.
Did you observe any kids currently in Mr. Mooney’s class who, especially after the Kendrick visit, are being inspired in the same way you were?
Definitely. Maybe not literally like me, but just free to create. There are no limits to creations, and [Mr. Mooney] exercises that thought and encourages it. We have the coolest fucking high school around.