For John Legend, highlighting music in high school education is a no-brainer.
“I think during this era, particularly within the last 20 years when testing and test scores have been so important for so many schools — I understand that, but I think what people don’t realize is that when you take the arts away, it takes away an important aspect of education,” the EGOT winner tells Billboard. “It takes some of the humanity out of education.”
That’s why he was particularly moved by the students at Hill-Freedman World Academy in Philadelphia, who take part in a unique songwriting collaboration as part of their curriculum. For the assignment, the 10th graders work with local musicians to create a complete album of powerful original songs that capture both the challenging times they’re living in and the joy that music brings. Joining the Hill-Freedman World Academy High School students in their creative pursuit are award-winning musical talents Kristal Oliver, Andrew Lipke and Bethlehem Roberson, along with program director and music technology teacher Ezechial Thurman.
Inspired by their story, Legend teamed up with his longtime friend and producing partner Mike Jackson and his manager and producing partner Ty Stiklorius (also his old college a capella groupmate) to executive produce Stand Up & Shout: Songs From a Philly High School as part of their production company, Get Lifted Co. The Amy Schatz-directed documentary explores the creative process of the songwriting collaboration at Hill-Freedman World Academy and how healing music can be for any generation.
Telling a Philadelphia-centric story was also important to the trio, as Jackson and Stiklorius both grew up in the City of Brotherly Love, and Jackson hails Legend as one of the city’s “adopted sons,” despite being an Ohio native. “When you meet people from Philadelphia, we do have a sense of pride of where we’re from, the history of our city being the first capital of this country and the music with The Roots and Jill Scott, Gamble and Huff — there’s just such a rich tradition within the confines of the city of Philadelphia artistically,” Jackson adds. “So, for folks like myself and Ty and John, who make a living in the arts, we find it really encouraging to see Philadelphia continue to build and grow and nurture young artists.”
Stiklorius chimes in, “My love for the arts was nurtured in Philadelphia’s embrace, and I carry that love in everything I do, channeling it into fostering new talent and stories that resonate with the heartbeat of my hometown.”
What stood out most to the trio throughout the process of the film is how connected the students were, despite having just returned to school from the isolation of quarantine during the COVID-19 pandemic. “I’m an old dude,” Jackson jokes. “I know how [COVID-19] affected my friends, my peer group, people’s families and jobs and the stresses of that, but I was disconnected from teenagers.”
He continues, “To see how the pandemic affected them and how resilient they were coming out of it and how committed they were to one another, and how they allow themselves to be vulnerable in this process — to me, it was a surprise, but an exciting one because they really came together like a fellowship of young minds and creativity working together for a common goal. That was a big, happy surprise for me.”
Stiklorius agrees. “Their seamless fusion of technological prowess with a deep commitment to social issues was inspiring,” she says. “Their digital nativity did not come at the cost of disconnecting from the tangible world; rather, it empowered their creativity and informed their activism. This blend of vulnerability and innovation with a conscience was not just surprising but also a beacon of hope for the future of the arts and activism.”
“I love that we captured that on film,” Legend adds. “Some of these kids weren’t going into this as musicians. This is a required class for that school, but everybody has a story. You see in this film how important it is for people to tap into their story and be able to talk about it and create based on it, and how important it is for people to work together on a group project, to collaborate on something and have a goal that they’re working toward. It’s also showing how important it is for people to come out of their shell in ways that they may not be able to in other academic settings.”
With that sense of creativity, collaboration and emotional vulnerability growing throughout the film, Legend, Stiklorius and Jackson hope that Stand Up & Shout will open up viewer’s eyes to the importance of arts in education. “You see all these moments when music and arts do something that math and science can’t do to bring out a student’s personality, their leadership ability, their connection to other human beings,” Legend shared. “All these things are uniquely addressed by music education and by arts education. I’m so glad that this school invested in that. It just makes it clear that every school should invest in that, no matter if they’re a school focused on STEM. Bring back that A and make it STEAM!”
“I also just wish I could have made an album in high school,” Legend adds with a laugh. “I would have loved that.”
Stand Up & Shout: Songs From a Philly High School will air on Tuesday (Nov. 7) at 9 p.m. ET. on HBO. The film will also be available to stream on Max.