On the night of Sept. 29, 2007, three teenage boys boarded a 54 bus in their neighborhood, near 14th Street in Columbia Heights, to attend a go-go show near 14th Street in Brightwood. They watched a few bands play at an underground youth club called the G Spot. Afterward, the boys went back to 14th Street to catch a bus home.
They’d been waiting for a few minutes when, around 1 a.m., a bronze pickup with tinted windows screeched to a stop in front of the shelter. Two men emerged with handguns. There was no time to run. Two of the boys, ages 14 and 15, were shot but survived. The third, 15-year-old Jonathan Franklin, was struck in the back by a bullet and died that morning at Howard University Hospital. It’s unclear why the boys were targeted. One of the survivors says he’d never seen the men who attacked him and his friends.
Jonathan, an eighth-grader at Jefferson Junior High, died a little more than a year after his father was sent to prison. In August 2006, John Franklin was convicted of leading a PCP and crack cocaine distribution ring in Northeast, and a federal judge sentenced him to several life terms without the possibility of parole. Jonathan’s mother moved the family out of their apartment in Columbia Heights and into projects in Southwest.
But Jonathan still felt at home in his old neighborhood, and he traveled almost every afternoon to the Boys and Girls Club at 14th and Clifton streets NW. That’s where he had met Detective Mitch Credle, who’d been his football coach since the third grade.
Credle, a broad-shouldered man with a square jaw, began volunteering at the club in 1984. He’d lost kids before. He’d attended funerals for young men shot in turf wars and seen a few sent to jail. But Jonathan seemed especially innocent. He’d always been the slowest runner on any team Credle coached. Shanky, as his mother nicknamed him, was disarmingly quiet and had a tightknit group of friends in the neighborhood. On clear days, they would hang out on the sidewalk with a battery-powered keyboard, banging out go-go beats on the hoods of cars.
“We just beat on the cars to make it sound better,” says Eric Garrett, 15, who was shot in the thigh that night last fall. He adds that the neighbors didn’t mind that he and his friends used their hoods as instruments—they never hit the cars too hard.
Actually, Credle says, “the citizens were going crazy.” Still, he knew the kids missed having Jonathan in their jam sessions. That gave him an idea, and early this year, Credle made the boys an offer.
“I said, ‘Look, do you all want to start a band?’”
This March, Credle bought a drum kit, congos, a bigger, more professional keyboard, and an amp. He put the equipment in a basement room of the club and invited Jonathan’s friends and a few other members to come over. The boys took one look at the room full of instruments and quickly set everything up and started playing. Credle just watched.
“No one knew they could play,” he says. In fact, the young men had been making music all their lives, learning on their own, in church choirs or from family members. (One musician’s father played in Rare Essence.) “I was like, ‘These clowns have talent,’” Credle says. “That’s when I started taking them more serious.”
Over the next few weeks, he spent about $8,000 on real speakers, a mixing board, a guitar, a bass, and another keyboard. “I just felt as though it was an investment where I knew it was going to help the kids,” Credle says. The boys want to play music, so, he reasons, they’ll play by his rules. To stay in the band, the young musicians must pass their classes and stay out of trouble. Any slip-ups and they’re off the stage. (Terry Jeter, the other boy who was shot that night last fall, came for the first few practices but never joined the band. Credle says he probably just doesn’t have musical genes.)
Soon the band had a name, Highly Respected, and a repertoire of songs, mostly snare- and congo-heavy versions of rap and R&B hits. They practice three times a week—more if they could convince someone to unlock the music room. Luminaries of D.C. go-go have dropped in on evening sessions to offer practical wisdom. Walker “Tre” Johnson from the UnCalled 4 Ex-
perience has visited, as has Anwan “Big G” Glover, a founding member of Backyard Band who played Slim Charles on The Wire.
At a recent practice, the boys seem like slightly manic caricatures of session musicians. Without discussion, they start noodling around on their instruments before settling on a song, Justin Timberlake’s “Apologize.” A lanky boy in gray Nikes leads on keyboard, tweaking the melody here and there, while his friend, in a flat-brimmed hat pulled over thick dreads, whales on a shiny blue drum set and another taps on congos. Eric Garrett, usually inaudible in conversation, barks out an angry version of Timberlake’s lyrics while two younger boys sing a syncopated backup in prepubescent falsettos.
Several girls come in from the bleachers in the neighboring gym, ditching the summer-league basketball team to watch the band. A dozen other boys find seats against the wall, bobbing their heads in silent appreciation for an hour and a half. When Credle wants quiet, he puts a finger to his throat and everyone stops, but mostly he just runs around, fussing with the sound, occasionally wiping his face with his hand. As usual, he is tired: He usually rushes to practice after making mandatory court appearances on cases and before leaving for his evening shift with the police’s Major Case Unit.
At the beginning of the summer, Credle started booking shows for Highly Respected and other young go-go bands at the Boys and Girls Club. Highly Respected has since played about a dozen gigs. The shows have satisfied parents, who worry that Jonathan died because he was in a neighborhood with beefs against his own. “The kids were traveling to get to the functions,” says Eric’s mother, Iris Garrett. “What the city doesn’t understand is that they have these turf things…even if you’re just in the wrong neighborhood.” She tells her son to always be on the lookout, but, she says, “they shouldn’t have to be watching.”
Perhaps more surprising is that the shows have become popular with local teens, who fork over a $10 cover to dance in a gymnasium supervised by parents, off-duty police officers, and even bounty-hunters. Through ticket sales, the band hopes to raise $2,300 to buy a headstone for Jonathan’s grave.
The kids in the band say they have no reservations about playing go-go with so much supervision. “’Cause we be rockin’,” says Lips, a tall boy who sings for Highly Respected. “We just play for the community.” Lips wears a gold-colored chain around his neck with a pendant that says r.i.p. flo for his grandmother, Florence.
Credle attended middle school and high school in Columbia Heights and played basketball on the same team he now coaches. Though he’s carefully separated his police work from his volunteer work, he’s acutely aware that some people suspect he combines the two. He says he has no such intentions.
“That community made me,” he says. “I’m not going to make them into informants, into snitches.”
Likewise, he feels no need to peer into the lives of the parents who bring their children to the club. “Most of what goes on in their lives or what went on in their pasts has nothing to do with how they raise their kids,” he says.
The band is still perfecting its act. At the start of a recent show, the vocalists all face the drummers, ignoring the crowd. They find their rhythm a few songs in and spin around, engaging the audience in call-and-response vocals on truncated radio hits. The crowd bunches up against the stage, with clumps of moshing boys and giggling girls. A few guys in their early 20s cheer the band from the side of the stage. “They grew up under us,” says a man with elbow-length dreadlocks. Four boys lean against the back wall, watching a friend perform a go-go dance called Beat Ya Feet, which involves hopping, sliding, knees-akimbo footwork. One guy, sporting a geometric high-top Afro and gray stonewashed jeans he bought on eBay for $20, says his style icon is the Fresh Prince.
Kayla Davis, the lone female in the band, is also the only member who expresses doubts about the benefits of having go-go shows at the center. She says the shows keep kids out of trouble when the music’s on but afterward, everything goes back to normal. Sometimes, she says, bands stir up their own issues.
“Sometimes, it becomes trouble,” she says.
Credle says she’s right.
“You can’t do it 24-7,” he says. “Once we leave, they’re back in the neighborhood.”