Popular Baltimore dirt bike rider Chino Braxton remembers joining with other local celebrities — including rappers Young Moose and Lor Scoota — to deliver a message of perseverance after the death of Freddie Gray. At four west-side high schools, they talked to student assemblies about overcoming challenges and achieving goals.
A year later, Young Moose is in jail awaiting trial on gun charges. Braxton survived two bullets to the head in February. And on Saturday, Scoota — real name Tyriece Watson — was gunned down as he left a peace rally, a death that is sending shock waves through the community.
Braxton, 19, was friends with the 23-year-old Watson and said the rapper's death has shaken him, even more so than his own shooting. He is now convinced he needs to leave Baltimore to pursue his dreams.
"I should have really woke up after my situation, but the situation with Scoota really woke me up," Braxton said Tuesday. "I definitely got plans on leaving. ...
"It's hard to do because it's home," he said. "But a lot been going on here, and it's just stressful. I want to get my family away."
Since Watson's death, Braxton and other young black men have been speaking out on Twitter about their exasperation with Baltimore's violence and their desire to leave.
"Tired of trying to keep it real. I'm gone son!" wrote Gervonta Davis, a boxer who shared the stage at the high schools last spring.
Tate Kobang, widely considered to be one of the city's top rappers, posted, "Honestly, I done all I can do for and in Baltimore. Word of advice … when the opportunity to leave presents itself take it. Goodbye."
And Braxton wrote that he didn't know "why it took me so long to realize it was time for me to go."
He is known for his prowess at dirt bike riding, a street pastime in Baltimore that has been outlawed since 2001. Braxton has achieved rare crossover success, making the transition to motorcross sponsorships after teaming up with the popular Philadelphia-based rapper Meek Mill.
Lor Scoota became one of the most popular rappers in the city on the strength of his song "Bird Flu." Baltimore, despite its gritty national reputation, has struggled to propel a rapper to national success, and there was hope that Watson could be a breakout talent. Braxton's brother was his manager.
Davis, nicknamed "Tank," honed his talents at Pennsylvania Avenue's Upton Boxing Center. He is undefeated as a professional and has been taken under the wing of Floyd Mayweather.
City Councilman Nick Mosby, who represents West Baltimore, helped pull together a panel featuring the trio in hopes of inspiring young people in West Baltimore who were struggling in the aftermath of the riots following Gray's death. Research last year showed Baltimore's poorest children face the worst prospects in the nation for escaping poverty.
"It was a critical situation, and we wanted to get to our young people with a positive message," Mosby said. "What better way than through someone that they look up to?"
The councilman recalls being particularly struck by Watson's answer to a question about where he saw himself in 15 years.
"He spoke about having his high school diploma, and he clearly had marked his road map for what he wanted to do in life. He just laid it all out," Mosby said.
Watson was driving Saturday evening after leaving a peace event at Morgan State University. In what police believe was a targeted attack, a gunman stepped into the roadway as Watson was eastbound on Moravia Road at Harford Road and opened fire.
Police said a flood of tips have been coming in, and the investigation remains open.
In February, Braxton had his own brush with death. He was sitting in his vehicle in the Park Heights area when a gunman ran up and opened fire. The bullet remains lodged in his head, just inches from where doctors told him it could have caused brain damage. Another bullet grazed his head.
Braxton says he has no idea why someone would shoot him; police know of no motive, and the case is unsolved.
"I'm never in the streets, never beefing with anybody," Braxton said. "I felt like everybody from Baltimore loved me, so I just really didn't get where it came from. I never thought somebody would want to do that to me."
"I just feel blessed and feel like I'm on earth for a reason — a purpose for me being here," he said.
Braxton spoke while sitting in a friend's Howard Street boutique Tuesday afternoon. Groups of young women walked by the window and screamed, recognizing him. He didn't flinch — he said such reactions are common.
He earns money through sponsorships and dirt bike exhibitions, but his next project will feature him in a lead role in a film about dirt bike culture that also stars Meek Mill. According to reports, the film is being produced by the Baltimore-born actress Jada Pinkett Smith.
Braxton says he was lucky to find an outlet for his dirt bike passion in spite of its being illegal, a frequent target of police.
"I was fortunate enough for someone to see me, and now I want to open up doors for other people," he said.
To young people in the city feeling frustrated by recent events, he said, "I just feel like they shouldn't let nothing break them. Keep working toward their goals. Put the bad stuff in the back of your mind."
But he says that's difficult to do in Baltimore.
"Crabs pull each other down the pot. That's what everybody do here," he said. "Nobody wants to see us shine."