In an era of school shootings, is it OK for a principal to rap about shooting up a high school?
The question arises from the after-hours work of Logic Amen, the assistant principal of Tacoma’s Lincoln High School who moonlights as a rapper.
He says his songs – including those using the persona of a troubled student threatening a massacre at his high school – are part of his artistic expression.
On a track titled “Cancel Christmas,” Amen raps:
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“Give me a reason just to load up a rifle.
Pull the fire alarm in the lobby of my high school.
Leave the halls bloody like a high noon tycoon
I’m about to cancel Christmas.
I won’t leave a freakin’ witness.
Naw. I put Santa on my hit list.
Celebrate Kwanzaa and cancel all Christmas.”
Amen said that if a student finds it on the music-sharing website Bandcamp, it will be obvious he’s not condoning the lyrics.
“I think it’s condescending that young adults cannot understand, with the right coaching and guidance, what’s going on in my music,” said Amen, 43.
The Tacoma School District doesn't have a problem with his songs.
Superintendent Carla Santorno declined an interview request from The News Tribune, but district spokesman Dan Voelpel said Amen is not violating any policies, laws or codes of professional conduct.
“Logic’s good work at Lincoln High School has contributed to helping turn around the academic success of students there over the last several years, helped close achievement gaps and dramatically improved the image of the school,” Voelpel said.
“In no way has his non-school activities disrupted the educational environment at Lincoln."
Eric Hogan, the district’s assistant director of secondary education, described Amen as a talented assistant principal and an excellent communicator and mediator for students and families.
He said he became aware Amen had released an album when a parent called him about it last fall but wasn't familiar with the songs’ lyrics.
"At no point in working with him has his music or lyrics come into play," Hogan said. "I have zero concerns with him as an assistant principal."
Two mothers of Lincoln students say they do.
Jenn Giovani and Laurel Craddock say Amen’s lyrics are violent, sexist and racist, and shouldn't be coming from a role model or be accessible to kids.
“The fact that he’s a role model for high school students — and we know at that age they are highly sexually curious — and he’s rapping about really intimate sexual things,” said Giovani, who knows Craddock through their daughters. “You’re talking about gangs and drugs and smoking weed.”
Craddock is critical as well.
“No one in a position of authority who is mentoring or monitoring our children, my children, anyone’s children, should be glorifying shooting up a school,” she said.
'I'M TELLNG A STORY'
Giovani contacted The News Tribune shortly after listening to Amen's music.
The News Tribune listened to Amen's albums and tracks, including the 2017 holiday-themed album, “Merry Kris Kwanaka and Happy Blew Year,” that includes "Cancel Christmas.”
Asked about the song, Amen said it is written and rapped in the first person from a teen perspective.
“I’m not a high school student,” he said. “I’m telling a story.
“Nowhere in the song did I condone (violence.) I just told a short story of something that happened to a young person that inspired and caused him to commit acts of violence.”
Amen was asked whether it would be obvious to a teenager listening to Amen’s music that the songs are short stories, works of fiction meant to stimulate conversation.
“I think it is,” he said. “I don’t understand how someone could say I condone it based on me depicting a story of a person who had a troubled back story — stuff going on in their family — and committing acts of violence.”
Asked about the song, Voelpel, the school district spokesman, said:
“It goes without saying that anytime anyone speaks of school violence as a threat, we pay attention. In this case the language of the song in question falls into the category of artistic expression and is not perceived as a threat.”
“I agree with that,” Craddock said. “It’s not a threat.”
But that’s not the point, she said.
"It’s not a matter of freedom of speech,” she said. “Having the forethought to think, 'These kids are going to hear this. What kind of message am I putting out'?”
'ALWAYS AN ENTERTAINER'
Amen has been an assistant principal at Lincoln since 2011. His job includes providing leadership, supervising staff and promoting the school. He also administers discipline to students and supervises them.
His base salary for the 2016-17 school year was $123,926.
