Solo, the ‘voice of the streets’ where the D.C. streets are changing

August 21, 2013

Solo, the self-proclaimed “voice of the streets, the host with the most,” grabs the mike on a muggy night at the Ty Hop basketball tournament on an outdoor neighborhood court, just off gritty-but-gentrifying Georgia Avenue.

“From 6 to 9 there’s no crime, because that’s when we get to work,” he booms, the words flowing in the style he describes as “urban, street hip-hop, tied up with stand-up comedy, tied up with commentary on current events.”

Solo, a.k.a. Solomon Becton-Locke, 32, is the voice of the streets in a city where the streets are changing — quickly. This neighborhood, tucked between Petworth and Howard University and known as Park View, is one of most rapidly transforming Zip codes in America due to a soaring white population, according to a 2012 report published by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

Solo sees those changes up close. He uses part of his time on the mike in Park View to address newcomers in the neighborhood, largely white residents who have complained that the summer tournament is too loud and draws too many people, with anywhere from 100 to 250 people in the stands. Solo, like most of the game’s spectators and its organizers, is African American.

“I’m gonna give a shout-out to all the newcomers and put into the microphone what people are feeling,” he says. “I think the new folks might actually like us, if they give us a chance because we’re cool like ranch Doritos, blue bag,” he adds with his signature playful grin.

Watch Soloman Locke, known as Solo, in action as one of most popular MCs in the District. (Courtesy of Jamar Goodall)

Park View was once a solidly working- and middle-class African American neighborhood of spacious 1920s row homes. The skyline is now pierced by construction cranes building glass-and-steel condos, a block-long upscale supermarket and bars and coffeehouses.

One of Park View’s most famous residents was Eugene Allen, the longtime White House butler whose life was the subject of a 2008 Post story and now a Hollywood movie in “Lee Daniels’ The Butler.” Today, Allen’s street and those surrounding it are papered with “Cash TODAY for your home!” flyers from developers.

The Park View Recreation Center has hosted the Ty Hop basketball tournament every year since the tournament started 11 years ago. It’s one of the biggest events of the summer for Solo, who announces the games three nights a week from mid-June to mid-August. His voice narrates the triumphs and near-misses of 12 teams of athletes age 18 to 30. Team rosters feature college players and former high school standouts.

It’s loud and crowded and a living memorial to Torrone Hopkins, a former Coolidge High School basketball star who was fatally shot in 2002 while sitting in his parked Lincoln Navigator on Warder Street NW, next to the park. Hopkins, who was 22, was listening to an NBA playoff game after a cookout and basketball game. Friends and family, along with the police, said at the time Hopkins had never been in trouble and was likely mistaken for others in the neighborhood who had the same model of car and were being targeted. (He had bought the car two weeks earlier.)

No one was prosecuted for the shooting, according to D.C. police, and the case is closed. Police identified a suspect, but the U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to prosecute because the suspect is serving nearly 30 years in another case.

That is history that Solo, himself a former high school basketball star at Spingarn in Northeast Washington, wants to keep from being repeated. That’s what motivates his work with the tournament and at youth events throughout the city. Not that he’d ever say anything so serious on the mike.

“There goes, Butterfingers, on the rebound,” Solo calls out and the crowd roars with laughter. “Chubby Quesadilla coming in for layup. Whoa! My man, $100 grand.”

He has affectionate nicknames for the players — such as NipTuck, who wears his jersey tucked — and also mixes pop culture into his commentary.

“Held up, like a corner store on ‘Juice,’ ” he says, managing to work a reference to the 1992 Tupac Shakur movie “Juice” into the play-by-play of a block.

“I try to make people in the ’hood feel like this ain’t just some basketball game in a park,” he said. “I want them to feel like they are in the Coli­seum! Make these youth feel good about themselves, give them facts they recognize and can have a good laugh about.”

While the tournament draws a crowd largely from the District, the stands this summer are also filled with people from Maryland who were priced out of their old neighborhood but still come back to watch.

The games draw college recruiters and sometimes professional basketball stars such as Hugh “Baby Shaq” Jones and D.C. native and NBA player Sam Young.

But the Park View DC neighborhood blog crackles with complaints about parking, trash and loitering.

“At a minimum perhaps they could be asked to turn down the loudspeaker to a dull roar. Last year, I bet you could hear it in Adams Morgan,” wrote a commenter. Others have written to complain about cars parked in the middle of the street, people not being “cordial” on the playground and the general volume.

Solo knows the music is loud. But he also understands why it’s important for the tournament to stay relevant for the young people it hopes to attract.

Solo also knows that the “g-word,” or gentrification, is a bittersweet term here, especially for many longtime black residents who worry that as whites and other newcomers increasingly buy up desirable property, the African American neighborhood’s history and culture is eroding. Longtime churches are being sold and turned into gyms and condos, and other games like the Hopkins tournament are moving to Prince George’s County.

