It’s the kind of space that takes you aback and makes you stop and stare. Bold colors and shapes, inspirational quotes and portraits of KIPP Nashville College Prep Elementary School’s (KNCPE) founding class of Kings and Queens.
The 360 degree mural is the product of a full month’s work by Muhammad Yungai, a mural artist based out of Atlanta, who also happens to be a former KIPP Atlanta visual arts teacher.
Yungai, who caught the artistic bug early as a child, says projects like this one carry much more weight than simply covering walls for the sake of painting something in a once blank hallway.
“I was hired by KNCPE, but I feel like my clients are always first the students,” he explains.
“The first thing I want them to see are brown kids on the wall and feel like that’s important, and that they’re important – that it becomes part of their psyche. And second, I want them to feel wonderment and inspiration and look forward to coming to school.” – Muhammad Yungai
Founding School Leader, Christa Thomas, says she knew early on she wanted a mural in her school to pay homage to North Nashville’s rich history of civil rights, music and visual arts.
After seeing Yungai’s work in Atlanta and being struck by the power of his portrait work, Thomas says she knew she wanted him to bring her vision to life.
Reflecting on the first time she saw one of Yungai’s murals, Thomas adds, “It was emotional to walk in as a black woman and see black students on the wall and how they were portrayed in their uniform. They looked regal and had these beautiful facial impressions. It was even more sentimental for me, because I grew up in Georgia.”
“My personal commitment to myself was that I’d open a school for little black girls like me. I felt like his work would culminate that promise and my calling to be able to open up this school.” – Christa Thomas
The mural delineates the change from KIPP Nashville College Prep Middle School to KNCPE. All four walls feature students who are members of KNCPE’s founding class. The kindergartners and first graders sat for photography sessions over the summer and are portrayed reading books with joyful expressions on their faces and crowns on top of their heads.
“Our main theme of school is royalty, so we want our students to feel like we’re not giving them anything, but that we’re unleashing what’s already inside of them,” explains Thomas.
“I believe that all children were born with royalty, and I want kids to see a mirror image – whether it’s through our staff or curriculum, or through the physical makeup of the school.”
“Kids will see happy images, which is especially important, because often in society you don’t see images of a happy black child,” Thomas continues. “I also thought of legacy. They will be on the wall for generations to come, and it’s a way for them to feel inspired and motivated.”
Not only will students see those happy images every day on the walls, but with a majority of the KNCPE team made up of teachers and staff who identify as people of color, the Kings and Queens will also learn from role models who look like them.
KNCPE has opened its doors to its first two classes of students – kindergarten and first grade – but will grow each year to become a K-4 school. By 2020, around 400 elementary school children will walk by the mural every single day.
Aside from a focus on joy-filled learning and small group instruction, key to Thomas’ school vision are KNCPE’s core values, including agape and identity.
“Agape means unconditional love. We want to instill in our Kings and Queens the importance of showing unconditional love for yourself. We chose that intentionally, because despite what messages you may receive, you first have to have that deep unconditional love for yourself. Then, you are able to illuminate that out to others.”
Thomas adds, “Then identity is the second core value for first grade. Creating a strong sense of identity for yourself. Despite the negative external messaging that may come, our school and our families are focused on providing our students with such a strong message that they can overcome what they may hear about being a black boy or a black girl.”
Creating a school from the ground up is a challenge in more ways than one, but it’s a challenge that for Thomas, has been decades in the making.