Members of at-risk youth program to perform at Chattanooga's Riverbend & Strut

Members of at-risk youth program to perform at Chattanooga's Riverbend & Strut

May 30th, 2013 by Barry Courter in Life Entertainment

Dermario "Mr. ENT" Harris, 18, left, and Isaiah "Comic" Brown, 16, rehearse their act at the Prevention and Youth Development Center. Thanks to the center's Listen Up! program, they will perform at Riverbend and the Bessie Smith Strut.

Photo by Doug Strickland/Times Free Press.

Johnny "Pashin" Rollins, 17, gets mentally prepared to perform during rehearsal.

Photo by Doug Strickland/Times Free Press.

IF YOU GO

* What: Stars of Chattanooga performances.

* When: 5 p.m. Sunday, June 9, on the Volkswagen Stage at Riverbend; Monday, June 10, on the Main Stage at the Bessie Smith Strut.

* How much: $32 general admission pin (through 5 p.m. Friday, June 7); $26 day pass.

* Information: www.riverbendfestival.com.

'Violence'

"You're smart, but you're not wise

Keep your head in the blue skies

You got love, but you'd rather fight

Guns shoot everything in sight

Innocents are suffering

'Cause of the trouble you are bringing

Bad influences are killing

Can I change the world by singing?"

-- Lyrics by Vanessa "Roddie" Stubblefield

'Standing Tall'

"I done been through the fire and the pain

He's my shelter when it rain

My motivation and devotion depending on my faith and no more hoping

'Cause I'm standing tall, Lord knows I done been through it all times 3

'Cause I'm still standing tall."

-- Lyrics by Roland "R.M.J.R." McClendon and Reginald Cooper

Sitting in a row of folding chairs inside the rehearsal room, seven young performers anxiously await their turn.

Their nerve-wracking task? Working through the songs they will be performing at Riverbend and the Bessie Smith Strut in less two weeks.

The young people range in age from 12 to 29, and they all share the same nervous tics that come with having unfamiliar spectators in the room and also from knowing that the two upcoming shows will be the biggest of their lives to date.

"It's Riverbend," says 17-year-old Johnny "Pashin" Rollins. "It's the biggest thing in the city."

Working the sound system in the Prevention and Youth Development Center on West 40th Street is Reginald Cooper, "producer and studio guy." He doesn't have to speak much louder than a whisper to get the young performers' attention because each has eyes locked onto him.

All the performers are part of the Listen

Up! service that is part of the Prevention and Youth Program created by the city's former Parks and Recreation Department. Created two years ago, the program targets at-risk youth, and music is just one part of the overall concept.

Though young, they are all veteran performers with a dozen or more shows under their belts and, in most cases, a CD out containing their original songs.

Cooper calls the Swaggbotz -- Isaiah Brown, 16, and Dermario Harris, 18, to the front -- and they're joined by their backing singers/dancers -- 16-year-old Brittany Langston, 14-year-old Nura Mathis and 12-year-old Jaida Harris.

Waiting their turns are Roland "R.M.J.R." McClendon, 29, and Pashin. Vanessa "Roddie" Stubblefield, 18, brother and sister Blair, 19, and Daize W. Tate, 16, who perform together as Somebody Love Somebody, and their cousin Nycole "Shawtii Nycole" Conyers, 23, arrive later. Thirteen-year-old production whiz kid T-Rollin is home sick.

The group is set to perform at Riverbend and the Bessie Smith Strut as Stars of Chattanooga. They will each do two songs, which they run through during rehearsal.

As Brown and Harris move across the makeshift stage, reciting their lyrics, the trio of dancers work our their steps behind them. R.M.J.R. and Pashin wait patiently for their turns on the microphones.

The music they each perform is predominantly hip-hop with lyrics that deal with the everyday life that they see and experience. The songs have titles like "Stop the Violence," "Stunt Like Dat," "Buried Alive," "Standing Tall" and "Insecure."

The latter is by Shawtii, who said the biggest lesson she'd learned by being part of the program is "to be who you are."

It's a message that seems to have taken hold for many of the young people, says facility manager Marcus Thomas.

"It's been very uplifting to watch their progress," he says. "This is a good group of kids with good heads."

Collectively, they are a shining example of what the Prevention and Youth Program can and has done for area youth, according to program facilitator Brian Smith.

The center is located next to the South Chattanooga Community Center in the space where police once took kids found out past the city curfew. The space has been outfitted with a recording studio, an Internet radio station and the necessary equipment for learning to do video editing and graphic/web design.

The group has taken full advantage of what the program has to offer. More than a year ago, they were among those who submitted more than 100 songs to be considered as part of the program.

"We thought we'd get a few," Smith says. "We never expected so many, and we certainly did not expect the quality of the songs that we got. They are really good."

Thirteen songs were selected and recorded for a Stars of Chattanooga CD. Smith says recording and releasing the CD in February has meant a lot to the performers, "mostly because we followed through on our promise."

"If they are willing to change their lives, we are willing to help them," he says. "Riverbend is our gift to them, and we are so thankful for Friends of the Festival for giving them this chance."

All the young people must follow certain rules and meet expectations to stay in the program. The songs don't necessarily have to be positive, but they have to be nonoffensive, Smith says. Participants in the music program learn not just about the technical aspects of making music but also about things such as image, presentation and having long-term goals.

The mere mention of Riverbend brings huge smiles to the faces of all the performers. They all mention that they will be adding their names to a long and impressive list of people who have performed there.

"It's Riverbend," says Shawtii. "It's huge."

R.M.J.R. has been writing and performing for more than a decade and has performed in front of thousands of people, but this will be special, he says.

"It will be the biggest moment of my musical career," he says.

He freely admits he made a bad decision years ago that led to some jail time, but now he has become a fixture at the center, coaching basketball and talking to the young performers about his faith and the importance of making good decisions. R.M.J.R. are not only his initials, they stand for Real Manly Jesus Representer, he says.

"This is a chance to give back," he says. "I look at this as an opportunity to steer someone away from something bad."

Roddie has been writing poetry for years but never really considered recording the works as songs until she heard about the program.

"Riverbend will mean everything," she says. "I'm so glad I joined this program. Getting on the CD was big, but Riverbend is Madison Square Garden."

Harris and Brown have performed at The Apollo in New York as part of the Swaggbotz. They are aware of what performing at Riverbend will mean.

"It's an honor," Brown says. "It's one of the biggest events in Chattanooga."

Harris has his sights set on being an entertainer and wants to build several businesses around that, all oriented toward helping young people. The program has taught him that he can do it, he says.

"I can start here and build," he says. "I realize how much good music can do for people."

Blair and sister Daize W. say Riverbend is offering them a chance to do something that, in the past, would be unimaginable for them.

"It means a chance to be heard," Blair says. "We can tell our stories."

Daize W. says she is generally very quiet at school, but she is now recognized in the hallways and in public. It has changed her.

"It makes me want to work harder," she says. "We are both more confident with who are and how we sound."

Contact staff writer Barry Courter at bcourter@timesfreepress.com or at 423-757-6354.