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Hey Philly!

I can’t believe that this is my last update of 2023. It’s been an emotional journey exploring the love, pain, hope, and joy of our neighbors and friends. This year was a big one for us, and with your help, we were able to do some incredible things in Philadelphia. It’s been a season of growth. Readers like you, along with our partners, ambassadors, and supporters, have helped me gain a better understanding of what’s really going on in our distinct communities and how to do a better job covering the gun violence crisis.  

One of the incredible things our local team did this year was participate in an event co-hosted and produced with partners Sajda “Purple” Blackwell, one of our Up the Block ambassadors, and her husband Tommy Blackwell, a community leader and organizer, through their Blackwell Cultural Alliance. The December 13 gathering, at Holy Apostles and the Mediator Episcopal Church in West Philly, was a special edition of “How Dope Are You,” a monthly event led by the Blackwells. Each event includes a group discussion — or as Purple calls it, a healing circle — and invites young artists to present anti-violence music; the best performances earn cash prizes ranging from $50-$100 apiece. 

This month’s event, co-sponsored by The Trace, included resources from our Up the Block guide and a conversation curated by The Trace team focused on the influence of music on gun violence.

With nearly 100 people in the room, almost everyone’s hand rose when Purple asked if they’d been affected by gun violence. As participants passed the microphone, stories of pain emerged: People, including young children, described losing loved ones to the crisis. At the same time, they were resolute. One person described being hopeful; a pediatrician said he felt reflective and empowered because the gathering focused on solutions. That complexity of emotion reflected the mood in Philadelphia: The year is winding down with a significant dip in gun deaths, about 19 percent, but many are still feeling the loss of over 480 friends, neighbors, and family members citywide. 

You are not alone

If you or someone you know has been affected by gun violence in Philadelphia, check out our Up the Block resource guide.

An illustration of a mother and son embracing in front of a background of flowers.

Visit the guide now

During our conversation at the event, my local colleague Mensah M. Dean and I sought to take a deeper dive into how music — particularly hip-hop, rap, and its subgenre drill music — has played a role. The folks in the room reminded us that there are so many cultural factors, such as social media, that have also contributed to the rise in homicides. Most believed that there needs to be more personal accountability. Some even said it’s not the music, but the way it’s used.

“It’s the trauma behind the people that’s creating the music, that’s the problem,” said Zarinah Lomax, founder of the Apologues, a nonprofit organization dedicated to telling the stories of people lost to gun violence, opioid abuse, and domestic violence.

After some back-and-forth, Mensah asked the room: “Why are you holding music blameless?” 

“If I make a song about hugging on everyone, it’s not gonna go nowhere,” said Superior, a local artist and performer. “I don’t think anybody here said they’re OK with the drill music that’s being put out, but there are other artists in here that don’t talk about killing. But that’s not what’s being pushed out.”

As part of The Trace’s collaboration, Philly rapper Macc stopped by to express how he feels about the issue. Macc is the son of rapper Gillie the King, formerly known as Gillie Da Kid, and half of Macc and Cheese, a family rap duo. Macc recently lost his blood brother and rap partner YNG Cheese, whose given name was Devon Spaddy, to gun violence in the Olney section of Philadelphia.

Macc shared that music kept him focused after losing Cheese. “You gotta be strong. My brother believed in our music. I try not to go the negative route,” he said. “My brother got a son, I always keep that in mind, too. He already lost his dad. For me to do something, being in jail is pointless.”

Following the discussion, the competition began. There were a few rules: The music must not celebrate gun violence; it must not include the n-word; and it must be “clean and radio ready.” 

Noelle El and Nawal the Goddess, a mother-daughter duo, spoke about love, freedom, and justice. After each performance, Purple and the competition judge, Bike Life Rex, asked the crowd to vote on whether the rules had been followed. Nearly 20 performers signed up to showcase their art, and at the end of the night, 12 winners proudly took to the stage. 

A man performs on a stage
A performer at the December 13 “How Dope Are You?” event, co-sponsored by The Trace. Ishaaq Muhammad

We were inspired to join Purple in hosting this event after reporting on the influence culture has on gun violence in our September newsletter. After a moving conversation with a rideshare driver on the topic, I caught up with Purple, and she expressed her frustrations with the portrayal of Black murder in music. She told me how she and her husband were working to make positive music cool again. She also brought the subject to light by tapping into influencers like b.mcfly_ and @nogunzone. “It’s not corny,” said Purple, who co-founded PQRadio1. “The performances that you will see here are dope, and these artists are on fire.”  

The event brought the Up the Block guide to life; various organizations helped set up shop and met new residents. We were joined by Philadelphia’s Office of Violence Prevention, UTB Ambassador Erik VanZant of Reform Alliance, representation from IDAAY (the Institute of Development for African American Youth), Kya Johnson of the E.M.I.R Healing Center, Oshun Family Healing Center, the Apologues, the United For Impact Org, Men Who Care Germantown, The Elevation Project, @b.mcfly_, physicians from Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and the University of Pennsylvania, and many other folks who offered a wealth of knowledge.

The event was a testament to the fact that we are stronger together. We were able to unite teens from Germantown and Northwest Philly with teens from West. Organizations came to one common place to serve because they, too, believe in a better city. Purple’s healing circle reflected unity and offered folks who may not feel heard a time and a place to be seen.

As another UTB ambassador, Joe Budd Jr., reminded us: “We need everybody in this fight, in the war. … We gotta treat it like that. So please, if you’re not involved in some way, get involved.”

Throughout 2023, I heard people gripe about folks not showing up or attending events. A friend shared some advice about this: If everyone just showed up for each other, then there would always be people at these events. Last Wednesday, we put out a call, and folks did show up. My New Year’s resolution is that we continue to do this for each other. 

Thank you for an amazing year.