BELIEVE Campaigner Brings Hip-Hop and His Message Into Neighborhoods That Need It Most
After four years, Mayor Martin OíMalleyís Believe campaign is beyond ubiquitous, its logo plastered across trash cans, buildings, T-shirts--anything not moving, basically, and quite a few things that are. But you still may not be prepared for the sight of that unmistakable white-on-black logo 28-feet-wide across a tractor-trailer. The BelieveMobile, as it is known, makes appearances at various charities and local events like Artscape throughout the year. But up to a dozen times every summer, it materializes in neighborhoods around the city for its true function: a bad-ass block party.
On a recent Friday, the stretch of Central Avenue next to Dunbar High School was blocked off so that the BelieveMobile could park, unfolding like a Transformer into a flatbed stage, complete with lights and stacks of amps. That night, the cityís reigning radio station, 92Q, set up shop, parading out various musical acts and even a magician for the entertainment of a very young and very hyped audience, no doubt comprised largely of Dunbar students.
Richard Burton, the chief field coordinator of the Believe campaign, shares hosting duties, and it is a slight surprise that this employee of City Hall dressed in business casual is every bit as charismatic and comfortable onstage as the 92Q personalities. Burton got his first taste of public life as a rapper and singer in his teens ("The Believer," June 4, 2003). And he works the crowd eagerly and with ease, at one point spontaneously bursting into a beatbox routine that would do Doug E. Fresh proud.
Earlier that day, Burton was still worried about the chance of rain canceling the show, as he drove around town handling last-minute preparations and giving interviews with local media over the phone. Instead of sounding weary, the passion in his voice is palpable as he explains that "I live, eat, drink Believe." Burton, 37, might be best known to out-of-towners for his role as Sean "Shamrock" McGinty, right-hand man to drug kingpins Avon Barksdale and Stringer Bell on The Wire. But in real life, he spends seemingly every waking moment figuring out how the Believe campaignís message of positivity can counteract Baltimoreís violent drug trade, which he understands firsthand through his late motherís struggles with addiction.
Burton met then-City Councilman OíMalley in 1998 and worked on his successful first mayoral campaign. But he wasnít put in charge of Believe until after the initial TV ads ran in 2002. By that point, the city grant that provided the programís budget had all but been depleted. "So I had to kind of revamp the campaign, on a grass-roots level," Burton says. He started off with banners and T-shirts, but the BelieveMobile is Burtonís masterstroke. "We drew a plan on a napkin, trying to show everybody what it was going to be," he says. "I donít know if you know what itís like trying to sell people on a dream." His proposal for the vehicle was approved in 2003, and the BelieveMobile hosted its first block parties that summer.
"Iím not afraid to go into communities where most people are afraid to go into," Burton says when asked how destinations are picked for the BelieveMobile. Instead of going into centers of commerce or tourist hot spots, the Believe Tour visits more densely populated areas, often in the cityís lower-income and primarily African-American neighborhoods where the tourís message is needed most. And no matter where the campaign goes, thereís never been a single violent incident at a Believe concert--although it might be naive to think that fact has less to do with the strong police presence than the sheer goodwill of the event.
The tour is made possible by several sponsors, including Amerigroup and Eastern Motors, but itís 92Q that brings the entertainment, enlisting seemingly every local artist in the stationís heavy rotation. This yearís performers include rappers Young Leek, D.O.G., and Cooli Hi, and singer C.R., and alumni of previous years include Bossman, Tim Trees, Huli Shallone, and Mullyman. Between acts, DJ K-Swift spins Baltimore club music for an audience mostly too young to get into clubs, but one that bops along to the beats furiously nonetheless. Teen heartthrob in training Young Leek, who was recently signed to Def Jam, is the clear favorite of the crowd, many of whom are his age or younger. During his hit single "Jiggle It," the audience cheers reached the kind of shrill pubescent pitch one tends to identify with Beatlemania.
Along with all the performers and vendors, the Believe Tour has a covert cause: more than 20 booths providing community services, from Department of Public Works representatives to HIV prevention. "Iím trying to be the pied piper, to get them there with the music, and entertainment," Burton admits. He hopes a few concertgoers "end up finding something more important."
At a time when many of hip-hopís most popular performers glorify drug dealing with more zeal than ever before, itís perhaps paradoxical to use a hip-hop concert to lure Baltimoreís youth away from that lifestyle. But Burton knows that most local rappers, even the ones who rhyme about slinging dope, care about their community. "People get intimidated, but theyíre good-hearted guys, they just want a break," he says. Still, he has to insure that the performances are appropriate for all ages, and heís "had to ask some people not to be on the tour again, because number one, we donít accept profanity. It has to be clean, family fun."
Hip-hop has a long tradition of distrusting politicians and law enforcement, and Baltimoreís scene, which spawned the controversial Stop Fucking Snitchiní DVD, is no exception. So itís surprising that an event sponsored by the police department has roped in so many underground MCs. In fact, D.O.G. released a mixtape last year in which he sneeringly dismissed the Baltimore Believe Tour as "the Baltimore Police Tour." Surprisingly, heís one of this yearís headliners.
D.O.G. confesses that he was hesitant join the tour and didnít initially didnít grasp the concept. "I didnít really understand it," he says. "So I was kind of asking questions. But at the last minute, when they told me it was for the kids and stuff like that, I said, ĎOK, thatís what I want to do. Thatís who I want to reach.í"
Although the Believe Tour is well on its way to becoming an annual tradition, Burton still has to raise money and sign up sponsors every year, and heís still tinkering with the format. The next stop--Frederick Douglass High School July 29 and 30--will be the tourís first two-day event. And for the occasion, heís signed up a couple of national headliners, the Stylistics and Harold Melvinís Blue Notes, who will likely pull an older demographic than the local rappers opening the show. Every year the tourís organizers scout new locations, rarely going to the same neighborhood twice. That is, except for the grand finale when they shut down North Avenue for one last bash, scheduled for Aug. 29 this year, if funding comes through.
In Burtonís most rousing speech that night at Dunbar, he recounts how people challenge him to justify using city resources to put on a event thatís ultimately just about people having a good time. He concludes, to thunderous applause, by simply asking, "Whatís wrong with having a good time?" H
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