Photo by Chris Casella

The Paragon Project

When entering the gates of Fort Hayes High School you can tell—even before you meet its students—it’s a different kind of environment. Slightly north of Downtown Columbus’s conglomerate of skyscrapers and just south of Cleveland Ave’s most parlous passage is the school’s campus.

Passing the eminent Shot Tower and walking into the cafeteria, which if you make a sharp right turns into a studio just down the hall, I met with Dr. Tony Anderson and a group of students he considers his musical enterprise. Together they call themselves The Paragon Project, and while they share the same institution of learning, they’re no high school band.

Comprised of bass guitarists, spoken word poets, and everything in between, The Paragon is a collection of the school’s most talented musicians looking for much more than a jam session. Over the past year they’ve successfully recorded the first volume of what they describe as an “audio publication,” and it sounds more like a Broadway soundtrack than anything recorded just steps away from a high school cafeteria.

“These kids are so artistic, eclectic, insightful, and talented that it makes it so much easier to have an idea—for them to have an idea and then put it together and make something really special,” Dr. Anderson says. “We’re professional enough to get you to a place where you’re satisfied, and we’re satisfied. They do come in with a stronger understanding of what they want; I think the difference is we can help them better execute than they could on their own.”

Dr. Anderson is the Vice Principal at Fort Hayes, but his educational background is nearly exclusive to music. A Columbus native, he has a long history in music pedagogy and has implemented similar programs across the East Coast for over a decade. During his time in Philadelphia, he also became a protégé of Rich Nichols (manager of the hip-hop/neo soul supergroup The Roots) and helped them record the albums How I Got Over and 2011’s classic, Undun. Still, he felt he hit his creative ceiling after a while. Succeeding The Roots attaining their residency on the Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, he moved back to Columbus in search of another challenge.

“When I got back I had to figure out what was going on and where the talent was,” Anderson said when asked about reconvening at his alma mater. “Thank God I landed at Fort Hayes. It was just a perfect mesh of all my skill sets, so I’ve just been in paradise. Everyday I come to work is a dream come true.”

As executive producer, he guided the inaugural attempt at his reassembled early aspiration. Someday We’ll All Be Free (The Project’s vol. 1 title) constantly describes the contemporary plights of police brutality, neighborhood gun violence, and teen molestation—all subjects very real to those involved in the album’s creation.

“Yesterday was actually my cousin’s funeral,” said London Peck, a spoken word artist on the project. “He was murdered by one of his friends. And my brother died last year—he was murdered. So it’s something I can relate to, and all of us can relate to.”

“We always hear about someone dying,” Senior Zyirra Hagwood explains in describing the message of her song “I Matter,” a standout track that finds her wishing herself and others could see their own lives as valuable. “When I’m singing it, of course it’s from personal experience—stereotypes, different things in life. I have to remember that, for people in the community, I’m the voice for that. It’s not ‘Black Lives Matter’ or ‘All Lives Matter.’ It comes from the sense that my life matters.”

During a mid-May listening session held on the eve of the project’s release at the Lincoln Theatre, students were able to hear the culmination of what they’d been working on for nearly a year, in full, for the first time. It led the artists to reflect on how much they’ve grown since beginning The Paragon.

“The reason we made this soundtrack was without these voices there would not be the society we live in,” senior spoken word artist Corey Evans told the audience after the project was played, while trying to hold back tears. “These are the people I grew with for four years that changed before my eyes. I’m just proud to know them and be a part of what we’ve done so far.”

Aside from the accomplishment of participating on a professionally recorded album, almost all of the students are looking to parlay their Paragon experience, along with prior personal training, into professional music careers.

“It was a good opportunity for me to get in the studio, be creative, and bring good content to our generation,” senior Sydney Arterbridge, who won a “golden ticket” on American Idol in 2014, explained. “This time, I really had to go in and figure stuff out. I feel like it was a good experience for me to start writing my own music.”

And for those who think this generation is cursed with a lack of work ethic and controlled by mobile devices, The Paragon has a message for you, too.

“People will see that young people don’t just stay on social media and talk about the latest Vines, latest dance crazes,” junior singer Juda Culp explains. “We got something to say and y’all better watch out ’cause we’re coming.”

The Paragon Project’s latest creation was released locally last month and is now available via iTunes, Tidal, Amazon, CDbaby, and Spotify.