Youth


7Q
Welcome to Q Radio: a Special Edition from ITSLATEAGAIN: The Podcast Series!

Q Radio is not a traditional podcast, or online radio show. Rather, it is a series of vignettes from various characters living around Q Street in the Shaw neighborhood of Washington D.C. Shaw has become a highly controversial battleground in recent months for the ongoing gentrification debate that permeates new developments in the district. Gentrification, the process in which lower cost neighborhoods undergo physical renovation and increased property values, and more importantly: an influx of wealthier residents who often push out the previous, poorer residents.

Q Radio is the word off the street, where the conversations get ugly, the race and class lines are clearly drawn and hostilities are shared against the backdrop of rising gang violence. But the voices of Q also offer glimpses of hope: unlikely friendships are formed, visionary young go-getters continue to inspire.

There’s Daniel, an Ethiopian immigrant whose perspective on being black in America is being reshaped through his daughter. Tony, the doubting patron of a local church accused of “slumlording.” And that’s not to mention Mel, the guilt-tripping young professional and Gustavo, with worries regarding MS-13 and human traffickers. These, and other characters, provide insight into the diversity of walks of life in Shaw, soundtracked by a groove-centric collection of songs and beats.

Look for tracks from Amon Tobin, Royksopp, Fujiya and Miyagi, Sam Cooke, Spank Rock, Talib Kweli, Andrew Bird and Mbongeni Ngema, among others.

I recently moved out of Shaw, and so would like to dedicate this pod-story to the kids at Kennedy Rec. I played ball there a number of times, and after breaking the ice, found many of them to be fun, good-natured young adults.

Collector’s Edition: Q Radio: Voices from Shaw

Mural
NB: All characters in this pod-story are fictional.

NNB: In the rare chance that you belong to a large music company and do not appreciate hearing particular tunes in this pod-story, do let me know and I’ll be sure to take it down, sans lawyer.

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“How did you feel in God’s house?!” a familiar face asked me this evening, as I bounded into the Rec, basketball under my arm.United House

“Good, man! Like always,” I said, as we clasped hands and pounded. He pointed out a tall man behind us, who had also been in attendance at the Easter Sunday service at which he’d happened to sit next to me. At first, he had asked me if I work for the government. When I realized he was referring to bumping into me at the Rec, it became apparent he was just working out who I was.

But after stepping through the main hall and on to the court, I realized this was going to be a different evening from the quiet post-winter warm-ups I’d engaged in since Spring had returned, and intrinsically, my desire to ball. Tonight, the court was packed with ballers on one side, and busy with an organized dance club of young women on the other.

I had to wait for ‘Next after Next’ before I got into a game, and the competition was tough. This was classic indoor streetball, played at a deceptively quick pace and filled with miniature bouts of comedy, brilliance, and masculine intensity. The first real pick-up for me this season, my shot was off and my defense a step slow. But worst of all, (or perhaps for the better), I got clocked in the face twice. Not intentionally mind you, but both times by the ball, on the receiving end of deflected or mis-thrown passes. The blood against my upper lip made it hard to concentrate, but as the game has taught me to do, I pressed the red bile against my shirt and played on.

Most impressive of all the young men on the court, not for his flash but his control, was E. A familiar face from last summer, he is a powerfully built man several inches shorter than myself, but dramatically stronger and quicker. His jump shot is butter soft, his handle rock solid. But the one skill that lifts him beyond the level of his talented but erratic peers is his decision-making: for every funky ‘And 1 mixtape’ move the others make, E rarely dribbles the ball any more than necessary. And when the turnovers flare and the fast breaking turns sloppy, E will put a stop to it, with the percentage pass or the open jumper. If only most CEOs could run their organizations with such cool-headed mastery, the corporate world would be turned upside down.

After the game, I cooled down out by the ping pong tables. As the game I was watching wound down, in stepped E–now wearing jeans over his mesh shorts. His blonde-tipped dreads and calm persona offered no hint of the exertion with which my sweat-drenched face betrayed. Perhaps that’s because he hadn’t had to try. In all the games, I’ve seen him play, as with some of the other more skilled ballers, he never seems to break a sweat: shorts, jeans, parka–regardless. And now, here he was, serving up beautifully weighed backhand serves and punishing smashes before effortlessly dispatching with the previous round’s winner.

“You play table tennis too?” I’d asked him, earlier.

