Taking the News to the Streets



Looking Back: AllEyesOnDC Does It for the Watoto

The June 16th edition of the AllEyesOnDC Show, filmed live in Sankofa Video Books and Café, proved to be one of a kind, specifically because those featured that evening became the youngest AllEyesOnDC guests in all the grassroots media platform’s existence. This installment of AllEyesOnDC, themed “For the Watoto,” aired on Facebook Live on the International Day of the African Child, the African Union’s annual commemoration of the 1976 Soweto Uprising.

The 1976 Soweto Uprising, for those who don’t know, popped off on the morning of June 16 that year when thousands of indigenous South African youth, fed up with the European-dominated education system’s marginalization of their native tongue, skipped school and led a series of street protests. South African police officers responded to these outcries with brutal violence, killing more than 700 young protesters and jailing many more. The 1976 Soweto Uprising, which inspired several other youth-led anti-apartheid campaigns, has since been depicted on the big screen and stage.

More than 50 years later, a new generation of Black youth in the D.C. metropolitan area has taken the mantle in the fight against global white supremacy and all that manifests from it. Four of these young people graced the AllEyesOnDC stage on June 16th, sharing their stories and showcasing how they use the arts to feed their minds and enlighten the masses.

These young people – youth motivational speaker and activist Elijah Coles-Brown and three young ladies from the Mass Emphasis Children’s History & Theatre Company – kept the audience laughing, awing, and thinking hard about the future holds for Black liberation. Elijah, the first guest, spoke about his activism and causes he’s furthering through his speaking tours throughout the country. Later, he returned as caricature of Frederick Douglass, decked out in a three-piece suit and gray hair, to recite one of the abolitionist’s 1865 speeches.

That evening, the three young ladies of the Mass Emphasis Children’s History & Theatre Company spoke about their roles in “The Sisters Who Fought with Their Pens,” an on-stage tribute to Phyllis Wheatley, Ida B. Wells, and other Black women who used the written word to advance the cause of Black liberation. The trio, scheduled to appear in a play about Kwame Ture and Colin Powell in July, also spoke about how the arts have raised their consciousness and prepared them for a world in which Black children aren’t protected. That evening, the young ladies also sang, recited lines from “The Sisters Who Fought with Their Pens” and even said the names of the 54 African countries, in alphabetical order.

This video captures the entirety of the June 16th AllEyesOnDC Show at Sankofa Video Books & Café. Check it out and mark your calendars for the July 21st edition where we’ll discuss African spiritual systems.

Man Cave at Emery Heights Set to Kick Off during Father’s Day Weekend

PHOTO: Craig Hughes, DPR recreation specialist at Emery Heights Recreation Center (light blue shirt in the center), poses with members of the Man Cave planning committee after one of their meetings./ Photo courtesy of Krystal Branton 

On the weekend of Father’s Day, a gathering space will affirm its reputation as a prominent community fixture by morphing into a “Man Cave,” created specifically for boys and men in the neighborhood seeking fun and genuine intergenerational connections.

For Maureen Brown, mother of six sons and longtime resident of Brightwood community in Northwest, the timing of the Man Cave event at Emery Heights Community Center couldn’t have been better. Brown, whose children have played team sports there, said the young men in her neighborhood, now more than ever, need a safe place where they can meet older, positive male figures.

“I feel like a lot of the guys in their 20s don’t frequent Emery. The Man Cave event could give them a good perspective of what it’s about,” Brown told AllEyesOnDC, adding that older men, too could build relationships with their sons this during the event this upcoming Saturday. “I hope things like this could get the fathers involved. A lot of dads are absent because of neglect, incarceration, or just being killed on the street. It’s much different now.” Brown said.

Two out of five young men in the Brightwood and Manor Park communities live without their father in the home, according to data collected by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, based in Baltimore. While the lack of a male presence in the home has led to catastrophic outcomes in some cases, many young people have found mentors and father figures in the coaches at Emery who often impart life lessons on the field or court.

The Man Cave event builds upon the range of the offerings available to young visitors of Emery Heights, including a football and baseball program. When community members enter Emery Heights on Saturday morning, they will get to indulge in a variety of foods, courtesy of neighborhood restaurants, watch step shows and drill demonstrations, play in sports tournaments, and hear short remarks from male community leaders. WHUR 96.3’s Tony Richards will give a keynote address. The June 17th event will kick off a series of follow-up gatherings and workshops, each one focused on an aspect of the adolescent male experience.

“This is an opportunity for fathers and sons to come together and give the fathers a place in the family. I want whatever male figures in those young people lives to be recognized,” Craig Hughes, a recreation specialist at the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation of 30 years and a lead coordinator of Man Cave at Emery Heights, told AllEyesOnDC. Hughes, juggling responsibilities as a baseball coach, with other coaches, community leaders, and men of various ages, held weekly planning meetings since the beginning of the year.

“The sports program [at Emery] has been phenomenal but sports are only one piece,” Hughes added. “We’re talking about mentoring and tutoring our youth. What kind of impact are we collectively making in our young men’s lives? Let’s help them navigate through life and see what’s coming as they get older.”

In addition to the D.C. Department of Parks & Recreation, community partners include Nation of Islam Mosque #4, Metropolitan Police Department, D.C. Commission of Fathers, Men, and Boys, Ward 4 D.C. Council member Brandon Todd’s office, and ANC Commissioner Krystal Branton (Single Member District 4D05), the mind behind Man Cave. At the beginning of the year, Branton reached out to Emery Heights about housing the Man Cave program.

