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.
Inspired by artists like Talib Kweli, Mos Def and the Wu-Tang Clan, Abdullah began creating his own socially conscious music in a homemade studio while attending the University of Cincinnati. In 2004, he produced an album called “The Professor and the Mutant” that was distributed by an independent label in New York City. At the same time, Abdullah’s political activities increased as he joined groups like the Racial Awareness Pilot Program (RAPP), a campus organization that combats discrimination.
In 2005, he experienced a spiritual awakening that led him to become a Muslim. It was around this time that people he knew started calling him “Abdullah” to represent his new Muslim identity. With his new faith and his new name came a renewed commitment to community building. “Now I couldn’t have any corruption in it,” Abdullah says.
After hearing that it may be similar to S.T.A.R.S., Abdullah started volunteering regularly at Elementz, giving younger musicians free lessons on how to use professional music production tools like FL Studio, Pro Tools, and Reason. “Someone has to step between youth and the media,” Abdullah says. Hip-hop can be a fun and positive tool for social change, he explains, but youth also need to know how to pursue more solid career paths. He was passionate about the work, but after graduating from college with a bachelor’s degree in electronic media in 2006, the bills started to pile up and Abdullah was unsure how to pay them.
Gavin Leonard said he should apply for AmeriCorps. Elementz was a partner organization, so Abdullah could become a full-time, paid volunteer and continue to do what he had already done for months at the youth center. After a series of interviews, AmeriCorps hired Abdullah and his unpaid college loans began to shrink. Abdullah worked through AmeriCorps for two years until Elementz was able to fit his pay into their budget. “It may not be a whole lot of money,” Abdullah says, “but I’m comfortable having some kind of steady paycheck and doing what I love to do.”
The scope of his work has grown into much more than it was in the beginning. In addition to tutoring students, Abdullah also led some of them in a presidential election canvassing effort last year. “It’s important for us to encourage them [young people] to be active in what’s going on in the community,” Abdullah says. He also found a way to maximize his community development by joining with the Center for Progressive Leadership (CPL), a nonpartisan organization that specializes in training young people to become future politicians, organizers and activists. (Leonard now works at CPL.) Abdullah recently applied for the Ohio Political Leaders Fellowship and was accepted in March. The fellowship allows him to participate in weekend courses, mentoring and political networking with a wide variety of groups.
CPL also helped Abdullah to partner with Green for All–a national organization fighting for new green-collar careers that can lift people out of poverty. In April 2008, Abdullah took a group from Elementz to a Green for All conference called “The Dream Reborn” in Memphis, Tennessee. Since then, Abdullah has also been in contact with Steve Driehaus, his representative in Congress, Micah Vieux of the Ohio League of Conservation Voters, and Larry Feist, a program chair of renewable energy vocational training at Cincinnati State Technical and Community College. Abdullah partnered with them to host a town hall meeting at Elementz on May 16 to discuss using economic stimulus money to fund green job education for low-income urban youth.
Abdullah hopes more musically inclined activists will consider community development as a career option. “I’ve always felt like I didn’t have to worry about money because this is always needed,” Abdullah says. “There’s never going to be a time when there’s not someone that needs help.” Community workers like him have to be motivated to help people and not expect to make a whole lot of money quickly, but Abdullah says the intangible benefits that come with changing a young hip-hop fan’s life are worth it. “It’s better than anything money can buy.”
Check out previous “You Voted. Now What?” features:
Geoffrey Dobbins is a journalist who learned how to write for magazines, newspapers and blogs at the University of Cincinnati. Between runs to the local comic book shop, he’s been a contributor for Cincinnati Magazine, The News Record, The Cincinnati Herald, The Root and Wiretap magazine.