Webb School Duo Wins National Honor for American Revolution Rap Song
Webb students Jonathan Yu ’22 and Roy Zhang ’22 have won an Outstanding Performance Award in the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History Hamilton Education Program Online contest for a rap/hip hop song recorded for an Advanced Studies American Revolution course.
The honor – one of 10 awarded across the U.S. in 2020-21 – includes a trip in fall 2021 to New York City for a Q & A with the cast of Hamilton, a matinee performance of the play at the Richard Rodgers Theatre and a chance to perform their original work.
“I was shocked we won. It was really, really surprising,” Zhang said.
Yu said the duo knew they faced a tough field of competitors.
“We knew it was a really competitive award. Although we were serious in making our song, we knew our other skills were not as profound as those of professional singers or music producers,” he said. “I’m really happy and proud we received this recognition.”
Zhang taught himself to write and produce music during the pandemic after the spring 2020 shutdown required him to return home to China. Yu said he’s long enjoyed writing lyrics and poetry.
But the students didn’t anticipate using those skills in class until Dr. Susanna Linsley asked for a creative capstone project for her fall 2020 history course. Students explored different perspectives on the American Revolution, using a multitude of primary sources, Linsley said.
“Everybody did great work,” she said. “Some students created podcasts, some developed lesson plans for their younger siblings and Roy and Jonathan wrote an amazing song.”
Zhang said he wanted to highlight hypocrisies in colonial America.
“In the class, one of the key questions I was asking myself was whether the American Revolution was really a revolution. Before the revolution, slaves and Native Americans were mistreated and afterward nothing changed for them,” Zhang said.
Yu said part of his inspiration came from current events.
“In today’s world, we’re witnessing so many inequalities and injustices all around the world. We thought it would be cool to create a message about this in the form of a song,” he said.
Yu wrote and recorded a verse of the song from the perspective of a slave; Zhang wrote a verse from the point of view of a Native American and added a chorus. Zhang merged the two for the class project.
In January, Linsley learned of the Hamilton contest and urged the students to submit their song.
Yu created a quick video of the song with lyrics scrolling across the screen and they sent it off to the New York institute, considered one of the nation’s most prestigious groups dedicated to promoting history education.
In the weeks that followed their contest entry, Zhang and Yu decided the song deserved a full video presentation.
They each recorded parts of the song and were able to collaborate in person in April. They assembled a full music video in time for Webb’s Jubilee, a celebration of visual and performing arts held each May.
“It just adds that magic when you see people actually singing in the music video,” Zhang said. “Also, for me, I never thought I would ever be in a music video or make one. It was a completely new challenge for me.”
Linsley said she wasn’t surprised the students took home one of 10 national prizes.
“They communicated something important about the American Resolution, using language and rhetoric effectively. They did remarkable work. I’m not surprised that they won, but I am delighted. To be acknowledged like this is huge,” she said.
Linsley said the work is also a testament to how Webb continued to set high academic standards despite the pandemic’s disruptions.
“This is a tribute to what we were able to accomplish as a school this year,” she said. “I’m just so proud of them.”
Zhang and Yu said they aren’t sure what’s next for their musical endeavors.
“We don’t have anything that’s planned, but summer vacation is very long,” Yu said. “We’ll definitely have time. We just need to think about what the topic of the next song should be.”