Derek Castelliano, who goes by Saiko, can freestyle – and he does it best in front of an audience.
“When I’m in front of a lot of people it boosts my confidence,” he said. “I’ll feel like I’ve got to freestyle and I’ll have these bars in my head and it just comes out.”
On a recent summer day, in between rehearsals, he talked about how that skill is especially useful if he forgets a verse. He takes a deep breath and fills the silence with something else.
But he couldn’t always do it in front of a crowd. The 18-year-old gained that confidence over the two years he worked with the professional artists that organize the hip-hop group known as the KRUNK Movement.
The high school program meets in the basement of a Hazelwood church. There, dozens of students from schools across the region learn every aspect of the hip-hop industry from writing to mixing to dancing.
The after-school group released the album “Thinking Out Loud” in May and continued to work on new music once school ended.
They recently performed that music in front of the former Gladstone School in Hazelwood. With one arm of his denim jacket off of his shoulder, Castelliano stood on a folding chair and rapped one of his songs. He has written about getting in trouble, abuse and ignoring people who doubt him.
“I like to give them a little bit of Saiko, but also speak for the generation and what they want to hear, especially coming up in Pittsburgh. We’re just trying to push through it and set a trend for other people,” he said.
That kind of artistic expression is what Tim Smith hoped for when he formed the program 15 years ago. He leads Center of Life, a nonprofit community group where the program is based.
“With hip hop, it’s almost a rule that you listen to the lyrics because hip hop is about words — and beats,” he said.
Over time, he has watched the program evolve as students became more justice-focused.
“They're dealing with suicide, rape, teen pregnancy, they’re dealing with drugs. I mean they're hitting these things in extremely creative ways,” he said of their music.
He worked with the University of Pittsburgh to pilot the program that he hoped would give kids something productive to do with their free time. Smith says many young people in the community told him they wanted to be hip hop artists.
“They were mentioning their heroes and back then it was Jay-Z and Lupe Fiasco,” he said.
Through the program students learn about the musicians who shaped hip hop culture. Amani Howze, 17, joined the group as a singer but has transitioned to rapping and songwriting. She’s mindful of the artists who have influenced the work she produces.
“So when you're doing this are you disrespecting the craft? What are you doing to show respect for the people that created it and that hold it dearly?” she said.
Howze helped write a song on the last album called “Heaven.” It’s about existence and the possibility of an afterlife.
“Sometimes you don’t want to be here. You just want to be somewhere where you can just let it all go. And it’s like paradise, you know,” she said of writing the song.
She wants to continue writing and rapping after she leaves KRUNK. So does Castelliano.
Smith is in the early stages of creating a management and production company to represent the people who come through the organization.
Regardless of what comes next for the students, Smith said they have an outlet to express themselves.