That the discussion is centered on the Park View Recreation Center draws the neighborhood changes into sharp relief: The playground was only officially integrated in 1952.

Kent Boese, through the Park View blog, tries to highlight the history of the neighborhood and strengthen community relationships by posting old photographs and stories about the desegregation.

“Many may not appreciate what’s going on, but it’s helpful to have a better understanding of it,” said Boese, a legal librarian who is white and has served as the neighborhood’s representative on the Advisory Neighborhood Commission since 2011. He has lived in the neighborhood since May 2007 and has organized several community meetings in the past few years where contentiousness highlighted the divide between long-term residents and newcomers.

New residents say the park is filled with garbage after tournament games. They also say that the games bring trouble. (In 2010, someone rode by on a bicycle and fired shots in the air, though no one was harmed.)

By contrast, several basketball players and organizers of the tournament said they were deeply offended when a newcomer said at a community meeting that the basketball game was too loud and that it disrupted his cat’s sleeping schedule.

“New residents don’t understand literally how much having the tournament here means to this community, “ said JaMar Goodall, 35, who spent his childhood playing basketball with Hopkins. “They don’t understand what we have been through.”

Goodall and Solo were both at the park the day Hopkins was shot and remember trying to help stop the bleeding. Goodall, drenched in his friend’s blood, drove him to the hospital. He decided to start a tournament in Hopkins’s honor.

About seven years ago, Goodall felt the tournament could use someone to energize the young crowds and offer a play-by-play. He hired Solo, who he knew could connect with the neighborhood.

Solo was born to connect. He grew up in the District in the 1990s when, he said, the murder rates were so high “it was just ruthless on a childhood.” He was a natural performer, and as a teenager loved doing skits from the “In Living Color” TV show in his family’s living room and in high school talent shows. A spot-on imitation of the drag-queen character Wanda, played by Jamie Foxx, was his specialty.

His mother was a gospel singer who was often on the road, so he was adopted by his aunt, a science teacher, and his uncle, a Marine who fought in the Gulf War, and raised in a middle-class home near Fort Totten.

He kept out of trouble until he was 16, when he got involved in marijuana and ended up running away from home.

“My parents wouldn’t tolerate any of that,” he said. “During that time in D.C., you have to understand, you could also be walking a clean and narrow path and still fall into trouble.”

A friend’s grandmother saw something special in him and encouraged him to start doing stand-up comedy and getting into the music scene.

He ended up as a road manager for UCB, one of Washington’s leading go-go troupes. Often seeking out the mike, he gained a reputation as a lively host and started to work for the nonprofit Street Wize Foundation, which runs the Safe in the Streetz program.

Chris Bryant, executive director of the organization, calls Solo “the perfect storm.”

“He’s a guy smart enough to disseminate information,” Bryant said, “but cool enough to make it pop.”

Solo is now the District’s go-to master of ceremonies for rec center youth events, basketball games, block parties and family reunions. Last year, he was MC for a Michelle Obama “Let’s Move” event at Martha’s Table. His busy season is the spring and summer, but he works all year at youth and civil rights events. On Tuesday, he was MC for an NAACP event previewing the 50th anniversary of the March of Washington.

Last week, Solo was MC at a back-to-school pool party at Randall Recreation Center in Southwest Washington sponsored by Street Wize, the D.C. parks department and Sasha Bruce Youthwork, which helps at-risk youth.

Across the street was the trendy Capitol Skyline Hotel, where a young, largely white crowd was buying $3 bottled waters and $10 cocktails while the Dave Mathews Band song “Crash into Me,” played.

At Randall, kids lined up for free ham and turkey sandwiches and curbside haircuts while Solo spun, Chamillionaire’s “Ridin’ Dirty.”

Solo told the older students, “Please use your condom sense.” He said their haircuts looked “real fly, like Clark Kent when he changes into Superman.” He also got on an inflatable trampoline with the younger kids and did the wobble. “Go, Solo,” the kids screamed.

This was Solo, the voice of the streets, in his element. He loves his job. He knows though, that it’s getting a little bit harder. In Park View at least, which he says is a special gig because of its history, he has three audiences: the players on the court, the spectators in the stands and the newcomers mixing in among them or listening to the loudspeakers from their renovated decks.

He knows that newer residents are saying that the tournament has gotten too big and should be moved out of the neighborhood, maybe into an air-conditioned gym.

He says his new effort will have to be focused on explaining the story of the tournament and why the location is important.

The game, he says, can’t be priced out of its painful past.

“Keep doing your job, D.C.,” he says into the mike on a recent evening in Park View. “Our murder rate is low and our spirits are high. This is Solo, the voice of the streets, saying, ‘Stay Safe.’ ”

This article has been updated to correct the date when the playground at the Park View Recreation Center was desegregated. The playground was officially integrated in 1952, according to D.C. Public Schools.

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