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Your Story Matters with Alphabet Rockers

Updated: Feb 28, 2023

Kaitlin McGaw and Tommy Shepherd of Alphabet Rockers share YOU ARE NOT ALONE, a story reminding us that when we step up to support one another, we can make a world where everyone knows they belong.

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[1:04] Introduction


Matthew: Welcome to the Children’s Book Podcast. I’m Matthew.


I am a teacher, a librarian, and a fan of kids. And music. And social justice. And doing the work. And the movement of hands and feet and bodies and minds as one to bring about positive change in this world.


Helping me out on today’s episode is Jonah.


Jonah: Hi! My name is Jonah.


Today on the Children’s Book Podcast, Alphabet Rockers make music that makes change. Founded by Kaitlin McGaw and Tommy Shepherd, this intergenerational group creates brave spaces to shape a more equitable world through hip hop. Their GRAMMY-nominated albums inspire American kids and families to stand up to hate and be their brave and beautiful selves. AND their latest album, “The Movement” just won the 2023 Grammy for Best Children’s Music Album.


Their debut picture book, You Are Not Alone, empowers kids to love themselves, stand up for what's right, and have each others' backs.


Matthew: You Are Not Alone by Alphabet Rockers; illustrated by Ashley Evans.



It can be scary to feel like you're all on your own, especially in the face of prejudice and injustice. But always remember: you are not alone! With uplifting text and colorful art, You Are Not Alone shows readers that when we step up to support one another, we can make a world where everyone knows they belong.


Featuring a heartfelt message and stunning illustrations, this special story makes for a read-aloud that parents, caregivers, and children will want to return to again and again.



[3:03] Meet Our Guests: Kaitlin McGaw and Tommy Shepherd


Kaitlin: Hi, I'm so excited to meet you. My name is Kaitlin McGaw. I use the pronouns she/her, and I am a mom of two kids. One's age three and one is six. And we have a blast every day reading, dancing, and writing our own songs, which is actually my job.

I'm one of the co-founders of Alphabet Rockers. We're based here in Oakland, California on Ohlone land. And we make music that makes change. And what that means is we listen to kids like you about what you wanna change in the world, and we co-create those musics and books and all the things that we need.

S

o that's what my role in the world is, and I'm so happy to do it with my friend and business partner, Tommy.


Tommy: Tommy Shepherd. I also go by Emcee Soulatii. I go by he/him/they.

I am husband, father of a 15-year-old, also an Alphabet Rockers member, Tommy III.

I am an emcee for one, a beat boxer, a drummer, a playwright, a singer, a dancer, and an author, too, to a book. More to come. And just really am in a grateful space to be able to do all of these things that both my business partner and I love, even down to the production and the admin, we… all these things that we love. That it's possible for us to be actually doing these things is a, you know, some people say it's a gift when we know we worked for it.


So that's what we're doing: the work.



[4:58] An Introduction to Alphabet Rockers


Matthew: Alphabet Rockers have been working at it for a while, crafting music, building community, teaching, and leading. Their latest album, The Movement, features songs about solidarity, support, restorative justice, and love. Here’s a sample from a track called “Slide”.


[Excerpt of “Slide” from “The Movement”]


Their origin story extends way back to before most of you were even born. Actually, Alphabet Rockers were getting their start the same year that I started work as a school librarian!


Kaitlin: Alright, the origin story of Alphabet Rockers.


Tommy: Take it back. 2007.


Kaitlin: Yeah. Listen up y'all. I'm working at a music school in San Francisco, California, and I'm thinking, “Wouldn't it be amazing if we heard music for children that was, like, the hip hop that we lived and we loved?” And so I called up my friend Tommy. And, yes, our origin story is that he was a hip hop theater artist that I was a huge fan of. So people that you admire can become friends.


So Tommy came through, we said, “Do you wanna make music?”


And he said, “Yes.”


“Uh, okay, let's do it tomorrow.”


And really it was just like that. We met. We rehearsed, we made music and we rolled through the country doing it.


Tommy: And got better and better at it. And the growth, the learning curve, the growth, uh, that's what we're in it for getting better.


Matthew: Wow. And you've had kids participating in it from the beginning? They've grown with you for sure.


