June 3, 2009
(Editor’s Note: This is the eighth in a series of features titled “You Voted. Now What?” highlighting some of our nation’s most inspiring and successful young activists. Through these stories we hope to explore a range of ways to channel some of the prodigious political energy unleashed during the Obama campaign. All features are produced in partnership with the Student Nation.)
Twenty-f0ur-year-old Brandon “Abdullah” Willis never expected to be providing vocational training to at-risk youth, meeting with congressmen about environmental policy or guiding groups of urban teens in electoral canvassing. But Abdullah’s work, as manager of audio production at Elementz youth center in Cincinnati, Ohio, has grown far beyond the hip-hop music that first drew him to activism.
Abdullah began working at Elementz full time in 2006. Formed by Gavin Leonard and Islord Allah in 2005, Elementz is a community center that provides a safe, positive space for urban youth to go after school to hone their talents, socialize and keep out of trouble. The name comes from the four elements of hip-hop culture–DJing, emceeing, graffiti and breakdancing. Urban youth, ages 14-24, can come to the center for free, professional instruction, high-quality studios, supplies and leadership opportunities.
Through Elementz, Abdullah has participated in peace summits against violence at Cincinnati City Hall, hosted dialogues about sexual health and mentored other community leaders. “We focus on the assets of what these young people bring instead of the deficiencies,” he says. He also guides “The Lead,” a monthly, youth-led showcase that features performances by Elementz artists from all four disciplines of hip-hop. The performances all center on a constructive, relevant theme.
Growing up in Columbus, Ohio, Abdullah became familiar with the sorts of challenges urban teens face. He watched his peers on the basketball court fall into destructive addictions, teen parenthood and trouble with the law. But his father, Chris Powell (a successful musician and producer), his mother, Randi Willis (a nurse) and his step-father, Russell Willis, made sure Abdullah stayed on a constructive path. They pushed him to stay focused on school and athletics.
Abdullah’s father helped him connect music to social work in high school by encouraging him to volunteer at a non-profit called S.T.A.R.S. (Striving To Achieve Real Success). Powell founded S.T.A.R.S. to train at-risk youth with music business skills that could help them overcome social hurdles. S.T.A.R.S. marked the beginning of Abdullah’s use of music to build political awareness. “It was an ongoing theme in my life,” Abdullah says.