“You know, people look at the young drug dealers in this city like they a menace. Man, these are kids. Somebody’s bringing this stuff in and giving it to them to sell.”
It’s 6 p.m. on August 8, and Derrick Jones (A.K.A. Yo Slick, A.K.A. OOH of Bmore hip-hop veterans Brown F.I.S.H.) is at the Windup Space. In two hours he’ll be the featured emcee at the Baltimore Boom Bap Society‘s monthly, improvised hip-hop session. Jones will get paired up with a group of musicians, Wendel Patrick will be on the turntables, the bar will fill up, and the crowd will get stupid happy on a Wednesday night. Then, midway through the set, when the crowd is glowing, their attention is rapt, Jones will raise his hand.
“Hold on, hold up! Listen. There’s some children out there that need our help.”
A Baltimore hip-hop superhero at night, by day Jones serves as director of Maryland’s Youth Advocate Programs (YAP), Inc., a non-profit that provides services to juvenile offenders as alternatives to incarceration. His latest mission with YAP, however, is so important that Jones has enlisted his alter ego Yo Slick to help him raise awareness. His task: to save a dope boy (that is, to #SaveADopeBoy).
Baltimore is rife with dope boys–nonviolent drug offenders, youths taking to the street for lack of guidance and alternative revenue sources. And Jones is going to save them. To prevent these kids from becoming and re-becoming drug dealers, he looks for the problem’s source.
“A lot of these children are doing this because their parents cannot afford to take care of them, or… are not educated enough,” says Jones, who spent ten years teaching in Baltimore City Public Schools before he joined YAP. “I see a lot of times when children are really taking care of themselves at 13 and 14 years old, and younger siblings. So where else are they supposed to get money from? They can’t get a job. They not hiring a 14 year-old. They unskilled… so they hit the first and the easiest way possible: guy on the corner like, ‘Look. You stand out here all day, you can make a hundred dollars.’”
In order to break this cycle, YAP offers a supported work program. It works like this: Kids are referred to Jones via the Department of Juvenile Services or the Department of Social Services. Jones approaches local businesses and asks them, in a nutshell, if they’d like free labor for six months. The business enters a contract with YAP, agreeing to train the kids and give them hours while YAP pays the kids. The kids undergo a five-time, weekly job readiness training program, teaching them about grooming, financing, money management, job readiness, attitudes, and goal-setting. On week six, they interview with the pre-screened businesses, and soon after they start work. Then, Jones says, “If they do well, after six months we go to the owner like, ‘Hey. They been doing this good for six months. Can you pick them up?”
Boom. Dope boy saved, right?
Not quite. The supported work program currently serves 46 youths, eight of whom are at the working stage (the rest are in training). However, Jones can only serve kids if they are in DJS or DSS, the two organizations from whom he receives the most funding.
“I constantly get phone calls now from different parents asking me for help, asking me to do different things. I’m like, ‘Is your son on probation?’ ‘No.’ ‘Does he have a DSS case working?’ ‘No.’ ‘Oh, I’m sorry. I can’t really help you right now.’”
There’s very little money in preventative care, says Jones. For years, both with YAP and with city schools, Jones has been putting forward his own money to help kids when they need it. At the same time, he’s been making music, both by himself and with Brown F.I.S.H. It seemed he needed a better way to raise funds so he could incorporate kids into the supported work program who hadn’t yet gotten themselves in trouble. Enter “Dope Boy” by Yo Slick.
The single, which dropped May 7, talks about where dope boys come from: “He can barely read/ Fuck school/ How you s’posed to concentrate when they laughin at your shoes?” All proceeds from the song’s iTunes sales go towards a preventative care fund in the supported work program. Local hip-hop station 92 Q has been playing the song, and Jones has been playing shows up and down the East Coast, promoting the cause, selling t-shirts that read “#SaveADopeBoy” and hats that say “Dope Boy.”
However, proceeds from music and merch sales aren’t likely to sustain more than a few kids’ job readiness training and wages. Another angle of Jones’ has been speaking to academic communities, including social work programs at different schools, trying to grab the attention of organizations that might donate to preventative care. Everywhere he goes, he says, he brings one of his protégés, a young man named Rayshard Johnson, to tell his story.
“I can stand up there and say, ‘You need to do this that and the third thing,’ but it means a lot more coming from him,” says Jones. The reporter asks about Rayshard’s story, but Jones has a better idea–to meet with Rayshard in person.
* * *
So, a few days later, Jones meets again with the reporter in the Caribbean Paradise Restaurant and Lounge, the Jamaican Joint across the street from the Charles Theatre. With him this time is Rayshard, or Lil’ OOH, as he is sometimes known.
The two go back to 2001, when Jones was a fifth-year teacher and Rayshard was a second grade student at Gilmor Elementary in Sandtown, West Baltimore.
“It’s one of those areas where by the time you turn nine you know [you hear] gunshots, you don’t run,” Rayshard, now 18, says of his neighborhood. “I got to that point where I knew they wasn’t aiming for me; what am I running for?”
Into this neighborhood Jones was beginning his first year as an elementary school teacher, having just left West Baltimore Middle in Westgate. “So I go from 15, 16 year-olds who think they know as much about life as I do to seven year-olds who want, like, a hug, and stuff,” explains Jones. On day one he had a few discipline issues, nothing major. As he left school, a friend contacted Jones and asked him to come by his studio that evening.
As Jones was leaving the studio in Sandtown around 11:30 at night, he says he stopped at a stop sign at Mount and Presstman, when a seven year-old walked past his car.