Kaitlin: Yeah. You know, we've always had other, it's always been a collective. Tommy and I are kind of the visionary leaders, so that means we have to do the stumbling, we have to do the reaching. And sometimes we have the spotlight, but we also always try to share that.


So, Tommy's son was in our first music video called “The Shape Rap”. So you can go back and find that on the backside of YouTube. And Tommy was three years old. And he came in and did the video with us.


And our friend Stephanie was in it. And, you know, it just keeps expanding. We, we always know who's showing up and then we say, “Hey, do you wanna shine with us?”

Yeah. And you can.


Tommy: A lot of the, the music that we pivoted from, which was, uh, you know, learning, uh, about shapes and numbers and letters and colors and things like that went to, you know, the bullying place and the actual, like racial profiling happening on the, on the school yards.


And I could definitely attribute that to my son and his, and his best friend Kali, who is also another Alphabet Rocker member. Their stories, coming up in kindergarten, from kindergarten through, I mean, even today, you know, they. Their stories and the instances that they're having are very likened to the ones we had.

They just had 'em way earlier than we did. And it, it's, you know, it's rough out there in these streets.


Kaitlin: Hmm. And that's why when you look into the cover of You Are Not Alone, and you see it says like, we wanna hear your story, your story's important because, you know, the children in our life have trusted us.


And they've said, Hey, like this isn't okay, this happening. Like, I don't feel safe here. And they're not alone. , that's like something that you probably experienced too in your life.

And it's, it's really our job as your adult friends in a way to make sure that other adults and kids know that your story matters and you're, you're actually like, we believe you.

You know? Mm-hmm. . So that's kind of like the rockers, the youth rockers we're all stretching and growing together, and we're like looking to the next generation too. Like, what do you got? And we all got stuff.


Matthew: Yeah, I think it's a profound thing to be trusted for an adult, for a grownup. For me, it's profound to know that I have earned the trust of kids, and I would love to think that for kids, it's a really important thing to know that there are grownups in your life that do genuinely care for you, that aren't just showing up to do a job, but they, they see you. They think about you when you're not in front of them. Right?



[9:56] What Kind of Reader Did You Have In Mind?


Matthew: Am I right, listeners? Do you notice and look for those grownups in your life that you trust and that make you feel safe? Do you find yourself reciprocating those feelings back?


Jonah: I think that I do have grownups in my life that make me feel safe. There’s this one counselor at my school that really cares for me and I’m really grateful for that.


Matthew: Kaitlin and Tommy pull from that emotional place all the time in their work in Alphabet Rockers and it’s that same attention that went into creating You Are Not Alone, which, I might point out, also has an accompanying song by Alphabet Rockers.


[Excerpt of “You Are Not Alone”]


Kaitlin: When I was growing up, I was… I was a bigger kid, you know? So I got picked on by some people at school. And when you're like, you know, some people putting a label on, like chubby or fat or whatever it is, um, you know.


I actually… I did like my body. I was strong and. . I liked what I was eating. I, I didn't have anything to not, like, it was just the way my body is. And I remember kids kind of picking on me and, you know, I could have made myself smaller, but I really, I loved singing and I loved dancing, and I'd be making up my own dance moves at home and I'd be singing all the time and, I knew that I was loved and accepted when I could sing at full volume with someone and they'd either sing along with me or they'd say like, “Hey, that was cool.”

But you know that like, cuz when you sing you actually can let go of some stuff. You can just be like really like in your soul for a minute. And um, even if you're feeling the sad parts or the mad parts, like, it's still… you're you.


And so when I got to sing big or when I get to dance really big with like all my body and the people around me are like, yes, let's do this. Which is like truly the AlphabetRockers crew, like 100% and other people in our community. But that's when as a young person, I felt like, okay.


And you know what? There sometimes you sing out and dance out and people don't make you feel good, but that's about them. It's not about you.


Tommy: The biggest time that I feel like I, I wish I was being heard was when I'm unfortunately, like talking about something like some type of injustice or some type of way that isn't okay.


So it's a, it's a dual thing, you know? I know that, that, you know, when I was, when I was younger, I, I, I didn't know what racial profiling was, but I looked back at it when I heard the term and was like, “Okay, I was being that all the time.”