“Each year, we have Father’s Day, but it’s not as celebrated or popular. This would be a great time to have Man Cave. Men gather and have their spaces in the basement or shed. It’s relatable and men take pride in it,” Branton told AllEyesOnDC. Branton announced her plans for Man Cave during the ANC 4D’s last monthly meeting of 2016 amid spirited discussion about youth overlooked in the pockets of development taking place across Ward 4.

“Their space is to be open and honest like a barbershop. It’s symbolic and gives us a chance to gather those who don’t have anyone to spend Father’s Day with. It’s a way to start a great community tradition. We don’t have anything like this in Ward 4 that I know of and the reception from the community is enormous. Folks are willing to donate their time and resources and that’s greatly needed,” Branton added.

Guests, Viewers Received the Keys to Nation Building on Inauguration Night

While most of the world focused much of their attention on President Donald J. Trump last Friday, dozens of folks at Sankofa Video Books & Café learned about U.S. media manipulation, examined Our current situation in a global context and committed to involvement in local politics during AllEyesOnDC’s first community news gathering of 2017.

Below is the video footage.

Part 1

Part 2

Guests on the program (in order of appearance):

*Netfa Freeman* of Pan-African Community Action

*Krystal Branton*, ANC Commissioner, 4D05

*Obi Egbuna*, Pan-African journalist, playwright and educator

*Naeemah Powell*, musical guest

We developed the Jan. 20th event, themed “Building a Black Nation in the U.S.” understanding that, at the most basic level, non-melanated people, and their melanated accomplices, oppress working class Black people politically, economically, and socially. Without resources and desperate to survive, many of Us turn against each other while embracing the very entity that created the conditions under which we suffer.

Long before Trump’s ascent to the presidency, many of our People in the inner city and rural parts of the U.S. experienced these troubles, even with a growing Black middle and billionaire class, increased educational attainment, and greater circulation of dollars in this capitalistic society. Many of us who succeeded in mainstream society abandoned a race consciousness characteristic of the 1970s and 1980s. In short, We used the victories of the past to “integrate rather than penetrate” as our guest Baba Obi Egbuna, Pan-African journalist, playwright, and educator, said on Friday night.

This remains the case when many of our Black women, perhaps disillusioned about Black men’s lack of engagement in issues related to them in recent years, join the White woman’s cause against Trump despite century-long evidence that discourages such a relationship. By keeping our eyes on the real goal of Nation building, we don’t fall victim to such distractions. Please watch these two segments when you lots of time to kill to see Our point.

U.S. Capitalism and the Miseducation of the African Child: An AllEyesOnDC Reflection

A montage of Young Thug and an airport employee he harassed./ Courtesy photo 

My first holiday season as a full-time high school teacher has served as a firsthand lesson about the teenage consumerist, and I’m not pleased.

On the week that quarterly progress reports went home, a few of my students, many of whom haven’t put in much work for several weeks, lobbied for some extra credit and other tricks that would boost their dismal grades. They did this not out of a commitment to academic excellence, but fear of losing them oh-so precious Christmas gifts.

Though slightly disappointed, I wasn’t surprised to hear that truth. Since I started teaching full-time, I’ve seen up close the conditions that stunt our children’s character development and spiritual growth. Doing my job has been an exercise in getting teenagers to see the Kings and Queens in themselves and value the process of learning. Teaching English and Language Arts becomes the perfect conduit to fulfill that mission and get a sense of what motivates the young people. As the days and months went by, the more I realized money was the change agent they valued.

During our studies about grammar and literary devices, we discuss local and national politics, sociology, economics and more via news articles and readings I would assign the class. My students have also reflected on their short lives during in-class writing exercises. Through reading their responses to thought-provoking prompts, I’ve come to understand their desire for wealth and comfort, particularly because they wrote, with a lot of spelling and grammar errors, about the circumstances that brought forth their unstable lives.

Though I don’t doubt that money will change their lives for the better, I in good conscious cannot let them rely on the dollar bill alone. As a college-educated professional, I have a certain amount of privilege that some would say disqualifies me from prescribing a solution to my people’s salvation that doesn’t involve money. However, my experiences around well-to-do people and my knowledge of what folks of that ilk have done from their ivory towers has radicalized me in a sense and made me more cognizant of the sickness that Carter G. Woodson vividly described in Miseducation of the Negro.

Long before formally entering the education profession, I’ve witnessed the morally corrupt nature of many “accomplished,” degree-holding people. Instead of chasing knowledge and inner understanding, those who would become members of the Black elite covet tables at clubs, the latest clothes and shoes, and the status of your favorite trap rapper. Among the Black men, no matter the income level, words like “bitch” and “hoe” always ring out. In general, Black men and Black women lashed out at one another. Yes, I grew personally and professionally in school and in the professional world, but that system didn’t allow enough, if any space for independent, African-centered thought that could cleanse my soul. That’s why at times, on-campus activism, while meant to be a chance to help others, felt more like a popularity contest and notch on the resume rather than a fight to improve life on campus for Black people.

My real education took place a couple years after completing undergrad when I built on my studies of Malcolm X’s fight for oppressed people globally. By learning about my people and their struggles, triumph, and pre-Maafan history, I grew more in love with myself and hungrier to learn more about which was hidden from me. My lessons spanned many disciplines, compelling the maturation of my musical tastes, changes in how I address women, and an evolution in political thought more in line with independent thinkers, not those caught up in the two –party system.

By now, some of the folks – white, Black, Latino, and beyond – with whom I went to school are well on their way to becoming mavens of their industries. However, if everything goes per the real ruling elites’ plan, many will perpetuate the misinformation and exploitation of oppressed people in their subservient roles. Instead of using their power to affect change, they mock those without for suffering in a system that clearly doesn’t favor them.

This sentiment strikes home, for Black people are the primary culprits in this travesty, thanks in part to our conditioning by standards imposed by white people over the centuries. That’s what people like Keith Ellison, who like President Barack Obama had to denounce a Black leader/group for political points, must think about as they compete for roles within the American oligarchy.

