The eyes of several hundred boys danced as the music played in the high school cafeteria on a Saturday morning.
"Girl, it's easy to love me now," I sang, leading the congregation in a popular song by rapper 50 Cent. "Would you love me if I was down and out . . . "
A more appropriate song for a bearer of the Gospel like myself would have been "Yes, Jesus Loves Me." Perhaps "Down by the Cross" or maybe even "Precious Lord."
But 50 Cent's "21 Questions"?
I can only imagine what my Bible-thumping Pentecostal relatives might have said if they had heard me singing "the Devil's music" that morning:
"It's holiness or hip-hop hell!"
The breakfast was sponsored by a local mentoring program that offers a hearty helping of meat, eggs, toast and juice, as well as words of wisdom from a speaker, typically a professional African American man.
I was the speaker that morning, a journalist who survived the drugs, gangs and violence that claimed many of my friends.
I knew it would be a tough audience: boys ages 9 to 17, some with more patience than others for yet another "square" adult lecturing on the woes of ghetto life and the importance of God and education, going on and on about accountability and responsibility. I knew I needed to spice things up.
I was attracted to 50 Cent largely because hip-hop is the language of a younger generation. Although its artists and their bass-laced lyrics often tread brazenly across the boundaries of morality, expressing a fascination and adoration for many things to which I do not subscribe, I cannot deny the powerful influences of such forces on youth today. At the very least, I thought 50 Cent might serve as an icebreaker; at best, a passkey into their world, allowing them to hear me out before they tuned me out.
I understand that employing the talents of 50 Cent, even for ulterior motives, is for many conservative Christians akin to kissing the Devil. But I am aware of the grim statistics concerning young black men. That prison, drugs and HIV lay claim to many more than do institutions of higher learning.
I am aware that nationally, of an estimated 2.1 million prison inmates, the population is disproportionately African American male, according to two Harvard University researchers studying the so-called "school-to-prison pipeline."
I am also aware that too many churches in black neighborhoods sit shuttered for most of the week, disconnected from the plight of young black men. That too many churches in poor communities are consumed with the perpetuation of church life, with having meetings to plan meetings, and with building fiefs and multimillion-dollar grand cathedrals -- but rarely issuing any lasting message that reaches the unforgiving urban streets sounding like anything other than a tinkling cymbal. For too many black men, the church is talking loud but saying nothing.
As a Chicago crime reporter, I have stood at a pond of blood that formed on a South Side basketball court after a multiple shooting in broad daylight. I have visited the morgue after a weekend of summer violence and have seen bodies in the freezer, covered with white sheets on stainless-steel gurneys. I am still haunted by the memory of Donald Campbell, fatally shot on his 17th birthday on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue in Anacostia, and about whom I wrote as a reporter for The Post in 1998. I am haunted by the dangling black Nike sneaker -- above a shrine of stuffed animals erected in memory of Quentin Maurice Davidson Jr., a few feet from his front door, where he was murdered in 1999. For these young men, the talking is done.
"50 Cent ain't goin' to save 'em," a well-meaning friend scolded when I asked for advice days before I was to speak. I know. The answer is hope. Not hip-hop.
But at the risk of losing a few old heads, and in hope of reaching a few young ones, maybe even just one, I settled on 50 Cent, though I quickly ruled out "P.I.M.P." and "In Da Club" -- two songs in which he waxes on about nothing good. In "21 Questions" I find an ode. I hear a young black man in all of his tattooed muscularity, searching for, of all things, love and security. It reminds me of a familiar journey.
"I found someone who loved me when I was down and out -- his name is Jesus," I told the boys as I concluded my talk that morning. "He still had love for me."
Man, I hope they heard me.