Posted May 4, 2017

‘Soar Time’: Behind the scenes

According to Assistant Professor Aaron Smith, there is nowhere in the world like Temple University. That’s why he was the inspiration that brought faculty, staff and a student together for this graduation hip-hop video.


Video Production: Louis Peluyera

When students walk into a lecture hall and are met unexpectedly by a camera crew hanging out, gear in hand, it's a sign that things are about to get interesting.

On a dreary Tuesday afternoon, Assistant Professor Aaron Smith's Tupac and the Hip-Hop Revolution class thought they would be reviewing for an upcoming final exam. The class, mostly seniors, had no idea the professor had more to give them than a study guide.

The lights dim and Smith paces around the front of the room a bit. With a nod of readiness, the little red light on the camera starts flashing: It's go time.

Actually, it's Soar Time.

"Soar time, it's your time," sings Smith to his students. "Let's spread our wings now."

Their looks of confusion transform into wide-mouthed smiles. Like a reflex, the students' hands raise into the air as the beat's tempo picks up. Their heads bob along with their professor as he sings an anthem he crafted just for them--and all of Temple's graduating students.

Aaron Smith singing to the camera with his students in the background.
Photography by: Betsy Manning

For those nearly 150 students, this performance was an act of spontaneity. Really, it's a collaboration between faculty, staff and a student to bring a creative edge to the way Temple talks about Commencement.

Faculty members influence and impact every student, especially professors like Smith, who can't walk across campus without receiving at least one hug from a student. Known as the rapping professor for his ability to turn his lessons into well-versed impromptu raps, he served as the inspiration for this project.

"I jump at any chance to use my gifts to show the world the magic that is Temple University," Smith said. "My experience as a student and my daily interaction with the amazingly brilliant, creative and innovative intellectuals that I have been blessed to instruct served as my inspiration for the song."

Smith holds four degrees from Temple and has held nearly 20 university-related jobs between his time as a student and landing his dream job as a professor of Africology and African American studies in the College of Liberal Arts. He has spent a majority of his life at Temple.

"I feel like I found myself here, I was made here," Smith said.

Making the song
This wasn't the first time that Smith found himself in Associate Professor Jack Klotz's recording studio in Annenberg Hall. The two have worked together with Bell Tower Music, the student-run record label on campus.  

"Aaron is a real pro, plain and simple," Klotz said. "He's great at what he does and his passion and dedication to the university--and more importantly our students--absolutely shines in everything he does."

Klotz himself is a pro, too. He's lent his expertise multiple times to various universitywide projects, not only with pleasure, but also with some spot-on voice impressions.  

After an hour of recording, re-recording and a few moments of sitting in awe of the thoughtfulness of the rap's construction, "Soar Time" was brought to life. But, for Owls, we know that no matter how good something is, it can be elevated to the next level.

Bring the beat
What the song needed to truly soar was a beat, and thanks to junior entrepreneurship and finance major Ben Thomas, it came together in less than 72 hours. After receiving the track on a Friday, Thomas got to work.

"I spent the whole weekend trying to think of something. I got the drums in the first 20 minutes, but I couldn't think of any melodies--nothing worked," he said. "I woke up at 5:30 on Monday and figured it out and had it finished by 8 a.m."

Thomas is active in the Philadelphia hip-hop community and knows Smith through Temple's Black Student Union meetings and Student Hip Hop Organization. He's low-key about his accomplishments and talent. He doesn't brag about how he can pay his rent with money he earns making music, or that he works for popular local artists like Chill Moody, or that he's the lead engineer for RECPhilly, a local agency designed to connect creative people with resources.

Creating a beat for the first rap video produced by Temple is another thing that he isn't going to boast about, no matter how awesome he thought the experience was.

"I think it's really great that the university wants to get involved and is open to hearing different ideas and let me create," Thomas said. "It's great that Temple is embracing hip hop--I feel like a lot of other places wouldn't."

From the classroom to Commencement
Back in that Tuttleman lecture hall, nothing could steal the smiles away from the students or stop them from singing and dancing along with their professor. It wasn't the camera that brought the energy--it was Smith.

As polished as a performer he may be, the true magic happens when his audience is the people he values the most.

The camera panned up as soon as Smith delivered his last lyrics. Everyone clapped, the camera crew grabbed all of the gear and left to pack up outside the classroom. And just like that, the lights flicked on and it was down to business because getting to Commencement is the real way to fly high.