Power is defined by Merriam-Webster as possession of control, authority, or influence over others. It also means the ability to act or do something. For Black teens and young men shut out of society through no fault of their own, it all boils down to one thing: survival of the fittest. And for that, you’ve got to have one thing: power.
In The Black Male’s Struggle for Identity and Power, author Aza Nedhari says the pursuit of power for the Black man is a constant battle: one that is between him and society. “He is left to constantly struggle and fight for an identity, for power, for respect, and for understanding of who he is versus what he is projected as,” — stereotypes.
“Everyone is trying to attain instead of achieving,” says hip-hop historian and 7XL Productions, music producer Scotty “Bigg Scott” Clayburn, who worked on a version of J Hud and R. Kelly’s “It’s Your World” remix. Clayburn grew up in Chicago Heights and knows what it means for young Black men to struggle and find their place in society. He mentors many young men and artists that flock to his studio.
Back in the day, you earned “street credibility” through your skills and talents. “If you had these skills you were untouchable,” he shared, you had a pass. “You could go to the deepest gang communities and if they know you were part of a certain group that rocked [pop locked] and had certain dance skills at the party. They wouldn’t touch you.
“Or, if you were a DJ and they knew how you threw down, they wouldn’t touch you. If you were an MC and had skills, they wouldn’t touch you. Instead of battling with knives and guns, the battle was on the dance floor,” he said. This gave the youth a sense of power, a sense of identity among their peer group.
This, he says, gave the person who displayed these skills “credibility.” And this credibility translated into respect in the Black community among other young Black youth and men. “You became the master of your art form. That’s why a lot of the DJs were called Grand Masters. They battled, they won, they had followers.”
Today, the battle for power has moved from the physical realm to the digital realm, where just a few words or posting a photo on social media can be perceived as a threat to someone’s credibility or illusion of power. Such is the case with the 2015 shooting of 22-year-old Clifton Frye. Frye was shot by 17-year-old Germel Dossie over comments he posted on Facebook about a slain rapper named Shaquon Thomas, aka Young Pappy. Three weeks later, Frye succumbed to his gunshot wounds and died, according to the Sun-Times.
Twenty-year-old Young Pappy was shot in the back, twice on May 29, 2015, while standing on a street corner in Uptown, Chicago. The reason for his death was in retaliation for taunting remarks he had made about a rival gang in one of his videos that included the lyrics “You don’t even know how to shoot,” according to the news blog hiphopearly.com.
With some of our youth facing the lack of jobs, education, absentee fathers, and positive role models, – could the only hope they have be whatever street credibility they see themselves as having? And if there’s some perceived threat to this street credibility: Is the only way to redeem your credibility to resort to violence?
According to Dr. Andrew Segovia Kulik, Chair of Psychiatry for the Cook County Health & Hospitals System “Youth who aren’t getting good parental guidance would only be able to rely on their feeling,” he stated. “Whatever makes them feel good or alive could be rewarding,” he added “. . . including dangerous activities.”
In yet another senseless shooting, West Sider Robert Crowder shares the story of how one of his relatives, 14-year-old Lil Randy, who was small in stature, was playing an older teenager about 16 years old, in a game of pick-up basketball. Lil Randy, who was known for his basketball prowess eventually won the game over his opponent who was much taller, according to Crowder. “The other teen snapped, somehow got ahold of a gun and shot Lil Randy on the court. Lil Randy survived the shooting,” he says.
Crowder believes the shooting may have been motivated “due to the embarrassment of being beat on his home court,” by someone younger and shorter than him. In other words, his credibility had taken a hit and the shooter had to redeem himself right on the spot, in front of everybody or suffer the consequences.
Krishaun Branch is one of the subjects of the new PBS documentary “All The Difference” which follows his life from a junior at Urban Prep Academy to graduating from Fisk University. An Englewood native, the former gang banger admits that he once thought the avenue to respect and power was through the fast street life.
At one point in his life, he didn’t believe he would live beyond the age of eighteen. “A lot of people doing the things that I was doing weren’t living past the age of 18 at that time. At one point, I sold drugs, gang banged and was heavily involved in the streets,” he stated.
Branch confesses that his uncle, who was a roofer, was a positive role model in his life but wasn’t attracted by the hard work and long hours that he saw his uncle put in. Although he admits his uncle made money “Those are not the role models that I looked up to,” he says “I looked up to the one that had the most money, the most girls and the best cars.
“When I had those things, [money and cars] I felt good. I felt like I had a reputation, things that I like, money and girls.” It was ultimately the reputation, the respect and the glamor that he says attracted him. Today, the Fisk graduate works in the office of admissions and recruitment at Urban Prep and leads by example to show other young Black men that there are legitimate routes to respect and power other than the streets.
