UVA hip-hop students unite to release 'Isolate' mixtape to help community members

Written by by Jane Sathe in the Daily Progress

This article by Jane Sathe originally appeared in the Daily Progress on May 27th, 2020. (Jane Dunlap Sathe jsathe@dailyprogress.com | (434) 978-7249)

After the COVID-19 pandemic hit, finishing up college classes after an abruptly concluded semester was easier in some disciplines than others. Video conferencing apps made reading and discussing literature relatively easy to continue, for example.

But what about music classes, where sputtering video delays can make it tricky to match each other’s tempos and convey complex musical ideas? And how can you wrangle 15 songwriters and musical collaborators at once?

When the University of Virginia announced in March that students would not be coming back to brick-and-mortar classrooms after spring break, the students in A.D. Carson’s hip-hop class and Rap Lab faced a challenge. How could they finish the songs they were working on and complete a mixtape that gave each of them a chance to shine?

Teamwork and technology gave the students the opportunity not only to complete what they’d been working on before spring break, but to add new material influenced by the challenges of the pandemic and new perspectives gained during an unprecedented time. The musicians named their creative collective In Solidarity Online, and they kept encouraging each other and providing each other with sounding boards, support and constructive criticism.

And although college can be a rather insular experience when students get caught up in studies and deadlines, the collaborators decided to make their project count.

“We wanted to do something to help the community,” Nia Williams said.

On May 1, In Solidarity Online released its mixtape, “Isolate.” The students are encouraging listeners to donate to Charlottesville Community Cares, an organization that helps provide food, transportation, prescriptions and other essentials for people facing food insecurity and financial hardships while their workplaces are closed.

What the students discovered along the way was the power of music and creativity to sustain people and help them stay resilient and empowered during confusing and frustrating times.

“After the pandemic hit, and we realized we weren’t coming back, we still were talking with each other on songs, album art and other things,” Michael Dearing said.

“For us, it was really important to finish this thing and back each other up and follow through,” Dearing said. “It was very inspiring to me. It was very rallying to me.”

The class attracted a diverse group of students from a variety of backgrounds and musical influences.

“Early in the semester, Dr. Carson joked about us being a ‘Breakfast Club,’’’ said David Xiao, who brought a musical background in flute and piano to the mix. “I didn’t have much hip-hop experience before.”

Williams, who enjoys mixing musical genres, brought acoustic performance experience and a pop vibe. Dearing, who hails from Lexington, “started playing violin in third grade and was classically trained. Then I broke into jazz and bluegrass.”

The mixtape project taught the musicians volumes about the value of collaboration. Sharing musical ideas, especially closely held beliefs and personal experiences, isn’t always easy, but having a close-knit team taught the musicians that they could open up in safety.

“Just making music together, you have to be vulnerable. You have to share your story,” Williams said.

The first part of the mixtape captures work done by the students before the impact of the pandemic. “Like That,” “Earmuffs” and other pre-COVID-19 tracks give listeners a chance to savor the different musical personalities at work; the new outro, “Afterglow,” captures the tangle of dashed and remodeled hopes and the hard-won resilience students have helped each other achieve in tough times.

Dearing said he expects there to be “cross-pollination and collaboration” among group members as they move ahead to future individual and group projects.

“Some of us are doing projects individually right now,” Williams said. “We’ll definitely stay in touch and stay connected.”

“Isolate” is available on Soundcloud.


UVA Department of Music
112 Old Cabell Hall
P.O. Box 400176 Charlottesville, VA 22904-4176

Email: music@virginia.edu