I always thought you had to be famous to get kids’ attention. After all, that’s who children idolize right? A recent study by Barna Group suggests otherwise. Parents, relatives, teachers and close friends are actually more influential to kids than any star athlete or famous actor. The problem is, too many kids don’t have these kinds of role models so they turn to gangs or other vices for that sense of family and consistency.
As a kid my name was nigger. I hate that word and I don’t condone it, but remember how you feel when you read it. That’s how I felt every single day of my childhood. That was my dad’s name for me and between the birth of hip-hop and my home life, I heard it so much I became numb to it. My story isn’t much different than any other kid from a broken home: one parent (my dad) beat the crap out of me on a regular basis and the other parent (my mom) coped the best she could. As the oldest of three siblings, I lived most of my childhood in fear and anger. Fear that I would become exactly what my dad said I was (worthless) and anger that I couldn’t protect my mom and my siblings from this monster called ‘dad’.
Fortunately, Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy provided me with a welcome escape. I was forced to stay up late and wash walls on several occasions as a ten year old kid and thumbing through my dad’s record and tape collection was one of my favorite pastimes. In the wee hours of the morning I’d sneak down to the damp basement in our house in Davenport, Iowa and slip on the Technics headphones. I tried as hard as I could to laugh quietly but most nights I damn near got a hernia trying to contain my giggles. One night my little brother and I were being punished for not painting all the rocks in the yard properly. After a whipping to our bare chests with a dirty fly swatter, we were forced to stand at attention and stare at my dad as he ate his dinner and watched tv, and then he proceeded to fall asleep on the couch. Before he dozed off he laid a belt across our feet so if we moved it would make a noise and we’d get another beating. The only thing worse than moving was crying, or showing weakness. As the night went on, his snoring got louder and louder and the intense pain from our flyswatter wounds became unbearable. So much so that my little brother began to sob. Our blood soaked t-shirts were sticking to our chests and he was too young to realize that he shouldn’t tug on it. I knew there would be hell to pay if he woke Dad up, so I tried to calm his sobbing by doing Richard Pryor-styled impressions of our Dad. My little brother’s eyes lit up as I whispered my mini-routine in a gruff voice, and he began to giggle, which led me to muzzle him. So he didn’t wake up Dad. In that instant-when my comedy brought him joy in the midst of his pain and fear- I felt like I was worth something, and it’s this talent that would take me to places I never thought possible.
I started working with at-risk youth because of that memory. I know that the people who have mentored me along the way were willing to look past what I was and they believed in what I could become, and to a kid that’s worth more than any celebrity autograph. The world tells these kids that they are worthless unless they have a degree, a pretty face or a marketable skill, and that kind of blind conformity breeds contempt. So how do you reach them? Kids don’t just listen to anybody.
You gotta have a little dirt on you, hence the appeal of hip-hop. From the streets, for the streets. I don’t mean bubble gum ‘Ja-Rule and J-Lo’ hip hop, I mean Jay-Z and Eminem hip hop. Stories, or as they call it in Harlem and Brooklyn, ‘real spit’. And I had more than enough dirt to go around.
My workshops with youth consist of me empowering them to tell their own stories, using techniques and tricks that I have learned along the way by telling my own one man story, called Basic Training. In Basic Training I tell the story of my painful childhood through 23 characters with no costume changes and no props, and I have found that kids from Los Angeles to Melbourne, Australia jump at the chance to tell their stories in a similar way.
The next step is to take these storytelling workshops to a vocational center in Bungoma, Kenya this fall. The center is used to rehabilitate child soldiers from all tribes and walks of life, to give them hope in a world that only cares about them if a celebrity shows up. Although my childhood was rough, it’s nothing compared to these kids who have been tortured, raped and often left for dead. Giving them a voice through the power of theater can change their lives and I feel a responsibility to do my part. Bringing my story and workshops to them is long overdue. By the way, the night before I left home for good, I found out that the guy who abused me wasn’t my real dad. But that’s another story.
-Kahlil Ashanti http://www.kahlilashanti.com
To learn more about his trip to Kenya: http://www.hopeforthenations.com/champion/champion.aspx?asset=940