“I’m talking to [my friend], and I’m like, ‘Yo, look at this kid out here in the street,’” says Jones. “I’m like, ‘What the hell?’ Then I’m like, ‘Hold up… He in my class!’” Jones started to shout at the kid. “‘Hey! Hey shorty, come here!’ He turn around, he’s looking all like, ‘I’m not coming to you, man.’ Then I’m like, ‘I’M YOUR TEACHER.’ I don’t even know his name.”
The kid, whose name was Rayshard Johnson, explained to Jones that he had left a friend’s house, found his own home was empty, and was now walking to an aunt’s house. “Now, this is on the corner of Mount and Presstman,” explains Jones. “He still has two major streets he has to go across, and then another seven streets down… I was like, ‘Man, get in the car.’”
After taking Rayshard to the aunt’s house, Jones started to pay more attention to the bright, cheeky, mathematically gifted second-grader.
“I was good at math,” Rayshard starts to say, when Jones cuts him off.
“Dude is a mathematical genius… I’m teaching two digit by two digit multiplication, like, ‘Listen, you gotta bring this down, and carry the one,’ and by the time I get halfway through the problem he’s yelling out the answer. It became, like, a discipline problem.”
Rayshard demanded attention in school, but Jones began to see that, beyond his skills, Rayshard needed guidance outside the classroom. He needed a father figure.
Rayshard remembers the first time he and Jones spend time together outside the classroom: “The first time he tell me ‘Look, man. We going out go-karting on Saturday,’ I’m in the house playing a game. I ain’t believe him. My father just lied to me last week, told me he was coming. He ain’t come, so why should this man come?”
After that first year, Jones followed Rayshard’s class through sixth grade at Gilmor Elementary. The whole time Jones says he encouraged Rayshard, took him to get new shoes, brought him to the barbershop. People started to call Rayshard Lil’ OOH.
“It’s crazy when you think your teacher just there to make a check,” says Rayshard. “Then when you get a teacher that cares, a teacher that does that extra, on-the-weekend call, and… he don’t check to see was your homework done. He checked to see was your room clean.”
In sixth and seventh grade, Rayshard started playing football. Jones was right there with him, buying him pads, cleats, and coming to every game. But then, as Rayshard entered eighth grade, Jones left Baltimore city schools and started working as assistant director with Youth Advocate Programs. He and Rayshard still spoke, but Jones was often out of town, so they stayed in touch mostly by phone.
In a few years, Rayshard’s football playing slowed down. He started missing school. Around the same time, Jones had his first child, a baby girl. Then, one day, Jones got a phone call from Rayshard. Rayshard was in the detention center, locked up for distribution.
“When I talk to him he just ‘fessed up,” says Jones. “‘Yeah, I’m selling drugs. I gotta help take care of my little sister and my mother’s not doing nothing. My father’s not doing this for me.’ When I got that phone call, I was on some, ‘Listen. I don’t want to hear about you bein in my pockets or nothing. I got you. Come home, this what we gonna do.”
Jones got the name of Rayshard’s probabtion officer, and got Rayshard put into the supported work program. For four months Rayshard worked in B. Framed, a framing shop in Randallstown. Two months ago, he found a position working in the Charm City Cupcakes factory. No more run-ins, no rearrests in two years. He graduated high school and is planning on applying to Coppin Sate University next year to become a registered nurse.
Boom. Dope boy saved.
But, wait. Was it really that easy? Isn’t Rayshard tempted to return to selling for some fast money?
Well, yes. “I’m tempted every day,” says Rayshard. “I’m tempted when I see an iphone… When you was living that life, it was more of, ‘Let’s go down to Mo’s and get some crab cakes. Let’s blow this money, because I’ma make it back in the morning… $500 a day sounds way better than $500 each two weeks. Way better.”
Rayshard goes on to explain how his mindset changed. “[Jones] told me, ‘Would I rather have that ten thousand now, or that ten million later?” Rayshard started thinking about the long-term feasibility of living off dope money. “When you out there on that corner, there’s no 401k. No health insurance. There’s nothing to insure your future unless you’re good with a gun, or you’re good at getting away from the police.”
However, Rayshard says, he never would have come around to his views were it not for the support he’d gotten from YAP. He refers to Jones as his father, and to his advocate, Ian Smith (A.K.A. Jahiti from Brown F.I.S.H.) as his uncle.
“When I was three years old, I was hanging out in the court with dope boys, killers, robbers. What you want them to be?” asks Rayshard. “My mother was there, but… once I left the doorway, I was gone… I was with who I wanted to be with. At that point in time the older guys with the money was who I was with, and this guy, now–” He nudges Jones’ elbow, “–that’s who I was with. An older role model, somebody who wasn’t a dope boy but knew that background, and knew how to get you out of that background.”
“Before I met him, Fells Point seemed like Miami to me,” Rayshard says of Jones. “I’d be like, ‘Where we at? There’s water in Baltimore? Closest thing I seen to water is Druid Hill Park. We out in Fells Point, we out by the lakes. Now I know a million and one free ways to make a girl think we somewhere special,” Rayshard says, and everybody laughs. “Thanks to Derrick Jones.”
So, is there any chance that Rayshard will return to the corner? He says no, and so does Jones.
“I don’t fear somebody gonna be able to talk him into selling drugs again,” says Jones. “There is no way in the world I think somebody’s gonna peer pressure him on some, ‘Oh, man, you a sucker, man. You soft–’ I don’t ever think that could happen with this guy.”
However, Jones notes that there are kids for whom he is scared. Scores of Rayshards out there who need somebody to intervene, who need to be given support before they turn to selling drugs. “You give somebody a job when they turn 16 or 18, that’s too late sometimes. From my area, 14, 13, you hungry. You gotta get it.”
Jones encourages anybody who wants to help spread the word, who wants to help save a dope boy, or who knows about a preventative care-related grant to contact his office at 410 385-3171, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.