cover_story (2006-14)

Chris Woodhull (center of left photo). Pictured with Woodhull are Reuben Figueroa, Dexter Murphy and Nicie Murphy.

Boom Boom prints T-shirts for a host of local businesses and charitable organizations.

Tribe One staff and interns mug for a group photo.

Tribe One has been based out of this former mortuary on Magnolia for about two years now.

This is a boy from K-town that’s real/ I grew up around killers that’ll split your grill/ Rattle your crib/ Put a dent in your dome/ Runnin’ your home/ The streets is a mess/ And everybody’s a test/ I keep the nine on me/ For any nigga want a beef in the streets/ ’Cause I don’t mess with these phonies/ This block’s hard and the street’s tough/ And everybody ain’t a bluff/ Might get your face cuffed/I grew up in A-homes with the gunshots/ Get y’ass gun blocked/ Niggas run a gun spot/ I been on the streets/ I killed the block/ I’m 17/ What you heard about? I held a Glock/ I been in the game/ I sold the ’caine/ I seen the life of a thug and nigga get his brains sprayed/ Dead on the curve/ You don’t hear my word/ I’m 17, but you don’t hear my words — Freestyle rap recorded by Tribe One youth at Magnolia Sound Studio, 2006

For teenage kids growing up in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods like Lonsdale or Mechanicsville or College Hills, freestyle rap—extemporaneous lyrics improvised to pre-recorded hip-hop beats—is at once therapy, avocation, and means of (very) personal expression. They’re also more revealing of this particular human condition—of just what kind of pain, rancid confusion and dead-end ugliness runs through these kids’ heads—than any focus group or high school counseling session could ever hope to be.

“For the most part, the lyrics you hear from these kids are pretty much how it is for them,” says Gene Bailey, aka G-wizz, local Christian rap artist and enterprise director for the Tribe One organization’s Magnolia Sound Studio. A 31-year-old native of Mechanicsville, Bailey is one of the strong ones—a kid who grew up in a neighborhood where toting a pistol and slinging dope didn’t seem like such bad ideas, yet who came through the other side, soul intact.

“When it comes to freestyling, telling your story is the most popular thing to do,” he continues. “You tell people who you are, what you’ve done, what you represent. It lets people know that, ‘hey, this dude is pretty real, and he’s been through some stuff.’”

Today, Bailey is coaching a handful of boys from the nearby Emerald Youth Group through another day of studio bootcamp, a program whereby neighborhood kids can come into Magnolia Sound twice a week and learn the rudiments of songwriting and recording.

A former basketball player at Austin-East High School, Bailey is so tall and angular and preternaturally thin that he resembles nothing so much as a Praying Mantis with corn rows, the braids of which form neat, spare, intertwining patterns on the top of his skull.

“Whatever’s in y’all’s head, man, lay it down,” he says, flitting between the studio’s 24-track console and a Korg Triton Pro-X keyboard, which two of the boys are using to lay down backing beats for their impending raps.

The raps the Emerald boys have improvised so far today have all been defiant and darkly confessional, filled with allusions to gun violence and hustling. Some of it is probably youthful braggadocio, to be sure, but much of it—revelations of twisted family relations and friends who didn’t live to see 18—is painfully and obviously real.

But between beats, the kids are a cheerful, enthusiastic lot. Jordon Brunson, a sweet, awkward, bespectacled A-E freshman with a spiral notebook full of his own lyrics, confesses that the aunt and uncle who comprise his immediate family have some reservations about his hip-hop aspirations.

“My aunt and uncle say there’s more to life than rapping,” he says with a goofy grin that’s every bit as endearing as it is broad. “I just don’t listen to them.”

And then there’s the pairing of Courtney Burchett and DeAngelo Mattress, a couple of high school juniors—Mattress is a rising football star at Austin-East—who seem more inclined to talk playful smack with each other and their fellow bootcampers than throw down some serious rhymes. (At one point, when another kid goes overboard with the introductory lead-ins over the beat—“Yeah, yeah, yeah, check it, check it, check it…”—before beginning his rap, Mattress barks out that, “We’ve checked it already, meat-loaf head…. The record company just called on the phone; your contract has been cut off!”)

