Curiosity led Vernesha Poindexter to walk outside when she heard the gunfire.
She didn’t know then that 42 bullets had been fired down a nearby street in Southeast D.C.
She didn’t know that at least eight of those bullets had hit a 29-year-old, even as he tried to hide behind cars.
She didn’t know that young man was her older brother, Kenneth Poindexter, and she was about to lose him.
After she heard the gunfire on Jan. 20, Vernesha knew only that she and her friends arrived at the scene of the shooting before police could block off the area with yellow tape and that a body lay on the ground.
“Is that Kenny?” Vernesha heard someone say. She dismissed the possibility. Then someone lifted him up, and she saw a familiar tattoo on the back of his leg. It showed the face of a girl he loved. She knew then it was the brother who took care of her after their mother died.
“I will be right here with you,” she told him. “I got you. I got you.”
She tried to go with him in the ambulance, but the police stopped her. She waited at the scene, staying there until a detective approached her and said he had good news and bad news. She asked for the bad first and recalled hearing nothing after he told her that her brother was pronounced dead at the hospital.
These are the thoughts that rolled through Vernesha’s mind recently as she and a group of young people worked to produce a song they hope will help stop gun violence in the nation’s capital.
“Gunz Down D.C.,” is the title of the track. And within its head-bobbing beat are the voices of young people who speak about the toll of shootings with a hard-earned intimacy that makes their words of loss and fear and fed-up-ness carry a weight that should command our attention.
These young people have grown up in the parts of the city where gun violence has long been too common, and if they are saying it is now out of control and has to stop, then we need to hear and heed that message. We need to spread it.
Because for them, the stakes are not political. They are real, and they are high.
“I’m just trying to get the word out,” Vernesha said. People need to stop picking up guns, she said, “because it’s not getting you nowhere. It’s just landing you behind bars or ending up dead or just looking stupid, period.”
Two men in their 20s have been charged with her brother’s murder, which police said resulted from a neighborhood dispute involving damage to an apartment door and a person hit over the head with a bottle.
“I don’t know why my brother got killed,” Vernesha said. “But he was a good guy. I know that. He took care of me.”
The seven young people who worked on the lyrics and the production of the song with the D.C. Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services (DYRS) have all gone through the city’s juvenile court system, and some remain in custody. They don’t have gun charges on their records, but all of them have been affected by shootings in the city.
Several tell of losing people close to them. Some speak about worrying they will become the next victim.
D.C. has already had more than 100 homicides this year.
“I don’t wanna die no mo’,” begins the song. “Don’t want my momma crying no mo’. Bury all my guys no mo’. Don’t want my hands up in the sky no mo’.”
Linda Harllee Harper, deputy director for DYRS, said the idea for the song and the accompanying #GunzDown campaign grew out of conversations with young people who said they couldn’t put their weapons down until others did first.
“It’s bigger than the mayor,” Harper said of the city’s gun problem. “It’s bigger than the police. The kids, they have to agree we got to stop killing each other.”
She and Program Manager Dana McDaniel began discussing the project in June, but both said it took on an urgency after 10-year-old Makiyah Wilson was killed in a barrage of 70 bullets while walking to an ice cream truck. On the night of the girl’s death, D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser tweeted, “Enough is enough!”
It was a phrase that Lynndon Ferrell, 23, repeated earlier this week when he spoke about what participating in the song has meant to him.
“We can all agree, enough is enough,” he said. “That could have been anybody’s child.”
It could have been his 4-year-old son, a boy he calls his “heart.” Lynndon cries when he talks about the boy and how that child made him change his priorities. Lynndon said he used to worry about whether he would able to provide his son with the best things so that other kids wouldn’t make fun of him in school. But now, he focuses on teaching the boy his colors and how to sound out words, such as ab-so-lute-ly, so that he pronounces them correctly.
In Lynndon’s verse, he raps: “Put the guns down and elevate at all times. Cuz if we’re doing that, ain’t no need to commit no crime. I know times get hectic and you gotta rebel sometimes, but we are all royalty so elevate your mind. It was school or the streets, knowledge or heat, I pack my book bag every day, with tools to eat.”
Clinton Lacey, the head of DYRS, also has a few lines in the song, lyrics he said he wrote when he was young and growing up at a time when many people dreamed of becoming a rapper.
McDaniel also wrote parts of the song, which are performed by young people who had the motivation to participate but not the words. McDaniel grew up in the District and said she didn’t go untouched by gun violence. Her brother was injured in a shooting that left her cousin dead. “I remember his blood was under my nails for three weeks,” she said.
Lynndon said he knew Vernesha’s brother. He also recently lost another close friend, a man with a young son.
“Gun violence has to stop,” he said. “I wasn’t looking at it the way I’m looking at it now. We’re losing children, but we’re losing parents, too. And we ain’t losing them to the system. We’re losing them to guns.”
He and the other young people who worked on the song have high hopes for it. They want to see it spread through Washington and other cities. They want people to embrace not only its beat, but also its message.
“Me and my friends created a track that we can all say we did something good,” Lynndon said, crying. “At the end of the day, we got to do something. . . . Just know, no matter what, there’s some people out here, and they do care, and they are trying.”
On Wednesday night, the song will be played for the first time on the radio station WPFW. There are also plans to produce a music video to go along with it.
What that video will look like remains undecided, but there are already plans for how it will end. When the credits roll, two lists of names will appear. One will contain the names of the young people who worked on the song in an effort to make their communities safer. And the other — which will stretch much longer — will contain the names of those who didn’t have that chance.
Among the names in that way-too-long “in memoriam” list will be Makiyah Wilson and Kenneth Poindexter.