Baltimore rapper and professor form unlikely friendship over health disparities class centered on 'The Wire'

When rapper Diablo Flamez and professor Toby Gordon walk into the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School together, they make an odd pair.

Flamez,48, wears jeans, sneakers and dark sunglasses. Cornrows poke out from under a baseball cap. Tattoos cover his arms.

Gordon, 64, sports a pixie haircut, neat dresses and horn-rimmed glasses.

But when they get in front of their class, they become the perfect complement.

Flamez, a prominent figure on the Baltimore rap scene, and Gordon, a former vice president of the Hopkins Hospital and Health System, teach a seminar together about health disparities centered around the popular HBO series “The Wire.” Gordon is an associate professor in health policy and management. Flamez, born Damion Champ, is paid as a regular guest speaker and consultant.

Gordon offers research and data. Flamez provides a straight-from-the-streets perspective.

Beyond the classroom, the relationship between the rapper and professor, who live in neighborhoods of Baltimore that seem worlds apart, has blossomed into a strong, albeit unorthodox, friendship. They talk on the phone and visit regularly. Gordon has also become close with Diablo’s daughter and mother.

They are not the first people from divergent backgrounds to find common ground among their differences. The say their friendship has made them grow in different ways.

The pair met at a conference at Columbia University in 2016.

The conference, like their class, centered around “The Wire.” Flamez, part of the team that produced music for seasons 4 and 5, spoke on a panel about music from the show. Gordon spoke on a panel about using the show to teach about health disparities, politics and social issues.

The professor asked the rapper to speak to her Hopkins class back in Baltimore. That eventually led to routine appearances. The pair has taught 10 seminars together since meeting in 2016.

“He brings a life-long perspective of living in these neighborhoods where there are these health problems, like food deserts and high rates of chronic conditions,” Gordon said. “He gives a very real life view.”

Flamez sees that view as an important component in the effort to improve public health in impoverished communities. He says health professionals often don’t understand the people they’re trying to help.

“Just because you bring broccoli into the hood doesn’t mean people are automatically going to eat it,” he likes to say. “Broccoli is nasty. You have to be realistic.”

Students say they appreciate the perspective Flamez brings to the class. Some have reached out to him outside of class to get personal tours of Baltimore.

Hillary Holmes, 25, says hearing from people such as Flamez is a critical part of the learning experience.

“It helps to have him up there and know that he grew up with some of this, and is not just somebody who is giving us secondhand information,” she said.

Emily O’Donnell, 28, agreed.

“It provides an alternative perspective,” she said.

During one spring class, Flamez — wearing the sunglasses he rarely removes in public, sat at the front of the class as Gordon talked about the day’s lesson.

Every now and then he cracked a joke. He likes to lighten classes up with a bit of comic relief. During an otherwise serious discussion about the differences in health outcomes between the two neighborhoods where they each live, he blurted: “If I move up the street to where Ms. Toby lives, then I’m going to live a lot longer.”

Gordon showed the class clips and discussed scenes from “The Wire.” In one, the character Bubbles, a recovering drug addict, sits on a park bench and plucks out facial hairs. A student points out that that could be a sign of an anxiety disorder, which could stem from childhood trauma.

Gordon and Flamez compared the health statistics of their neighborhoods. Druid Heights, where Flamez lives, has some of the city’s worst health outcomes and mortality rates. Roland Park, where Gordon lives, has some of the best.

It is just one example of how different their lives are.

Flamez grew up in East Baltimore near Clifton Park. It was the early days of hip-hop music; he listened to LL Cool J and Run DMC. He graduated from Northern High School. He didn’t go to college, but turned his love of music into a steady local rap career. He made his rap debut at a competition at Morgan State University.

Gordon was born in Park Heights near Pimlico Race Course. Her mother died when she was 6; Gordon lived for a time with her grandmother. At a young age she would play hospital administrator. She earned a bachelor’s degree at the University of Pennsylvania and a doctorate in health policy and management at Hopkins.

Gordon and Flamez’s friendship developed naturally. Gordon would pick Flamez up from his rowhome apartment in West Baltimore for class. Once he invited her up, and soon Gordon was making regular visits.

She has taken to his daughter, 8-year-old Ayanti — she takes chocolate to the girl and reads and plays games with her.

When Ayanti’s mother died suddenly from complications related to hypertension, Flamez battled his deceased girlfriend’s family for custody. Gordon sat with him during court hearings and wrote a letter on his behalf.

She felt a connection to the girl, she says, because she lost her own mother young.

The two also bicker, sometimes. Flamez hates when Gordon tells the outspoken, confident rapper to tone it down.

“We bump heads,” Flamez said. “We are always fighting, because you can do that when you are friends.”

Gordon is structured and organized. Flamez is more of a free spirit. They joke that she has become his secretary to keep him on track. He once went on a trip and wasn’t expected to get back until right before a filming. Gordon worried bad winter weather might delay his return. They went back and forth; and finally she darted out of his apartment, exasperated.

“I told him I am no longer the secretary,” she said.

Flamez went on his trip and returned in time, but was tired. The two reconciled.

Flamez was once skeptical of Gordon’s motives. He wanted to make sure she wasn’t just temporarily infatuated with black Baltimore culture.

So he sent her to get beer at a corner store with a plexiglass window at the counter.

“I wanted to see if she would be down,” Flamez said.

She was. When she got to the store, an intoxicated older man saw her, began to dance and attempted to remove his pants. The store owner asked him to leave, and there were no further problems.

The test didn’t seem to bother Gordon. She returned with two Natty Daddys, a beer with a high alcohol content that she had never tried.

“I was surprised it tasted OK,” she reported. “I drank about half because it was potent.”

Gordon also gained a newfound respect from Flamez.

They say they have learned from each other.

He has taught her a few things about the streets, like explaining how people use vacant houses to store drugs. She has learned about the music industry by hanging out with Diablo at the studios of Darkroom Productions, where he makes his music.

“I am much more sensitive and knowledgeable in a real way than an academic way,” Gordon said.

Flamez said Gordon has introduced him to the academic world in a way he might not otherwise have been exposed. And he is happy to share pieces of Baltimore, the city he loves, to students who might not otherwise set foot in his world.

“I am glad Ms. Toby found me and brought me in or else I would not have had this experience,” he said.

amcdaniels@baltsun.com

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