Cleveland's Dee Jay Doc Harrill — Using Hip Hop as a Change Agent

This is part of a series on being a white person in the African-American Hough neighborhood of Cleveland. You can see the intro, why it’s like a small town, Mansfield Frazier’s response, history of the neighborhood, @#!& black people say to white people, and “A Place Worth Living”: defending a deeply stigmatized neighborhood.

To continue the conversation about cross-cultural experiences in the inner city, I interviewed a friend living in the Glenville neighborhood, Doc Harrill. We have kids the same age and he and his wife are amazing indie artists making the most of city living. He is currently raising funds for his awesome project FRESH Camp on IndieGoGo.
What is Fresh Camp? 

The FRESH Camp is a summer camp I founded here in Glenville in 2011. In addition to this, I run programs as an artist-in-residence in schools, after-school programs and drug treatment centers. You can read more or listen to music from a few: Fatima Family Center, Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine, Mary Bethune Elementary School, MC2 Stem High School, Lake Erie Ink and New Directions drug rehab center.

How did you get involved with The FRESH Camp summer camp?

At our neighborhood block watch meeting we were discussing how to communicate neighborhood safety tips to all of our neighbors. I suggested that I could help youth in our area create songs with safety tips and let them spread the message themselves. This could be more powerful than us adults handing out a simple flier. Radiah Douglas, who worked at Famicos Foundation (our neighborhood’s community development corporation), found a small grant for a one week summer camp for 13 students. That was July 2011. We produced this song called, “United.” 

Last year, our newly formed team received a grant from Neighborhood Connections, and we were able to raise additional funds through an Indiegogo Campaign. This helped us double the camp length to two weeks and host 23 students. We produced a 6-song CD. They even created a video to show what’s FRESH in our neighborhood to some traveling farmers in Panama. They really tried to share what’s FRESH in our neighborhood and spread their message of change through hip-hop.

What’s the best thing about living in Cleveland?  

I wrote a rap song about this in 2011 for The Cleveland City Living Awards. It’s called “Cleveland Faces.” That should be self-explanatory, but I can restate it like this;  it’s the people who make Cleveland great. If we run or move away from other people who seem different from us, we learn to live life in a manner where knowing people seems risky, not worth it, and even, forgotten about. But when we take a minute and turn a stranger into a friend, we find richness all around us. When my wife and I moved into Glenville seven years ago, we started next door. Soon we knew most of the families on our street. Then some of our long-time friends and fellow indie artists moved onto our street. . . some bought houses, some rent rooms. When we get to know the brillant minds in Cleveland doing great things, we see how diverse and strong we are. And when we work together for change, change we shall see.
What were your reasons for buying a house & raising your kids in the city?  

Affordability and culture. As independent artists, my wife and I needed a low cost living space that had the benefit of having a low cost artist workspace for making music and jewelry. Having one utility bill for both of these helps a lot! Not only are many houses in the city affordable (and taxes low), they are well-built, historical structures that have history and culture in and around them. Just a few blocks away we can walk through the Cleveland Cultural Gardens, visit MOCA, shop at our local Gateway 105 Farmers’ Market, buy a Christmas Tree at a family owned store, or hop on the Rapid Transit straight downtown or to the airport. 

A Fresh Camp participant.

When we moved here, we did not have children, but now we have a 2 year old and a 4 year old. While there are many concerns raised about the quality of Cleveland City Schools, there are many new initiatives and charter school options in the city. I just did a residency at a Cleveland City public school called, the MC2 STEM school.  I helped the 9th grade, who meet in the Cleveland Science Center, create a 22 song CD called, “What’s Your Message.” This school, it’s students, and it’s staff are AMAZING! When my son is old enough, I’d love for him to go there. 

Also, because housing costs are lower here than most suburbs, we were actually able to afford sending our son to The Music Settlement for an amazing pre-school experience. We might not have been able to afford pre-school otherwise. And it’s nice to walk there on sunny days. I know other parents who drive 30 minutes or more to send their children there.
What are your concerns about living in the city and how do you address them?  

