Deacon Don Dy-Dy
For those who were a witness to the unfortunate downfall of many urban societies in the 80's, it was almost a given the black and Latino youth of such environments were destined to either serve an extended prison sentence or pay the ultimate price of their life as a nameless victim of the "street life" — a result of the failed attempt of the Reagan-era war on drugs.
Deacon Don Dy-Dy is an exception to the rule in terms of being an example of the potential parallel one's life can take after a wakeup call – being locked in a cell for years that, for civilians, breeze by — but for those in the prison system slowly creep by the millisecond. Deacon Don Dy-Dy grew up in East Orange, New Jersey with natural athletic talents that were certain to provide a segue to a college education and promising professional athletic career in the NFL.
"I went left around my sophomore year. I was a second string varsity as a sophomore and as a result of me playing first string against one of the number one three-year undefeated teams in the nation. They put me on to tie or win that extremely tight game and I ended up scoring a number of touchdowns. After that, Notre Dame recruiters had their eye on me and came to a lot of my games thereafter. I was only a sophomore! The following year, all I had to do was play but by that time, I was hustling, selling drugs and in the streets and decided not to play sports. A lot of my peers were also selling drugs and had the cars and the girls and I wanted to do the same, for the look of it. Meanwhile I was hiding from my coaches because I was deep into the streets and getting in trouble. It was a horrible decision. I was only five credits shy from being able to graduate."
Shortly after, Deacon Don Dy-Dy made the choice to live the fast life, he was quickly kicked out of school and expelled from others. After a number of stints in prison due to drug trafficking and weapons charges, the now reformed gospel rapper eventually served a total of fifteen years in prison on a numerous charges.
"Now, mind you, I came from an era where 'gangbanging' wasn't the norm. We used to knuckle up, fistfight it out and the winner got his street cred or bragging rights and the next day, it was al love! Nobody was getting shot at random and dying in the streets. When people got shot in my day, it was usually and accident, not intentional. I guess that's a little old school compared to what's going on these days."
Having grown up without his father, the righteous emcee found the word of God in prison and made his business to spread the word and live an honest life away from the streets of East Orange, New Jersey.
"The moment I grew to understand the weight of my circumstance going in and out of jail is when I was transferred to Federal prison where they use a term called "career criminal" and I thought, 'Damn, I was supposed to have a career in football or basketball.' It just wasn't me or what I wanted for my life."
Upon his release, Deacon Don Dy-Dy was determined to set an upstanding example for his wife and children. So much so, he sought custody of his then twelve-year-old son, Dy-Shawn Simpkins, Jr., in order to provide a more stable environment in which he could be a daily male figure and guide him through his matriculation through high school and college. Having inherited his father natural athletic talents, Simpkins, Jr. was starting varsity as a true freshman lock down corner back at Norfolk State University. His future was bright. On June 9, 2017, during his first summer vacation from college in New Jersey, a random and senseless triple shooting cut Dy-Shawn Simpkins, Jr.'s life short in a double homicide. He was 18 years-old. There was only one survivor.
Despite such passionate devotion, the nation's violence has grown exponentially. This was never more apparent than when Deacon Don's son along with their nephew Kee-Ayre Griffin (age 29), were killed in a triple shooting in East Orange. The senseless murders interrupted the promising lives of Simpkins, Jr. — with his athletic career at Norfolk State University; and Griffin — a student athlete at Temple University where he played football after attending Saint Peter's Prep.
"It was a wrong place at the wrong time situation. He was an awesome kid. He was my mini-me! He had an edge of ruggedness but I kept him out of trouble for the most part. And, when he told me he wanted to go pro, I made sure he went to a catholic prep school with a notable sports program. He had a four-year scholarship by the time he graduated. He was a starting freshman, sky was the limit for him, and that's what hurts so much. He had so much potential to be successful, he would light up the room with his natural charm and he was a looker. And you know, I was honest with my son about my past life and everything I did so he wouldn't have to do those things, so he very well knew my history. But, like I said, it was a wrong place, wrong time situation that took him from us."
