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Break dancing to Beastie Boys, griot to emcee
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“These kids are finding their niche, learning a craft, and flourishing. When I was a drama teacher at Gaston Elementary, I saw that kids really don’t have an outlet. This program is about giving them a release, that outlet that they need.”
-- Clinton Powell, director of the production and co-founder of the Spitfire Poetry Group
“There are too many people giving teenagers a bad rap, pointing fingers, but they are not supportive of what kids really want to do. They aren’t caught up with what kids are interested in.”
-- DaVena Jordan, executive director of AWOL
“We have great success mixing kids together instead of keeping the so-called bad kids in one spot. They say one bad apple spoils the bunch but that is not what we’ve seen. The one bad apple takes on traits of the rest of the kids… not because we told them not to do something, but because of positive peer modeling.” 
-- DaVena Jordan
“My father in law taught me that you can’t catch every fish with the same bait. Our bait is just different. We don’t tell them to beat their women or tear up their community. We teach them to manage their credit, conflict resolution, anger management, and we do it in a unique way. We tell them to come in the studio make a beat, and then teach them to make a concept for a storyboard, or a movie. Then we show them pay scales for jobs, so they can see how much a stage manager or a sound engineer can earn.”
-- Tony Jordan, founder of AWOL
“People have this attitude that they will scare kids straight. But if you don’t know them, don’t know their story, they’ll just walk away.”
-- DaVena Jordan
“Some church-going people don’t understand what we’re doing. They devalue what the kids like. They devalue the kids dancing. But they would be on the street if they weren’t dancing.”
-- Tony Jordan, founder of AWOL
The May St. YMCA has a very different vibe than YMCAs on the other side of the tracks. At May Street, the paint is mildewed, the ceiling tiles are water-stained, and the Bible verses are hand-written on poster board.
Yet like that tree growing in Brooklyn, something powerful and strong is emerging out of that aging gymnasium. Positive energy flows out of the building and into the dark cemetery across the road, along with the pumping music, and the sounds of poetry and laughter. 
At the rehearsal of the 2nd Annual Hip-Hop History Production, “From Griot to Emcee,” which will be performed at the Lucas Theater February 8, there was an aura of idealism. This idealism, not based on fanciful dreams, but on shared vision, infuses the production with excitement, drama, and a sense of longing.
Longing for what? Longing for more… more art, more drama, more music, more dance in our schools and neighborhoods.
Forget abstinence programs, boot camps, and all discipline/authority driven youth programs aimed at forcing goodness into kids… or else. Why not shower resources into groups like AWOL who are busy nurturing seedlings, giving them a reason to grow?
Nurturing? Listening? Hip Hop?
Last year, William Jones -- we changed his name at his request to protect his privacy -- was driving to Hinesville, listening to the radio, when he heard a call for actors in a play about Hip Hop. He turned his car around and drove directly to the audition.
He had never acted before (like most of AWOL’s performers), but proceeded to blow away the director when he performed an unrehearsed dialogue between a young black male and another older male figure. His delivery was poised, stance correct, and articulation was excellent.
This young man, who had such talent, had received little if any praise or support in his childhood, much of it spent in the arms of the juvenile justice system. From as early as age 7, William remembered wandering the streets of Savannah, searching for his mom in crack houses. By 10, he was committed to the Department of Juvenile Justice. Between the ages of 13-17, he did time in the Georgia Youth Detention Center, spending almost his entire adolescence in secure detention.
 Since performing in last year’s play, AWOL has introduced William to powerful people, and encouraged him as he worked on his GED. After three painstaking defeats, he has passed the GED, and is currently applying to college. This former “statistic” has become an actor, has been given a reason to dream, most importantly, he has encountered a people who see his grand potential.
All Walks of Life, Inc. which began as a spoken word poetry organization at SSU in 1997, has developed into a non profit community organization with the stated mission of promoting and providing self-awareness through the use of poetry, hip-hop and life. They do this by giving young people afternoon and night programs that encourage education, respect, creativity and most of all nonviolence.
Funded in part by the City of Savannah, they have one full time employee, and a part-timer, and a few small art stipends. Beyond that, volunteers fuel the work and provide the love.
The upcoming production was written by a group of Savannah writers, and traces Hip Hop roots all the way to West African oral history tradition, highlighting the most important movers and shakers. For the kids, the allure is obvious. They get to play characters that they admire in a play that describes a world they are fascinated with. 
Directed by Spitfire Poetry Group co-founder Clinton D. Powell, theater-goers will be treated to with kick-butt break dancing scenes, the Beastie Boys thrashing, and Def Poetry Jam making poetry real. The dance numbers, choreographed by Nathaniel Smalls, are energy-packed joyful happenings, guaranteed to make you wish you were up on the stage with the cast. Novices will learn that not all Hip Hop is Gangsta rap -- instead there are many positive aspects to the movement.
This exuberant production, performed by 55 of Savannah’s most talented children and teens, poetically describes the moving story of Hip Hop’s rise from America’s impoverished urban streets to become a global cultural phenomenon. 
“From Griot to Emcee” is performed Feb. 8 at
7 p.m. at the Lucas Theatre.
Tickets are on sale now at the SCAD Box office or online at This year a special discounted 10 a.m. show is being offered to schools and youth groups.
Sabrina Manganella Simmons is a journalist and photographer living in Savannah. Her website is
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