The comedian helps ex-offenders fight violence.
The reality of how his life has changed settles over him frequently. Last night, for starters, he couldn't sleep. "Just anxious, man," says Shawn Banks. "Anxious to get going and do what I'm gonna do."
His business partner and best friend Rick Kennedy had the same kind of night. "I didn't really sleep last night. The adrenaline was pumpin'."
This is what life is like when former felons start making trips to Congress with Bill Cosby. A healthy dose of gratitude mixes with a sense of excitement--maybe even disorientation.
In January of last year, when Banks first appeared in PW, he was grappling with the guilt of his past life, which he spent dealing drugs in North Philly. He and Kennedy, who'd served some federal prison time of his own for cell phone communications fraud, were each enjoying roughly 10 years of life on the straight and narrow. Their own personal recovery led to a documentary they shot called Close to Death, which depicted the dangers of a life spent slinging narcotics.
In the past year the pair has shown the 88-minute film at several antiviolence gatherings, and they're seeking a distribution deal. They assembled a group of local rappers--including Tone Trump, Jay Bezel and Hedonist da Amazon--to produce the antiviolence single "Every Day Is Crazy," and they've become regulars on the local speakers' circuit, addressing school kids across the city on the topic of--well, not doing the stupid things they once did.
In a van on the way to Washington, D.C., the reality settles over Banks again: "Hey," he hollers from the back, toward Kennedy in the driver's seat. "We going from Camp Hill," he says, referring to the state prison, "to Capitol Hill."
It's a fitting rallying cry for Banks, Kennedy and the entire group traveling alongside them in a three-vehicle caravan of ex-offenders. They're heading to D.C. to address the Congressional Black Caucus with Cosby. The message: They might have some answers for the violence problem: themselves.
They call themselves Exhoodus, and they're a nine-member group of ex-offenders whose name refers to their stated goal of helping kids make the exodus out of the 'hood.
The group's key members include Derrick Johnson, a preacher from Delaware affectionately known as Pastor D by his congregation at the Joshua Harvest Church. Johnson served time for the separate crimes of murder and robbery, and subsequently became a preacher, erupting as the "priest to the streets."
Then there are Lance and Todd Feurtado, two-thirds of the infamous Feurtado Brothers drug crew, a coke-dealing outfit that started in Jamaica, Queens, but wound up spreading into 23 states and growing into an organization capable of raking in tens of millions of dollars in a single week.
"The rappers kids are listening to are rapping about us," they tell crowds. "50 Cent has three songs out about us. But the best thing that ever happened to the Feurtado family is the day the U.S. marshal came knocking on our door."
Closer to home, Malik Aziz, co-founder of Men United for a Better Philadelphia, serves as a kind of grandfather figure. A one-time gang member who was in and out of jail from the 1980s until 1996, Aziz tells audiences he decided he'd never go to prison again after watching prison guards frisk his wheelchair-bound mother, sick with lung cancer but still making regular visits to her son in jail.
It's through Aziz that Banks and Kennedy got involved. For the past year Banks in particular has looked to Aziz as a mentor figure--the old head who learned to live with the ghosts Banks was only just confronting.
Cosby first learned of the group in December, after he spoke at North Philly's Met, and met both Pastor D and Malik Aziz.
How invested is Cosby in this group? "I think they may be what I've been looking for," the comedian told a group of reporters last week in Delaware.
Cosby in fact set aside all of last Wednesday to join Exhoodus in addressing a gymnasium filled with kids in Delaware at 9 a.m., the Congressional Black Caucus at 3 p.m. and a massive church congregation in Maryland from 8 to 10 p.m.
He proves, by turns, annoyed at the media "for trying to create controversy" over his comments about the problems faced by black America, committed to lending his name and reputation to promoting Exhoodus, and as funny as ever.
The 69-year-old Cosby seems tireless, treating the crowd at the Ebenezer AME Church in Ft. Washington, Md., to an unplanned stand up act some 12 hours into his day. In one of his funnier bits he asks the preacher's permission to stand on the altar.