That’s also why my students extol the wealthy athletes and entertainers more than the social justice advocates, inventors, business magnates, and the like, even as they fail to live up to the legacy of Ossie Davis, Jr., Ruby Dee, Nina Simone, and others. One of these entertainers by the name of Young Thug recently flaunted his “wealth” at an airport and disrespected two employees.

To carry our fight for liberation forward, young people must yearn to make the world a better place and combat all forms of evil. That cannot be done in environments where material wealth is the goal. I’m not saying that to criticize parents aiming to curb negative behavior by withholding gifts, but to challenge us as a People to push our youth to strive for their best so that it benefits the global ecosystem, not just their ego.

That’s hard to do when college is marketed more like a check on the Successful Adult To-Do List more than an opportunity to grow internally. This makes it more important that we encourage education beyond the confines of academia. Without a thirst for knowledge, how else will the youth be able to critically think long after their formal education ends?

They won’t. Their lives will become a cycle of work, sleep, and happy hours. Right now, that’s how many of the hamsters live on the wheel. If it’s not the degree, the money or fame, it’s holiday gifts that keep us going. You could say that the material possessions have become our carrot stick, to our detriment.

Let it be known that this generation, criticized and looked over by many elders in our community, will be the ones to take this global movement for African liberation to new heights. That’s why the powers that be, through its political, business, and media arms, keep our African and indigenous American children away from their true history. Our adherence to the codes of consumerism that make our children slaves to the corporation seals the deal.

Given the nature of the rat race that’s capitalism, one would argue that we don’t have enough time to care, but it’s imperative that we make time. Our children deserve that much. By no means does that mean keep the gifts away from your young ones this year. However, you should be having a conversation about the need to learn and improve as a human being, something my father used to call “eating book.” Let’s encourage this dialogue and push our young people to create their own happiness, not that which is manufactured by the one percent.

The world will be a much better place for it.

Film Screening, Panel Focus on Music and Activism of Mavis Staples

Photo: Mavis Staples (Courtesy) 

“You can’t have a movement without music!” Isisara Bey, executive producer of the annual March on Washington Film Festival told an audience of more than 100 music aficionados who gathered in the lobby of NPR headquarters in Northwest during the festival’s “Black Radio and Civil Rights” event earlier this week.

What transpired later that Tuesday evening would speak to the spirit of Bey’s words.

After enjoying the musical stylings of Victoria Purcell, Byron Nichols, Robert Ellis, and the NEWorks House Band, guests followed Bey and other March on Washington Film Festival committee members into a theatre where they watched Mavis!, a 2015 documentary about Mavis Staples, renowned R&B and Gospel singer and Civil Rights activist.

As a member of the Staples Singers, led by her father Roebuck “Pops” Staples, and a solo artist, Staples contributed to the soundtrack of the Civil Rights era, bringing contemporary pop hits that had a positive message such as “Long Walk to D.C.,” “When Will We Be Paid?,” and “I’ll Take You There.” Pop’s close relationship with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. inspired this foray into “freedom songs” as the Staples Singers called their brand of music.

In Mavis!, Staples, then 75 and a music legend in her own right, tours the country with her band and reflects on her experiences as a standout member of the Staples Singers. The film, which featured late Civil Rights leader Julian Bond, hip-hop legend Chuck D, and other music stars, focuses on the longevity of Staples’ career and her ability to adjust with the times, as seen when she released two albums in the 1980s under the direction of Prince, and won her first Grammy in 2011 for her album “You Are Not Alone”.

After the film, a panel of music executives, activists, and journalists who knew and interviewed Staples spoke about the current state of the music industry for Black artists.

“I asked Mavis what it was like being artistic and in this community. You had to get people in their childhood talking about contemporary issues,” Sonja Williams, author, broadcast journalist, and a panelist, told audience members that evening while recounting a radio interview she had with Staples. “Once [the Staples family] started singing freedom songs, they knew that one of the ways to reach young people was with a rhythm and something more contemporary along with R&B.”

The panel, moderated by WHUR 96.3 FM’s Jacquie Gales Webb, also included Al Bell, songwriter, producer, and owner of Stax Records to which the Staples Singers were signed, and Jonathan Jackson, an entrepreneur and social justice advocate. For much of the evening, this group touched on the events that led to the dilution of socially conscious news and music.

Jackson noted that many artists didn’t have much incentive, beyond helping their people, to produce socially conscious material. During the panel, he also detailed how corporatization of the media over the last couple of decades had shut out divergent voices and marginalized disc jockeys who had positive, uplifting messages.

“Civil Rights didn’t equate with all musicians. You never really heard freedom songs on the radio. A lot of African-American artists were getting frozen out,” Jackson, national spokesperson for the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, told the audience.

“[Today], the media consolidation has taken away the responsibility of making community news in the African-American markets. In these urban markets, it’s all comedy. All the conscious personalities have been curtailed. More programmers have their hands tied. They won’t let news and information get through the urban formats. Local ownership needs to get back into place,” Jackson added.

Bell, writer of the Staples Singers’ hit 1972 hit “I’ll Take You There,” gave an even more detailed picture of how music unified Black people, regaling guests with the story of how he organized the Wattstax benefit concert at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in the wake of the 1965 riots. That event, which featured the Staples Singers and Stax Records artists, attracted more than 100,000 people and didn’t result in any incidences of violence.

“They tried to put us in a category where we were shiftless and not good thinkers but we were strategic business people,” Bell told the audience as he provided examples of musicians, radio personalities, and Civil Rights leaders collectively organizing across the country.