He expresses himself in a variety of media.
“I’ve always been an entertainer and I’ve always wanted to be a stand-up comedian or hip hop artist or producer,” Amen said. “These are all things I still do.”
In 2015, Amen posted his hip hop album, “Black on Purpose, the Mixtape,” to Bandcamp. In a recent interview with The News Tribune, Amen noted the album is 10 to 15 years old.
It is one of nine albums, some in collaboration with other artists, Amen has on the site, which allows musicians to upload their work and for listeners to buy and download. Purchased or not, the music is accessible to anyone with an internet connection.
Amen said he doesn’t promote his music at school and will discuss it with a student only when asked and only if it doesn’t cut into a student’s class time.
The songs on “Mixtape” are credited to Amen and DJ Seabefore. Other works and albums on Bandcamp have up to five contributors, Amen said.
Most of Amen’s music includes cultural and historical references, metaphors and other literary devices in the genre’s characteristic verses and rhymes — all set against beats.
In the track, “Still Hood,” the lyrics state:
“I ain’t gotta hate you to physically break you.
Do you like a bad verse, I will erase you.
Let Jesus take you before the inmates rape you.
Put you in a ditch and let Mother Nature reshape you.
I ain’t gonna mace you, mess around and chase you.
It’s gonna look like a bear broke out the zoo and ate you.”
In a 2016 song, “Mouf Full of Gold,” the rapper sings, “Order a party drink and get f----- up.” Later, the song’s narrator is pulled over by police. He raps, “Chinky eyes is dilating. You got license and registration?”
The term, “Chinky eyes,” is used by some people to describe themselves or others when tired or strung out. It also is a derogatory term used against Asian people.
Amen said he could not recall who raps the “Chinky eyes” lyrics in the song.
“I’m not saying I didn’t say it,” Amen said. “I don’t remember saying that lyric."
Several songs are built around overt sexual or violent themes. Many have double entendres, a common motif in hip-hop. Some leave no doubt as to their meaning.
Amen raps in the “Mixtape” track titled “Girl Scout,” which refers to a man checking out a woman and not the scouting organization of the same name. Among the lyrics: “She’s outside of your house with her nipples all hard peeping through her blouse.”
“I’m a principal at a high school,” Amen said. “Those are things that young adults could find in a PG-13 movie. I think ‘Girl Scout’ is an awesome song.”
'I'M APPALLED BY MOST OF THEM'
Songs on “Mixtape” drew the attention of Giovani after her daughter, a Lincoln senior, casually mentioned Amen had music online. His music is common knowledge among students at the school, Giovani’s daughter told her.
“I was curious,” Giovani said. “What would Mr. Amen rap about?”
She found Amen’s music with a quick Google search. Mother and daughter listened to the music.
“The first song we clicked on was ‘Girl Scout’,” Giovani said.
She listened to others.
“I’m appalled by most of them,” she said.
Craddock’s children — her daughter is a senior and her son graduated in 2017 — were aware of the music as well.
She called Amen’s lyrics disgusting.
“My gut reaction was … how incredibly wrong,” Craddock said.
Amen acknowledged the concerns Giovani and Craddock have about his lyrics.
“Yes, there are some things on there than can be interpreted as violent,” he said of his music. “There are some things on there than can be interpreted as sexist. There are some things on there than can be interpreted as racist.”
But the lyrics must be viewed in the context of artistic expression, Amen said.
“They are platforms that I use to create discussion,” he said.
Amen said he does not necessarily condone the messages in some of his songs, including those that mention drug use.
“I don’t do that,” he said of using drugs. “I’m like the voice of reason in the group.”
His music is meant to educate and start conversations, he said.
Giovani remains unconvinced and pointed to the title track of “Black on Purpose.” She said its lyrics, including “Black on purpose, white folks nervous,” are racially inflammatory.
“How is it racist?” Amen responded. “Because I say, ‘Black on purpose, white folks nervous’?
