By Sriya Reddy
King Shakur said that writing poetry saved his life.
At 12 years old, the South Dallas native was inspired by the poem “Cotton Candy on a Rainy Day” by Nikki Giovanni and the lyricism of his favorite rappers, so he decided to give it a try.
“It wasn’t cool to write poetry so I used to write really small at school because I didn’t want people to be able to read what I was writing,” he said. “I was ashamed, but it was my outlet.”
In poetry, he found the tool he needed to deal with life’s challenges.
Now, at 43, Shakur is taking that passion to help other Black and brown students regulate their own emotions and heal through the arts.
Shakur is a co-founder of the Art Inspired Healing Collective, a group of artists creating programs for students to teach them how to use art to learn more about themselves. The collective is a part of the nonprofit 2 Inspire Peace, which provides resources that encourage mindfulness. The other founders are Nikisha Patton, executive director of 2 Inspire Peace, and poet Jonathan “GNO” White.
The collective has partnered with the Dallas Public Library, cultural centers and numerous school districts to bring arts education and workshops to students from third grade onward.
By the end of this school year, it is planning on working with about 15 different schools throughout southern Dallas County including some in Cedar Hill, Lancaster, and DeSoto.
Patton’s background is in education and she said that kids often don’t have a place where their perspective and feelings matter. These weekly workshops are one place where they can learn how to use their own voice and express themselves.
She wants them to be able to ask, “If I’m out in the streets and I’m feeling this way, how do I regulate myself in this situation? What works best for me?” she said.
Alongside the workshops, the collective also organizes festivals and open mics.
“Think about where you feel the safest, safest space you feel, and why that place makes you feel so safe. That’s the norm we want to create in the room,” Shakur said. “When we build a workshop, we think about creating the safest space for every kid to truly be themselves.”
The collective focuses on southern Dallas, an area that has limited access to mental health resources.
Shakur said that often the community in this area does not have a lot of conversations around mental health, and in his experience, Black men are often told to suppress their emotions.
“It’s taboo to talk about mental health issues in our community,” he said. “Going to a psychiatrist has always been a taboo. We go talk to Jesus, we do this or that. We don’t go to the psychiatrist and tell these people our business. I’m like, no, that’s not OK.”
White has had the same experience.
“We were told to go outside, get fresh air and shake it off,” White said. “Now as adults we are trying to remedy that.”
White is an Oak Cliff native who gained a love of poetry through listening to the recording artist Prince. His mother gave him a cassette tape one day and he soon wrote down the lyrics to his favorite Prince songs. He would read them to his friends like a poem.
He even told a teacher once that he didn’t know about Shakespeare, but Prince from Minneapolis is the real poet.
“We learned about Shakespeare, Walt Whitman and E.E. Cummings, but they always bored me,” White said.
The workshops are created to meet students where they are. In the “Hip Hop and Healing” program, the leaders created curriculums based on songs and albums, including The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, “When Doves Cry” and To Pimp a Butterfly. The collective also uses the five elements of hip-hop — MCing, DJing, dance, graffiti and knowledge — and lets students find their voice through those mediums.
Tyrone Crethers, 14, has both taught and attended programs through Art Inspired Healing. For him, music is his emotional outlet. His favorite genres are rap and country.
“Sometimes listening to music helps me focus and it keeps me calm,” Tyrone said. “I can’t really explain it.”
Tyrone, alongside other teenagers, has learned how to express himself through music, dance and visual arts. His mother, Anita Crethers, an artist and part of the collective herself, encourages art in her family because it is more than a coping mechanism, it is also a way to communicate. To her, the organization is more than just the art.
“It feels more like family,” she said.