Youth Gun Violence

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By Camille Respess

“The sound of gunshots popping is my lullaby at night.”

That’s what 16-year-old Antigone Chambers-Read says during the performance of her poem, “Fireworks” at a Black History Month event at the Gateway Arch in downtown St. Louis in February.

In her white hoodie with something that looks like a bullseye on the front, the teenager spoke about wrapping her hands around a gun, about fear, about keeping her family safe.

Though it may look like bullseye, the concentric circles are actually the Adinkrahene, a West African Adinkra symbol representing greatness, charisma and the importance of playing a role in community leadership. The Adinkrahene is the logo of St. Louis Story Stitchers, an artist collective comprised of young St. Louis artists.

The artists are 16-24 years old and they rap, sing, dance and speak about issues relating to the experiences that make up their city. Story Stitchers brings their message to schools, parks, stages, the list goes on. They perform about topics such as bullying, Black Lives Matter, building community.

Antigone Chambers-Read performs her poem, “Fireworks.”

St. Louis wouldn’t be St. Louis without gun violence. So far this year, there’s been 205 reported gun violence incidents in the St. Louis area, 57 resulting in death. And as far as the state as a whole, Missouri has one of the highest gun death rates in the nation.

Story Stitchers performs about this topic, too.

At Story Stitchers, they’re trying to decrease these numbers and statistics.

Branden Lewis and Shawn Prather are both performers for the artists collective.

The two graduated from Central Visual Performing Arts High School in May 2017. That same year, the city’s homicide rate hit a 21-year high. Of the 205 killings, 24 of the victims were between 0-19 years old. Eighty were 20-29 years old.

While murders were going on in their city, the two young men were working on their craft. For Shawn, that’s dance. And for Branden, he likes to rap, sing and play the piano.

The two 20-year-olds feel connected to the gun violence that happens in their city, which inspires their work for Story Stitchers. Earlier this year, one of Lewis’ cousins was killed in a gun accident. Growing up, Prather viewed his school as a “sanctuary”, but his neighborhood was not as safe. Its experiences like these that link Lewis and Prather to the artists collective.

In 2018, Story Stitchers performed at Chambers Park as part of their Pick the City UP Tour. That same year, a shooting outside the park left a 26-year-old dead and a 17-year-old male was arrested for first-degree murder.

Lewis says Story Stitchers picks locations where gun violence has occurred so they can reach audiences that may not normally choose to attend one of their events.

At Chambers Park, Lewis performed spoken word poetry and rapped about being a young black man in a city with high-crime. He also used his art to perform about ending gun violence in his hometown.

“A lot of people left having different outlooks on life,” Lewis says. “That’s what we try to do.”

Story Stitchers performing “Who’s Ready?” alongside students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

Students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and others on the March for Our Lives: Road To Change bus tour stopped in St. Louis as part of their 50 city summer tour that same month.

The night before the bus tour got to St. Louis, Story Stitchers reached out to March for Our Lives on Instagram and asked if they’d sing with them.

They said yes. The two groups performed “Who’s Ready?” together atCardinal Ritter High School. In their blue March for Our Lives t-shirts, the students from South Florida stood with Story Stitchers and sang. The chorus goes, “We’re ready, we’re ready, ready for the violence to stop. Who’s ready? We’re ready, ready for a revolution.”

For Prather, the dancer gets the most fulfillment when he “stops it before it starts.” He likes to perform for elementary and middle school students and hopes his message will serve as as precursor to the violence these children could get involved in.

Prather and another dancer gave an impromptu performance at a St. Louis elementary school in September. He said when he entered, he noticed that some of the children, who were likely no older than 11 years old, were repping gangs. At the beginning of his performance, the children in the auditorium were laughing at Prather and the other artist. As the performance went on, Prather says he began to see the shift.

“I like to show kids that it’s cool to do things that are safe, that are not life threatening or
bodily harming,” he says. “Like dance.”

He found that during his dancing, the students became more attuned to what he was doing and began to show their support by dancing in the audience and clapping.

Dance is more than just a form of expression or an escape for Prather. He sees it as a way to enrich the experiences of young people in neighborhoods like his own.

“You can be from the hood persay, and you can do things that don’t have anything to do with it,” he says. “You can probably try to uplift the hood. That’s what we try to show the kids.”

As far as Prather’s mission, he wants to use dance as a way to stop the violence that could brew in young St. Louisans before it starts. Through dance, he says he gives these adolescents a way to express themselves that doesn’t involve violence.

After all, that’s what the art did for him.

Up next: The Gun Lobbyists »