A youth group brings positivity and hope to inner-city kids through dance and music.
On March 20, text messages filled Philadelphia’s airwaves, inviting kids from all over the city to meet up on South Street. Within hours, several thousand mostly black kids were on the scene, milling around or dancing in the street.
“It was kind of craziness,” says Cassie Sims, who got unexpectedly caught up in the rush. “Everyone was running in every direction.”
When Tyree Dumas got word of the event, the 21-year-old immediately started sending out texts of his own encouraging members of his crew to meet him at Franklin Mills Mall for a movie instead of joining the South Street revelry.
“I said no, my group is not going to be a part of that,” he says.
Dumas, or “TopDollar” as he is better known within his circles, is the founder and leader of the North Philly youth group and dance team the DollarBoyz. He says the tone of the messages sounded innocent enough: “Come out, chill, ain’t no parties tonight, come down South Street … just have fun walking around.” But still, he wanted nothing to do with it. “I seen how well-promoted it was,” he says, referring to the volume of texts going around. “Too many people in one place, something is bound to go wrong.”
He was right. The event turned ugly when fights erupted among groups of teens. The violence quickly intensified, with kids jumping on cars and spilling onto neighboring streets. Bystanders and shopkeepers were assaulted, punched repeatedly in the face by laughing teenagers. Hordes of people hurried through the streets seeking refuge from the menacing teens, hiding in bars and other establishments, as police tried in vain to disperse the crowds and control the mini-riot. Later on, eyewitnesses described the scene as a “stampede” or “tsunami.” From 8 p.m. until almost 1 a.m., out-of-control kids ruled the street.
The South Street event was the latest in a series of similar incidents that occurred downtown this past winter, dubbed “flash mobs” by the media because of their use of social networking to attract a crowd.
“Everyone who got the text sent it to pretty much everyone in their phone book,” TopDollar, or Top, says.
Urban dance teams took a large portion of the blame for the flash mob incidents. A number of homemade videos popped up on YouTube showing teams calling out their names while filling the downtown streets.
“There’s a lot of groups beefing with each other,” Top says. “They start staring each other down the wrong way, they walk by and bump one another ... any way to initiate a fight. From there, it’s like a virus. You start fighting and it just catches on.”
The DollarBoyz are riding the momentum of Philly’s urban dance and party scene, starting to draw regional and even national attention. TopDollar started the dance group in 2005 with just 20 or 30 of his cousins. They’ve since grown to more than 5,000 official members in Philadelphia, New Jersey and Delaware. People in every state have signed up to be DollarBoyz through social media sites like Facebook and MySpace. The group is open to kids of any race, though current membership is almost entirely African-American. In the first six months of 2010, their website, dollarboyz.com, has received between 17,000 and 27,000 hits per month.
A number of labels could apply to the DollarBoyz: Dance team, party promoters, community activists, musicians, filmmakers. However you categorize the group, please don’t call them a flash mob.
“If you are not a flash mob, what are you?” Top asks his kids in a promotional video. “DollarBoyz!” they shout back. “All positive, man. All positive,” a kid adds.
Throughout their varied activities—dance, film, music and community outreach—the DollarBoyz strive to send a message of positivity. The Boyz serve as a messenger for efforts to combat not only pervasive inner-city violence but also the racial stereotypes and unkind media portrayals that accompany it.
Most importantly, the group provides a fun, safe environment for kids to hang out off the streets and away from negative influences.
“My whole goal is to give the kids a safe haven, keep them out of trouble,” says Top, the one-man engine behind it all, serving as mentor, organizer, promoter, camp counselor, agent and friend to the kids.
Top stresses that most dance groups, like the DollarBoyz, are just looking for fun, competition and to build a name for themselves.
“Dancing is the number one thing right now,” he says. “That’s what put us out there.”
“There” being the position to create change.
Though their origins lie in dance, the DollarBoyz stand for much more than just partying. TopDollar tries to provide opportunities for education, employment and development activities. So far, 350 kids have asked him for help getting jobs this summer, he says, and 135 already received work through the Philadelphia Youth Network WorkReady program, which offers interview and skills training and connects kids to job possibilities.
“They get hands-on training and exploration in different job fields,” says Top, listing retail, movie theaters, camps, banks and nonprofits. He’s even working on opening a virtual school for entrepreneurship through YNOT, a nonprofit startup associated with DollarBoyz.
And there’s a new record label to promote music created by members, called HitMakers Records. He calls his musicians the Dollar Family. “I didn’t want to make it seem like it’s just boys,” Top says. “Basically, we a family.” He rattles off the different categories, divided by age and sex: DollarBoyz, DollarGirlz, DollarBoyJrs, DollarKids and DollarBabies for the very youngest members.
Every afternoon, anywhere from 30 to 100 kids show up from all over the city to dance and hang out at Cookman United Methodist Church in the heart of North Philadelphia. The church has stood on the corner of 12th and Lehigh in some form since a chapel was first built in 1881. After a fire destroyed all the church buildings in 1926, the cornerstone for the current structure was laid on April 10, 1927. Upstairs are a congregation area and community meeting places. The downstairs basement is the DollarBoyz’s domain.
Party music pumps out of an old stereo set up on the peeling linoleum floor. All around the large, mostly open area, kids sit in groups, in restaurant-style booths and old armchairs set up around the edges of the room. In the middle of the floor, in a space divided by red pillars running floor to ceiling, a few boys show off, dancing, strutting, breakin’ to the music. The room is superficially clean but dingy from age. A few broken windows peer into an old kitchen along one wall, just above an aged pool table.
Top sits in the small office behind the common room, crowded with tables, chairs, some computers and a mini-fridge. He’s wearing warm-up pants and the official DollarBoyz T-shirt, black with silver “Db” letters across the front. An inch of beard sticks off his chin, but he keeps his hair otherwise trimmed short. In between joking around and busting on his kids, he struggles to define why he is so motivated to work with youth.
“I don’t know. I just wanted to keep the kids off the street,” he says. “A lot of them get wrongly motivated to do dumb stuff. Little stuff that they don’t see the bigger picture of it as being actual crimes.”
Top grew up in North Philly and knows the pressure of inner-city life. His parents separated when he was younger, and he spent most of his youth at his grandmother’s house not far from Cookman Church, where he still lives.
His mother held a steady job at Kraft Nabisco so Top says he didn’t have the same financial concerns as some of his peers. “I didn’t have money issues so I would give, give, give as much as I could,” he says.
The budding entrepreneur says he stayed out of trouble growing up, and describes himself as a good kid who hung around with bad kids. “I always was the person that everyone looked up to,” he says. “If I would say something, people would be real receptive and listen.”