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NASHVILLE — Awakened in the middle of the night, Queen McElrath flipped on the television and found herself gripped and troubled by the news coming from Ferguson, Mo.

She began hearing a beat and did what she knows best — she wrote down rap lyrics.

She kept writing into the morning.

"I couldn't go back to sleep," said McElrath.

MORE COVERAGE: Michael Brown shooting

Days later, the 16-year-old Pearl-Cohn Entertainment Magnet High School student, whose passions include English, history and politics, cut a track for her song Hands Up, Don't Shoot inside the school's recording studio. She then helped create a music video featuring friends and classmates — filmed on the streets of the school's surrounding North Nashville neighborhood — to accompany the tune.

The shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black 18-year-old, by a white police officer struck a nerve. She turned to rap, she said, as a way to get youths involved and paying attention.

"I feel like my calling in life is to speak to people," the junior said.

Last week, McElrath, a Nashville native, performed her song before Nashville mayoral candidates, politicians and about a thousand others inside a packed Mt. Zion Baptist Church during a community discussion on the Aug. 9 shooting of Brown, which has exposed widespread distrust of law enforcement along racial lines.

The crowd raised hands in unison as she and Destinee Anderson, her friend and co-singer on the tune, led them through the chorus:

Hands up, don't shoot. Hands up, don't shoot. We innocent. Hands up, don't shoot. We don't have no guns. Hands up, don't shoot. We don't have no drugs. Hands up, don't shoot.

'She went positive'

How did it all come together in just four days?

Pearl-Cohn leaders point to the school's Academy of Entertainment, which features a student-run record label that kids coined Relentless Entertainment. Students take different tracks: recording, broadcasting and media publishing, for example. The program's crown jewel is a recording studio that opened two years ago thanks to generous donors through the city's Music Makes Us initiative.

After penning the song, McElrath pitched her song to two teachers who help run the label and studio. She alerted Pearl-Cohn Principal Sonia Stewart and soon, the ball was rolling.

"We've just got a lot of hands-on opportunities," said Yolanda Jackson, Pearl-Cohn's academy coach. "With those hands-on opportunities, the students know that tools are available."

Stewart, entering her third year as principal at the predominantly black high school, said McElrath's song is an example of youths feeling more empowered — and finding an outlet.

"When you have youth that have an opinion and an experience about what's going on and you partner that in an entertainment magnet, then they have the opportunity to produce that song," Stewart said. "It's the mirror of both.

"The thing about her song that I most respect is that every turn where you could have a negative message, she went positive. I said, 'People need to hear this.' "

McElrath, who has two brothers and three sisters and is active in the Boys & Girls Club, began rapping in the eighth grade. She performed at a school talent show and won first place.

Her favorite lyric in this song:

Mike Brown has a family that really cares. He graduated high school, but that picture — they didn't air on the news.

Her music video on YouTube had grown to more than 3,000 viewers as of Wednesday morning. Teachers have shown it to classes. The past week has made her a popular kid in the hallways, she acknowledges with a smile.

After graduation, McElrath would like to continue rapping, but she also wants to attend college, with hopes of becoming a teacher.

"I want to be an entertainer. I want to be a songwriter. But I honestly want a plan B, too."

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