And I also know that I was a kid that, um, was bigger than I looked. Or I looked bigger than my age. Um, I was a, in, I was at six feet in the sixth grade. And I was definitely had the Lenny factor, didn't know my own strength. Like bumping into kids, playing flag football and stuff, and just not knowing my, you know. Yeah. Very awkward like that. And just like, people just thought I was older than I was. Um, and so, and sometimes we're treated that way. Um, and so I, I, I really know what that's about.


And I really get. I don't know. I feel really grateful to be able to tell young people about that. I, I also feel like it's very sad that I have to tell him earlier than they actually need to know, and I'm still seeing it happen with my son and his friends.


You know, he's got a friend that's younger than him and he's 6’ 5”. And people, you know, treat him like a grown man. He's, he's 14, you know, . So, uh, that, that when I see like people start to understand that I, I do feel a sense of, uh, wouldn't even say justice, just a feeling of yeah, I knew you knew it. I know you know it, and I knew you did.


And then, you know, and immediately you want to get angry and you get sad and like all of that.


And that's okay too because, because you should actually be mad that the people are just getting to actually believe that this is a thing and to, and that it's that way. So yeah. You know, it's, it winds up being a good feeling, but it doesn't start out that way.

I guess that's a long way of saying it, you know.



[14:55] A Book and a Song


Matthew: You are not alone. It’s hard to separate the book from the song. Kaitlin and Tommy explain.


Kaitlin: They're connected. Cuz you know, when we were writing, You Are Not Alone the song, we were thinking of a, a young transgendered boy here in Oakland who trusted us to share like the, some parts of being who he was, uh, were great and some parts were hard. The hard parts being like, sometimes you lose friends when you tell them who you are.


And we wanted to let him know that there could be a friend in his life. And, you know, we wanted to embody those kind of friends that stand up for you even when you're not in the room. And so, um, he's still like, in my heart, like, uh, just the core of the song and, and you know, how do we do that for each other?


And so what we see in this book is kids, y'all are, you, y'all know the answers, actually. So it just gets a little messy out here with the way that things are, where bias and judgment happen. And you, unfortunately, experience it too.


So what we wanted to imagine is you with the answers. You are the super friend. You know how to go shopping with your friend, uh, who doesn't feel comfortable in a store, picking out clothes that feel good on their body. You know how to say kids names correctly in the way that they wanna be heard. You honor each other. Uh, you stand together. Like that's, you got it. And we got you.


Tommy: it's interesting cuz um, what I also did fail to mention was how I didn't really have this connection to the character in the book that I’m saying was like me until after it was written. We were thinking about other people than ourselves when we were writing it. And I just wind up identifying with it in that way because I'm like, oh actually that was me too, you know?


And so, when we think about like, who was gonna read it, we did think about, you know, uh, bedtime. Let's read a little bit of it. Let's, so that we can ask questions or whatever, and you know, maybe we'll read the whole thing, but whenever there's a question, we'll explore it also in like, okay, you gotta go read for 20 minutes. Let's go, let's go read for 20 minutes. Like to, you know, early reading, learning. We kind of like put ourselves all these different scenarios of like when, how people would read it, and, uh, and really tried to even see if there's ever a place or where we would read it, you know, without kids or how we would, you know what I mean?


Kaitlin: Yeah, totally. Because like, for example, if you read the first couple pages, you know, and when we read it, we, we tend to choose pages that reflect more of our lived experience.


But, you know, the stories in this book aren't all in my body, but I've witness. the experience. So for example..


Tommy: Yeah. “You don't know me, but I wonder if you look at your skin, the way I look at mine and you don't know me, but I need you to know that I don't always feel safe here. And I don't know you, but I hope you never have to feel that way.”


Kaitlin: So this is just the beginning of the book, and I wanna describe the picture for you. There is a Black child wearing a yellow hat, backpack, with his bicycle. And he's waving actually. And there is a, you know, seemingly like white woman with a broom standing in front of a fruit stand and her hands are on her hips. Right? And her eyes look a little bit like, what are you doing here? Scowly. Yeah. And so when, when, um, Ashley Evans did this illustration, right,


It tells a lot of stories that we all experience in school. There's been a teacher that gives you a look, I'm sorry to say this, teachers, I know we're all working on our biases, but in parents where you think something's your business, but it's not your. This child is just crossing the street. They, they, they're human on the planet. They have places to go. It's not your business to judge that. You can send a, a greeting, but sometimes putting your hands on your hip makes somebody feel like they don't belong.


