Inspiring Black Business Owners: Gilbert Newman Perkins, Founder of Words Live


Turning Shakespeare Into Rap Into Revenue

Gilbert Newman Perkins was living two lives.

Under his professional name, Sage Salvo, he was hosting an open mike in Washington D.C. that attracted poets and songwriters. Under his real name, he earned an MBA from the University of Toronto and a Ph.D. in economics from Howard University.

His two worlds started coming together when he began teaching at Howard University. His students turned in essays, and he was astonished that college-level students would write so poorly. He wanted to find the root of the problem, so he started investigating the high schools in the districts around Howard.

“That’s when the alarm went off,” he says. “They had a lack of resources and the students had behavioral issues.” The students simply didn’t connect with the material that their English teachers were using. Perkins could relate to that: Despite his own academic success, he nearly failed 8th grade for the same reason. “Something needed to be done,” he says.

He discovered that “something” at the popular open mikes he hosted. The street artists who performed demonstrated a remarkable use of language, because they were speaking about things that mattered to them in modern vernacular. A poet himself, he thought this approach could be used to spark an interest in language with high school students.


And thus Salvo’s startup, Words Liive, was born. The company bridges the worlds of music and words. Its software program isolates grammar structures and literary techniques in song lyrics and integrates them into novels, plays, poems, and other material that are used in K-12 classrooms’ reading curricula.

Tupac and the Bard

Here’s how it works: A teacher selects a traditional text and a literary concept he wants to teach. Words Liive’s patented algorithm provides the teacher with a list of music that demonstrates the literary concept and can be used in their instruction.

For example, a teacher might want to use the Richard Wright book “Native Son” as the anchor text for a lesson about the literary concept of “personification.” The algorithm will recommend a matching song, in this case “DNA” by rapper Kendrink Lamar.

“Shakespeare and street rappers both experiment within the confines of metaphor,” Salvo says. “Langford Hughes and Tupac Shakur use the literary concept of inference. When you pair the two up, you keep the kids engaged.”

Salvo recalls a moment when he was visiting a Kansas City classroom where the teacher used the Words Liive program. A student, who had a speech impediment, had always sat glassy-eyed when required to use the classic texts. However, when Tupac’s lyrics were added to the lesson plan, the student immediately came to life, and volunteered to come to the front of the class and annotate the lyrics. “The teacher was crying because she had broken through,” Salvo recalls.

Langford Hughes and Tupac Shakur use the literary concept of inference. When you pair the two up, you keep the kids engaged.


Raising Reading Levels

Salvo is also intent on bringing three-fourths of U.S. students to grade-level literacy by the year 2040. One-third of students are currently able to read at grade level according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). “We are addressing the chronic under-performance in reading and writing proficiency for under-resourced urban and rural communities,” Salvo says.

A lot of this stems from what Salvo calls “kinetic learning.” When students are listening to music, they tend to sway and bob their heads. This makes learning more fun, and makes the students more attentive. It provides an emotional connection that is missing from most language instruction today, he says.

As an artist and entrepreneur, Salvo often sees connections that others miss. However, he says the overlap between music and literacy is becoming more clear to everyone. Kendrick Lamar won the Pulitzer Prize Award in 2018 and Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2017. “Words Liive isn’t meant to replace the traditional cannon,” Salvo says. “We want to augment and open up the cannon.”

Learn more about Words Liive

Credit: Sage Salvo 

Editor’s Note: Gilbert’s story is one of a six-part series celebrating black small business owners throughout the month of February.  Check out the other inspiring stories in the series: From Mechanical Engineering to Marketing Consultancy – Building Businesses Through Analytics, Pioneering Metrics of Diversity and Inclusion and Overcoming a Hurricane of a Problem

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