I remember watching an interview with music group New Edition. The five original members — Ronnie Devoe, Michael Bivins, Bobby Brown, Ricky Bell and Ralph Tresvant — grew up poor, on the rough streets of Roxbury ("The Bury but not the fruit y'all") Boston back in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. When super producer Maurice Starr discovered them, they were barely out of junior high school.
NE went on to become the progenitors of the boy band movement of the 1990s and at the time was the biggest crossover group in the world outside of Menudo maybe.
They had the fame, girls, the videos, the props and their tour schedule was beyond ambitious. Problem was, said one member, the first time the tour bus returned them home after traveling across the U.S. and abroad, it dropped them back in front of the same projects and they were each handed a check for like $4.
While people around the world clamored for their talents and spent millions to see NE get busy, the reality of the group's situation crept back in when they returned home to the pitfalls, poverty and problems of the PJ’s.
Listening to that story just didn’t seem right. Not just because they were getting robbed. We know how the music biz goes.
It’s more troubling that these young kids had the talent; drive and resilience to rise out of poverty become important and inspirational people, as well as much-needed role models for a generation of “forgotten” kids - yet return home with lint in their pockets. It seemed twisted and exploitive.
Their success brought more positive attention to Boston and I’m sure it had to help ease race relations among the younger kids, despite the out-dated philosophies of their parents. NE’s hip-hop, pop music moved youngsters, and the five guys were the main source of community pride; something special the kids of that hood could claim as their own.
Superstardom for kids often comes with a huge price tag. The media and fans zero in on the external success and place them on a pedestal. At that point, a kid’s no longer considered a normal person, with real feelings and real-life struggles.
Once the kid’s face and an account of his/her miraculous accomplishments are plastered over the fast-moving social media and TV machine, people assume that kid lives in a utopia of celebrity success and affluence.
Little League World Series star Jaheim Benton and his Jackie Robinson West Little League squad became overnight sensations, Kings in The Windy City and captivated the baseball world. Everyone from Prez Obama to the local school janitor caught the JRW wave.
While he was helping to heal the socio-economically fractured city, in the back of his mind he was thinking about his family. The Benton’s lost their home in the midst of JRW’s historical run. The disruption caused the family to split up and sleep on family members' couches.
His mom Devona told him to be strong. "It's been hard, but I just tell my baby to hold his head up," she said. "I told him to get out there and play ball, despite his knowing that we lost our home."
His band of black ballers didn’t just play; they changed the game in this season’s Williamsport tournament, becoming the first all-black squad to win the U.S. LLWS Championship.
Not only were these kids stone-cold African American (the forgotten blacks in this country) but they are from one of the most poverty-stricken and violence infested hoods in the country – South Side Chicago.
The media coverage of such areas tend to focus on everything that is wrong with the city and the youth and don’t offer much help in developing some kind of self-esteem, instigating a push towards excellence or inciting pride in community.
JRW is the exception in so many ways. Most of these travels teams that compete in the LLWS are well-funded baseball machines. Playing baseball isn’t a necessity and these kids have their choice of activities to participate in. JRW is more of a safe-haven and an underground railroad with a desperate and consistent mission to create excellent baseball players and young men (and women) who are focused on the importance of “achievement” in some aspect of their lives.
Like music was for NE, baseball became the spark that helped the kids of JRW share their talents, promise, eloquence and multi-faceted abilities with the world. And everybody bit hard.
The social media, radio and TV were like blood-sucking sheep the way they lined up to get the exclusive story on these baseball-bashing, dark knights from Chi-Town. The editors and reporters and twitter titans juiced the story for every angle, bit of ratings and traffic-generating excitement possible.
Then after that loss to South Korea in the overall c’hip, JRW was basically forgotten; useless to the media or any entity that polishes its engine with the hottest topics of the day.
Sort of like the Ferguson, Missouri coverage that was also big in the news that week. Kind of foul to get a kid used to that type of royal hope and adulation and then turn him back into a frog and expect him to be cool with it.
A Chicago businessman named Spencer Leak wasn’t cool with that at all.
He has agreed to pay the Benton family's rent for a full year after learning they recently lost their home after Jaheim's mother had her hours cut at her home-care job.
"Superstar and homeless don't mix," Spencer Leak, owner of Leak and Sons Funeral Home in Chicago, told the Today show . "We've got to do something about that, and for the next year, little superstar Jaheim is going to have a home."
Leak said it was a no-brainer to help Jaheim, because shiny diamonds need to remain polished. He believes that a person with the talent to galvanize should have the basic means to thrive.
"They (JRW) have united the city. They have united the country. And now, they are known all over the world," Leak told Chicago's ABC 7.
Leak said he hopes his gift will help the family get back on their feet – permanently.
"I would hope that this rent turns into a mortgage that turns into home ownership for them," he told the news station. "We want our little superstar to have a roof over his head, because that's what he is. He's a superstar."
In the legendary words of hip-hop pioneers Eric B and Rakim, “This is how it should be done.”