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Emotional intelligence

Tahj Kjelland reaches at-risk teens through poetry, hip-hop and a statewide program that combines the two

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A dozen teenagers mill around a Willard School classroom, their desultory conversations drifting about like falling leaves. Large sheets of fabric printed with colorful peace-sign patterns cover the windows, filtering the autumn sunlight. Once the kids are settled into their seats, Tahj Kjelland gets a beat thumping through his Macbook speakers. He starts rapping, going from zero to full flow in under a second, freestyling about the environment around him, his clothes, the teacher's dachshund—whatever pops into his restless mind. Animated and intense, he has captured the kids' attention. They cannot look away.

He sprinkles in a few key phrases like "neurons that fire together wire together" and "emotional intelligence—I break it down with relevance." Once he's sure the class room is galvanized, he stops on a dime and says, "Okay, everybody take out a piece of paper."

The Express to Speak program is officially underway.

"Who can tell me what emotional intelligence is?" he asks the class. A couple of hands go up. "Don't worry about raising your hands, just spit it out. Give me the first words off the top of your head." He scrawls furiously on the whiteboard as the kids call out "love" and "school" and "hungry" and "confused." The whiteboard is quickly becoming a mess of barely legible words, all encircled and attached to each other with slashes of colored marker.

He spins around to face the class, eyes wide, looking into each face. "Anybody ever get scared of their emotions?" Several kids raise their hands. Tahjhe mostly goes by his first name—tells the kids to write down the words that represent their fears, hopes, needs and emotions.

Next, he breaks out a stack of cards and begins reading them aloud, letting them drop one by one onto the desk in front of him. The "feeling" cards bear words that can be read as values and needs. The idea is for the kids to find a card that matches the emotion or value, then find the corresponding card that displays the need that fits. These cards give the kids a language, a tool with which they can identify their tangled emotions and nameless needs.

"Everybody, on the count of three, say the word that's on the top of your mind," he says to the class. Simultaneous shouted responses make it impossible to discern a single word. Then a girl says, "I'm confused."

Tahj points at her, his eyes growing wide. "That's all right! That's a good place to be!"

As the beat continues to bump out of the computer speakers, he bobs his head and watches as the kids dissolve into cross-talk about what they might be feeling, what might be the source of those feelings. When he's sure all are fully involved in the discussion, he jumps in and asks more questions, appealing for them to go deeper. He prowls around the room, giving nonstop encouragement. There is no condescension, no lecturing, only enthusiasm.

PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • photo by Cathrine L. Walters

"There is no one else in the world who has your DNA," he says as the students keep writing. "There is no one else on earth who has your fingerprint. There is no one else that walks the earth the way you walk the earth. You're unique. Completely unique."

Can poetry save your life? Can the rhythm and flow of hip-hop dislodge you from a path leading to addiction and failure and suffering and death? Tahj Kjelland has no doubt in his mind that it can. Because it saved him.




When it comes to creativity, there are few musicians as busy and prolific as Tahj. You might have seen him rapping in one of his self-produced YouTube videos, or maybe spitting his emotional rhymes at a poetry slam, including the one he's hosted for the last five years at the Montana Festival of the Book. You might have caught him playing some native flute at an Indian gathering. Or perhaps you danced while he played bass with Missoula blues outfit MudSlide Charley. Oh, and he shares vocal duties in a Rage Against The Machine cover band. He has so many musical irons in the fire, one wonders when he finds time to sleep.

"When I was a kid I used to sleep with my head in the kick drum while people jammed at our house," he says.

He grew up in Missoula, the son of blues bassist Mary Allyn and furniture maker John Kjelland. Mary, who currently plays in Blue Moon, transmitted her love of the blues directly to Tahj. "It's always been the blues," he says. "I would always listen to it, sing it. Wednesday night was rehearsal night. I always felt comfortable when everyone was jamming in the living room. It helped me get through my homework."

Sometime in the '80s he got drawn to the frenzy and physical rhythm of breakdancing. Break beats introduced him to hip-hop, and from there he "fell in love with the spoken word," he says. "I realized that spoken word is a way to get things off your chest. James Brown was a pretty heavy spoken word artist, but I could hear rapping too. Blues singers would just talk to the beat."

His various musical endeavors seem to radiate from the same idea of the importance of self-expression. His hip-hop songs are mostly celebrations of life and love, exhortations to his fellow man to dive deep, climb high and always give thanks. It's a sharp contrast to the current state of mainstream hip-hop, which treads the tired ground of luxury rap, tedious boasts and ritual glorification of thug life and/or drug culture.

Tahj doesn't care about drinking flutes of Cristal on his Gulfstream G6. He's interested in steering kids away from lives of drinking and drugging, physical and emotional abuse, and making poor choices because they think no one cares about them, including themselves. He doesn't have to look far for inspiration.

His parents' creative influence didn't always translate to a stable upbringing. They split when he was 3. When Tahj was 13, his stepdad left. "That's when I got really angry," he says. Virtually all of his scrapes with authority came from fighting. "I wanted to be hard. I wanted to be a badass."

