At the prestigious Harlem Academy of Creative and Performing Arts, students are destined to realize their uptown dreams—as long as friends, haters, and crushes don’t trip them up…
La-La Nolan’s killer voice could make her a superstar, but she’s more focused on scoring the attention of Ziggy Phillip—the cute Jamaican boy in her class. But a singing competition against her arch rival could cost her both Ziggy and her spot at the Academy…
The daughter of the school’s director and voice coach, Reese Allen has to work harder than everyone else to prove herself. But all Reese wants is to be a hip hop producer—a path her mother will never approve of…
Even though it’s clear that Ziggy loves the ladies, he has to keep his passion for dance a secret from his father. But then his brother discovers Ziggy’s ballet shoes and threatens to tell all—unless Ziggy gets him into the Academy too…
No one’s a better actress than Jamaica Kincaid Ellison. She’s even acted her way out of the boarding school her parents think she’s still attending and into the Academy. She’ll do anything to achieve her dream—unless her lies destroy everything…
If that weren’t enough drama, rumor has it that the Academy may close at the end of the year. Can these gifted students put their talents to the test to save it?
“An amazing tale that is sure to delight, teach, and intrigue teens everywhere!”—Ni-Ni Simone on Boyfriend Season
“I don’t sing, I sang.”
“Lexus and Mercedes, get off my feet before you get
murked!” I warned my two sisters, shaking my legs
one at a time, trying to break loose from their three- and
four-year-old grips. It was too early for a foot ride, and I
needed to get out the door and make tracks to get to
“Please, La-La,” they sang in unison. “Foot ride. Foot
ride. Foot ride!” they chanted.
“I. Said. Get. Off.” I shuffled my feet one at a time,
enunciating each word while alternately swinging my
legs back and forth. Reaching down, I pressed my hand
against Mercedes’s forehead and pushed it with all my
“Boom-Kesha,” she yelled out to our mother. “La-La
Her snitching really set my fire, so I swished my legs
one at a time as if I were punting a football. Lexus was my first successful attempt. With a harder kick and powerful
shake and swoop, I managed to break her grasp,
then watched in semi-terror as she slid across the
linoleum and connected with the painted concrete wall.
The top of her head met the dent-proof wall first, colliding
with a thump that I was sure would make her cry.
“Wee!” she shouted, surprising me, then jumped up
and came back for another turn.
“Me too. Me too,” Mercedes pleaded. “Slide me, too.”
I pointed at Lexus like that Celie chick from that old
Color Purple movie when she gave that ancient Mister
dude that Hoodoo sign. Lexus froze in her tracks. Four
out of six of my siblings were terrified of that hand gesture
because they believed everything they saw on TV,
and they were sure it was magic of some sorts. Well, I’d
made them believe I had that power because it worked to
my benefit whenever they rode my nerves. “‘Whatever
you done to me,’ ” I threatened, parroting Celie’s line
from the movie, making my voice deep and stretching my
Lexus ran out screaming like she was on fire; then
Mercedes started to cry, releasing her slob and nose
“Ill.” Her nose and the sides of her mouth were running
with clear and yellow gook. “Now you better get
up. I don’t want your cooties on my clothes.”
She unwound herself from my leg, got off my foot, and
whooshed away like a fire truck, screaming down the
hall like a siren. “Cooties-cooties-cooties!”
“Henrietta!” my mother’s voice carried into the room.
Lexus came back to the door, peeking her head in.
Then Alize, Remi, and Queen showed up, followed by
King, crawling his way through their legs. I shook my
head. My siblings were beautiful and smart, though
many would never know it because my mother had
cursed them. She had named them after liquor and luxury
cars, or given them aristocratic titles like we hailed
from a monarchy instead of a New York housing project.
But, the truth of the matter was, she’d done what so
many others do: named her children after things she’d
wanted but would never have.
“Henrietta! Heifer, I know you hear me,” BoomKesha’s—
I mean Momma’s—raspy Newport voice floated
into the room.
“You better answer her, La-La,” Remi warned. She
was thirteen and ten months younger than me, but so
much older than anyone else in the apartment. She’d
been sick for months, diagnosed with cancer, and it was
hellish, making her grow up faster than she should’ve. I
would’ve done anything to take it away from her. Remi
tightened up the headscarf she wore to hide her hair,
which had begun to fall out in big clean patches. “Her
panties have been in a twist ever since she woke up,
something about the city cutting her benefits. Like we
was gonna be able to get welfare forever.” She crossed
her arms and sucked her teeth.