“The Black disc jockeys were like the mayors of their cities. When Dr. King would go to Philly, he would meet with Georgie Woods because he knew everyone,” Bell added. “That helped Dr. King but it was dangerous to have that kind of power. That’s why they thought it was time to mass merchandise music. They acquired the independent companies to monopolize and cut off the independent entrepreneurs and sell and market music to Black people,” said Bell.

The July 19th “Black Radio and Civil Rights” event counted among a slew of gatherings during the annual March on Washington Film Festival, founded by the Raben Group three years ago in commemoration of the 1963 March on Washington. The 2016 installment, which goes on until Saturday, kicked off on July 13th with an event at Metropolitan A.M.E. Church in Northwest. Other programs have focused on the Green Book, a guide that helped Black tourists travel safely through the segregated South in the early to mid-20th century, Nina Simone, Maya Angelou, and other storied figures.

“Events like this expose you to what Black people have done culturally. It’s about the people who contributed to the Civil Rights movement,” said Maiyah Mayhan, a Howard University student who attended the Mavis! film screening. “These days, it’s hard to get people to play good music. That’s why it’s so important to be in spaces like this. The radio has shaped how sound is perceived. I appreciate Mavis Staples and other singers who were able to evolve with the sound,” added Mayhan, a junior from Los Angeles studying journalism.

How Jesse Williams Praised Our Grassroots Organizers More than We Do

PHOTO: Actor and award-winning humanitarian Jesse Williams/ Courtesy 

By now, most, if not all of the African world has watched or heard about Jesse Williams’ five-minute oratorical masterpiece at the BET Awards earlier this week.

Upon accepting the 2016 BET Humanitarian Award, Williams, a Black actor who rarely minces words in his analyses of domestic racial affairs, called out the United States for the litany of crimes it commits against Black people. A multi-ethnic audience of his wealthy and famous peers, and much of Black America, listened as he eloquently condemned state-sanctioned violence, cultural appropriation, capitalistic exploitation of Black people, and white disdain for Black expressions of pain.

In one speech, Williams placed a morally bankrupt media network on a road to redemption and galvanized people who had grown tired of seeing officers escape responsibility for their deadly use of force against Black men, women, and children. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and other social media outlets lit up with commentary and memes of Williams and his fiercest quotes in what’s sure to be an historic speech. For the first time, those who followed the “woke” movement from afar gained new interest.

While I appreciated Williams’ numerous zingers, many of which I saw plastered all over my timeline, there’s an often overlooked line that truly resonated with me: the one in which he acknowledges the grassroots organizers across the country working to dismantle white supremacy. For those confused as to what I’m talking about, he said it before getting into the real juicy stuff. Still confused? I copied it into this commentary for your reading pleasure.

“Now, this award, this is not for me. This is for the real organizers all over the country. The activists, the civil rights attorneys, the struggling parents, the families, the teachers, the students that are realizing that a system built to divide and impoverish and destroy us cannot stand if we do. All right? It’s kind of basic mathematics. The more we learn about who we are and how we got here, the more we will mobilize.

Every day in this naturally hypocritical country of ours, there are countless numbers of Black people in various communities who’re organizing, raising the consciousness of the masses, feeding the poor and homeless, forging coalitions, and pressuring elected officials to support their efforts – all in the name of Black Power. Many of them do this while speaking out against the white supremacist Babylon system publicly and on social media without hesitation.

Just as Williams has done repeatedly in the last few years, our outspoken grassroots warriors examine the issues of the day with a critical eye, forming a unique conclusion and demanding America atones for its centuries-long crime against Africans. However unlike Black America’s favorite woke actor and humanitarian, these brothers and sisters are often scolded for their viewpoints, with both family members and friends labeling them as “radical,” begging that they provide an analysis that’s more inclusive, softer, and endearing to the status quo, even if it doesn’t benefit Black people.

I myself have been on the receiving end of this kind of treatment.

Since coming into my African consciousness and adding an activist flair to my journalism, I’ve had college friends, cousins, aunties, uncles, and the like mockingly refer to me as Malcolm X, suggesting that I marginalize myself by candidly expressing my Black Nationalist beliefs. Some even try to convince me to “forget about the past.” In recent months, I’ve grown more confident in standing by what I say. In the process, I’ve built relationships with African organizers, young and old, and taken my message to the next level.

As often is the case, the work never stops, in part because there’s a significant segment of the diasporic African population hasn’t taken off their white mask to confront a world that hates everything about them.

Even worse, they vilify those of us who want to break out of the Matrix and take back the humanity stolen from us during Maafa, chattel slavery, colonialism, Jim Crow, all the way up to the present day via the prison industrial complex. When we question and speak out against the perpetrators of our suffering, our Black peers call us angry. When we revere our African history, our Black peers call us “Hotep” in a derogatory manner. When we demand justice without apology, we’re lampooned and labeled as militant.

In the same breath, these cocky critics praise Williams for his brave comments, even as he openly lambastes them for thinking that their money, material possessions, and social status will protect them from the wrath of institutional racism. To this day, many of them haven’t done much beyond writing “Black Lives Matter” in their status messages and fawning over the latest celebrity musing about current racial events. Whether they will step away from the sideline and tangibly contribute to the movement remains to be seen.

From what I understand, many folks in most nationalist circles write off our well-to-do, somewhat cowardly brothers and sisters, advising us to forget about them and leave them behind when Babylon falls. I tend to think differently, maintaining my faith in their eventual radicalization by remembering Harry Belafonte, Paul Robeson, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee and countless others who put their reputations and revenues on the line for the greater good.

Today, Jesse Williams and his contemporaries – including Jay Z and Beyoncé, Janelle Monae, and Zendaya – carry the torch in taking the conversation about the Black struggle to the mainstream and financially assisting grassroots organizers.