Well, my concerns are no different than any of my other neighbors. . . quality of the public schools, theft, affordable-healthy food where I don’t have to drive 30 minutes to Trader Joe’s just to find. We try to find creative solutions like joining Fresh Fork, supporting our farmers’ market, growing our own garden, buying meat directly from farmers, and rallying students and families together to create change. The FRESH Camp is one of the things I hope will help in the long term as students in our neighborhood grow up with a stronger perspective about how to be a citizen who cares, and one who can create the change they hope to see.
How did/do you educate yourself about the culture and issues of inner city black neighborhoods?  

I took a while. . . it’s a life long pursuit I guess, to learn a culture different from your own. I’ve had black friends my whole life, and when I was a teen growing up in Mayfield Hts., I never quite understood why black and white people seemed so different and lived so apart. I like black culture. I like white culture. But what I love the most is when WE are together. . . being humans. . . being neighbors. 

I learned black culture from every black person I’ve ever met. When I was a teen growing up in a white church and a white school, I guess I Iearned some from listening to hip-hop. I started my own hip-hop group with a black friend from University Hts. Him and his family taught me how similar we (whites and blacks) actually are. When I was 16, my brother and I, were the only white guys to join an African American men’s Bible study group on Eddy Road. At first, I was surprised we were allowed in. But these guys appreciated us and taught us a lot. A few were also rappers, so we did some performances together at Cedar Point and some parks.

I’ll always remember, after one of these performances, one of the older men asked me, “Do you know what soul is?” I wasn’t sure. I knew black people had it, but I wasn’t sure if I could. He described it this way. . . When you perform, no black person cares if you make a mistake or not. . . or if you don’t do your dance move at the exact moment it’s supposed to be done. They will only “feel you” if they believe you are authentically expressing what you feel inside. Up to that point, I was always nervous that black folk would think I’m too white. And I was also afraid of missing a word, or being off beat. In my white culture, I learned to write down speeches in order to read word for word so I wouldn’t not mess up. I learned to sing a song exactly as it’s written. But, I found out, it’s just as important that I be myself and show myself through the music. I also found out I need to know my material to the point where I can actually freestyle and that I should only perform or talk about things I know. Because if I need my paper script, I must not know what I’m talking about. That’s what I learned from black culture.
I moved in with my Grandpa in (South) Collinwood at age 21. It was a white (Italian) neighborhood when I was a boy, but by this time it had flipped (white flight). I learned more black culture and issues surrounding black-white relations when I had to proove myself at the neighborhood basketball court every time out until most of the guys knew me and that I was pretty good on the court (yes,I got called Larry Bird a few times). I learned more when a white neighbor through a fire cracker at me and shouted, “You #$%! n***** lover!” because he saw black and latino friends come over often to record or make music at my house. 

Then I learned about the issues of poverty and inner city life when I was scraping to get by as an independent musician. I learned how to go to the junk yard for parts to fix my own rusty van. I learned how to sell scrap metal to the scrap yard instead of simply throwing it away. I learned the differences between rich and poor schools while working as an artist in residence in a bunch of Cleveland schools. I couldn’t find soap or toilet paper in the bathrooms. I saw the stress on teachers’ faces. I saw the lack of updated computers and quality arts programing. And I learned about the issues of feeling safe in your yard when I was held up at gun point in my back yard by a neighborhood teen. These things were tough and hard to grapple with.

But, then I remembered some things that happened in the “safe” suburb I grew up in. A student from my white school basketball team committed suicide, another down the street committed a horrible act of murder and suicide, a close friend of mine lost his Dad (a fire fighter who died in a fire) and delved into drugs, another went ballistic on the police because he was on some crazy hallucinogen.

We can find safety or crime, love or hate in the inner city or in the burbs. It’s all how we choose to live.
In addition to supporting your IndieGoGo campaign, how can others get involved in the good things happening in our post-industrial urban centers? 

1. Like I said in this interview/rap video on Neotropolis, “There’s a fine line between a stranger and a neighbor.” Erase a few of those lines.

2. Consider moving into the city. If you are a good, upstanding citizen with resources, the worst thing for the city is when you move away to create your own “safe place.” Each person that moves away, leaves a void where they could have been. And they receive a void from the variety they lose by living near those the same as them. As we are finding out more and more each year, there are no “safe places” to escape to, only “safe places” you create through relationship and love. The city is a great place for this.

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