“You okay?” I asked, ignoring my mother calling me. I
didn’t like the coloring of Remi’s skin. It was starting to
gray like my grandfather’s before he died.
Remi nodded. “I’m good. I just wish I had hair like
yours. It seems too strong to fall out.”
“Henrietta!” Boom-Kesha boomed again.
I touched my head, wishing I could give it to Remi.
“Well, I wish I had your teeth. They’re so pretty and
“Henrietta? Don’t shu ’ear you mami talking to ju?”
Paco, my mother’s bootleg, pretending-to-be-Spanish
boyfriend, poked his head into the bedroom and asked in
his borrowed Spanglish. The man was crazy. Just because
his skin was light and sun-kissed, his hair was straight
black and silky, and people mistook him for Dominican,
he’d reinvented himself as one. He even walked around
with a Dominican flag wrapped around his head at the
Puerto Rican Day parade, complaining that New York
didn’t give the Dominicans a holiday. But, I guess—for
him—it was cool. If he could pretend to be a real full-
grown man and get away with it, he could lie about being
I looked at Paco, pointing to my ears. “Que?” I asked
him what? in Spanish, pretending to buy into his fabricated
“Oh. Ju ears stopped up this morning? Up giving
singing lessons all night to get free tutoring, chica? No
problemo. I splain to ju mami for ju.”
I pasted a fake smile on my face and smirked a thank-
you. Everybody in the house had bought my lie. I had
them all thinking that I was receiving tutoring so I could
keep up in the fancy performing-arts school I’d been offered
a full scholarship to after the director heard me
singing on the train. The Harlem Academy of Creative
and Performing Arts, aka CAPA. It was a school that was
supposed to make me and my mother Boom-Kesha’s
dreams come true; it was going to help make me a star
and help her milk some money from some bourgeois art
society that dished out funds to kids like me—teenagers
who showed talent and promise, and didn’t mind extra
training to get into highfalutin Julliard, the other It
school for college students that had recently showed interest
in my voice. My mother was undoubtedly going to
smoke and drink up the “extra” money, or use it on
whatever her real addiction was. All I wanted was to get
my teeth fixed, which was the reason I’d told them the tutoring
lie. Really, I’d been hanging out in the adult
singing spots in Greenwich Village, scouting singers I
could one day sing backup for and, hopefully, stack my
money for an orthodontist. “Good lookin’, Paco,” I said,
grabbing my book bag and heading to the door.
“Henrietta!” my mom’s voice stopped me before I
could put my hand on the knob.
“La-La, La-La, La-La!” I sang to her. I don’t know
why I had to remind her of the name she crowned me
with. She was the one who said I sang like a songbird and
dubbed me La-La, as if I could’ve afforded one more reason
for the kids to tease me. It was bad enough my teeth
were raggedy, and I was so skinny the thick girls started
calling me Anna—short for anorexic. I’d been jonesed
about my lack of weight forever, but not my grill because
I kept my mouth closed as much as possible.
“Make sure you bring a weapon with you, and don’t
take the elevator because the gangs have it sowed up. I
don’t want you to be a victim—you’re my star.”
No, I’m your paycheck. Your ticket out of the projects.
“Me, Paco, Alize, Remi, Lexus, Mercedes, Queen, and
King will be waiting outside when you get home. ’Cause
if that wench, Nakeeda, from last year wants it, we’ll
give it to her. I ain’t above dusting a kid, and her raggedy
“Word, La-La,” Remi added from behind my mother.
“I may be sick, but I can get it in. I won’t even have to
put my hair in a ponytail ’cause ain’t enough left to pull
out,” she teased, but I felt her pain.
I mouthed I love you to Remi, then feigned a smile and
looked at my mother. Her intentions were good, but
that’s all they’d ever be—intentions. She really didn’t
have a desire to better herself or her family. We were living
the project stereotype. I felt sorry for her and us, her
children. It was sad that everyone, including my family,
had started calling her Boom-Kesha, because every time
someone looked up—Boom! Kesha was pregnant by a
different man, then gave the child a ghetto first name and
a different daddy’s surname (except for me—I was
named after my grandmother). What was worse was that
my mother preferred to be called Boom-Kesha.
