Robert Schroeder : click for home page
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Schoolhouse Rock
Club and classroom merge for D.C. hip-hop artist Asheru

DC Style Magazine
November, 2005

Gabriel Benn has to get up in the morning. It's a Wednesday (a school night) and the director of arts in education at Northwest's Rock Creek Academy has a desk to sit at come early Thursday.

But there's something going down he can't miss: hip-hop artist Asheru is booked at Mirrors on New York Avenue. The stage is set, the DJ is spinning, the crowd is filtering in and Benn is sitting at the bar, surveying the scene. He's just got to stay.

That's because Benn is Asheru and Asheru is Benn, educator by day, hip-hop artist by night. "My route is to merge hip-hop with education," says Benn, sipping a drink and lounging in a high-backed stool before the show. "They're both my passions."

Which explains why the holder of a master's degree in education spent last summer working on an album called While You Were Sleeping. It's also why the University of Virginia graduate, who's taught first, sixth and seventh grades, now incorporates tunes by artists Nas, Common and Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth into lessons for emotionally disturbed and learning disabled K-12 students. And, indeed, it's why the 30-year-old Maryland native has titled his newest CD Insomnia.

"I don't sleep at all," Benn says, his high cheekbones jabbing the club's amber-hued air as he expels a husky laugh. In fact, he doesn't even seem tired — not when performing, anyway. In a loose yellow collared shirt and calf-length jeans, Asheru bounces around the club's stage like there's helium in his blue Adidas, arms thrashing and the mike millimeters from his beard-rimmed mouth, as he intones the opening number, "B.M.I.G."

"I don't rhyme for a living, I'm living a rhyme," he growls before the bopping, nodding crowd.

It's not the hip-hop life that one might imagine. The guy doesn't look like he knows what the word "bling" means — though he knows, all right. It's just not his scene.

He writes his show manifest on a lined notebook, the same kind every middle-schooler uses, and is most animated when talking about his day job. "This year we had five kids who got admitted to college," he says, holding up his hand — four fingers and thumb outstretched — to illustrate the number. Benn says he puts about 12 hours a day toward school-related duties and another two toward music.

And though he's spent from cramming the work on his first solo album in between playing with his kids and developing curricula, he knows, in one musical form or another, that he's going to keep going. He's planning an international tour for the new album and he's writing a new song, tonight, in his head, tentatively titled "Seeds." "I will always record," he says.

In the end, Asheru didn't go on until 11:20 p.m. that humid Wednesday. But Benn didn't seem to mind, school night notwithstanding. Writing lessons, singing songs: "It's all hip-hop," he says. "It goes together to me like left and right."

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