“I play pretty much everything, man,” he’d replied, with neither over-arrogance nor false humility.

And I don’t doubt him. The city–these troubled streets of Shaw–with its problems and pain and jubilation, is filled with supremely talented young people, boys and girls alike. I sincerely hope, but am sadly skeptical, that E has the opportunity to translate such skill and intelligence from this recreational facility into the economic architecture of his polarized city.

Shaw men
Jati Lindsay. From Shaw and Tell, a photo essay published in the Washington City Paper, April 2007.

There’s been several shootings in Shaw in the past several weeks, as some of the more consistent Shaw bloggers have noted.

There’s also been an increase in use of the spotlight, right outside of my house. Though not certain, I’m quite sure that the abandoned building across the street from my house is a hotspot for crack dealing, and things have been picking up lately.

The first time I saw it, it was quite surreal, almost like going to bed in the middle of the day, except where the sunshine is replaced by artificial, flashing light. After a while, as with anything else, you get used to sleeping when it’s bright out.

I often hear about how Leroy Thorpe, the former commissioner for my ward, really turned things around for this neighborhood in terms of chasing out drug elements and reducing crime significantly. That being said, I suppose what I see in my brief moments rushing along outside is practically suburban humdrum quiet compared to years past.

I had another meeting at Kennedy today, this time regarding a capoeira performance I’m hoping to organize. I’m looking forward to holding an event at my local rec, if only because these are the same kids I see as I ride along 7th, or walking to Giant on P Street.

One of them asked me for change last weekend; a stocky middle-school age chap I see at Kennedy often. I was on my bike, so I didn’t stop and carried on. But I wonder if he recognized me as the guy who was trying to convince him to play 2 on 2 not so long ago? We’re from different worlds and asking for different favors, just hanging in the same places.

PS: Crime map is handy, for those with a self-interested, or simply curious–if perhaps slightly morbid–interest in the city.

On the whole, the slam workshop was a success, and I’m glad I organized it. Though by no means a moment of spontaneous creative revelation or a mass poetic call-to-arms, the poets were well received and we had a better Q and A session than I had expected.

As I walked into Parkview Recreation Center, located on the other side of Howard University from my home, I passed three large murals. The individuals depicted — Thurgood Marshall, Mary McLeod Bethune, and Frederick Douglas respectively – appeared immensely stern and wizened. As I rounded the corner of the building, I passed another one, of the African continent, with a black strip of folks in African costume running down its centre. Being Australian, South-east Asian, and holding acquaintance with people from each of the continents, I hoped that some sort of internal glint of “with-it-ness” might kick in. It did not, but rather, a kind of apologetic discomfort settled about my stomach.

However, upon entering the center, I was pleased to see that Delrica and Dwayne were already comfortably seated, joking around and bopping to the DJ’s hip-hop beats. It didn’t lessen the way I stood out as the sole non-black dude in the building, but I imagine subliminal waves of acceptability flowed from the heads of my two confident African-American friends and down into my hooded jacket.

This being a teen night, there was nobody in the main room, where we were to hold the event, bar two little boys of about six. Instead, the actual teens were huddled around a Playstation, shooting pool, braiding hair, play-fighting outside. After juggling measured returns to the playful boys’ soccer kicks, I helped set up chairs and was surprised to see that a handsome little crowd of about 25 to 30 teens had sat themselves down. I asked DJ SUPA RO to play his “hottest joints” in order to keep the seats warm, then nervously waited for the other poet to arrive, having driven the not insignificant distance down from Baltimore.


DJ Supa Ro keeping the crowd happy

At practically the stroke of eight o-clock, Chris arrived, as energetic as usual, slightly flustered, and carrying a bag of writing supplies.

“Have you ever done a workshop like this before?” I asked him, a thinly veiled question roughly translated as: “You’re an unabashedly white man about to perform in front of an entirely African-American collection of street-seasoned teens…can you handle it?”

He waved off my concern. Being a Special-Ed teacher in inner city Baltimore, I should have realized how wonderful Chris is with such audiences vastly different from the whiter, intellectual urbanites I encounter at weekly slams.

Delrica opened the workshop with a longer poem, before Dwayne B. and Chris took center stage, taking turns to introduce one another. Dwayne, who is undoubtedly one of the dopest cats to walk DC’s streets, was striking in his dark grey outfit of fedora, cable-knit mock turtleneck, baggy jeans and self-knitted scarf. He works for Cityworks, a neighborhood NGO performing youth HIV prevention, (making him essentially my hero) in between knitting scarves for all of his friends and recording albums (making him essentially my man-deity), and the youth nodded knowingly to his homespun themes of gang violence and class struggles. Dwayne exudes smarts and charisma, which is why I had been so excited to have him express interest in the workshop in the first place.