That is, until they get in the claustrophobic little soundroom themselves, and Mattress breaks out with 24 bars of jarring, dark observations of life in a housing project, punctuating longer, more flowing lines with terse, hard rhymes. His delivery, in a gruff voice that comes off as at once confident, menacing, and plaintive, hits home with all the impact of a slug from a 9mm Glock.

Then someone fumbles a line, the recording stops, and silliness again prevails.

“What you mess up for? You’re a meatwad, dude.”

“Meatwad? You the one got that dip-dog head goin’, dude…. You so ugly, you have to wear makeup on the radio.”

It can be plausibly argued that the Tribe One organization does a better job of connecting with the kids who visit the rambling old former mortuary house at 2112 Magnolia Avenue than the vast majority of community outreach programs with similar mission statements. That’s because in large part, T-1 not only tolerates, but embraces the cultural elements, frowned on elsewhere, that are meaningful to inner city youth. Gold teeth, urban fashions and rap music are not only permissible here; they may be subject to peer evaluation.

That attitude of as-is acceptance owes to the progressive vision of Tribe One co-founders Chris Woodhull and the late Danny Mayfield, the young African-American city councilman who died of cancer in 2001.

“The young guys we saw on the street corner hustling—that’s who Danny and I both felt like we connected with,” says Woodhull, who now holds a Council seat himself. “We didn’t necessarily see them as a problem, but as an asset. Some of these kids have tremendous leadership skills; they’ve just latched onto some screwed-up mission statements.”

In Tribe One, the two men forged an organization that is recalibrating some of those mission statements 180 degrees, by recognizing the virtues that already inhere in the young men and women it serves, rather than trying to reconfigure them according to someone else’s cultural template. One current T-1 board member describes their approach as “flipping the hustle over to something positive.”

A youthful, ever-smiling 46-year-old, Woodhull is a former army brat who grew up in an Episcopal household—a household that changed venues from Brazil to Puerto Rico to Indiana to Alabama and parts beyond as his father moved from base to base. His parents exposed him to poetry, painting, and Hemingway, and his early ambition was to become a writer when he went away to Sewanee to study English literature as a young man.

He says his early adult years weren’t easy, though he doesn’t care to get into specifics. “I’m a seeker, and I’ve struggled sometimes,” he says. “There were some dark times in my life. For a while I was a nomad, wandering around, not connected to any place, until I found my roots in Knoxville.”

That happened around age 21, when he came here to visit a favorite uncle, seeking advice, and was invited to throw his duffel in a corner and stay for a while. Woodhull says he recovered his bearings, got back in church, and worked a series of decent jobs that included a five-year stint as an editorial researcher at the former 1330 (which later became Whittle Communications).

Then he co-founded the Urban Community Vision Ministry, a more traditional church-and-Bible study-oriented ministry in Mechanicsville, where he met Danny Mayfield in 1990. “Danny came over with his cousin Anthony one day,” Woodhull remembers. “They’re both from New Jersey, and had that Jersey pushiness about them. My father was from Jersey, so I have it too.

“We started talking about white people, racism, cities…. We both kind of had this combination of a Jesus and a Huey Newton thing going on, this mixture of prayer and activism. And we both saw the enormous amount of potential housed in a lot of the young people on the streets.”

And on the streets is where their efforts began, informally at first; basketball games, field trips and pizza outings gradually led to regular meetings, rap sessions and workshops. “It really started just hanging out with kids, just showing up and listening.”

They started calling their fledgling organization Tribe One, and chartered in 1993. “The name was an attempt to create something hip, a brand name,” says Woodhull. “We explained it as a ‘street’ way of saying ‘Kingdom of God.’”

Tribe One had a simple mission statement: to help at-risk youth to become leaders in their community. Where it differed from other, like-minded ministries was in its approach, which recognized the importance of economics and politics as vital components in the spiritual revitalization of disadvantaged neighborhoods.