The Need to be Right
In writing for Psychology Today, psychotherapist Mel Schwartz says the need to be right is so deeply embedded in our belief system and in our collective psyche that we never even pause to consider it. More specifically, for young Black males, this need often translates into being “somebody” of importance and significance.
“From the more personal and mundane battle over who said what in the midst of an argument to the larger issues of politics, religion, health care, gun control . . . being right is mandated,” he asserts.
Across the city, the need to be right as it relates to power may not only be the source of conflicts that escalate to gun violence but might also mean the difference between having hope and giving up on life – a precarious link to feeling powerlessness and hopeless.
Producer Clayburn continues: “Manipulating your body – through dance – might not make you rich, but you could become famous back in the day with footwork, spins, and swipes. B-Boying (break dancing), pop locking, electric boogie, etc.,” which showed mastery and control over the body and contributes to a sense of esteem and prowess in front of a crowd, especially girls. This, he added, made you feel important. Like you were somebody.
When you’re young, gifted and Black, and don’t have much, your body is all you have for some of our youth, says Mike Smith, a community activist. “Black teens and youth, heck, Black men and their bodies are intricately linked to sexuality. You can’t look at a rap or R&B video without seeing a hyper-sexualized version of Black masculinity.
“The young rappers today start out of the gate using sexually explicit language that would make Moms Mabley blush,” he says, adding, “For some, this too is a path to experiencing a form of power. Sexual power, conquering teenage girls and vulnerable young women to satisfy the male ego that otherwise have little to offer.”
The Black male as a sexual image dates back to slavery when African males were bred for mating purposes, and this went on for centuries eventually embedding itself into the psyche and some would argue even into the DNA structure and its damaging effects on some men continue to this very day.
“When someone is growing up and they’re trying to learn who they are as a person, they can encounter positive or negative influences. If someone doesn’t have a positive influence such as an academic group or athletic team with which to be involved, they could be more inclined to participate in negative activities . . . in an effort to get similar satisfaction or their needs met,” say Dr. Kulik.
“I personally believe that we have to support all children when they’re very, very young. Kids need positive role models, like grandparents, someone at church, or someone older in the neighborhood who are part of everyday life. Society needs to promote role models other than sports figures or entertainers that are more attainable such as teachers, professionals, local artists, etc., who can bring about lasting change in our communities.”
“We have quite a bit of work to do in our communities, especially when you look at it from the perspective of power. Who has it and who doesn’t,” says Smith. “When you look at how the gangs have been decentralized, and the ensuing chaos. Much of this is being driven by the illusion of power which for some – equates to being somebody. Who can control what turf that’s around them.
“A block or two – this is what it has come down to. Teenagers fighting over a block and mimicking what has gone on for ages in Chicago. A grab at power especially with politicians, who use laws and rigged elections to steal power, or the illusion thereof. Our children are mimicking what they see the adults doing. They’re just doing it at their own level – which is the streets.
“With every news flash of another shooting, you can just about imagine that somewhere behind the story you can picture someone experiencing a sense of loss of control or power and to them, violence is the way to make things right,” says Smith.
The need to be right, according to Dr. Schwab, “is the raison d’etre for most acts of hatred, violence, and warfare. Being right affirms and inflates our sense of self-worth. As students, we learn to avoid as best we can the embarrassment of being wrong.”
When asked what he would say to a group of “at-risk” teens? Dr. Kulik states, “I would tell them that it’s natural to feel anxiety, fear, or even anger when dealing with the day-to-day challenges many youth experience. I would let them know that they are understood. I would encourage them to reach out to family, support groups, churches, or elders that they trust in the neighborhood for help to navigate the future.”
Tim King, the founder, and CEO of Urban Prep Academies in Chicago has an astonishing track record of getting 100% of his graduates accepted into top colleges nationwide. The Englewood all-male charter school is where Krishaun Branch attended and received the critical support to walk away from his past and embrace a brighter future. But it isn’t necessarily an easy task for the young men that may want to turn their lives around to be so trusting.
However, King shares their secret to success: “As soon as our students walk through our doors, we begin to work to reverse all the negative things they’ve been hearing about themselves. For years, they’ve heard and seen that they won’t be anything in life; that they won’t make it to age 18; that they are what is wrong with the world,” says King.
“We tell them the exact opposite: they’re not what’s wrong with the world, but they are the people with the power to right the world’s wrongs. We work to prove to them that we believe in them, so they will, in turn, believe in themselves.”
“As a society,” Kulik says, “we need to be more supportive and present for every young person in our community and nationwide. “This will not be easy,” he concludes “Many who are lost just want to be part of something.”
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