When JaMay Blackwell stood up to rap about stopping violence in city neighborhoods, he was barely tall enough to reach the mic:
"[I]t's not even right
When you kill somebody
Just to go to jail
You shouldn't get bail
So what are you going to do?
The choice is up to you."
But the 12-year-old knows all too well the loss that violence can bring. Just the day before, a distant cousin, Jayla Brown, was gunned down in Lawrenceville after celebrating her 19th birthday. Five weeks ago, JaMay also lost an uncle in a suspected murder by poisoning.
So on Aug. 10, JaMay joined a score of other Hill District teenagers at Freedom Corner to rally for a stop to the killings. "Make the violence cease," they chanted. "Put the silence to the violence."
The teenagers are participants of a summer program hosted by the Hill House in collaboration with the Carnegie Museums. Called Mission Discovery, the program aims to foster the teenagers' courage to speak up and speak out to the public. They are coached in using various art forms to deliver the message they hold dear. The program culminated in last Friday's rally; the teenagers chose "Silence the violence" as their theme.
Chanting and ranting aside, participants recommended several things everyone can do to help quell the violence. Don't call people names, and extend a helping hand to the needy, suggested Fleche Jones, another program participant, as she read aloud her essay.
Neil Parham, the mayor's youth policy manager, says that while the teenagers' voices got a full airing at the rally, they can keep speaking out by joining the city's youth council. "It is important they spread this message to their peers," says Parham.
Kristin Blackwell, JaMay's aunt and a Hill House staff member involved in the summer program, says the teenagers will keep trumpeting their anti-violence message at community festivals. Speaking out on violence, Blackwell says, can be at once educational as cathartic for those young people who have had to grapple with the aftermath of violence. She hugged JaMay as he teared up at the thought of his dead uncle.
"We need to teach each other: Violence isn't the answer," says Blackwell. When "it hit close to home, it's hard for them to express. I try to keep their heads up.
"Express yourself. If you've got to cry, cry," Kristin Blackwell adds.