Chadwick “Niles” Phillips is a multi-talented artist and educator hailing from Lansing who made an impression in the music industry after moving to New York City and eventually Minneapolis. Now, he’s returning, albeit virtually, to help educate Lansing youth using lessons he’s learned as a hip-hop musician.
Running through May 26, Phillips is teaching a class as part of the Lansing nonprofit youth education program Building Child and Family Initiatives, which has worked with local families since 1986. He is connecting with middle-school-aged children via virtual classes to guide them through artistic talents such as rapping and poetry, but also to connect them to life lessons and skills Phillips picked up while growing up in Lansing.
“I think about the youth now — there’s nothing new under the sun — some of the things they’re going through are the things I went through,” Phillips said. “Understanding them makes me want to be there for them.”
While the program has a strong focus on the arts, Phillips said he believes sharing his real-life experiences with the students is of even greater importance. Phillips plans to guide children on how to respect cultural differences, gain self-confidence and learn anger management and positive thinking.
“I don’t think you’re too young to be told to do the right thing. And you’re never too young to dream. As much as we want to be successful and picture ourselves in a great future, you have to prepare well,” Phillips said.
Phillips is very familiar with Building Child and Family Initiatives; he used to attend classes as a child when the organization was still called the Black Child and Family Institute. He also fondly remembers Lansing programs such as Dr. Tucker’s Basketball Camp. Phillips was brought on board after meeting with BCFI executive director Marian Bryant. Phillips is leading his class from his home in Minneapolis via video conferencing.
“In the middle of a pandemic, you’re more than a teacher, you’re a guiding light. It’s about giving them the positive energy to understand they can carry on. There’s no better time for me to be in this position,” Phillips said.
Phillips, 38, comes to BCFI with an extensive and impressive background. The self-described Renaissance man is the son of longtime Colorado Symphony Orchestra bassist Sam Gill, and grew up with a fascination for music, which was also inspired and encouraged by his older brother, Segrin. Phillips graduated from Michigan State University in 2006 with a bachelor’s degree in communications and moved to New York City, spending three years working in the film industry.
His first break as a musician came after winning a talent search put on by New York City’s Hot 97 radio station in 2007. Winning the contest gave him the opportunity to record a single with Koch Records, “This Time,” produced by Alrad “Boola” Lewis, who is known for recording tracks with artists on Jay Z’s Roc-A-Fella label. Phillips would eventually open for hip-hop legends like Rakim and Raekwon.
In 2010, Phillips moved to Minnesota and began working as an educator, teaching at afterschool artist development workshops. He developed his own curriculum, which he calls Hip-Hop, History and the Arts, and his program was picked up by several schools, including the University of Minnesota.
“Hip-Hop, History and the Arts comes from my inspiration to lead and guide the next generation the right way. It’s a great degree of honor to give back to the youth,” Phillips said.
In 2014, Phillips took on another project, starting The Avant Garde, a production company working with a variety of artists and musicians in Minnesota’s Twin Cities.
Though he’s spent many years finding success while reaching far beyond the scope of his home city, he still finds it humbling to give back and contribute to the Lansing community.
“I always wanted to give back to the youth from my home town. To travel the nation and do all of these things, it all comes full circle when you come back,” he said. “When I look at these kids, I am going to see who I used to be.”