Easter services took on a new flavor for one Buffalo congregation Sunday morning, as rapper Bow Wow joined the Rev. Darius Pridgen on stage in Kleinhans Music Hall to urge youth to stay away from violence and guns and to focus instead on education.
Bow Wow, 26, a singer, actor and television host of BET’s “106 & Park” show, told the packed music hall about his own experiences growing up in the inner city with a single mother who worked two jobs and “preached education before everything.” He emphasized the importance of his upbringing in helping him to avoid crime or other urban trouble.
“I was once just like you. I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth,” said the rapper, a Columbus, Ohio, native whose father was “in and out” of his life because of alcohol.
“You’ve got to stay on the right path ... It works. If you look at any of your heroes, they all started at the bottom. They all started in the inner city, but that doesn’t mean you have to be a statistic,” said Bow Wow, dressed entirely in black, with tattoos up and down his arms. “It doesn’t make you much of a man to have a gun.”
Capping the annual two-hour holiday service that Pridgen’s True Bethel Baptist Church holds in popular venues, Bow Wow stood on stage with the minister and spoke of “surrounding myself with the right people,” listening to them, and always staying positive.
“You’ve got to know right from wrong. That’s why you do see me always out of trouble and doing positive things,” he told the capacity crowd of more than 3,000, which filled both the lower and upper floors as well as an overflow room. “You gotta believe. You gotta listen to your parents and grandparents and go down that positive path.”
He admitted it was the first time he had been in church in a long time. “For me to actually go to church and for it to be Easter Sunday, that just makes the whole thing extra special,” he said.
He said his mother first introduced him to rap when she took him to a Snoop Dogg concert at age 6. “I’m sure a lot of mothers wouldn’t approve of that. Ever since then, my life changed,” he said. “I just really wanted to make my mother proud. Now it’s my turn to give back to my mother. It’s time for the tables to turn.”
Bow Wow also spoke of the impact that fatherhood has had on him. The singer, whose real name is Shad Gregory Moss, has a 2-year-old daughter, Shai, who lives with her mother, the rapper’s former girlfriend, Joie Chavis, in Los Angeles. “You get tested in life,” he said, responding to a question from Pridgen. “Being a father, it definitely … turned me into a better man.”
That wasn’t always the case, though. When he revealed the existence of Shai in 2011, he also admitted that he had previously considered suicide. And last year, he argued in court against paying the girl’s mother more than $3,000 a month in child support, claiming income of just $4,000 a month and only $1,500 in his checking account. The judge accepted the $3,000 figure, but also ordered him to pay $11,500 in back child support.
Meanwhile, the rap artist who released his first platinum album at age 13 in 2000, followed by five more albums, signed a deal to become co-host of the BET network show the next day, and the controversy over that timing still follows him in the entertainment world.
But on Sunday, it was all about fatherhood and youth, as Pridgen used Bow Wow to draw a crowd of teenagers and younger children, along with their parents.
“Children can’t drive. Children can’t get on a bus by themselves. Children can’t walk from their neighborhoods here. They need their parents to bring them,” Pridgen said. “If one person’s life was changed today, it was worth every bit of it.”
The pastor, who is also a Buffalo Common Council member, called first for all of the young fathers in the audience to come down to the front of the stage and make a commitment “not to let their kids see them in the jail cell.” Many came down carrying little children in their arms, as congregants cheered.
“Look at the men who are coming down. If you make enough noise, more men will come,” Pridgen said.
Then, at Pridgen’s beckoning, swarms of teenagers came to the front or milled in the aisles, and repeated: “I pledge to remain free of drugs and violence. I will respect others and most of all myself. I will stay focused on my education and future. I intend to make the best of my life, my school and community. I am determined to rise to the top!”
“This is amazing,” said the rapper, who was greeted on stage with thunderous applause and screaming from the youthful crowd. He also discovered that he and Pridgen – also from Columbus – are third cousins.
Fathers and teens in the audience said Bow Wow’s words were inspiring, and reinforced what many do now. “Everything that he said was true,” said Sidney Watson, 38, of Buffalo, a father of two teenagers. “Pretty much what he said, I’m already doing.”
Sixteen-year-old Kareem Allen of Buffalo, a high school sophomore, said he was moved by Bow Wow’s childhood, starting at the bottom. “I think it was real life-changing,” he said. “He didn’t always have a family.”
Speaking to the news media afterward, Pridgen called the event a “citywide celebration” that “goes beyond teens and youth, to even responsible adulthood.”
“What we’ve seen is a decline in many of our neighborhoods of parenting, of fathers, and a rise in violence and undereducation,” he said. “Today, our message is clear. Bow Wow spoke to dads, and he spoke to youth and children, about the importance of staying in school and that success is not easy.”
He said church officials chose Bow Wow because of “his longevity in the music business.”
“He grew up as a child star, and still stayed out of the murders of Hollywood and all those things that were going on, and so we thought it was important to bring somebody that had that longevity and not just a one-night wonder person,” he said.
And he said the turnout exceeded expectations. “Today was a day in which the community of Buffalo came together, children and teens and adults,” he said afterwards. “What we really wanted was not just for it to be full, but for it to be full with young people, and we met that objective today.”
As for Bow Wow, the rapper said he just wanted to urge the young men and women to “stay out of trouble.” And while they hear that already from parents and teachers, he said it’s important for them also to hear it “from somebody you see eye to eye with or look up to.”
“It’s all about being a role model for the kids, to show them that there’s a better way of going about things. It’s cool to stay out of trouble,” he said.