"Never ran, never will!" is the gangster-bravado motto that people use to explain Brownsville, Brooklyn, with its blocks and blocks of low-income housing projects. Even the grungiest hipster artisans, who've pretty much invaded Brooklyn in recent years, still stay away from Brownsville. Growing up there in the crack era of the 1980s, Joseph Wilson was surrounded by crack dealers and addicts. His mother was an addict, so his grandmother wound up raising him—and teaching him to love music. She made him go to church, and he sang in the junior choir. Joe's grandmother also had an eclectic record collection—Delfonics, Herbie Hancock, Musical Youth, Andre Crouch—and she would have him play them when he helped her clean their two-bedroom apartment. When he was 11, his mother had twins, who were also handed to grandma. By the time the twins were one, Joe remembers, he and his younger sister, Myosha, would watch the movie Five Heartbeats together, and she'd sing along.
Soon, Joe's grandmother died, and the twins wound up in foster care. Joe went to live with his uncle, the neighborhood preacher, a massive man who owned a storefront church. In the two apartments above, Joe shared the living space with a football team's worth of other boys whom his uncle took in from the neighborhood. Many of their mothers looked to the preacher as a positive male role model; Joe's father, like all the other boys' fathers, was out of the picture. The others would tell Joe that, to make some cash, he could let one of his uncle's friends from the church do things to him. Before long, Joe's uncle was giving him a one-on-one tutorial on how to masturbate. Then there was the time when Joe's uncle caught him fooling around in a closet with a girl and made them act out what they were doing in front of him.
Joe became uncomfortable in his home environment and, to escape, he listened to a Walkman and headphones, all day and all night, paying close attention to the different rhythms of reggae and hip-hop. He consumed music in a dark, hopeless place; he would one day learn to compose it in an even darker place. At 16, he turned his back on the church and turned to the streets. By 17, he was serving his first prison sentence, one to three years for robbery. In 2005, Joe killed a 21-year-old man in a dispute over a Brownsville drug spot. In 2012, an NPR investigation revealed that Joe's neighborhood had the highest concentration of incarceration: "million-dollar blocks," they were called, because that's what the city and state of New York were spending annually to lock up the people who used to live on those blocks.
[For more on this story by JOHN J. LENNON, go to https://psmag.com/social-justi...ing-learn-to-compose]