Mikel Rosenboro was the biggest youth at the table. When he spoke, he leaned forward. He projected the tough-guy confidence of a youngster who knows the streets. But don't be fooled.
In the blink of an eye, 17-year-old Rosenboro revealed his sensitive side. He talked on and on about the day a pair of District police officers stopped him and asked for identification because, he presumes, he's young and black. "It made me hurt, like, inside," Rosenboro said.
That incident last year inspired the poet in Rosenboro. He wrote about it in a creative workshop at the Martha's Table program for teenagers. His words moved a pair of musically inclined program directors to help him create a rap song called "Am I Free?"
The song is one of 16 on a limited-release compact disc called "Now You Know," which will become available in a few District stores this week. The CD was meant as an incentive to get six teenagers who idolize rap stars to write thought-provoking poetry, without cursing, but it has managed to do more than that.
The effort, known as the Crushed I.C.E. Collective, brought together local hip-hop and alternative rock musicians to help the students, each of whom say they now recognize the power of good writing.
The rap artists coached the teenagers on how to rap, without a single word of profanity. The teenagers were encouraged to go deep within themselves, and for their efforts, the artists donated studio time, produced funky hip-hop beats for background music and even contributed money.
Jennifer Thomas, 35, the creative program's director, and her associate, Timothy Jones, 31, believe the CD and similar ventures can be an incentive for urban teenagers to write passionately and to acquire a skill that will help them throughout their lives, whether they enter the music industry or not.
Sales of the CD aren't that impressive. Of 500 produced for the first run, only 100 have sold at $12 each, Thomas said. But she knows that sales aren't the point. The money is enough to help produce the next CD, which hopefully will inspire more D.C. teenagers to write well and get some of the most creative people in the Washington area to help showcase the teenagers' talents.
"Now You Know" has been mentioned on WHUR-FM (96.3) radio and played on a community station, Jones said. Celebrity, even when greatly watered-down, has its price, as 17-year-old performer Tony Collins discovered when a child "walked up to me and said" he couldn't rap.
But rappers like Collins and Rosenboro, along with Tia Greene, Billy Paz, Reginald Wilson and Lisa Edouard, were greeted as stars during a CD-release party at the District's Woolly Mammoth Theater.
All this started when Jones got an idea last March. He wanted the sometimes uninspired teenagers who come to Martha's Table for after-school tutoring to write with more heart. He handed them the lyrics of hip-hop artist Lauryn Hill's hit CD, "The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill," and singer Marvin Gaye's classic album, "What's Going On?" and asked them to shape the music into their own words.
He liked what he saw. "Their energy went wild," Jones said. He made a collage of their work for an exhibition at the Martin Luther King Jr. Library. "The concept, people felt, was ingenious, because it brought two generations together in one vein," Jones said. "People responded because the teens wrote some really good poetry."
Then, another light came on in his head. "It went so well, I said, 'Let's take this one step forward.' As a teacher, I've always believed in the power of music," Jones said. "I felt the complaints about there not being more positive lyrics . . . in hip-hop today. I thought the teens could write thought-provoking pieces with no profanity or misogynistic lyrics."
Rosenboro, for one, didn't get the concept at first. "Writing without cursing," he said, "was kind of hard." But he pressed on and came up with some of the lyrics on "Am I Free?"
"There's no probability of what the cop can do to me," he rhymed about the incident with the police that he said hurt his pride. "They could do anything they wanted because I fit a description," Rosenboro said.
The edict against cursing had an effect on Collins, Thomas said. "You hardly ever hear him curse now, and when he does, he's much more mature about it."
Billy Paz, 16, the son of Salvadoran immigrants, wrote and performed "Come To My World," a song about being misunderstood. "It don't matter if you're Spanish, Vietnamese, black, whatever, we're still the same," Paz said. If people truly understood the plight of others, they'd realize "we have the same types of problems."
Being Latino, he used the plight of his people as an example. "We go clean places we can't get into otherwise, but we can't get an education," Paz said. "I'm going to be the first person in my family to go to college."
Tia Greene, who fought through shyness to perform "A Prayer," said the writing was easy. "I wrote it in five minutes. I guess it's kind of deep once you think about it. All the things that happened to me, bad things and good things, that's what it's about."
They all brainstormed, said Jones, a rap devotee since his student days at Howard University. "We would look at content, consistency, flow and sound. They would come in and say I want a song called 'Am I Free.' And someone like Billy would take a look at it, and Billy would say, yeah, it's good, but take this out and let's do this."
As the teenagers wrote, Thomas, who doubles as a drummer for a local band called Cry Baby Cry, solicited help from her alternative rock friends at Dischord Records, whose owner contributed $1,000 toward the project.
Jones called on his old friends at Howard University to coach the teens on rapping. He got responses from DeLa Beats Productions in Alexandria, Inner Ear Studios in Arlington and Equinox Productions in Prince George's County.
"We want to establish Crushed I.C.E. as a program, so each CD would be fun, maybe even pushing the envelope, for the next," Thomas said. "I look at these kids and I think, if you can get a negative influence, you can get a positive.
"For teenagers with an aspiration to be artists, what a wonderful opportunity," she said. "You never know who they may meet in the process of going around and promoting the CD."
CAPTION: Mikel Rosenboro, 17, channeled the anger he felt about being stopped by D.C. police into poetry that later became lyrics for a profanity-free, hip-hop song.
CAPTION: Hip-hop artists donated time and talent to help the teenagers record a compact disc of their poetry set to hip-hop tunes. The CD will be on sale in several stores.
CAPTION: "I've always believed in the power of music," said Timothy Jones, left, a program director at Martha's Table, who encouraged the youths to write poetry and then coordinated production of the compact disc. From left, Mikel Rosenboro, 17, Tia Greene, 18, Tony Collins, 17, and Billy Paz, 16, wrote lyrics for and performed on the CD.