Art-focused grant a tool against violence in St. Paul

  • Article by: CHAO XIONG , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 11, 2012 - 11:38 PM

New recording studio intended to give youth an outlet for anger.

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Latrez Morris, 21, right, greeted Terrell Woods, known on the music scene as Carnage, in what will become a recording studio at the Dayton’s Bluff Recreation Center.

Photo: Courtney Perry, Star Tribune

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Latrez Morris and Dominic Neeley grew up together playing basketball and spinning rap songs. They called each other's mom "mom."

They thought of each other as brothers.

Then, in February, Neeley's body was found near a shed in St. Paul, the victim of an unsolved homicide. It hit Morris hard, but it wasn't new for him or the approximately 30 young black men in the Youth in Transition program at the Dayton's Bluff Recreation Center.

The participants, in their early teens to mid-20s, have lost at least five friends or relatives in recent years to street violence.

"It's been very hard," said Morris, who tempers his pain with a somber realization beyond his 21 years. "Everybody goes through a death experience."

Program founders are hoping a new recording studio will help unlock the young men's buried emotions through one of their go-to modes of self-expression -- rap.

Youth in Transition received an art-focused grant last year to install a recording studio and recruit a local musician to mentor the group. Much of the equipment has been purchased; some still needs to be scrounged up with other funds. The studio will be installed in a small room in Dayton's Bluff Achievement Plus Elementary, which adjoins the recreation center.

It's a sign of the times that engaging today's youth takes more than a basketball and an open gym, said recreation director and Youth in Transition co-founder Steven Randall, who has worked in the area for about 40 years.

The hope is that the studio will give them a voice and an outlet so their anger and frustration doesn't spill over as more violence or apathy.

"They've gone through a lot of pain, they've lost a lot of friends -- more than I've ever experienced," said Mary Moore, program co-founder and a recreation center leader.

"They haven't had a sort of therapy," said her husband, Colin Moore, who works in crime prevention in the area.

About a half-dozen of the Youth in Transition participants are active in the rap program. They meet regularly with local musician Terrell Woods, a former probation officer who goes by the stage name "Carnage the Executioner."

"It's life-changing," said a soft-spoken Finon Thomas, 21. "I don't even rap in front of my family, but I met this dude [Woods] and we sat in a little circle and he had me rapping."

At first, Woods and program founders were shocked by the graphic lyrics and imagery that chronicled the participants' life experiences.

"We speak freely," Morris said of the rap sessions. "We speak our minds."

For many, it's the only safe place to do that.

"They won't even tell their families things they tell us," Randall said.

Youth in Transition was founded after 16-year-old Earl Ray Freeman was fatally shot aboard a Metro Transit bus in 2007. He was sitting next to the intended target. Street violence and gang rivalries were troubling the Dayton's Bluff neighborhood, which typically has the city's highest juvenile crime rate.

Randall and Mary Moore created the program to keep the most at-risk kids off the streets, and focus on empowering participants. The young men helped propose the recording studio idea, write the grant and select their mentor. They will build the studio together.

There are plans to release a CD and to perform at festivals.

The studio, which is scheduled to be completed in a few months, will eventually open for public use.

"It's going to be fun," Thomas said. "I just can't wait."

Chao Xiong • 612-270-4708 Twitter: @ChaoStrib

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