Writing, not fighting

Former gang member tries to get youths out of the streets and into the rap game

May 14, 2007|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,Sun reporter

Darren Williams remembers well the day he almost died.

With one bullet lodged in his lower back, he lay in the street as the man who shot him made ready to finish the job.

A woman screamed, and the man - a phantom to this day - vanished.

Williams survived, but more than six years later, he still walks with a limp and a cane.

He's no longer a member and recruiter of the Bloods, but he still encounters gang members daily.

He's the leader of a group called the Precision Youth Power Program that tries to persuade gangbangers to give up their guns in return for a chance at fame and fortune in the rap music business. Participants trade time in school and on the job for time in local recording studios, where they rap about being young and black in a world dominated by drugs, violence and feelings of hopelessness.

Williams then uses contacts he has made in the music industry - including at Violator Records, which manages some of the top hip-hop artists in the country - to try to get recording contracts for them.

His efforts have not gone unnoticed. His organization survives by securing grants, and it has even drawn recognition from Maryland U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein, who is using some of PYPP's rappers to turn out music for Project Exile, a program aimed at curbing gun violence.

Williams and PYPP members take their message to the streets of Baltimore at least once a week. They scout out corners festering with drug activity and try to reach gang members who might be ready to switch from guns to a microphone.

On a recent afternoon in East Baltimore's Barclay neighborhood, an area torn by drugs and gang-related violence, Williams and his group, all of them wearing black PYPP T-shirts, approached two young men, both of them wearing the colors of the Black Mafia Gorillas gang.

"[PYPP] is basically a positive thing," Williams told them. "You get in the program and you turn things around. It's as simple as that."

The young men, both wearing sunglasses and braids and both in black and green, their gang's colors, listened to Williams but didn't seem convinced.

That's when Williams told them about the rapping and possible recording deals that could follow.

Raps by PYPP members depict a world of guns and mayhem, but also of reform and hope:

It's hard to maintain

in the 'hood where I'm from

but I'm gonna keep my head up

without using a gun.

James "'Lil Cutta" Elliott III, 16, the PYPP member who wrote those lyrics, said he got caught up with the Crips gang when he was 10 and became a full member when he was 11. As with most gang initiates, Elliott said he had to rob people at gunpoint to gain the gang's trust and respect.

"Ain't nobody going to run from you at that age," he said, referring to child robbers. "It was pretty easy."

Another PYPP member is Terrence "Young `N Blizz" Blizzard, 21, who wrote a rap about gun deaths that could be used as a public service announcement by the city.

Blizzard's rap speaks to the bleakness that follows gun violence:

How many people gotta die

How many families gotta cry

How many people have to go behind bars?

How many?

When he's not rapping at K Productions, a recording studio in Northeast Baltimore, Blizzard, one of the few members of PYPP who was not in a gang, works as a host at ESPN Zone in the Inner Harbor, a job that Williams helped him get. He sports a gold pinky ring that was a reward from Williams for passing his GED - a PYPP tradition.

Blizzard's mother, Zina Townes, said she is proud of her son - his work and his music.

"He is focused now and that keeps him out of trouble," Townes said. "He was never a troubled child, but he was hanging out with people he met on the street and that wasn't working well. Since he's been in the program he has been doing excellent."

Blizzard and Elliott are featured on a rap written by Williams that will be used to promote Project Exile, a program promoted by Rosenstein's office to cut down on gun use and gun deaths through vigorous prosecution of gun-related crimes.

The rap, which is still in the production phase but will air on television and radio soon, begins like this:

It ain't no joke

when a person gets smoked

it's the rigors of the triggers

now we're starting to choke.

For Williams, who is 33, the words echo back to his own youth growing up in public housing in West Baltimore. He said he got involved in gangs, drugs and violent street life because it was the only world he knew.

"I emulated what I saw," he said. "I saw boys selling drugs and I thought that was all there was."

Besides recognition by Rosenstein, who met with Williams and some PYPP members recently to talk about the Project Exile campaign, the group has also won accolades and grants from the Family League of Baltimore, Department of Juvenile Services and the Governor's Office for Children.

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