It’s time that the members of the Black young urban professional class, a group often known as Buppies, take notes and follow suit. They have to connect with the grassroots actors in their community and use their expertise, brain power, and resources to make our Nation more self-determined and economically independent. Very often, many of our elites take their talents to corporations, garner huge salaries, gentrify Black neighborhoods, and act violently toward their low-income counterparts. In essence, they’re perpetuating white supremacy – the very system Jesse Williams indicted.

If we are to truly see freedom across the board, ALL hands must be on deck, and not just on the computer screen. Just as Williams and others have done, those of us in positions of power must build with grassroots organizers and help keep the fight going on various fronts. We’re connected by virtue of our African heritage and common history of oppression. There’s no reason to stop at admiring what one man did. We can be the change we want to see. It’s just a matter of thinking outside of the box that America has created for us.

If you have a genuine interest in pushing the dial forward in the fight for our liberation and don’t know where to start, join us during what’s toured as the 2016 Message to the Grassroots, a part of the A Night of News & Music series at Sankofa Video, Books & Café in Washington, D.C., on the night of Friday, July 15th.

That evening, I’ll provide a critical analysis of current events, including Brexit and the closing of the Kendrick Johnson case in Atlanta, through a Pan-African millennial lens. Later, a number of neighborhood figures, each of whom is part of a grassroots movement for African liberation, will grace the stage and talk about their latest project.

Come through and build with your African brothers and sisters who’re in the trenches daily. If you can’t make that event, visit Sankofa and check out the extensive catalog of books that’s sure to make you question your “wokeness.” In anything you do, make sure you acknowledge and celebrate the work of our grassroots organizers just as Williams did in his viral speech.

I guarantee we’ll go further as a people for it.

Upcoming Film Captures Life, Music in Brazil

PHOTO: Through all the hurdles, Elisete de Jesus Silva, a Brazilian percussionist better known as Elem, remains committed to her music and band members, many of whom are children she took under her wing. An upcoming film, “Maestrina de Favela,” chronicles her journey. / Photo courtesy of Dee Dwyer

While few ever get the chance to visit Brazil, many will soon come to know Elisete de Jesus Silva, one of its rising stars and the subject of an upcoming documentary about her life, music, and community work in one of its roughest neighborhoods.

The film, titled “Maestrina de Favela” (Portuguese for “Master of the Slum”), follows the percussionist better known as Elem in the years after her mother’s death as she navigates life in the Pelourinho, a historic district located in the heart of Salvador de Bahia. Despite her band’s rise in prominence, the young musician struggles to stave off misogynists bent on sabotaging her career and engage youth when a community center shutters.  Lack of funds and a recurring brain aneurysm have also stalled her long-term goals.

Through it all, Elem remains committed to her music and band members, many of whom are children she took under her wing, speaking to what Falani Spivey, a close friend and producer of the film, calls the significance of samba reggae in Afro-Brazilian culture.

“Samba reggae is similar to go-go. Heavily driven with rhythms of Africa,” Spivey, a native Washingtonian, told AllEyesOnDC as she drew parallels between art forms created by people of African descent.  “It’s music with a message for the person that instills Black pride. It’s a form of resistance that started when Blacks couldn’t be a part of Carnival.”

During a fundraiser in Adams Morgan earlier this month, dozens of people from around the D.C. metropolitan area caught a glimpse of what to expect from  “Maestrina de Favela” while walking through a photo exhibit and auction that showcased a vast selection of colorful still shots Spivey’s friend Dee Dwyer took of Brazil’s people, foliage, and architecture. That evening, Spivey spoke at length about her affinity for Afro-Brazilian culture and the friendship that’s strengthened her connection to the country.

In the spring of 2007, Spivey and Elem, then 13, crossed paths shortly before the former wrapped up a semester-long study abroad program in Brazil. For nearly a decade, the two talked on the phone; wrote letters, and chatted on social media. Videos and photos from those correspondences along with footage taken during a trip earlier this year will be in “Maestrina de Favela.”  Later this year, Spivey will launch a Kickstarter crowd funding campaign to ensure plans come to fruition.

“We’re about 80 percent done with the film; now I need funding to edit the project. I’ve been collecting footage for nine years,” Spivey said. “The band still exists and it’s a celebration of Afro-Brazilian culture. [The music] showed me that we’re one of the same.”

Despite its reputation as a quickly developing tourist attraction, the Pelourinho has become synonymous with extreme poverty, drug abuse, and hunger.  Such is the case amid rising unemployment and the makings of what economists have called the worst recession in 25 years.

Nationally, the youngest fare the worst in these dismal conditions. Anywhere between 800,000 and 2 million homeless children live on streets throughout Brazil, the Borgen Project estimates.

Since starting her band Children of the Rocinha in the Pelourinho, at the age of 8, Elem has been able to hold her own in her neighborhood. As her skills on milk cartons-turned-drums improved and her profile rose in the community, she brought along more local children who wanted to perform in well-populated public spaces.  Unlike leaders of other bands, Elem adequately paid members and made sure they didn’t drink alcohol or take drugs.

Sometimes, efforts to protect the young ones from the perils of life in the slums fell short, especially after the passing of her mother. Three bandmates died in separate incidences of violence. Increasing responsibilities at an old house she shares with her aunt demanded the young musician’s attention, bringing her life to a standstill.

“This environment is kind of cut throat. Elem’s doing the real work,” Spivey said as she talked about Elem’s dilapidated, mildew-drenched abode that doubles as a rec center and classroom. For years, she maintained contact with Elem, sending money, educational materials, and a refrigerator in the hopes of keeping up her friend’s spirits during those trying times.

