Hip-hop sometimes beats with themes of violence and drugs, but Chicago schools are trying to rhyme their way into students’ hearts and minds with a more positive message.

The music’s evolution from social-consciousness to gangsta rap is the focus of a program designed to help students understand the influences hip-hop music and culture has on their lives.

The hip-hop workshops have taken place in schools this school year, and are sponsored by the Chicago Council on Urban Affairs. Richards Career Academy in the Back of the Yards neighborhood hosted one last month.

The workshops specifically help students understand the influences of both on their perception of issues ranging their school and community to crime and violence.

“It ain’t ‘no’ in the middle you all. It’s go to school or get ready for the grave or the penitentiary,” program leader Lance Williams, a Northeastern Illinois University professor, told students at Richards Academy, 5009 S. Laflin St. “That’s what we’re trying to tell you all about this music.”

Roughly 200 students took part in the workshop. Williams used the prevalence of violence and drugs in many current hip-hop songs and videos to illustrate his point to students.

He showed examples of late ’70s and early ’80s hip-hop acts, such as Public Enemy and Grandmaster Flash, to highlight the music’s origins in social commentary. Most of the students were born after this era.

“One of the things it represented is the social, political consciousness and movement of communities of color, particularly marginalized communities,” Williams said.

The workshop took place a week after the release of a new study linking the glamorization of drugs in hip-hop music to a greater risk of alcohol and drug use among adolescents. The study by Denise Herd, professor of public health at the University of California-Berkeley, was published in the journal Addiction Research and Theory.

The study examined lyrics from 341 of the most popular rap songs from 1979 to 1997. Of the top 125 rap songs between 1994 and 1997, 69 percent contained drug references, compared to only 11 percent of the top songs between 1979 and 1984.

“Glamorizing drugs and showing it as part of a recreation, glamorous and good life is a relatively new trend,” said Herd.

Chicago-area rapper Simeon Viltz chooses to carry the torch of hip-hop’s political roots, hoping to be a more positive role-model for today’s youth.

“At some point I got wind of the fact that these kids are really directly influenced from the stuff that’s negative,” he explained. “That’s when it became a mission for me as an artist to try and make music that you can grow from and plant some seeds of nourishment and not just poison.”

Richards Academy teacher Denise Liekis conducted a presentation during the April workshop in honor of the 23 Chicago Public School students killed this school year. She shared with students her personal ties to the violence.

“Twenty-three years I’ve worked for the board [of Education]. I have attended 17 funerals of students of mine [killed] through gang violence. It’s absolutely atrocious,” Liekis said. Organizers of the workshop hope to bring similar forums to more high schools. Currently, 18 other high schools are planned to host the hip-hop workshop by the end of 2009.