And so when we looked at this picture and our words to it, it also is like, you know, if this person is making this child feel unsafe, they're actually making us all unsafe because if that's happening, no one's safe.


So here's the what, we respond to it.


Tommy: “If you really knew me when you'd see me, you would think you're powerful. You are brave, you are brilliant. But you don't know me yet, so I can only imagine what you think by looking at me. Today, I want you to really see me. Are you ready now? Let's go.


Kaitlin and Tommy: You are not alone. I'm ready.


[Excerpt of “You Are Not Alone”]



[20:25] Shine a Light


Matthew: Listeners, there are things going on in your world, to you and around you. There are things you do see and things you will see that make you stop and make you question.


When you do, Kaitlin reminds us to shine a light. No matter what way you see fit. Shine it.


Kaitlin: If you have like an idea bubbling in your mind, no matter what time of day, and should, you know how to draw a picture of it or write it, that's making your idea even more a part of the world. You can choose to share it, but it helps you grow. So I really encourage you to, to play and express yourself however it is. If it's dance, if it's drawing, writing your story, singing a song.


Whatever you do to shine that light, it just makes the world, um, more. because your voice is important.



[21:23] A Message from Kaitlin McGaw and Tommy Shepherd to You


Matthew: Listeners, I hope you enjoyed our time with Kaitlin McGaw and Tommy Shepherd. I hope that you will shine your light, and that you will see the light in others, too. Because you are not alone.


As we close our time together, and as I prepare to head back to my library full of children, I asked Kaitlin and Tommy if there’s a message they’d like to share with all of you.


Tommy: I would tell you to, to make them point to their neighbor and tell 'em, “I got your back”. I got your back.


Kaitlin: I got your back


Tommy: On both sides.


Kaitlin: I got your back You know you shine!



[22.10] Closing


Matthew: The Children’s Book Podcast is written, edited, and produced by me, Matthew Winner.


Follow the show wherever podcasts are found, and leave us a rating or review when you do. That helps us out a whole lot because it helps the show get discovered by and recommended to new listeners.


Kaitlin? Tommy? Where can listeners find you?


Tommy: It's alphabetrockers.com. There's no special spellings. It's all correct spelling . No, like hip hop spellings.


Alphabetrockers.com. We're (at) alphabetrockers on all of the rest of the platforms. You can get our music on all the music platforms.


Kaitlin: Yeah. And our YouTube channel is just growing and growing. And you can find the music video for You Are Not Alone, which has all of the Youth Rockers, Alphabet Rockers collective representing and storytelling with you.


Tommy: Yeah. More than that, you can see all the evidence of some of the things we've been talking about. That's it. Like. come you know, see it on the screen and see the stories getting told.


Matthew: Visit matthewcwinner.com for a full transcript of this episode plus some questions that you can use as you think about this episode.


You can also reach out and let me know if you already listen to Alphabet Rockers?What’s your favorite track?


Mine is the one playing under us right now. It’s called “The Word is Love” and it’s from “The Movement”.


Write to me or send me a message at matthewmakespods@gmail.com. That’s M-A-T-T-H-E-W M-A-K-E-S P-O-D-S at gmail dot com.


Want a copy of You Are Not Alone? Jonah, where should our listeners look?


Jonah: Check your school or public library, your classroom, or, if you want to support independent bookstores, you can purchase a copy at Bookshop.org.


Matthew: I’ll have a link in the show notes.


Our podcast logo was created by Duke Stebbins (https://stebs.design/).


Our music is by Podington Bear.


Podcast hosting by Libsyn.


We are a proud member of Kids Listen, the best place to discover the best in kids podcasts. Learn more at kidslisten.org.


Anything else you want to share, Jonah?


Jonah: Don’t forget to be yourself.


Matthew: Mmmm.


And, on that note… Be well. And read on.




End Of Episode

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