New Tribe One program director Dexter Murphy perhaps says it best when he notes that, “When you have decent job skills, it helps keep the spiritual side in line. They go hand in hand. You can preach all day, but the bottom line is people do what they do because of lack job skills, lack of employment, just as much as lack of spirituality.”

The program’s early years, however, were a period of constant evolution. In addition to three regular weekly meetings at a rundown shack on University Avenue, Tribe One programs included a host of diverse, sometimes futile stabs at new enterprise.

“We had a garden project for a little while, and that was annoying as hell,” Woodhull laughs. “Danny and I ended up doing all the work. I’ve never heard so much whining about gardening in my life.”

In addition to facilitating new programs, art classes and retreats, Woodhull says he and Mayfield also became advocates for several local youth, de facto social workers with ever-expanding caseloads.

Their efforts weren’t always well-received; some members of the Knoxville Police Department referred to Tribe One disparagingly as “Hug-a-Thug.” And even within the community it served, there was resistance to Tribe One’s unconventional methodology.

“We had a focus group, kind of a retreat for young people at a local church once, at the pastor’s behest,” Woodhull remembers. “He said he wanted to find out what they were thinking about. So we asked them, and they expressed what they felt. And the pastor got mad. He didn’t really want to hear what they really had to say.

“That’s one thing I’ve learned through working with Tribe One. When young people get started thinking, they’re going to have an opinion. And you’re probably not going to like it when you hear it.” 

Because they ask me/ How you know so much at 17?/ What you mean?/ You’ve never seen a dysfunctional teen?/ Mama cared for me/ My dad wasn’t there for me/ Times got hard, I had to get harder/ Let me take that back/ I had to get smarter/ At 16 my mom had my youngest brother/ Hold on——, let’s get stuff in order/ I can’t turn around now/ Sold dope around town/ ’Cept for staying way down/ Jason brought me up/ He made me tougher/ My mama put me in the system, she locked me up/ I don’t know some of my family/ Except for the immediate ones/ They say that’s why I run to the streets/ And the G. handguns Recorded at Magnolia Sound, 2006

Tribe One has come a long way since those days of impromptu rap sessions in back rooms of churches. Today, in addition to the youth gatherings, church services (now held in their own in-house sanctuary), and activities that have always been part of its core curriculum, T-1 boasts three enterprises that strive to give participants currency in the form of self-esteem and marketable job skills, and maybe even a little cold, hard cash.

Located on the first floor of the Tribe One building, Magnolia Sound was founded in part because of the T-1 mentors’ own appreciation for hip hop. “Danny was really fond of Method Man,” Woodhull laughs. “He and I listened to a lot of rap, as part of our investigative research, and because we also liked some of it.

“What’s beautiful about rap is that people tell you what’s going on inside them, so having a studio like this made perfect sense on a lot of levels.”

Magnolia Sound became a reality in 2000, when a Tribe One proposal to the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation netted $60,000 to fund it. Bailey, whom Chris had counseled and mentored during the early days of his Knoxville ministries, was brought on only last year, despite his lack of technical studio experience, both for his rap skills and for his ability to connect with kids who grew up in the same neighborhoods he did.

“Chris was looking for somebody that could run the studio and be a positive influence,” says Bailey, who, with a little help from local studio whizzes like Christian rock producer Travis Wyrick, has learned the ropes of recording with remarkable speed. “He wanted someone with a passion for God. He was looking for the whole profile, so he took a chance on me.”

Bailey notes that hip-hop aspirations play a big part in the experience of disadvantaged youth—“It’s amazing how rap attracts so many kids, and not just black kids; a lot of young people feel they have to have their music to get through school or work”—much the same way professional sports do for kids who join Little League or pee-wee football. “We want to reach the kids who want to do this who might otherwise be hustling on the streets,” Bailey says. “Maybe we can get them in here before they make that wrong decision. We have the equipment and the opportunity, so there aren’t any more excuses.”