I was more worried, but also very interested, in seeing how the youth would reach to Chris’ poems. His delivery is manic, his delivery stream-of-consciousness quick, and he leaps and tumbles about in improv-dance fashion, a style not closely associated with the body rhythms of the Kanye Wests and Ying Yang Twins of contemporary BET rap programming. Additionally, I feared that his themes, such as childhood autism and disabled athletics, though not entirely alien, may bounce off of this particular audience with little impression. And yes…Chris, who competed earlier this year in the national poetry slam competition in Austin, with his long hair and effete mannerisms, is very white.

I was proved quite wrong again. The natural comedy of his theatrics brought visual relief to his performance, and the workshop was far better for the variety and diversity (in its multiple forms) that came from Dwayne and Chris’ perhaps unusual partnership. The young audience was indeed civil, if not exactly hollering from the stands. After the performance, having not developed a formal workshop, the poets opened the floor to questions, something that I, having partaken in my share of awkward workshop silences, found a little unnerving.

Dwayne and Chris on 'How to answer questions at a slam poetry workshop'
Dwayne and Chris on ‘How to answer questions at a slam poetry workshop’

Janice, who I’d coordinated the event with, threw in some early ‘gimmes’, following which came a slew of excellent, thoughtful questions from various fragments of the audience. Forgetting words mid-poem, finding inspiration, where to find events…Delrica, Dwayne and Chris handled the kids’ questions with enthusiasm, before ceding the floor to the organizers of the teen night and a DC parks and rec rep. As soon as the workshop concluded, and the kids’ dissipated, two junior-high age girls performed an impressive, effective routine which would have looked at-home behind a performing Beyonce or Fergie. I’ve come to love hip hop dance for its looseness and sassy, forthright sensuality, qualities so distinct from the nervous jerk of Black Cat dance nights, often frequented by white-bred men such as myself.


Chris, Delrica, Dwayne, and co-organizer Janice Wright

We took photos, before an enthusiastic brainstorm of future, larger slam workshops, or bringing in Culture Shock, whom I would consider the coolest dance troupe in this city.

I’m going to be around for at least another six months, so I hope to jump into more of this stuff. Though originally a product of class guilt, I’m beginning to see such civic engagement as something I like doing, as opposed to something self-tortured gentrifiers should be obliged to do. I love working with young people, and if they all offer as rewarding an audience as this one, I think many others in circles of new gentry the country over, far beyond the realms of Washington, would find refreshing. Next time, though, I’m going to try and hold something at the Kennedy Rec, involving as many community residents as possible in the planning. Some of whom I hope may be reading this very post.

I’m semi-psyched tonight.

I finally managed to make the time to talk to the folks at the Rec in a more official manner about holding a spoken word poetry workshop. Previously, I’d mentioned the idea to some staff in passing, but this time I spelled it out thoroughly. After some initial suspicions at this Asian boy with one jean leg rolled to his knee (a byproduct of biking and unraveller inertia), they quickly warmed to the idea. We even concocted a new vision, starting with a small performance by the poets and a workshop, with an end goal of getting young workshop participants to perform their own pieces during a grand full-scale slam to serve as a major event for the season.

I’ve been in contact with one helpful poet, a prominent figure in the DC slam scene, and she’s told me she’d get back to me with poets willing to lead a workshop.

I focused on the “positive messages” aspect, also selling the Rec staffmember on the need for youth HIV prevention ideas. She seemed a little surprised at my familiarity with DC’s AIDS statistics. They certainly seemed to help, because she called in the acting manager—who I’d previously discussed the slam with—and he assured me he’s take it to the building manager to be authorized by the Department of Parks and Recreation. I don’t see why they’d be opposed.

Since I first started balling at the rec, I’d been constantly considering ways to contribute to youth activities in Shaw. There were drama club sessions I kept missing, the half-serious notion of an Amnesty International-sponsored human rights high school course…but for various reasons, such as my work hours, things failed to come together. Well this is my chance.

It feels good to be organizing these sorts of things again, after a good little break post-AIDS activist burn-out during my college organizing days.