After Deacon Don Dy-Dy was granted full custody of his son, he is proud to speak about the monumental strides throughout their time together and being able to grow a father/son relationship — which revealed a shared passion — music. Having grown up in the city from which the original platform for hip-hop was birthed, Deacon Don Dy-Dy was a student of emcees of an era of a musical art form that no longer exists. Yet, decades after its inception, the pioneers of the b-boy era are still celebrated without question. Saddled between the original lyrical hip-hop vets and the "mood music" artists, who no longer create classics but mass produce catchy hits, Deacon Don Dy-Dy and his son Dy-Shawn, also known as SG (So Great) DaDa, were able to bridge the gap between old and new school poetry on wax.
"Even before I had my kids, I was always passionate about music. I was fortunate enough to have close friends that I grew up with who I ended up having the opportunity to tour with. I grew up with the guys who eventually became Naught by Nature and I had the chance to share my work as an up-and-coming artist traveling with them. And when my son came to me and said 'Dad, I need you to help me put my music out ' and I was happy to share and exchange our creative ideas."
In early 2016, Deacon Don Dy-Dy and his son Dy-Shawn were able to collaborate their talents and record a studio track titled "Seeds in the Field". Deacon Don Dy-Dy and his collegiate football athlete student who, unbeknownst to him, was in the process of building a library of musical content.
"Dy-Shawn had a friend who was out of the country this past summer. She didn't know he passed until she came back to the states. She reached out to me and said that she had a number of songs he recorded she wanted to make sure I had. When I listened to them, I was taken back by his work. He was like a cross between Drake and Kendrick Lamar. He was so on top of the times but he also had an old school edge. I had no idea he was recording that frequently."
Long before the tragic murders that shattered their peace occurred, Deborah and Dy-Shawn Simpkins have been dedicated to providing kids with alternatives to street violence. The New Jersey couple's after-school programs and day care centers have created a safe haven for over 650 Irvington kids for the last nine years. Their community efforts and outreach programs have been active in the region for over 15 years.
"The Gap Program (Gap Alternative Program) is about nine years young right now. We want to create a safe haven for kids and teach them the alternatives and tools they can use in order to be successful without them have to result to a life illegal activity and criminal thinking. Our goal is to combat the gangbanging lifestyle, mindset and criminal mentality. It's really a means of reprogramming the though process in terms of showing them different ways to behave in tight situations without the use of violence."
In dealing with the hateful killings, it was the community's support that uplifted the couple enough to fight the trauma. It all came full-circle when the entire NSU football team arrived to join in a massive outpouring of love at Dy-Shawn, Jr.'s funeral.
The Simpkins family asked the local masses to participate in the Love and Not Hate March & Movement on March 12, 2017, organized by Simpkins's nonprofit organizations, his GAP Program and other nonprofits collectively known as Community United As One. The group, along with the East Orange City Council, will use the march as a kickoff to an annual event that brings awareness to the ongoing gun violence epidemic that has taken the lives of far too many young teens and adults with promising futures.
Part of the march was culminated in a musical segment where Deacon Don Dy-Dy performed his latest feature song he was able to record before his son's untimely passing called, "Seeds in the Field". Deacon Don Dy-Dy intend to use his spiritually-driven musical talent as a means to lure the hip-hop generation towards a holier message. To bring enlightenment to the march, Al Sharpton was in attendance and joined the Simpkins along with a lineup of pastors and political luminaries that included: Ted Green, Council President and newly elected Mayor of East Orange, New Jersey; Reverend Timothy Huff; Irvington Mayor Tony Vauss; and Pastor Jerry Smith. Vinnie Brown aka "Uncle Vinnie" from the Grammy award-winning hip-hop trio Naughty by Nature hosted the event to pay tribute to the young Dy-Shawn, another powerful talent gone too soon.
The march will was on Saturday, August 12, 2017 at 8:00 a.m., beginning at Hollywood and Central Ave. in East Orange, New Jersey. The march ended at Oval Park. Family and friends alike celebrated the "Community United as One" day to bring about awareness from 10:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m., with music, food, youth activities, sports, and back-to-school giveaways.