“I’m good. Cyd will be with me.”
Cyd was my girl, my sister from a different mother. We
were beyond best friends, and we rocked out—boys, parties,
dreams, it didn’t matter. And together, we were
going to rock Harlem Academy, show ’em what we were
made of, just like I planned to show Ziggy, the cute dude
I’d met in the admissions office.
“I’m a musician second, and a producer first.”
5A.M. Five ay-em. Five o’clock in the morning! Is she
serious? I peeled open my eyelids and looked at the
beaming red numbers, then closed them again. It was
way too early for anything, especially getting up.
“It’s time to practice!”
Ohmygod. Ohmygod. She was serious and in Mrs.
Allen form like whoa. What was up with her waking me
before sunrise and Sandman the wino’s bedtime? I
would’ve done anything to go back in time if high school
was going to mean this.
Clap. Clap. Clap.
“Perfect practice makes perfect. Up-up-up!”
Oh, no. Not the triple claps. I knew what that meant.
First slapping her hands together as loudly as possible,
and now her hand was on my shoulder, shimmying me
from side to side as if shaking me was gonna make me
want to get up. I crossed my eyes, and cursed in my head.
Was she certifiably crazy or just really enthused? I’d just
gone to bed at midnight. Had just hit the pillow five
stinking hours ago because she’d insisted that I practice
cello, piano, violin, and the sax until she was satisfied.
But I wasn’t surprised, it was always about her. My life
I don’t know how I got past her and her incessant clapping,
but, somehow I managed to whir by her in a flash,
but not before noticing she had a nametag pinned to her
lapel. Mrs. Allen, Director. There was no way I was
going to pull up to Harlem Academy with her. It was bad
enough I had to attend the school she directed instead of
the one I wanted to go to—Bronx Science, which was
hard to get into, and where you needed to be borderline
genius to be a student. I also didn’t need anyone to know
I was her daughter.
Before the shower’s spray rained on the bathtub floor,
I’d worked a shower cap around my bobby-pinned
wrapped hair, sloshed a mask on my face, and stuck
waterproof headphones in my ears. I’d played classical
music last night; my mother’s favorite. This morning, my
choice: the tracks I’d been sneaking and working on behind
her back—hip-hop and hardcore rap. The beats
bumped in my ears loud enough to rattle my eardrums
and allow the bass to vibrate my skeletal system. If
Mommy Dearest could hear it, and knew I’d produced
them with Blaze, my boyfriend she also knew nothing
about, she’d topple to the floor. The music continued to
take me away while I dressed.
“Reese, you’ve been in there almost an hour!” The
boom of her fists shook the bathroom door, and I knew it
was time to make an appearance.
With bobby pins removed, my hair flowed down to my
elbows, cascading across my shoulders and hiding the
small earbuds I’d stuck deep in the canals of my ears. I
pulled out the piano bench in the living room, lifted the
lid covering the ivory keys, sat down, and turned up my
iPod all at once. Then I played. I straight grooved and allowed
the piano to drown out the thump-thump-thump
of the hip-hop that caressed my soul. Jay-Z, Drake, T.I.,
and Kanye all accompanied me as I stepped into the
music like a pair of comfortable slippers. Beethoven had
never flowed from my fingertips like this. I’d remixed his
classical concerto with the hip-hop greats, and it was
funky. Mozart was next, with a dash of Bach added for
flavor and a touch of Pharrell for color.
“What’s that, Reese? I’ve never heard The Greats like
that before.” Her hands were on her hips, and her smart
shoes were tapping.
Yeah. This is hip-hop, baby. I cut my eyes at her. To my
surprise, she was enjoying the flow. But only because she
didn’t know I’d mixed classical and hip-hop. If she’d
known that, she would’ve had a straight fall-to-herknees-
and-wiggle-on-the-floor conniption fit. Immediately,
I stopped playing, closed the lid on the ivories, and
got up. “That’s a piece I’m working on for Julliard,” I
lied, and then snatched up my knapsack. “I’ll meet you at
the school.” After I cop a new mixer to produce these
beats, I added in my head. I had a competition coming
up, and I planned to win.
She wanted Julliard.
I wanted hip-hop.
May the best woman win.