Youth given way to find hero within

June 22, 1996|By GREGORY KANE

Ramona McWilliams sang "Precious Lord" a cappella in a powerful voice that filled every nook and cranny of the Arena Players auditorium and wafted through the doors, casting its spell even on those assembled in the lobby.

Whitney Downing followed, showing her dramatic talent as she recited Maya Angelou's "Still I Rise." Next up was Clear Image, a rare rap duo (two teens, one boy and one girl) doing its rendition of "If I Ruled The World." Then 11-year-old Najah Johnson softly and sweetly sang "A Hero Lives In You."

That song, said the Rev. Willie Ray after young Najah took her bows, was the one most appropriate for the occasion -- the kick-off of the Operation Positive Role Model Talent Search. The talent search is an extension of Ray's "Stop The Killing" campaign, designed to steer youths away from violence and crime, help them focus on career goals and challenge them to achieve academic excellence. It's a tough job, but somebody has to do it.

"This is the first of many talent searches," Ray said before the show. Others will be held from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. every Tuesday at Club Vertical in the 200 block of N. Howard St. and will feature singing, dancing, acting, modeling, comedy and what Ray refers to as "positive rap."

That's positive rap, as opposed to gangsta rap, a cultural scourge that will, if left unchecked, bring down the wrath of God upon us and surely end Western civilization as we know it. At least, that's what critics of gangsta rap contend.

"It [gangsta rap] demeans the entire African-American race by portraying a criminal image in the media," said Marjorie R. Green, vice chairwoman of the Baltimore chapter of the National Political Caucus of Black Women (NPCBW) as the talent search wound to a close. She urged rappers to produce tunes about Harriet Tubman, Benjamin Banneker, Rosa Parks, Ida Wells Barnett and Colin Powell.

Ah, they have ears but cannot hear. I challenge gangsta rap critics to listen to "Crossroads" by Bone Thugs N Harmony -- gangsta rappers par excellence -- and find anything negative about it. Indeed, the superb song is a call to spiritual reawakening, urging listeners to get right with God before they die and face judgment. "Crossroads" is an example of what kind of music rappers -- even gangsta rappers -- can produce when they're free to write their own lyrics and not have a Bob Dole or a C. Delores Tucker dictate what they should say.

But I digress. I'll deal with Tucker -- chairwoman of the NPCBW -- another time. The debate about gangsta rap should not divert attention from Ray's efforts to stop violence, showcase talented youths and steer them on the path toward academic excellence. Although Ray spoke highly of Tucker and NPCBW, I have no objection to using this column space to highlight the loyal opposition.

Especially when that opposition is Willie Ray. In addition to highlighting young talent, Ray brought several black businessmen to the Arena Playhouse to speak to the youths. Some spoke of the positive impact Ray had, steering them away from the streets and toward productive and meaningful lives. It is a message that can't be repeated often enough to today's teens, who constantly hear that a life of crime is essential to survival. The message of the speakers, and indeed of the entire positive role model talent search, says, "You are not to the cell block born. There are alternatives in life."

John Carrington, an assistant general manager at Lexington Market when he's not performing as a magician, wrapped up the show with an inspiring speech. His voice boomed across the stage (he was no doubt buoyed by his daughter's recent graduation with an engineering degree from the University of Maryland Eastern Shore) as he urged the youngsters to set goals.

"Write your goals down on a piece of paper," Carrington urged as he performed sleight of hand with a plastic gold coin. He hid the coin first in his left hand and then his right. He popped it in his mouth (or did he?) and then pulled it from behind the ear of a teen-age boy sitting in the front row. He then distributed the plastic coins -- as opposed to real ones -- to all the show's participants.

"I'm giving you these genuine plastic coins because you only get out of life what you put in it," said Carrington, implying that the real gold would only come after years of study and hard work.

Gregory P. Kane's column appears on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays.

Pub Date: 6/22/96

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