While Magnolia Sound gets a lot of kids in the doors at Tribe One, the organization’s Bounce Internet studio gives them skills that all of them will eventually need, should they stay the course and avoid the nastier pitfalls of urban living. Woodhull says Bounce’s concept was inspired by Robert Moses, an African American writer who posits that the young and poor who fail to learn computer skills will become “the next generation of sharecroppers.”

Woodhull brought on Doug McDaniel—a local e-business entrepreneur with a self-professed activist streak—two years ago, and now McDaniel divides his time between working with an intern on Bounce e-business projects, including web design for local companies, and mentoring local youth who come in seeking ways to further their ambitions via computers and the Internet.

“A lot of it is easy, simple stuff,” says McDaniel. “We had one girl who came in angry because she didn’t have access to a newspaper, and she needed job listings to find work. She didn’t realize you could go and look up the want ads online.

“A lot of programs, especially in our schools, think that by just dropping in some computers and some Internet access the kids will learn. But then the teachers are on their own to find curriculum, and they aren’t always the people best suited for that job.”

Some of McDaniel’s informal “students” include Liygia Simmons, a local urban clothing designer who now markets her fashions online, and Sevaughn Green, a.k.a. Screw Loose, a 24-year-old Mechanicsville native who has his own Knoxville-based hip-hop record label, Just 2 Tight Records.

Green first came to Tribe One to explore the Magnolia Sound facilities, but kept coming back when Doug began teaching him how to design his own album covers and press kits. A former resident of Austin Homes in Mechanicsville, he notes that Tribe One’s greatest gift is simply its presence as an alternative for restless kids who, lacking the extracurricular options of their counterparts in suburban areas, might otherwise spend time in the streets.

“Growing up in Austin Homes was difficult, because there weren’t too many activities for youth other than the boys club and the YMCA,” says Green, who attributes his own solid sense of purpose to his musical endeavors and to the firm guidance of the grandmother who raised him. “Because of the financial issues in the community, no one’s willing to set aside time to make things happen.”

The third enterprise in Tribe One’s triumvirate of empowerment programs is Boom Boom Industries, a screen-printing operation through which T-1 produces and sells T-shirts for local businesses and other church-related or charitable organizations. Like Bounce, Boom Boom employs quarterly interns and pays them a $140 weekly stipend to learn and run the operation, from putting initial computer images on an emulsified screen in a dark room to placing the final, printed items on a conveyor oven to set the ink. But enterprise director Angel Romero notes that Boom Boom’s internships go well beyond simply learning screen-printing techniques.

“It’s like Bounce, in that it’s not necessarily about going into screen printing or web design,” she says. “You learn things like upkeep, inventory, supplies. You learn how to get up in the morning, discipline yourself, and make good decisions.”

Romero should know, because there is perhaps no better exemplar than herself of how Tribe One has changed for the better some of the lives in the communities it serves. Now 29, Romero grew up in the College Homes area, the daughter of alcoholic, drug-addicted parents. She was drug dealer at 14, a dropout at 15, and was arrested for selling drugs at 18.

“There weren’t many examples of success in my community other than drug dealers,” says Romero, seated in her office on the second floor of Tribe One, a full-figured, jovial woman with a pleasantly husky voice that belies her 29 years.

“So you think, ‘Why not embrace it?’ I knew that statistics said that everybody who grew up in my community with the kind of parents I had would probably be in jail by 21. So that’s the way I was living.”

She still remembers the happy surprise of happening by her first Tribe One group meeting in 1999, as a young single mom with felony charges on her record, probation, and no high school diploma. “The people who facilitated the meetings looked just like me; it was like nothing I’d ever seen in my life,” she says. “They said I could keep my gold teeth and my baggy clothes.

“It wasn’t like some 4-H club or something. With some of these other groups, you can’t go in and say, ‘My mama was getting high last night and she got mad and hit me.’ They’d freak out. And they helped me realize that the same skills I used to sell drugs on the streets, I could use to uplift my community instead of tearing it down.’” At the encouragement of her discussion group facilitators, she met with Woodhull, who took her in hand and encouraged her to earn her GED. As she became more active with Tribe One, he eventually asked her to work for the organization, first as a street soldier, co-facilitator and recruiter, and later as enterprise director of Boom Boom Industries. She earned her GED one month before coming on staff full-time in 2000.