“Elem goes above and beyond to make sure the kids don’t drink or do drugs, like a social worker,” Spivey added. “She leads by example, gaining respect as a Maestrina, but she doesn’t exploit them. She pays the kids what they deserve and puts the rest of the money back into the instruments. Personally, she doesn’t ask for much; just drums and materials.”

In February, Spivey, along Dwyer and D.C. filmmaker Briana Monet, visited Elem’s house during a two-week excursion to Brazil. On that trip, Elem, sporting neon pink boots and a smile, parlayed with her Black American friends into the wee hours of the morning during Carnival. The trio’s guided trek around the Pelourinho birthed new footage and the photos of churches, houses, drug addicts, police officers, food, people dancing and other elements of Brazilian life.

Conversations with natives also provided ample opportunity to learn more about the Afro-Brazilian history of resistance and visit an island inhabited by descendants of Africans who escaped slavery. There, natives and their foreign visitors united under the trance of Yoruba-influenced sounds and beats, as to say they realized their common link to the Motherland.

“Everyone was so sure of themselves. They knew their history,” Dwyer, told AllEyesOnDC. For nearly two years, she assisted in the production of “Maestrina de Favela.”  Though she heard Spivey’s stories about Elem for years, Dwyer said things came full circle upon meeting the star percussionist in person and capturing her life with her Canon t2i.

“We struggle, but Elem’s struggle is much deeper and harsher,” Dwyer said while reflecting on how culture could help one overcome hurdles. “[But] she’s always in high spirits, even with all that’s going on. Newborn babies had on costumes and had their culture instilled in them. I wish we had more of that African culture built into the Black community in America.”

The mission to build that connection continues on the evening of June 25 during another fundraiser and exhibition at the Brookland Artspace Lofts Apartments in Northeast.

Soon, audiences may be exposed to the Afro-Brazilian sounds through more than one means. In thinking beyond the movie, Spivey expressed plans of eventually flying the members of Children of the Rocinha in the Pelourinho to the District to take part in a samba reggae-go-go mash up. For her, the cultural exchange must continue between children of the Diaspora.

Briana Monet, Spivey’s other partner on the film project, echoed those sentiments, noticing a positive change in her colleague’s disposition as she got more support and resources to take this passion project by the horns.

“You just have to give it to the world. That’s the reward,” Monet told AllEyesOnDC. “Art isn’t always about money or fame. It’s about being free and true. The reward isn’t a pay day. It’s more about honesty, being human and becoming immortal through the eyes of those you helped those along the way. Everything is true and raw. Any human can connect to that, more so than fabricated stories.”

For more information about “Maestrina de Favala” or to contribute, like the Facebook page or email

MBYLI Wraps Up Another Year

PHOTO: Students lead a presentation during the closing ceremony for the Marion Barry Youth Leadership Institute on the evening of May 19th./ Photo courtesy of Jasmine Wilson/MYBLI 

A group of middle and high school students recently wowed an audience of their peers and family members with their problem-solving skills and reflections about their personal and professional journey during a gathering hosted by a District government agency.

During this event, the nearly 20 youngsters, a number of whom will attend the college of their choice this fall, celebrated the completion of another year in the Marion Barry Youth Leadership Institute (MBYLI), a youth development program housed within the D.C. Department of Employment Services (DOES). 

“Being in this program has been overwhelming [at times] but it helped me grow as a leader. I met lifelong friends, learned how to lead, network, and dress professionally,” Ebony Johnson, a youth mayor and a four-year MBYLI participant, told AllEyesOnDC during the Thursday, May 19th program, which fell on what would’ve been martyred activist Malcolm X’s 91st birthday.

Johnson counted among those who received honors during a two-hour program, themed “Malcolm to Marion: The Global Xperience,” at DOES headquarters in Northeast. Organizers named the event for Malcolm and late D.C. Mayor Marion S. Barry.

As one of two youth mayors, Johnson represented D.C.’s young people during public events, black-tie functions, and other gatherings, experiences she said pushed her into the spotlight. Hours before the start of the end-of-the-year program, Johnson finished her last day at Don Bosco Cristo Rey High School in Takoma Park, Maryland.

This fall, she’ll attend Bennett College in Greensboro, N.C. where she plans to take lessons she learned about Malcolm in her political science and Spanish studies.

“I enjoyed learning about Malcolm X because he [created] a legacy [about] being yourself and doing what you have to do even if people won’t like you for it.  Leaders go through so much but they succeed when they surround themselves around successful people,” Johnson eagerly mentioned.

Throughout the 2015-2016 school year, more than 125 youth involved with MBYLI engaged in personal development, civic engagement, and work readiness training. This summer, 300 high school students will sharpen their academic and professional skills on area college campuses including Catholic and Howard universities, located in Northeast and Northwest respectively. 

Some students have also become more globally aware in their involvement with MBYLI. Last year, the program sent 13 young people to South Africa as part of a partnership with Global Kids, a nonprofit that allows students in underserved communities to connect with their peers across the world.

“This program keeps the kids busy and involved in different activities. My son has become more comfortable with public speaking [since joining],” Yolanda Allen told AllEyesOnDC, referring to Anthony David, a freshman at Washington Latin Public Charter School in Northwest. 

Allen, a Southeast resident, said that since enrolling in MBYLI, David has has taken on leadership roles and grown more confident in a society that often limits the career opportunities of young Black men to athletics and entertainment.     

“I want him to be a productive citizen and make our race proud as a Black man,” Allen  added.”I’m not losing my young one to the block. He has to do what he has to do. I highly encourage parents to do the same. It’s about the community. These students come from all walks of life and get along so well.”

Last week’s program served as testament to the sense of community MBYLI fosters. Throughout much of the evening, students answered to greetings of “Hello winners!” Phillip Walker, MBYLI manager, gave opening remarks, reflecting on his experience as a participant and alumnus of the program.