“White folks aren’t nervous about black folks? That’s not true? I think they are,” he said. “Especially black people who are very unapologetic about being black. Very unapologetic about the social injustice that happens in the country based on skin color.”
Giovani and Craddock are white. Amen is black. Amen suggested race might be playing a part in the dispute.
“None of my black or brown parents have any problems with what I do,” he said.
The women denied that race was a factor in their criticisms. Giovani points out, among other things, that her daughter is part black.
The two women and Amen are not strangers to one another.
Both women said they have had conflicts with Amen, who would not comment on earlier interactions with them and their children.
Giovani said she first interacted with Amen in 2016, when her daughter was being bullied at Lincoln. Giovani said she tried for two months to reach Amen and when she did used profanity with him.
“I’m irate. I’m a parent. I’m passionate about my daughter and her safety,” she said.
At the end of the phone call, Amen expelled Giovani's daughter for her own protection, emails provided to The News Tribune by Giovani show.
Giovani said Amen next contacted her when he learned she was driving her daughter to school despite having a suspended license.
“He said he would call the cops, saying I’m putting my child in danger,” she said.
Craddock said she first encountered Amen in 2013, when her eldest daughter, a freshman at the time, was having discipline issues after a head injury. Amen wanted to transfer her to an alternative school, Craddock said.
Her daughter, now 22, dropped out of school in 2014 because of the unresolved issues, Craddock said. Since then, Craddock said, she has had virtually no contact with Amen. She became aware of Amen’s music several months ago but didn’t pay much attention to it until Giovani alerted her to specific lyrics.
Giovani said she had largely forgotten about Amen until recently coming across his music.
“I don’t want anything to do with him,” she said. “I feel he did not treat my daughter fairly in the beginning, and I have stayed completely clear of him.”
Following her dispute with Amen she has limited her communications at Lincoln to principal Pat Erwin and the district, she said.
Giovani insisted she does not have a vendetta against Amen.
“I’m not out for him at all,” she said. “I want the district to be aware what types of pressures and injuries they’re putting on other kids by having him in the role he is in.”
HIP HOP AND CULTURE
Like in other genres of music, hip hop songwriters often take on personas to relate fictional narratives. Country singers can tell the story of a broke cowboy when in reality they might be millionaires.
Hans Ostrom, a professor of African American Studies and English at the University of Puget Sound, is not familiar with Amen’s music, but said American popular music has long contained elements of sex and violence.
“For instance, Johnny Cash's ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ includes the line, ‘Shot a man in Reno just to watch him die’,” Ostrom said. “Americans tend to like outlaws.
“From the 1980s forward,” he said, “much hip hop music has reflected the violence in some black neighborhoods, including violence inflicted by police, just as blues, country music and folk music has sometimes reflected different kinds of American violence.”
Henry raps under the name of Q Dot. His most recent album, "Black Gold," came out in 2015.
"The biggest thing I love about hip hop culture is that it's one of the only genres where you can tell your truth or non-truth," said Henry, who does not know Amen or his music. “You can find a story from every walk of life in hip hop.”
The genre, he said, can be a benefit to society.
“Hip hop is a tool to give back to the community and do something positive,” Henry said.
WHAT IS A THREAT?
The Feb. 14 shooting that left 17 dead in Parkland, Florida, renewed public interest in school safety across the nation, including Pierce County.
“Our senses are heightened right now, our students’ senses our heightened, our families’ senses are heightened right now,” Franklin Pierce School District spokesman Joel Zylstra said.
Students and their parents are warned that even casual threats can be problematic.
“You can’t even discuss it in or near school property or you’re going to get in trouble,” Giovani said.
On March 6, Tacoma schools superintendent Santorno and Chief of Police Don Ramsdell wrote a letter to the community regarding school safety.
“… the current national spotlight on school violence, polarizing gun control debates, and recent highly visible social media threats locally warrant our attention — and yours,” they wrote.
