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Using Her Voice to Rise Above

By Anne Hull
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 4, 2004; Page A01

Part IV

Five hundred students are packed into the old-timey auditorium at West Side High School. A piano begins, then a jazz drum. Onstage, in shadows, two figures sit at a table with their backs to the audience. The crowd beckons them, Newark-style, calling and pleading, daring and challenging. Come on, now. Bring it.

Felicia Holt and Valencia Bailey spring to their feet.

For a citywide talent show, Felicia wants to sing about teenage life in Newark. "I'm just saying, who holds tomorrow?" she asks. "You are not promised even today. Bullets ain't got no names on them." (Juana Arias -- The Washington Post)

_____Photo Gallery_____
Braving the Streets Her Way: Music has gotten Felicia Holt through the hardest moments of her life.
_____Live Discussion_____
Monday, 11 a.m. ET: Washington Post staff writer Anne Hull will be online to discuss her series on gays in America.
_____Gay in Real America_____
In the Bible Belt, Acceptance Is Hard-Won (The Washington Post, Sep 26, 2004)
A Slow Journey From Isolation (The Washington Post, Sep 27, 2004)
Braving the Streets Her Way (The Washington Post, Oct 3, 2004)
About This Series

With the Holt family's permission, Washington Post reporter Anne Hull began following Felicia after the stabbing death of her friend Sakia Gunn. The reporter spent hundreds of hours with Felicia and her friends as they struggled with the aftermath of violence, accompanying the girls to school, basketball games, family dinners and meanderings through the neighborhoods of Newark. The events and direct quotes in this story were witnessed by the reporter unless otherwise noted.

Gunn's accused killer, Richard McCullough, 29, is scheduled to be tried in November in New Jersey's Essex County. He is charged with murder and bias intimidation.

They grew up playing ball together in the rusted-out hooplands of Newark, where they won their honor by scrabbling and sweating in pick-up games with the boys. Tonight at the school talent show they are fighting for something more important: the honor of their friend Sakia Gunn, who was stabbed to death at a Newark bus stop after telling a man she was gay.

After Sakia died, Valencia filled page after page of a spiral notebook, penning an epic rap poem about her best friend, who bled to death in her arms. Now in this overheated auditorium on a winter's night, her poem of gay friendship and loss becomes the 2004 class anthem about the precariousness of teenage life in Newark, where four West Side students died of gunfire in a year.

Taking the microphone, Valencia lets the words fly from her mouth.

Stuffed with the knowledge that the streets provided

Even though we said we weren't gay, we couldn't hide it

So when all the times we were hurt and denied it

We knew the truth, we had proof

You was me, I was you

Felicia's voice gets under the rhymes, harmonizing. She watches Valencia, who paces with increasing fury as she bats out the lyrics in a mist of spit. This isn't just a performance for Valencia, it's an explosion that has been building for months. Her springy bleach-tipped braids are flattened under a do-rag as she moves toward the front of the stage.

Kia, why did you have to go

I am so cold

Facing the world on my own

Valencia shudders and stops. The words are trapped in her throat. "Come on, V!" someone shouts, but Valencia drops to her knees, overcome. Felicia tries to lift her. The piano and drums play on, waiting for the singers. For the first time, Felicia falters, wiping her eyes. The students urge them on.

"Sing it, V."

"Finish it, now."

"Help her, Fee."

Valencia finds herself. She whirls upright, finishing her song, fast and hard. The microphone thuds to the ground. Valencia starts to fall sideways. Felicia reaches out to catch her.

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