Her sister, Amber, another T-1 success story who went straight from a CAP (Community Alternative to Prison) program to become the first Boom Boom intern, says unequivocally that, “If it wasn’t for Tribe One, my sister would be dead or in jail right now.”

Angel says a turning point was her first meeting Woodhull: “I thought I was supposed to meet a black guy named Chris, because there can’t be any way a white person gives a damn about me. Then he finally walks up and says, ‘Are you Angel?’ and it blew me away.

“The facilitators told me all about how I needed to meet Chris, how cool and down he was, how he talked about MLK and Ghandi and about how we should embrace our culture. So I knew this had to be a good-hearted black man, because to white people, we’re just another penny off their tax dollar. But what they said about Chris was true.”

I can’t stop/ I won’t stop/ Givin’ up?—Nope/ I won’t drop/ Every cell in me/ Every spell in me/ Every nigga that’s around me feelin’ me/ I ain’t never gave a f’ about life/ I ain’t never gave a f’ about sh’ that was nice/ But still and yet I’m a man off in these streets/ If you want war, then there’s beef/ But I don’t talk about no gunplay/ I stay in school, do my work/ So I ain’t gotta worry ‘bout no gunplay/ And f’ these niggas, they ain’t gotta understand my swag/ And I ain’t gotta walk around toting mags/ Nope/ They ask me how the boy can cope/ ‘Cause I ain’t out there like them other niggas/ I ain’t selling dope —recorded at Magnolia Sound, 2006

For Woodhull, it’s never been easy holding the center at Tribe One, having to answer at once to the youth inside the program, to adult members of the immediate community, and to those outside the community who may question his methods or his motives. Says one associate, “It’s been a struggle for him emotionally and financially, but give him credit. He walks the talk.”

Tribe One board member and former Knoxville Police officer Kevin Downs notes that many in the local police community viewed Woodhull as an adversary rather than an ally, though he says that’s changed under the more progressive leadership of KPD chief Sterling Owen, who came on under Mayor Bill Haslam in 2004.

“I think some officers under the former chief saw Chris as aiding the enemy,” says Downs, an East Knoxville native himself. “A superior of mine took me aside once and told me that he was sure Chris was dirty, which I assured him wasn’t true. They were coming out of a Fred Flintstone way of policing at that time, where if someone does something wrong, you go bust them in the head and drag ‘em down the street.”

Within East Knoxville, one female community leader (who preferred not to be identified) notes that there were times when Woodhull’s status as a white man from a middle-class background may have been viewed as problematic, especially when Mayfield passed on and T-1 no longer had bi-racial leadership.

“I think the combination of him being white and Tribe One having a Christian-based philosophy, it can be perceived in a missionary kind of way, as paternalistic,” she says. “That perception isn’t necessarily correct, but it’s there.”

But worst of all, perhaps, is simply the inevitable frustration when Tribe One and Woodhull fail to push the right buttons in some of the young men and women they reach out to. Even among youth who have benefited from extensive mentoring and counseling at Tribe One, there are those who, as McDaniel puts it, “still have some struggles lying ahead of them.”

With any kind of program like this, there is going to be recidivism,” says Downs. “One thing Chris has had to learn is that, hey, there are some he just can’t save.”

Woodhull acknowledges that Tribe One doesn’t help as many people as he would like, and that sometimes raising money (the organization’s 2006 budget of $384,000 consists of about $60,000 in enterprise-earned revenue, with the remainder collected through donations from individuals, churches and foundations) for a charity that helps inner-city kids print T-shirts and make rap music is a tough sell.

But he says the program is at an important and very exciting crossroads—among other things, Tribe One could have its own performing arts center in the next two to three yeas—a potential launching point that could enable T-1 to increase by severalfold both the number of people it serves with its internships, and the amount of revenue it raises through its own enterprise.

“We’re just now getting to the point where we can do the things we really want to do,” Woodhull says, “where there’s a clear social return-on-investment that we can take and show to the groups we raise money from.

