Stephon Wheeler didn’t know how he and his fellow Frederick Douglass High School bandmates would raise enough money to march in the annual Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans.
The band was scrambling to raise $12,000 following a delay in getting school approval to go on the trip.
It was looking pretty hopeless.
Wheeler, an enterprising tuba player, had an idea.
Atlanta Partners for Education donated $1,000.
Then he reached out to one of the school’s well-known alumni on Instagram, writing that the Marching Astros were on “the last leg when it comes to funding.”
Here was a chance to give back.
Michael Render, popularly known as Grammy-winning rapper and activist Killer Mike, promptly responded and offered his help.
Render, who came through the school’s arts program, didn’t stop there.
He enlisted the support of a few other famous alumni including rapper T.I. and Lil Jon, both of whom have donated generously to causes at home and overseas. He also reached out to singer and actor Tyrese and Grammy-nominated R&B singer SZA.
“Now that it’s blown up a lot of donations have been coming in,” said Wheeler, 16. “That first push started a domino effect. I didn’t expect him to get connected with all these other upper-echelon people. That surprised me, but I’m glad he did. Now the band is going to Louisiana.”
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“We have a very unique ecosystem in Atlanta where you have a true black working class and black middle class,” said Render, who graduated from Douglass in 1993 before attending Morehouse College. “In the city you have schools named after African-American educators and emancipators. That’s important.”
The school is named after Douglass, who was a prominent abolitionist, author and orator.
Render believes it’s his “duty to give back to that ecosystem. Our job as alumni is to stay connected to our community, to make sure there is a path for people to follow.”
Lil Jon, who recently opened two schools in Ghana, also didn’t think twice about giving.
“I didn’t hesitate to pledge my support when (Killer) Mike hit me up about the Frederick Douglass High School band,” said Atlanta rapper Lil Jon, who graduated in 1989. ” I try to help out in my communities, and not only am I alumni of the school, but I was also in the band … so I was down. Once I talked to Micah Wynn (the band director), and he explained what was going on and where they were, I decided to get them to their goal!!”
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The band, which has just under 50 members, is coming off a good year. It recently won first place in several categories in a national marching band competition.
Now it had just over a month to raise between $12,000 and $13,000 for transportation, food, hotel rooms, T-shirts and warm-up suits.
“I didn’t think we’d get the money,” said Wynn, who has been band director for four years. “We serve a demographic of students that if a trip costs $250 per student, we need more than a month for those parents to be able to pay the dues. We had the parents’ interests in mind, because we knew it would be tough.”
So, imagine his shock when he got a call from Render.
He said, ‘This is Michael Render, also known as the artist Killer Mike’,” said Wynn. “‘I want to be able to give Douglass High School an opportunity to be great, to be seen in the public eye and represent the city of Atlanta well’.”
It was clear to Wynn that for Render, “it wasn’t just about the band. It was about the whole school and the whole community.”
Once word got out, other alumni and members of the community stepped up.
The students made a short video thanking those who donated.
Credit: Jim Galloway
Credit: Jim Galloway
“This means everything to the students and it means everything to me too,” Wynn said. “I wanted to make sure that the students understood that considerable donations were being given … Everyone had us in mind. They made donations because they believed we worked hard.”
Tremetrice Wheeler, who teaches at Douglass, said her son’s efforts were likely influenced by the words of his father, who died several years ago.
“It was a very bold move,” she said. “His dad always told him when you want something, closed mouths don’t get fed. I think that’s what kicked in.”
Render wants to make it clear that it was a community-wide effort. He declined to say how much he and others contributed. In his book that really doesn’t matter.
“I don’t want people to think celebrities came in to save the day, that’s not what happened,” he said. “The alumni stepped up. The community stepped up.”
In fact, Render promises to get even more involved in the school and plans to spread the word among his famous friends. He wants to talk with the principal about ways to build more community engagement.
“I take his (Fredrick Douglass) name very seriously. I take the education I was provided very seriously.”
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Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com