When I met Alex Peay at an awards banquet last year, he was accompanied by several high school-aged boys who seemed to look to him for guidance as they navigated a room filled with prominent people.
I had no idea at the time that his work with men — and black men in particular — was a passion born of adversity. But Peay’s story is a vibrant illustration of what happens when we decide to stop talking and do something.
Born in Silver Spring, Md. and raised in New York City, Peay, 25, went to Ursinus College in Collegeville with dreams of becoming a corporate lawyer. Sharp and determined, he was well on his way to realizing that goal, but an incident in 2006, his sophomore year, changed everything.
More than talk
“Some lacrosse players got intoxicated one night and put these racial and derogatory remarks on their bodies and they put it on Facebook,” Peay said.
“The black girls started protesting and one of them asked me ‘How come the black guys aren’t doing anything about it?'” he continued. “So, I started a small discussion group and from there, we started doing service projects and I noticed that we were beginning to build a forum where guys were talking about stuff that was going on in their communities; talking about what it meant to be black men.”
After graduation, Peay realized he’d found his true calling.
He put aside his dream of becoming a lawyer to run the organization that grew out of his experience at Ursinus.
It’s called Rising Sons, a non-profit on a mission to help young men become qualified for competitive jobs through civic engagement.
Peay’s work helped him to become a Leon H. Sullivan intern for U.S. Sen. Robert Casey. He won a leadership award from the Knight Foundation’s Black Male Engagement program. But the main thing he’s winning is change.
Making many differences
That’s evident not only in the lives of participants, but in the stories of the men who help to run the program.
Some, like Mubarek Lawrence, a fellow Ursinus alum whose cousin was murdered, have a passion for fighting against gun violence.
Others, like Selwyn Gonzales, have dreams of making change through music. Gonzales’ vision of using music to move young people to action gave birth to RS: This Is Hip-Hop — a division of Rising Sons.
“RS: This Is Hip-Hop stops violence because it gives the youth something to do other than seeing what’s on the streets right now,” says Gonzales, 24.
The strategy, adds program director Khalil Smith, is to use Hip-Hop culture to inspire youths to make change in their community.
In the studio
The change Smith speaks about is both internal and external, and it was evident on a recent visit to a recording studio where Smith was working with the members of Name Brand, a rap group he manages through the program.
As the young men sat on a couch in the studio and listened to an engineer blast bass heavy hip-hop tracks in a sound-proofed room, Smith prodded and cajoled, trying to get them to watch their language, to modify their behavior, to be men. The results were mixed, which was no surprise. Change is never instant.
The group members, all recent high-school graduates ranging in age from 17 to 19, say they come from communities where violence is a daily reality. Through their music, they convey that reality while at the same time escaping it.
On the streets
That’s true for Julian Brown-Taylor, a 19-year-old singer who names Michael Jackson as his role model. Brown-Taylor has lived in two different communities, bouncing between the affluence of a relative’s home near City Avenue and his old neighborhood in North Philly. The difference is night and day.
“Now that I’m back down here in North Philly, it’s like what I used to see when I was a kid,” says Brown-Taylor, whose stage name is JBT. “Violence, people walking the streets — they can be minding their own business and out of nowhere, someone can attack them.”
Seventeen-year-old Chris Watson, whose stage name is Bless Watson, agrees.
“Shots being fired every day, drugs being handed out, people not in school, everybody ditching. It’s not safe anymore,” Watson says. “It’s not safe to be out here in these streets. You need to do something positive with your life instead of being out there.”
Nineteen-year-old Mark Currington, whose stage name is Kidd Kadar, cites jealousy as one reason for the violence. He’s experienced it firsthand. When Kadar’s car windows were recently broken, the members of Rising Sons advised the young rapper not to respond in kind. They knew he was accustomed to doing so.
Kadar “is kinda out on these streets and dealing with the kind of issues that we’re trying to prevent within Philadelphia,” says Khalil Smith, the program director. “You’ve got to be able to counteract something negative with something positive.
“That’s one of the things we try to do with hip-hop music, with Hip-Hop culture, with the things that we do with the youth, within music, you know. That’s our biggest thing is to try to inspire that change and to make a difference.”
Going beyond the music
The strategy, ultimately, is to do more than simply help young people make music, says Selwyn Gonzales. It’s to move them to act.
That’s a start.
But in the world of hip hop, which is a reflection of the chaos that often envelopes impoverished communities, it’s difficult to always keep the message positive. Sometimes, young people just want to tell their truth — a truth that isn’t tempered by experience or imbued with the benefit of hindsight.
Name Brand, under the influence of Rising Sons, has tried to mix in some messages of hope. They want their music to inspire people to dance, but also to see themselves and their community differently.
“We choose a positive aspect of the music industry and try to inspire other people to follow their dreams no matter what they go through,” says Watson, the 17-year-old rapper. “No matter how many things they go through they can always have a better aspect of themselves through music.”