“We’re not a big-group activity, where we can say we helped 200 people last month. But of the people we have helped, a lot of them were people who were headed directly to jail, and now they have a job, or they’re working on a business plan. Consider the alternative: it costs over $50,000 to keep someone incarcerated for one year. That’s a lot of money to spend on making someone meaner and more desperate.”

I don’t talk much/ So everyone want to fight me/ Every school that I went to/ Nobody like me/ Never could it be right/ I try sometimes/ So I chill by myself and I cry sometimes/ And all I ask from God/ Is to buy some time/ Would I bring His name into it if I was lying? —recorded at Magnolia Sound, 2006

On a Thursday afternoon at studio bootcamp, Bailey stands next to the foosball table in the first-floor living room at Tribe One, pointing at a pair of display-sized charts to explain the rudiments of music theory and songwriting—bars and measures, verses and choruses, tempos and beats. Also part of today’s curriculum is the use of figurative language in hip-hop, specifically similes and metaphors. “Rappers call metaphors ‘punchlines,’” he tells the group. “It’s like when you talk about money, and you call it ‘paper’, or ‘cheese.’”

In their ever-present spiral notebooks, the kids copy Bailey’s examples, including a couple of exercises, one calling for a metaphor (“I’m so cold that…”), and one for a simile (“If you challenge me to a race, I’ll smoke you like…”). By turns, Bailey calls on each boy to fill in the blanks. “Make ‘em good,” he says. “Be creative. This is stuff you can use in your rhymes.”

The results vary in level of invention and complexity, but the range of response seems to fall on a scale defined on one end by Weston Wyatt, a talkative Carter High School senior with an awkward grin, and on the other by Timothy Anderson, a more taciturn youth in an A-E letterman’s jacket. Wyatt, for his part, though chatty, hasn’t quite grasped the concept of figurative speech.

“’I’m so cold, if you come near me you’ll freeze to death,’” he says, reading his list of metaphors to Bailey. “Or how ‘bout, ‘I’m so cold, you’ll turn to mold.’”

“Uh, yeah, good,” Bailey says, rolling his eyes a little sheepishly. “But why don’t you see what else you can come up with.”

Then there’s Anderson, who when he is called on reads off a complicated run-on line that winds sinuously, then ends with a clever coupling of “sonic” and “chronic.” Anderson later admits that rapping is “a big hobby of mine”, that he has his own keyboard, pages of lyrics, and a few of his own songs recorded on disc back at home. Clearly, this is a boy with skillz.

He reaffirms that half an hour or so later, when the boys move from the living room into the studio and start laying down beats on the Korg Triton Pro-X under Bailey’s careful supervision. While two of the other kids noodle out some simple snare-drum patterns, someone convinces Anderson to break out a spontaneous free-style rap; with a nearly astounding verbal and rhythmic dexterity, he spools out rhymes as easily as he might unwind a ball of string, wrapping the lines all through and around the beat. 

But then something even more surprising happens when Wyatt finally gets his chance behind the Korg. He starts by hammering out a rapid-fire snare beat, his fingers working the board with metronomic precision. Then he seeks out more traditional keyboard sounds, reaching for an ominous descending chord progression with one hand while the other improvises an eerie, sinuous melody.

It seems that Wyatt, the less-than-stellar wordsmith, has had a few piano lessons, and they took, better than anyone realized. The loop he creates sounds not unlike a classic Bernie Worrell organ riff, the kind of beat that big-time West Coast rappers were fond of sampling circa 1994. Everyone is impressed, including Bailey. “We’re gonna have to copyright that,” he says with no small admiration.

Chris Woodhull often speaks at length about the potential locked inside kids like Weston Wyatt, the talents hidden away because no one knew they existed, or gave a damn to ask. He speaks of that moment of joyous clarity, when the kids themselves realize they have ability, and value, and they smile, like Weston is smiling right now. It’s a knowing smile, the kind of broad luminescent grin people only get when they realize the things they want aren’t quite so far out of reach anymore.