“Our students and others in our community need to know that simply making a threat against a school is a serious crime — whether they carry it out or not, whether they meant it or not. We take these threats very seriously.”
That same month, Pierce County Prosecutor Mark Lindquist offered his office’s help to county school superintendents. Representatives from the office recently visited Franklin Pierce High School to help students understand the seriousness of online content.
In his annual report Lindquist stated, “… it does not appear that all students understand that it is a crime to threaten violence at school, even if they don’t actually intend to follow through with the threat.”
Tacoma, like other school districts, posts its “Student Prohibition of Harassment, Intimidation and Bullying” policy on its website.
It states in part:
“Conduct that may rise to the level of harassment, intimidation or bullying may take many forms, including, but not limited to: slurs, rumors, jokes, innuendoes, demeaning comments, drawings, cartoons, pranks, ostracism, physical attacks, threats, gestures or acts relating to an individual or group whether written, verbal, auditory, or physically or electronically transmitted messages or images.
“There is no requirement that the targeted student actually possess the characteristic that is the basis for the harassment, intimidation or bullying.”
Would a student who brought lyrics similar to Amen’s to a Tacoma school, in a notebook for example, be disciplined?
“We engage in threat assessment on a case-by-case basis usually under attorney-client privilege,” spokesman Voelpel said.
“There are many risk-management factors that are involved, including but not limited to: time, date, place, intent, age, circumstances, previous issues, status of individual (e.g. student, staff, parent, community member), seriousness, legal rights and safety plans.”
In most cases, Voelpel said, an initial threat assessment concerning a student would be handled at the school level by a counselor or administrator. If warranted, law enforcement would be notified immediately.
"We may involve outside experts as well such as psychologists, law enforcement, attorneys, etc.," he said.
Amen, whose job includes disciplining students, was asked whether threatening lyrics would prompt school officials to punish the student. No, he said, as long as it was clear the words were lyrics. But, he added, there could be extenuating circumstances in any scenario.
Franklin Pierce takes messages that could be perceived as threats seriously and goes through an assessment process that includes the student, safety and security staff members and police, said Zylstra, the school district spokesman.
“If we see anything that has any potential to harm our students or schools or (to the person making the threat,) we have to respond to that,” he said. “We’re not reacting to the individual. We have a process that we go through.”
The district is educating students that online messages are not immune to being assessed as threats.
“These things have consequences in terms of school culture,” Zylstra said
North Thurston Public Schools takes a vigilant approach to threat assessment. In 2015, a North Thurston High School student fired two shots from a handgun at the school before being tackled. No one was hurt.
The district reviews anything that could be perceived as a threat, said David Warning, director of student achievement.
“We want those brought forward,” he said. “That’s the purpose of a threat assessment team.”
That includes anything that’s presented as art – poems, songs and fiction writing.
“Again, it is still going to be reviewed by a team,” Warning said. “In today’s society, you don’t overlook those things. I’m afraid that’s why some things have occurred.”
If a possible threat came from a staff member, the assessment would be handled by the human resources department, Warning said.
As an educator and former high school principal, his private life reflects on his professional life, he said.
“I hope that the person I portrayed within the school is the same person I portray outside of the school,” Warning said. “That people know who I am and what I represent. Because I stand for students and I stand for caring.”
ANY INVESTIGATION WELCOMED
“I was put on this earth to serve,” he said. “Everything that comes out of this body is to create conversations.”
He pointed to a spoken-word story-telling event, “The Griot Party Experience,” as a reflection of what he’s trying to communicate.
“It creates safe and sacred space for people to come and heal, telling their stories,” he said.
Amen said his artistic creations do not affect his profession or his ability to serve his students. He also said he was not going to pull his music off the internet.
“I’m not going to take it down because it has so many literary devices in it,” he said. “Stuff that can be interpreted and all that.”
Amen said he welcomed any investigation of his music.
“That’s why we have conversations,” he said. “I think everyone should be held accountable for what they say and what they do.”