Rasheed Smith can fill a room with energy and optimism. He’s a comedian, musician, and entertainer, and he uses the respect he built on the street as an artist to help him connect with youth as a mentor and teacher.
It’s a pretty ambitious thing to say that you know everybody in North and West Philly, but walking around the city with Rasheed makes it’s clear that this isn’t far from the truth.
Until around five years ago, Rasheed was absorbed in the streets and the violence, which took the lives of over 100 of his friends and family members. Now, he works as an Outreach Worker for Philadelphia CeaseFire, helping North Philadelphia youth walk away from the violence.
Part of the Problem
“[I started carrying a gun] because it started getting real. People started getting hit. Better safe than sorry … I’d rather get you before you get me … Parties, people get drunk and they act stupid … I'm not going to let nobody catch me sleeping.
“A lot of guys make dumb decisions over words, like [if] someone calls you a name, a 'pussy,' a 'bitch.' A pussy is a cat. Look it up in the dictionary. A bitch is a female dog. You ain’t either one of those things. Let it fly … That stuff is going off emotion, and they react with a firearm. Look at somebody the wrong way, and they're going to kill you. That's how it is in Philly.
"[Before I went to jail,] my mom and my son's mom [came] to see me … in the courtroom being looked at like an animal … What am I showing my little brothers, my little siblings?
“I was a part of the problem at one point in time … [but] my teachers my whole life were always telling me, 'You’re a good leader. Everybody looks up to you. Everybody follows you' … When I was sitting in jail, that used to be in the back of my head: man I’m a leader. I used to write stuff down, little short term goals, my long term goals, stuff I wanted to accomplish.”
Best Job in the World
“[I became] a participant in CeaseFire … I started reading all about it and really started liking what it was about, standing up for what you know is right, trying to get young guys such as myself to turn their lives around and become better people, so they can use their minds for something good and positive … I school young boys on … the consequences and repercussions of carrying a gun. You could … lose your life or go to jail or hurt yourself, or somebody else could get hurt, just by you having it."
“A lot of people respected me [based off my music] before I got in trouble … Ain't no other rappers or ain't no other singers or entertainers going to do this type of work … They ain't going like, ‘this is priceless.’ Like to save one child just by sharing something that you've been through that they're experiencing … You can help them overcome that. And that's the best job in the world … I wasn't doing it for the money. I do it because I'm raising my son, and I got younger brothers growing up.”
Give Them a Second Chance
"I don't care what nobody says. We're all human beings. They have to know the difference between somebody who ain't never going to be nothing and somebody who's just not perfect … 90% of the people are just not perfect. You got some with cold hearts that just don't care. But you got some that really want to turn their life around, but it's hard … All they know is to go back to the streets … Positive role models, guidance, more support, more education, jobs; give them something positive to do, more activities … The violence that they're doing is like a learned behavior.
"Don't just catch somebody with a firearm and make it hard for them to get employed and get into a good school … make it easier for them. Help them overcome their past. Don't hold them and pull them down to their past.
"Give them something to do, more activities, even if it's volunteer work or a part-time job doing something constructive … You’re looking down at them, making it hard for them to get jobs. Give them a second chance."
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -February 2017 (updated) | Interview and Text by Dan Kurland and Tia Yang | Portraits by Dyana Wing So and Tia Yang