An Inside Look at SEAMAAC’s Hip Hop Heritage Program

First opening its doors in 1984, SEAMAAC was founded with the goal of helping immigrants and refugees find stability here in Philadelphia. While the acronym stands for Southeast Asian Mutual Assistance Associations Coalition, over the past thirty-four years SEAMAAC has grown from a non-profit that aimed to serve immigrants and refugees from Southeast Asia specifically into one that serves a much wider community.


“I think it’s been an evolution,” says Andy Toy, SEAMAAC’s Development and Communications Director. “We’ve just gone through this process of changing our mission to fit what we do more broadly today, which is support immigrants, refugees, and economically, socially, and politically marginalized communities in Philadelphia.”


Perhaps no project better captures the organization’s evolution than their Hip Hop Heritage program, or H3. With roughly ten years under its belt, H3 is an after school program that is based out of the Academy at Palumbo in South Philly. The goal is to bring young people together, regardless of backgrounds.


Running five days a week from 3 p.m. until 6 p.m. during the school year — with another program in the summer — Hip Hop Heritage focuses on teaching students the foundational elements of hip hop. Everything from emceeing, deejaying and breakdancing, to graffiti art, photography, and video production can be explored by students at H3. The program is free of charge and accepts students from all over the city. “We have students coming from fifteen to twenty schools,” states Nicole Yarbrough, SEAMAAC’s Truancy Intervention Prevention Services Director. SEPTA tokens are provided to students coming from distance to minimize attendance barriers.


When I visit the school on a Friday in February, Andy tells me, “they’ve [Palumbo] given us this wing to use — they recognize that there’s a value to what we’re doing for the students that are here.” The wing of Palumbo that H3 has access to includes five classrooms that have essentially been turned into studios. Despite the fact that it’s a half-day before a long weekend when I visit, plenty of students decide to stick around until the program starts at 3 p.m., a testament to the fact that they really want to be there.


Each studio is dedicated to a different aspect of hip hop, and students can curate their own experience to fit their interests. Computers loaded with Adobe Premiere software make it possible for students to familiarize themselves with photography as well as photo and video editing. They have turntables, music production software, projectors, and printing supplies all on site. The program often culminates in a performance or project, for which students are paid.


SEAMAAC makes sure to have a instructors in each of the studios that have expertise in the fields that H3 covers. When the instructors aren’t helping students choreograph a dance or edit a video, they are helping students with schoolwork — academic support is part of the program’s fabric.


“All of the students who come through the program, if they’re seniors they graduate, and all of our students get promoted to the next grade level,” Nicole tells me. By getting reports on attendance and academic standing each semester, SEAMAAC is able to provide support wherever it may be needed — whether through H3’s instructors helping with homework or by involving a student’s parents.   


The work that the program has done recently earned them a $10,000 grant from the Mockingbird Foundation, a volunteer run non-profit organization dedicated to supporting children’s music education that was originally created in 1996 by fans of the band Phish. Funds raised by the Mockingbird Foundation are added to by Phish’s own WaterWheel foundation. H3 is one of sixteen programs receiving a grant from the Mockingbird Foundation this year, and SEAMAAC plans to use the money to purchase a selection of musical instruments that will open more creative doors for enrolled students.


To get a sample of H3’s creative output, head over to their facebook page or their instagram.