A youth group brings positivity and hope to inner-city kids through dance and music.
“I heard some kids repeating things that I said and it wasn’t good,” he says about his choice to change direction, leaving behind videos like the one he just played for a more productive message. Currently he’s contemplating a rock track focusing on the importance of education. “Kids don’t think logically, they just think of today,” he says.
Tech has been with the DollarBoyz for about a year after discovering them through Internet videos. “It’s a family. It brings in kids that get less attention at home,” he says.
Donna Jones, the reverend at Cookman, says the church welcomes the DollarBoyz with open arms. Jones smiles when she thinks about the church’s basement, previously underutilized, filling up with people every day. “Just a lot of life. A lot of kids.” She adds: “Wherever [the DollarBoyz] go there’s music. They attract a lot of young people.”
Jones says she appreciates the DollarBoyz’s efforts to promote education and nonviolence as a more positive approach to problems in vulnerable neighborhoods.
“We need a cultural overhaul around violence and poverty,” she says. “The criminal system tears families apart. If all you get is blame there’s no opportunity to remediate the situation. It’s just a vicious cycle.”
Jones laments the lack of city funding for soft programs—libraries, rec centers, teen centers and art—which are the first to see cuts in hard times. “As money gets tight the city’s hands are tied,” she says. “Who picks up the slack?”
Top agrees that there’s little for kids to do. He complains about all the money spent on police and prisons instead of reaching out to help at-risk youths before they get in trouble.
“It’s jail, right away,” he says. “Michael Nutter—what reason does he have to spend billions on police and prisons and taking other things away like parks and rec centers? Just work with the youth instead of locking them away,” he says.
If the city won’t step up, Top sees it as his job to fill the void.
In addition to the programming at the church, the DollarBoyz are making their presence felt at events all over Philly. A group of 20 attended the Hands Off African Youth Conference at the New Freedom Theater on Broad Street in May. The conference, hosted by International People’s Democratic Uhuru Movement, was held in reaction to the arrest of 29 African-American children after the South Street incident.
Organizer Diop Olugbala railed against the mayor for spending more money on police and prisons than on youth programming, but the real highlights were the performances: First a show by youth fashion group Fire Clothing, then the DollarBoyz. Members Jrock and D-Wav took the stage and performed “Jus Gotta,” an R&B/hip-hop take on growing up in the city.
“Love and peace we bringin’ it back/Putting our city on the map/Don’t know if we’ll make it day to day/But this is the streets of Philly PA,” Da-Me Harris sings. “I speak the truth/I spit it for the youth/Because the city’s so ruthless/Young brother it don’t matter where you from/What matters is the path that you’re choosin’. Time to get that education/Standing on this corner precious time you wastin’.”
The Boyz also flexed social muscle at a “Be Yourself Love Yourself (BYLY)” Youth Pep Rally at MLK High June 4. BYLY works to encourage youth empowerment through “focusing on youth assets and strengths, civic engagement,” to “engage, empower, and educate our youth to become self-motivated, socially-responsible, academically and civically engaged.” The group was there to create a video of the event.
On Friday afternoon, the DollarBoyz descended on the Wissahickon Boys and Girls Club in Germantown to celebrate the grand opening block party for the new Villa Teen Center. Villa is an urban apparel company committed to engaging in the community through volunteer service, economic investment and education opportunities.
“We offer targeted programming around college or career planning,” says Erin Trent, Villa’s community director.
“During the height of the ‘flash mobs’, we started spending more time with teens to find out why they were exhibiting such behavior,” she says. “There are tons of things kids could be doing.”
Villa works with the DollarBoyz to market their programming. “They are organizing street teens and promoting other teens to get them to come to the center,” says Trent. “We learned from the work they were doing, galvanizing teens and reversing negative perceptions.”
The Boyz are starting to gain national attention as well. They filmed a short promo for MTV for Philly Day on May 2 and were recently featured by BET. Network reporter Samson Styles met Top while filming news clips investigating the flash mob incidents. In one news short, the DollarBoyz are shown dancing in several sequences while Styles interviews others about the violence that went down on South Street in March.
In a different clip, he talks to Top and D&G, another promoter, about their use of social media to get the word out about parties.
“I think the way the media portrays a group of young black men is to get together to do something negative. [The DollarBoyz’s] role is completely the opposite,” Styles says. “Maybe young blacks will be less stereotyped if people see the work Top and his crew are doing.”
“What captures my interest about the DollarBoyz is really Top, being that he’s only 20,” Styles says. “He’s taking on this father role. He’s making a daily commitment to make a change and that’s real inspiring to me.”
Styles says he wants to do a longer documentary on the DollarBoyz for BET, although the network hasn’t given him the go-ahead yet.
Since the so-called “flash mobs,” the city has been paying more attentions to city kids. The Philadelphia Youth Commission, which was created though a ballot vote in 2007 and works with City Council to give a youthful perspective on legislation, has taken a more active role in promoting positive youth activities.
“When given options to do the right thing, many of our young people will,” says Jordan Harris, the agency’s executive director. “There are so many youth groups out there that are doing the right thing and many times we don’t hear those names.”
Last month, the Youth Commission sponsored a summer opportunities fair. “Our mission was to provide parents and young people with an opportunity to see all of the options that are present during the summer months,” Harris says. They also convinced the mayor to put a large banner link to a listing of youth programs front and center on the city’s website. The page highlights summer learning programs, employment opportunities, sports, arts and leadership activities.
Top acknowledges the monumental challenges facing inner city youth. “Kids don’t have nobody to look up to,” he says. “Fathers locked up, older brothers in jail or dead. Or dealing drugs. And who they do, they want to use them and make money off them with drugs.”
“They’re ignorant and misguided,” Top says, referring to the perpetrators of neighborhood crime. “They givin’ us a bad look. When one person do something, they look at all African-Americans.”
Violence in urban neighborhoods is “the outcry of kids looking for an outlet to let their voice be heard,” says Youth Commission Chairwoman Jamira Burley. “Too often youth don’t realize the impact those actions can have on their future.”
Top is trying to change that.
A junior DollarBoy wanders into the back office at the church during an interview and Top scolds him for getting suspended for fighting at school. “Don’t let that happen again,” he warns. “I see a lot of potential in you.” He adds: “I’m very high on the kids getting good grades in school.”
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