He got into smoking pot to escape from having to feel anything, he says. But weed wasn't what got him in trouble. It was mostly fighting, and it was an act of terrible violence at the end of his teen years that would ultimately turn him away from a world of self-destruction, toward a life of positive growth and self-realization.

He knew right from wrong, he says, but was pissed off most of the time. "I found a group of kids that were angry too. We were drawn to each other," he says. "Maybe 70 percent of these kids did time in juvenile detention or prison." A big part of his angst, he adds, was "seeing such a big world."

The chance to travel into that big world came in the form of an offer to go on the road with the Missoula ska band the Skoidats. Music was becoming more important in his life at that point, and he had started running sound for shows at Jay's Upstairs, hoping to become a recording engineer. When he got the offer from the Skoidats to be their tour manager, they didn't have to ask twice.

"I was the 'fuck you, pay me' guy," he says, laughing. If the band had been promised three pizzas and only two showed up, for instance, he would track down the responsible parties and make sure that third pie got to the band. "Nineteen years old. It taught me to be assertive."

Traveling across the U.S., Tahj got a firsthand look at the underground music scene, and the energy and creative freedom blew him away. After coming home from a second national tour with the band, he was motivated to create an alternative scene in Missoula. "The mainstream's got nothing on the underground," he says.

It was Easter 1998, just after returning from that second tour, when the violent life he was shedding reappeared with horrific results. "It was a retribution thing," he says, pulling the collar of his T-shirt down to reveal a ragged trail of scars stretching across his upper chest, from one collarbone to the other. "Guy caught me in the corner of a garage on Dearborn Street and stuck me over and over again with a brass knuckle knife."

For his Express to Speak program, Tahj Kjelland challenges kids to identify their needs through the language of hip-hop. - PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • For his Express to Speak program, Tahj Kjelland challenges kids to identify their needs through the language of hip-hop.

After recovering from his wounds, he saw his direction more clearly than ever. He'd already become interested in working for social justice, and had begun to deal with his anger issues.

"I was already off the path (of violence), but the stabbing was like the last karmic reminder to push me into a trajectory of growth, a different way of being," he says. "This earth walk is to reflect, self-create."




As the name suggests, Tahj's Express to Speak program aims to give adolescents the tools to express their feelings and thoughts. He has crafted the program as a way to teach kids, especially at-risk teens, that emotional intelligence is as important as intellectual intelligence.

"I'm trying to put responsibility into the kids' hands," he says. "Being conscious of their consciousness."

With his drooping jeans and oversized, flat-brimmed ball cap set slightly off-axis, Tahj looks like a typical hip-hop loving millennial waiting for his next good time to roll around the corner. But a second glance reveals the native beadwork hatband, the Indian-style braids hanging over his shoulders and a boyish smile set off by intense blue eyes. When he steps in front of a classroom full of restless teens and launches into his program, the raw emotion and bracing energy that pours forth can be breathtaking.

"He stomach-punched this year's English classes with his ever-evolving Express to Speak program, including emotional intelligence," says Willard teacher Lisa Waller. "Several students commented on how much the time with Tahj affected them in significant ways."

Underwritten by Humanities Montana, Tahj has been traveling throughout the state to both schools and Indian reservations for the last few years, performing about 40 Express to Speak programs a year. While it's become a huge part of his work, he must balance demand for the program with his other pursuits.

His second full-length hip-hop CD, Sweatshop Sneakers, will be released Nov. 7. The disc, mixed and mastered by his brother Max Allyn, is pumped with radio-ready beats and old-school soul and R&B grooves. Tahj raps with an immediacy and urgency that would suggest he has to get his message out this very moment. Words occasionally stretch into sung notes, or are punctuated by growls, yips and yelps. The theme is an overall message of encouragement and a validation of the idea that it's okay to be you. Just like Express to Speak.

Rapping and spitting verse at poetry slams feeds his soul, he says, while playing bass with MudSlide Charley and singing Rage songs are more of a physical release. He's also a fatherhis 15-year-old son Diego is a football-playing sophomore at Hellgate who also raps by the handle Deegz—and works a separate full-time job. After Tahj earned his master's degree in social work this summer, he started working for a local company that is involved in recovery therapy. Ultimately, he'd like to become a licensed clinical therapist.

But it's the program he created, Express to Speak, that continues to drive him professionally and creatively—and provide such a rich return. When asked what he gets out of the work he does in schools and on reservations, he takes a few moments to answer.

"That question hits me hard," he says. "It's the life experience and growth work I've been doing. I can't continue to do this if I don't continue to grow." He pauses, his eyes growing wet. "I get choked up."

Then that cool blue flame returns to his gaze. "Sometimes looking in the kids' eyes, seeing (the realization) that they can do what they want to do in life, I can sometimes see the essence of what they want to be. If I can convey anything," he says, "it's just to be comfortable with yourself, with who you are."

Tahj Kjelland emcees the Festival of the Book poetry slam Fri., Oct. 10, at Stage 112. 8 PM.

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