A youth group brings positivity and hope to inner-city kids through dance and music.
“A couple years ago, catch and wreck was the biggest thing out there,” he says, referring to the practice of one group of kids attacking another, unprovoked. “I would be in the larger group, I would talk them out of initiating it.”
While Top didn’t share the economic plight of most of his friends, he did have one thing in common with them: It was hard focusing on education. He bounced between three high schools—distracted by dancing, promoting and his work with youth. “I get sidetracked real easily,” he says. Top hopes to finish the online courses he’s taking at the Pennsylvania Academy of Leadership Charter School next year.
But unlike many of his peers, lack of progress in school never stopped the streetwise entrepreneur. His father gave him the nickname TopDollar when he was a kid. “He used to play with money when he was little,” says Top’s father, Gabrielle “Troy” Dumas. “He would play store with his little sister.” The elder Dumas says he’s proud of the work his son does with kids. “It’s good what he’s doing now … I guess it’s a gift.”
Top’s entrepreneurial swagger was evident even back in elementary school where he hustled everything from Oriental trading books, cookies and pens out of his locker.
“I’ve always had an independent business mind,” he says.
At 12 years old, Top got his first job at the E3 Power Center on Germantown Avenue, starting as an office aid and quickly moving up to assist with video production.
By the time he was 16, Top moved on to party promotion, saying he got into the business because that’s what attracted kids. “Whatever they [the kids] like doing, I promote it,” he says. He charges about $10 to get in the door at parties that he throws once a month or so, more often during the summer. He says at least 500 kids show up to every event, and claims he could make between $30,000 and $60,0000 a month but instead frequently loses money because he doesn’t strictly enforce the door fee.
“If kids come to me with a dollar or three dollars, I let them in. I’m not necessarily in it for the money,” he says. “It’s just something for kids to do.”
What money he does makes, Top says “goes right back to the kids,” through trips to McDonalds and the movies and rewards for doing well in school. He also pays for assistance promoting parties, to kids like Moises “Moey” Rivera, a 16-year-old DollarBoy from Kensington. Moey helps the group with graphic design, photography and videography for their fliers and website.
“It’s positive, you can make money without selling drugs or nothing,” Moey says.
Always on his grind, Top also works as a program coordinator at the YMCA and has an account with AT&T to resell devices on Ebay. He stresses entrepreneurship to the kids and has set up the DollarBoyz as a corporation with himself as CEO, though their business activities are only just getting off the ground. The group sells T-shirts and hoodies and hopes to start making money through the record label. Additionally, they are sometimes contracted to dance at parties.
Top recently attended the Pennsylvania Association of Public Service Agencies business expo on June 2 to hone his business skills and learn how to win contracts with the city. He says the DollarBoyz can be competitive for things like SEPTA marketing campaigns, given his group’s experience with promotion, flier design and its reach within inner-city neighborhoods. “I see all the possibilities that can come out of this,” he says.
While the DollarBoyz strive to create opportunities, they find that not everyone is receptive to their presence. Young black males traveling in large groups—the Boyz often move in a crew of 20 or more—attract the eye of law enforcement, and the group has felt the effects of increased police scrutiny since the rash of flash mobs a few months back. Top says that a crew of six is enough to attract negative attention.
“We walk to the store … as a big, large group, the cops will show up. They come out of their cars with their batons out, saying ‘Get the F out of here,’” he says.
“I tell the cops, ‘Yo, we a positive youth group,’” says Top, adding that the police generally back off until the next time they try to walk down the street.
The stereotypes extend to the party world, too. Although no one ever came out and said it, parties like those thrown by the DollarBoyz fit the description of the real targets of the promoter bill that passed through City Council this spring.
“Over-promoted” was the phrase Councilman William Greenlee used repeatedly to describe the impetus for the bill, which requires promoters to register with the city and alert the police two weeks in advance if they plan to take over a venue and supply their own security. Officials testified about parties “heavily promoted via posters and electronic media.” Police were concerned about events that attract more people than can fit in a venue, and at times break out into violence.
Top insists that he’s “never had any big fights,” while in the promoter business. Nevertheless, the negativity surrounding black youth has limited the DollarBoyz’s access to party venues. A March 26 event scheduled and heavily promoted—via videos and MySpace—for Temple’s Liacouras Center was canceled at the last minute. “It just got too big,” Top says. While it didn’t help that the South Street riots had occurred the previous Saturday, Top believes that Liacouras General Manager Fran Rodowicz pulled the plug fearing kids would overrun the venue. Rodowicz did not respond to requests for comment.
The Legendary Blue Horizon, another popular African-American venue near Broad and Master, was closed this month by L&I for operating without a license. Another DollarBoyz haunt, a club at Broad and Susquehana, was also shut down. The group is now limited to using Cookman Church and the fire halls in Mantua and Belmar, both in South Jersey.
Despite the negative attention and lack of venues, Top continues to use social media and word of mouth to spread the DollarBoyz name and attract kids.
“They’re just famous,” shrugs Nasha Lester of New Jersey when asked how she heard about the group. She says her mom drives her in twice a week so she can hang out.
“They known around the city because of the YouTube account and videos and the website,” says Tamir Harris, 13. He’s been with the group for three years now, since it was just a handful of people.
When traveling as a group or when at a party, members often chant their name to gain publicity: “Dollar Boyyyyz, Dollar Boyyyyz.”
“They were screaming their name out at a party,” says Darius McLaughlin on how he learned about the group. McLaughlin, 17, also comes in from South Jersey for meetings. “He [TopDollar] does stuff for kids to get us off the street,” he says.
McLaughlin rattles off reasons why the DollarBoyz are so attractive to kids: “Dancing, positivity, sports ... something to do so you aren’t sitting around getting in trouble.”
But dancing seems to reign supreme. “Dancing freezes my mind from everything,” McLaughlin says. “It puts me in a good mood. Makes you feel free.”
Top’s cousin, 16-year-old Damir Scarbrough, has been with the Dollar-Boyz since the beginning. “I feel as though we’re one of the most positive things in the community right now,” says the Parkway High student, who also loves the dancing. “It’s exercise, stress relieving and a good way to express yourself.”
Videographer Jon Kaufman encourages another mode of creative expression among the group, teaching a video class to the kids three days a week. Kaufman came to the DollarBoyz two months ago from the Arts and Spirituality Center at 38th and Chestnut, a nonprofit dedicated to serving vulnerable communities with artistic outreach programs. He helped the DollarBoyz create a documentary about how kids use creative outlets and performance when growing up in a violent society. Impressed with the group, he stuck around to work on other projects.
“There’s a lot of talent in this room,” Kaufman says, adding that he wants to expose as many kids as possible to videography. “I’m trying to show [them] if you stick with it you can make videos on a professional level.”
The Boyz plan on using their video skills to kick off a North Philly News Network this summer through their YNOT nonprofit to make videos on local events for their website and YouTube, and possibly for public-access cable channels as well.