Later, the young winners gave presentations about Malcolm X, the college application process, and their growth in the program. One group outlined a 10-point program modeled after that of the Black Panther Party that would counter spatial mismatching. Plans included a charter bus service that transporting students from McKinley Technology High School in Northeast to their Southeast neighborhoods.

Special guests included D.C. Deputy Mayor of Greater Economic Opportunity Courtney Snowden who briefly spoke to students and parents. Veteran developer Ibrahim Mumin gave the keynote address in which he highlighted Barry’s civil rights work and evoked Malcolm X’s nationalistic spirit.

“We should be about institution building. We can train people for years but if they don’t bring their skills back to the village. It doesn’t help the city,” Mumin told the audience. “We have to change the culture in D.C. We can’t be chumps and go along with people who do the illegal stuff. Let’s internationalize our struggle.”

The late Barry, often referred to as “Mayor for Life” during his storied career, launched MBYLI, then called the D.C. Summer Youth Employment Program, in the late 1970s. The program employed an untold number of young D.C. residents, many of whom went on to work in public service. MBYLI’s alumni association recently became a 501(c)3, a plan put in motion after Barry’s 2014 death.

“This program was nothing short of extraordinary for me. I’m using what I learned there and in college to give back to the young ones,” David Williams, 2011 MBYLI alumnus and current employee, told AllEyesOnDC. After graduating from the University of Maryland College Park in 2015, he took on the responsibility of training MBYLI students as an Omega leader.

Williams said such an opportunity allowed him to impart wisdom on those whose shoes he sat in at one point.

“We have to inspire these kids and impact them in a way that helps them grow. Our biggest challenge this year was finding resources. I used my personal finances to fund activities and it was rewarding to see how that affected them.”

Questions Linger in Alonzo Smith Case

On May 1st, also known as May Day, six months would have passed since Special Police officers allegedly murdered Alonzo F. Smith, a D.C.-area teacher’s aide, on the grounds of Marbury Plaza Apartments, perched on the hills of Good Hope Road in Southeast.

Though the altercation, the culmination of which was caught on a police body camera, placed a spotlight on local law enforcement protocol and sparked a grassroots movement for community control of police, a secret grand jury proceeding and what seems like political maneuvering by the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) and public officials threaten the possibility that the responsible parties will be held accountable.

Whatever the outcome, life has gone on for Marbury Plaza residents. Somewhat unaffected by Smith’s death, many have chosen to move rather than challenge the status quo. Edgar Greene, a local artist who has lived in Marbury Plaza for nearly two years, described such an outlook as a byproduct of living in an increasingly hostile environment. For this interview, he used a pseudonym.

“In the days and weeks leading up the incident, we saw quasi-SWAT gear come out; bulletproof vests and all of that,” Greene told AllEyesOnDC, noting other changes on the grounds of the apartment, including the shuttering of the community pool and demolition of a playground. “You could just tell the security unit was looking for something. They always had an edge about them. They wanted an excuse to pick on someone,” he added.

Greene recalled hearing his roommate speak about hearing Smith’s screams for help as he ran down numerous flights of steps, out through the back door of their apartment and across the parking lot into the building where officers finally detained him. In the weeks after his death, rumors have also circulated about officers pulling Smith out of a car.

Beyond that, not much has come to surface about what transpired before Smith’s detainment and ultimate death. In a statement issued days after, MPD said they received three emergency calls from Marbury Plaza in the early morning hours of Nov. 1st, including one for an assault in progress. Upon arriving on the scene, they said they found an unconscious, handcuffed Smith lying face down in the stairwell of the apartment with Special Police officers standing over his lifeless body. In those critical minutes, medics failed to resuscitate him through the application of CPR.

Smith was later pronounced dead at United Medical Center.

The D.C. Office of the Medical Examiner ruled Smith’s death a homicide, citing “acute cocaine toxicity while restrained” and “compression of the torso” among key causes. On the night of his arrest, Special Police officers told MPD officials that he may have been under the influence of K2, a brand of synthetic marijuana. That claim remains unsubstantiated.

Before his death, Smith, 27, had plans of completing his second anthology of poetry and continuing his undergraduate studies at Morgan State University in Baltimore. He also had stints as a portrait model. At his funeral, students that Smith taught in Alexandria, Virginia described him as an outstanding role model and happy-go-lucky person who tried to guide them along the right path.

The Special Police officers involved, employed by Blackout Investigations and Security Services, a Waldorf, Maryland-based security company, have since had their privilege and ability to carry a firearm revoked. However, Greene, along with others, said they have reason to believe that Blackout may have not honored honor its commitment to suspend those who were on duty that night, even alleging that one of the employees in the video still patrols the premises to this day.

“When it first went down, folks weren’t really complacent but there was nothing they could do. The general consensus is that this is something that happens then we move on. Security switched up and we hope they took the proper measures but you never know,” Greene said.

Beverly Smith, mother of Alonzo Smith, has remained immensely skeptical about the official information coming out in the days and months her son’s death, telling AllEyesOnDC that MPD and Blackout Investigations have worked to sweep her son’s murder under the rug. She said that officers from Internal Affairs waited until the evening of Nov. 2nd ,nearly 48 hours after Smith death, to notify her, visiting her at her home, located three blocks up the street from Marbury Plaza.

Smith said the situation worsened the next day when MPD Chief Cathy Lanier publicly called Smith’s death a “justifiable homicide” before reneging amid the media frenzy around her statement. During a December press conference, Lanier confirmed that an officer’s knee was in Smith’s back during the arrest.

