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"I got my sense of writing from my mother," says Jalon, sitting in the school library and high-fiving nearly every kid who walks by. Since his dad wasn't in the picture, and his mom, Dee Dee, had her hands full working long shifts at local hospitals, Jalon's four older siblings helped raise him — first in Park Hill, then in Montbello, the minority-heavy suburban neighborhood cut off from most of Denver by I-70, where the family moved in the early 2000s. From his twin brothers, Josh and Julian, who are now nineteen, Jalon learned how to play sports and talk to girls. From his sisters, twenty-year-old Kwanita and twenty-four-year-old Shaquea, how to look after himself and keep up on homework. But it was from his mother, who always dreamed of getting up at a poetry open mic but never mustered the courage, that he learned how to express himself — loudly. "She told me I got my mouth from her," says Jalon with a laugh. "I believe it."

In eighth grade, he began writing short rhymes, love poems and odes to school pride, emulating the style of favorite rappers like Dr. Dre, J. Cole, Eminem and Lil Wayne. "It took my mind off everything," he says. Like the assumptions people made about a black kid living in Montbello, or how his brother Julian, "one of the most important people in my life," got locked up for a year when he was a teenager. ("I'm not sure what he did," says Jalon, reluctant to talk more about it.) Painful situations became a motivation for his rhymes: "I'd just write for a long time. It wasn't an issue no more after that."

Hip-hop simply made him feel good. He didn't know that it had a long tradition in the neighborhood.

"Montbello was a mecca of hip-hop for Colorado," says John Lewis, aka Qwest, a local audio engineer and hip-hop producer. When Lewis attended Montbello High in the late '80s, hip-hop was everywhere: Morning announcements involved a student rapping the news over the intercom; Legion of Doom, a local b-boy crew, was a staple of house parties; other kids would come into the neighborhood for rap battles after school.

Later, in the '90s, a group of Montbello students calling themselves MNLD — Mob Niggaz Living Decent — sold shrink-wrapped copies of their CD, Street Stars Affiliated, at the high school. Among MNLD's members was Michael Hope, now noted Denver hip-hop star Innerstate Ike. "We had our own thing in Montbello," Ike remembers. "We were separated like an island and kind of felt like we were underdogs. We felt we had to prove we had something going on out here."

Something clearly was going on; one Montbello kid who got his start deejaying local parties and clubs went on to become "Big Jon" Platt, chief of creative at Warner/Chappell Music Inc., and the music-industry powerhouse who works with Jay-Z, Kanye West, Beyoncé and Sean Combs. Still, Platt remembers his roots; when he launched his own record label, he called it Montbello Records.

But most of these hip-hop achievements and other neighborhood success stories never made the local news. When Montbello is in the headlines, it's usually for violence and crime. In the late '80s, small-time Montbello gangs like M.O., short for Members Only, got pushed out to make room for the big, inner-city gangs spreading across the country. While Park Hill became Bloods territory and the East Side was taken over by Crips, Montbello became a haven for both. "This is more like Compton because of the diversity of gangs here," says Qwest. At times there's been Compton-style bloodshed: a young bystander shot and killed in 2002 during a fight at a local park, a seventeen-year-old stabbed to death in 2005 in the midst of an argument in Montbello High's cafeteria.

It didn't help that Montbello was hit hard by the recent recession. Thousands lost their homes to foreclosures, and the area began changing: The once predominantly African-American neighborhood is now more than 50 percent Hispanic. Through all the changes and challenges, Montbello hasn't been a very stable place to grow up. According to the Piton Foundation, 80 percent of the children in the area are at risk either because they were born to teen mothers or mothers without a high-school education, or because they live in a family near poverty level. That's among the highest rates anywhere in the city.

But such stats only tell half the story, insists Beverly Kingston, director of CU's Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence. "What I see in this community is a theme of empowerment and strength," she says. "They really have a lot of different organizations and community members working together to try to build their capacity in the community and make Montbello a really great place to be." The community resources already in place were the main reason that Kingston and her colleagues chose Montbello as the focus of a five-year, $6.2 million project funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to track and reduce youth violence.

Jalon Martin also sees empowerment and strength in his community. That's why he wanted to attend Montbello High School, why he wanted to be a Warrior, despite the stories he'd heard of race riots and dead-end career opportunities. He knew better: His sister Shaquea, a writer herself, had graduated Montbello and gone on to college. "To me, it always seemed like a good school," he says. "It's just like any school: You can get a good education there."

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3 comments
andrea572
andrea572

Jalon, keep speaking the truth.  I voted NO on the proposal to close Montbello, and we need the truth to come out about what's going on down there.  Hit me up:  andrea@andreamerida.com.

Juan_Leg
Juan_Leg topcommenter

I LOATHE rap music . The ONLY rap I have ever been able to digest is Aerosmith . Because I'm white, I'm sure 'Iceprick' will be quick to throw the 'race-card' my way but my arrogance towards rap ISN'T limited to black 'artists' . The same adheres to the likes of the Beastie Boys & Rage Against the Machine. ( The latter throws down lyrically ! )

If a teacher were to attempt that shit in a class I was assigned to, one of us wouldn't be present the following day ! 

Those who aren't able to sing,  rap ......

iLikeWhiteGirls
iLikeWhiteGirls

Yo! Alison will get the business! Only if she aint a culture vulture could she see some repeat business! Hit me up cutie!

 

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