By Gabe Hewittemail@example.com
On his first day at Fine Arts Interdisciplinary Resource (FAIR) School in Downtown Minneapolis as a teaching assistant in 2011, Alexei Casselle was called into the vice principal’s office before the day started.
“There’s a teaching position open in our poetry class. Would you like to start today?” they asked.
Casselle had been making music for over 20 years. Hip-hop, rap and spoken word were his forte. He had performed in front of large audiences countless without any nerves at all and yet, teaching in front of an audience of teenagers gave him some jitters. The answer he would give the vice principal that day would flip his life upside down.
A life of music
Music had become such a vital part of Casselle’s life in high school, that he had contemplated dropping out of South Senior High. He had countless notebooks filled from front to back with lyrics stacked in his room. Much of his lyrics are inspired by his personal experiences and social commentary on matters he’s passionate about. Even today, he sometimes wakes up in the middle of the night to write down lyrics that come to him.
“A lot of my lyrics are a freeform stream of my consciousness,” he said.
Transferring to Perpich Center for Arts Education allowed him to turn his passion for music into an academic reality. His hip-hop music group at the time, Oddjobs, was comprised of several of his friends and he had taken up the stage name “Crescent Moon.” He remembers staying up into the morning hours on school nights recording music a studio in 1999. These times in the studio are the teenage memories he cherishes the most.
“We had no idea what we were doing and it was amazing,” he said. “We didn’t care what was good. We just did it.”
Casselle realized he and his buddies were becoming noticed when more and more venues invited them to perform. Throughout its existence, Oddjobs opened for the likes of Snoop Dogg, De La Soul and DJ Shadow. They also had the opportunity to tour with Eyedea and Abilities and Atmosphere, a group Casselle had looked up to during his youth.
“I remember going to some of their early shows and being in awe of them,” he said. “It was awesome to be able to perform some of the songs with them that I fanatically listened to.”
In 2004, Oddjobs broke up and Casselle started a new hip-hop group called Kill the Vultures with a few members of the group. The first record they put out somehow founds its way into the hands of an editor for a European magazine. The group did an interview with the magazine, without having any context of its audience or content, and found a magazine in their mailbox weeks later with their faces on the front cover. By 2005, Kill the Vultures had gained a steady following in Europe and the group were contacted by booking agents to do a string of shows in the continent.
Traveling throughout Europe was a life-changing experience for Casselle. While there, he met some of the most hospitable venue bookers he had over met.
“You’re sitting down to a home cooked meal and sharing it with every staff member at the venue before the show,” he said. “It was a very familial and communal affair.”
Casselle didn’t know any other languages and it made communicating difficult. He recalls the frustration he felt when meeting fans and not being able to speak with them personally. But the communication barriers didn’t stop Kill the Vulture’s close knit following from enjoying their shows. Some of his best memories of Europe were when audience sang along to their songs.
“The art of music and performance goes just beyond the basic forms of communicating,” he said. “That was really profound to know that people in other countries are appreciating your work and the time you put into it.”
Around the time that Casselle started Kill the Vultures in 2005, he had also started another band with his then wife called Roma di Luna. Unlike his previous hip hop and rap projects, Roma di Luna was on the opposite end of the music spectrum in the folk genre. He had grown fond of the genre after stumbling across a Bob Dylan record.
“I thought he was a genius and so I started consuming as many records as I could,” I said. “I wanted to combine what he was doing, trying to combine my creative writing with his music.”
Casselle taught himself how to play guitar in order to expand his musical prowess. During the band’s early days, Casselle recalls playing for tips at farmers markets. Children with their parents stopped them so they could listen to Casselle and his wife play their music.
“It felt very different to perform this style of music in such a casual setting,” he said.
What started as just a duo between he and his wife evolved into a larger stable group with more instruments. They would record three studio albums and three EPs, including a Christmas EP.
Their success couldn’t keep them from disbanding. Roma di Luna broke up in 2011 due in part to Casselle’s divorce from his wife.
“There’s part of me that felt like I’ve been doing music for half my life,” he said. “I didn’t want to turn it into a lottery ticket, whether it served its purpose to support me or fail me.”
Now that part of his music life had been halted, he was looking for work. A friend referred him to a job opening as a teaching assistant in the Special Education Department at FAIR.
From music to the classroom
“Sure, I’ll give it a shot,” Casselle told FAIR’s vice principal.
He may have given the vice principal a casual response, but Casselle can’t remember being more nervous than he was on his first day as a school teacher. Most of his first days are a blur to him but he remembers walking into the class full of students who were waiting for a teacher to come in and do what they do. An audience waiting on him was nothing new to Casselle but his nerves still got the best of him.
“I was trying not to appear as terrified as I felt,” he said.
He started by asking the class what they knew about spoken word. After that, it didn’t take long for his students to become comfortable with him and participate in class. Casselle’s classroom became an environment for students to lose and express themselves freely. There would be an “open mic” platform every Friday and he would occasionally invite artists like Slug and Dessa to perform for his class.
“I always tried to tailor my class into what my students were interested in learning,” he said. “I didn’t know what I was doing in high school and I realized how much they could do with just a little bit of guidance.”
In order to build rapport with his class, Casselle had to find the fine line between being relatable but still being an authoritative mentor. His mentorship was on showcase during his class’s first public performance. The venue was the Old Arizona theater in Minneapolis and several of Casselle’s bosses were in attendance to hear his students perform their spoken word pieces.
“I could have had a lot of witnesses to a really terrible event,” he said. “But my students just shattered everyone’s expectations. I think the kids really impressed themselves in a lot of ways.”
During his time as a teacher at FAIR, Casselle was still making music with Kill the Vultures. He somehow managed to go on one of his European tours with the group in his busy schedule. In this day of the Internet, it didn’t take his students very long to find out about this other part of his life.
“I tried to keep it separate but it was hard,” he said. “So I used it to my advantage and performed in front of them from time to time.”
Back to school
Casselle knew he had become a teacher on accident and that if he wanted to be taken seriously, needed a teaching license.
And so he enrolled at the community college a few blocks from FAIR, MCTC. At one point last spring, he was teaching a class during the day and being taught in a classroom in the evening. It was intimidating for him at first as he hadn’t been a student himself in over 12 years.
He’s since left his position at FAIR to focus on being a student. He hasn’t forgotten about his students, though. Being in close proximity to MCTC, he often sees his past students from FAIR in public. This brings him instant happiness. His three years at FAIR were some of the best years of his life. He took pride in seeing youth become passionate about what he had become passionate about at their age. He saw himself in his students and seeing their growth is what keeps him striving towards his goal of becoming a licensed teacher.