In Baltimore, the young black boys still dream of street stardom — rapping or ball playing — to make it out. And a few have. But most won't, and the dirty little secret is, it's not because of a lack of ambition. In fact, it's often the exact opposite: It's the ambition that causes so many young black Baltimore boys not to make it out.
I didn't know Lor Scoota, a.k.a. ScootaUpNext, but I knew of him. The kids, my high school students at City College, rapped his songs and scribbled YBS (Young Ballers Shining) on desks. I'd heard his hit song "Bird Flu," and I kinda liked it. It was typical Baltimore: flexing about drug dealing, stuntin' in the neighborhood, being a street legend. The beats were dope, and you could dance to it. In that song, Scoota represented the musical sounds of Baltimore in the same way that countless other Baltimore entertainers have done before. But Scoota was much more than that song.
This past semester I taught a unit on "Hip-Hop and the Black Community," and in it, my students and I analyzed "political" hip-hop songs past and present. Originally the introductory lesson was designed to culminate with an analysis of Kendrick Lamar's critically acclaimed "Alright," but a student suggested a song by Scoota entitled "Ready or Not." I had never heard of it, so I went to listen, and I was blown away. Scoota discusses the danger of growing up in Baltimore; he poignantly describes the feelings of frustration of being constantly surrounded by death. You can feel the pain and grit of Baltimore in his lyrics and his voice: "People say they need me, so I gotta lend a hand, ain't none of these n****s gonna rep the city like I can."
I know that feeling, the feeling of being trapped and wanting better. I know it because just like Scoota, I was one of those young black boys growing up on Baltimore's west side.
After Scoota's shooting death last weekend, I saw a picture of my former student, Dallas Cowboys rookie football player Charles Tapper at his draft party in April; he was hugging Scoota and had captioned the shot: "This is crazy smh!!! R.I.P. @scootaupnext!!! Still cant understand why the good have to die so young in my city." I instantly felt sick. I couldn't eat because even though I'd never met Scoota, I knew who he wanted to be and where he came from.
Last month, Scoota visited a local elementary school to read to a group of students about the civil rights movement. And the day he died, he hosted a charity basketball game called "Touch the People, Pray for Peace in These Streets." These were not uncommon events for him. He, along with another Baltimore rapper, Young Moose, visited schools across the city last year to encourage young people to stay in school. He represented the dream of so many of us black Baltimore boys: Use the mic or ball to get out and then use the success to give back.
But that ambition, that drive to leave and give back, is scary to some people. They fear that Scoota and others like him will reach new heights and never remember where they came from, that they'll leave Baltimore behind. So they cut them down first, unable to stand the thought someone might get out while they're left behind.
Lor Scoota may not have been a saint, but he didn't need to be for his life to have mattered. His death should be a call for all of us young black ambitious boys from Baltimore to support one another, so we can reach new heights and give back to our communities.
As Scoota might ask, "Who up next?"
Sedrick Smith is a history teacher and chair of the social studies department at City College; his email is firstname.lastname@example.org.