Months before Smith’s death, officers employed by Blackout Investigations got involved in a civil case that’s ongoing, according to the D.C. Courts database. Blackout Investigations declined AllEyesOnDC’s request for comment on the circumstances surrounding Smith’s death.

At this point, the case has left MPD Internal Affairs Bureau and gone to the U.S. Attorney General’s office, which will conduct a grand jury trial, the date of which hasn’t been determined, under the direction of Jan Saxton, the prosecuting attorney. A spokesperson for the U.S. Justice Department declined AllEyesOnDC’s request for information regarding the case and the grand jury proceedings.

Other pertinent information, including the identity of the officers involved, has yet to surface, much to Smith’s chagrin.

“I hold MPD accountable. They went by what the officers said that night,” Smith, a retired federal employee, told AllEyesOnDC. “The Special Police knew my son wasn’t breathing and they put restraints on his feet. They had their knees on his back and obstructed his breathing but didn’t turn him over to administer CPR. They left his body in the first and second landing. They didn’t have a defibrillator and they mentioned that in the video,” she added.

Weeks after Alonzo’s death, Smith, along with members of Pan-African Community Action (PACA), a grassroots organization focused on community control of law enforcement in Black communities, held a vigil and rally on the grounds of Marbury Plaza. Those gatherings attracted dozens of people, including Ward 8 Council member LaRuby May. Over time, Smith became a member of PACA, following in the footsteps of Sybrina Fulton, Lesley McSpadden, and other Black women across the country who became activists after their son’s died in encounters with police officers and hypervigilant forces.

Efforts to hold those responsible those who caused Alonzo’s death have materialized into what’s known as the Justice4Zo campaign. Since its launch last November, PACA has circulated a petition demanding full disclosure about what took place on Halloween night and an independent investigation. They’ve also hosted community events during which PACA members educate participants about the intricacies and benefits of community control over police.

“It goes beyond Marbury Plaza. It’s about the community and what role police play,” Netfa Freeman, a member of PACA, told AllEyesOnDC, acknowledging the possibility of pushback against this seemingly bold idea, especially amid concerns about the violence that plagues Anacostia and other areas east of the Anacostia River.

“People are torn. If their immediate experience has been in the face of the kind of crime that comes with living in an underprivileged community, then they can be conflicted about this issue,” Freeman added, pointing out that the system neglects Black communities and those conditions breed violence and crime. “It’s about people understanding the interconnectedness of it all. Our communities are plagued with crime for the same reasons that police officers abuse us. The crime gives them an excuse to repress.”

In January, Smith testified before the United Nations Working Group on Experts on People of African Descent about her son’s death during a meeting at Union Temple Baptist Church in Anacostia. The event counted among a bevy of the group’s stops during its 11-day tour. Days later, they released a report expressing its “extreme concern about the human rights situation of African Americans.” That document, which focused on police murders of Black civilians, included Alonzo Smith’s name.

Smith said this turn of events has boosted her spirits, giving her some hope that she’ll get justice for her son and ensure that laws are put in place to prevent future atrocities.

“One of our demands is for MPD to make transparent the laws and policies for Special Police officers,” Smith said. Currently, Special Police officers they have arresting powers similar to that of MPD. They also receive 40 hours of training.

“The most interesting thing about Special Police officers is that they have the right to arrest and retain on property. MPD said they had nothing to do with this incident, but they’re partially responsible because they authorize the Special Police in D.C.,” Smith added.

Ensuring that all parties are held responsible, however, may be easier said than done.

Last month, Smith visited Council member May’s office with a letter asking for her continued support of Justice4Zo campaign efforts. She said Alfred Davis, May’s chief of staff met her outside and declined the letter, telling her there was nothing May’s office could do for her. Later that week, May visited Smith at her home during which she made a commitment to research policy related to the Special Police officers, Smith said. May’s office didn’t return AllEyesOnDC’s request for comment about this matter or the issue of community-police relations in Ward 8.

During the interview for this piece, Smith also cited what she described as inconsistencies in her son’s murder case, notably the absence of his phone among his belongings. On the video from the police camera, portions of which Smith says she often sees in her dreams, she recalls seeing one of the arresting officers going through the mobile device before tossing it down the stairwell.

It doesn’t stop there.

For Smith, a look at Alonzo’s corpse negated anything official reports said. Signs of injury included swelling in his neck, a broken and badly bruised shoulder, and hemorrhaging near his larynx, all consistent with bruising and blunt force trauma to his back and neck. The elder Smith, 52, also recalled Shaun Reid, director of Shaun R. Reid Funeral Services, the company that prepared her son’s body, telling her that her son’s face appeared to have been bruised, something medical records don’t mention.

Days after Smith spoke with Reid, she held a conference call with the three medical examiners involved in her son’s case and requested a second autopsy. She told AllEyesOnDC that the D.C. Office of the Attorney General and MPD’s Internal Affairs Bureau immediately swooped in, contacting the funeral home and asking Reid for the photos he took of the deceased Smith’s face.“ The funeral director called me shortly after sounding surprised,” Smith said. “He said he wanted to do the right thing.”

As of publishing time, Reid hasn’t returned AllEyesOnDC’s request for comment on the allegations of blunt force.

Through it all, Smith said she remains confident that her son’s death won’t go in vain. In recent weeks, she has appeared at community events across the city with a circular pin bearing his image and a black shirt with “Justice4Zo” emblazoned across it. Despite what she described as the widespread grassroots support, she admits that questions about that fateful night often cross her mind.

“Every single moment of my life, I think about what happened prior to the police restraining Alonzo in the hallway,” she said. “He couldn’t call me [because they had his phone]. I would have run down the hill in my pajamas. I’m only three blocks away. There are so many unanswered questions. Who was he visiting? I don’t know anyone who lives up there.”

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