Rapping about a lifetime of pain

When two siblings come to a crossroads in life, one chooses the streets and loses, while the other turns to music


Paul had been shot in the side of his face, but the freckles of gunpowder on his cheeks were covered with makeup now, and so from certain angles he looked almost exactly the same to those who knew him: an 18-year-old kid with a wild spray of braids and a few thin brushstrokes of beard. The red bandana was missing, but otherwise he wore what he always wore in summertime, jeans and a polo. And his silence - that was typical, too. Paul never felt much like talking.

The talker was Matt, and he was talking now.

"Get up," Matt Talley remembers saying in August to his little brother, like they were in the foster home again, late for school. "Get up."

Paul stayed still. Matt turned away to face the crowd that stretched into the depths of the Phillips Funeral Home. All of Boone Street was there, and he recognized faces from the surrounding blocks in Harwood. The Bloods, too, were out in force, flaunting their bright red scarves and hats and carrying big bottles of Remy Martin that they'd later raise in toasts to their fallen member. Those who were there remember people crying and screaming and clutching each other. The mother of Paul's daughter fell to the floor and had to be carried outside into the mid-August heat. Someone got arrested. Grandma sat speechless through it all, dressed in black.

The eulogies began, and Matt felt his mouth fill with garbled words, a sound like wailing. The boy in that box was two years younger than he was but looked like his lighter-skinned twin. Together they'd hustled drugs, watched their parents die, and dreamed about riding in a limousine to somewhere that wasn't a funeral. Growing up they'd shared everything, from beds to basketball shoes.

They'd shared so much that when Matt rose from his folding chair to say a few words about his brother, it was like preaching over his own body. For a moment he couldn't speak. He felt consciousness waver.

But suddenly other guys from his group were standing beside him in front of the crowd. Matt began to rap:

Dear Paul, dear Paul

Why you had to go?

I'm still sitting here waiting for you at the door ...

They rapped for several minutes; the sobs in the room seemed loud enough to rip the roof off. Afterward everyone asked Matt how they could buy a copy.

And so it was, at his brother's funeral, Matt delivered a Boone Street hit.

For months afterward, the sound of Matt's words echoed through the neighborhood as car stereos and boom boxes played "Dear Paul." Maybe music could get him out of this life, Matt remembers thinking. Maybe he and Paul shared a past, but they didn't have to share the same fate.

Life on Boone Street

Michelle Blue remembers growing up on the 2600 block of Boone St., a few houses down from her grandmother and her great-grandmother, in a community of several dozen rowhomes off Greenmount Avenue. That was the 1980s, when mothers, she said, still scrubbed their front steps obsessively and fathers came home for dinner. On summer nights, people sat outside together as the teenagers harmonized on the corner, slapping a beat on their chests.

Now, the soundtrack is sirens. Drug dealers lurk on the corner in the summertime; 9-year-olds hop-skip through gang dances. And Matt Talley lives in the house where Blue spent her childhood.

Blue, now 33, met Matt and his little brother Paul when she moved back to Boone Street in 2001. Orphans in their mid-teens, they'd come from about six blocks away to live with their grandmother. Paul was the quiet one, mechanically inclined, dismembering his bicycle in the street, still a child and very sweet, though a little too handy with a can of spray paint. He slept in the basement room that had once been Blue's. Matt was older, angrier, and not always around because he fought with his grandmother. Once Blue had seen him sitting in the sun, holding a photograph of his dead mother.

"They had it hard," she remembers. "So hard."

Blue wanted to help the kids of Boone Street, and the first step, she decided, was to clean up the place. As she dragged trash bags down the sidewalk, children rallied around her, showing up unasked to plant flowers or build benches. "You don't have to live in Beverly Hills to treat it like Beverly Hills," she told them.

After being back home about nine months, Blue plunked down $40 to found Follow Your Dreams, an arts-oriented youth center. It was based in a weedy yard at the end of the block and fueled largely by the proceeds from bake sales, but the kids had a place, at least on sunny days, to express themselves, to shake off the sadness of their home lives, to dance and sing. She watched their faces as she played their performances back for them on videotape.

"Once they hear themselves, it just opens doors," she said. "They think, `If I can hear myself, other people can hear me, and maybe I can make it. They get to say what they want to say, and that's what voice is."

The first major Follow Your Dreams activity was a talent show. And that's when Matt, then about 17, came around.

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