A collection of 10 hip-hop songs written, produced and performed by a group of young people from Savannah's juvenile justice system, Dirty Water is truly the music of the streets.
The third annual by-product of the youth-centric collective A.W.O.L. (All Walks of Life) and its sound design program, Dirty Water (it's not a CD, but a digital download) includes such titles as "So Misunderstood," "Stop - Think," "At the Top" and "Trials & Tribulations."
It's very, very good, musically and lyrically creative, cohesive and colorful, and what's astonishing is that every song came from the mind of someone between the ages of 13 and 22.
The Dirty Water kids - rappers, singers, DJs, musicians, emcees and engineers - will celebrate its imminent arrival with their annual Lake Bash, June 26 at the Lake Mayer Pavilion. The public is invited.
Funded by the City of Savannah, the Governors' Office for Children and Families, the United Way and other organizations, A.W.O.L. is an arts-based program dedicated to the prevention of juvenile delinquency. Sound design is just one of its umbrella programs; A.W.O.L. also includes theater, spoken word and film among its artistic disciplines.
The founder and CEO of the non-profit organization is Tony "Polo" Jordan, a former probation officer who understands the great personal strides troubled youngsters can make through positive experiences with the arts.
"When I left the Department of Juvenile Justice, I was still on very good terms," Jordan says. "The thing was, I couldn't be a state employee and accept state grants. So I had to make a choice.
"As a result of doing A.W.O.L. fulltime, I maintain those relationships with the juvenile court judges and other probation officers. And they'll refer kids to our after-school programs."
Jordan runs A.W.O.L. with his wife DaVena, who writes the grant proposals, works closely with the organization's theater wing (she's known around the office as "Boss Lady") and shares her husband's passion for helping at-risk youth.
The Jordans' nickname for the sound design program is The P.R.O.J.E.C.T.S. (Positive Re-education Of Juveniles Everywhere Concerning The Streets).
Why is this album called Dirty Water?
Tony Jordan: This year, we've got an eclectic group of kids from all walks of life, from an honor student to an alternative school student who's 19 years old and in the 10th grade.
They have different perspectives on life. They're in different places, mentally and everything. And the album reflects that.
They wanted to call it Dirty Water because water is supposed to be the purest thing, something that no human being is allergic to. It's supposed to be a universal thing: everybody can drink water. And through their life experiences, there are a lot of bad things that aren't pure and good.
They're talking about different issues, whether it's somebody who's committed a crime and trying to bounce back - they've paid their dues to society and now they're trying to be a productive person in the community - or girls that are still selling their souls and putting on clothes that are showing all their body parts, or damn near it. They take things that closely relate to them now.
They came up with the title and the concept. We didn't have anything to do with it. The only thing we do is make sure they're not getting out of control!
How did the sound design program come about?
Tony Jordan: The basic idea was to teach kids the intricate details of music engineering, how to write and develop a story, performing, all those different things. I was thinking that my idea was original - until I found out about other arts-based youth organizations throughout the country. In California, there was an organization with a budget of $4 million, just for the sound design program. They had a curriculum. It was like they took my idea and put it on a whole ‘nother level.
My wife and I went out there in 2006, and the next year we took 13 people with us. Four of them were artist/facilitators, which are our staff, and the remainder were kids who were ultimately in the first sound design program that we launched.
When we went out there, we told them what we were trying to do, and you know what they did? They gave us a bible of how to do it! It's not about "this is my idea, let's make money," it's about providing a safe haven for kids to express themselves, and explore their artistry, in fellowship. Their focus was the same as our focus - they wanted to work in the community with their kids. We're doing the same thing on our end.
How does it work? How do kids get into the program?
Tony Jordan: Let's just say I'm a kid named John Doe. John Doe is on probation. He goes to court - again - for stealing bubblegum out of the store. Well, if John Doe has worked up a pretty good record of offenses and he goes to jail, then taxpayers pay between 30 and 50 thousand dollars for him, for a year.
A.W.O.L. says look, instead of putting the tax dollars into locking these kids up, give us a lot less and we'll provide arts-based prevention activities during the evening hours.
I will say this for our Savannah juvenile court judges. I know them personally - if they can put a kid in a prevention program, they will do it. They're all about "Can we get this kid into this program? Because he or she does not need to be locked up, and away from their family."
Is sound design a popular program with the kids? I think I already know the answer.
Tony Jordan: The average kid in Savannah, nowadays, if you ask them what they want to be when they grow up, it's either an athlete or a rapper. Now, I've got nothing against sports - I'm a former athlete myself - but I focus more on the arts. We have a music recording studio, so if you tell a kid that they're being referred to A.W.O.L., and they're going to be in a recording studio ... we don't have any problems getting them here.
It's a win-win; before you know it, we've taught them everything about life and about education. We've taught them that you don't have to be a rapper, you could get your sound design engineer degree and come out making $100,000 a year just for mixing and mastering.
Do you find, though, that kids think being a rapper is all about glamour, money, fast women and big cars? Do you teach them there's a craft and a business involved?
Tony Jordan: I'm a hip-hop head; I was born in '74 and so I grew up listening to rap music. We teach the kids that the media only glorifies the things that are really bad. We show them that there's the same amount of positive things. We take the negative things and use them as opportunities to teach, to show them the positive side.
The number one rule is no profanity. You can't use the N-word, you can't degrade women, and if you want to express yourself about an issue that's pertinent to you, how do you articulate yourself in a very intelligent way?
Once this song or whatever is documented, and we have to present the finished product to our funders, when they listen to it they need to hear what you're saying. They need to hear your cry for help.
That's how we challenge the kids. We tell them that the city gives us money - the mayor and the city council, they support us. So what do you want their perception to be when they hear it? We get straight to the point, man.
A.W.O.L. Lake Bash
Where: Lake Mayer Pavilion, Montgomery Cross Road at the Harry Truman Parkway
When: 4-7 p.m. Friday, June 26