The Young Flames bounced up and down, their small brown fists raised to the sky.
”Let’s celebrate our people, keep fighting until we’re equal, civil rights the sequel,” rapped Bahij Goodwin, 11.
The nine other members of the South Philadelphia youth rap group gathered around Goodwin, swaying in unison, unfazed by the crowd of more than 100 people — their largest audience yet.
”Brought us here as slaves, and put us in graves. We can’t do the same, we have to behave,” continued Jaden Barasky, 12, bringing the crowd gathered at a Point Breeze park to honor George Floyd, a black man killed by Minneapolis police officers, to tears. Still, observers danced and cheered, captured by the boys’ infectious energy.
The Young Flames have advocated for black empowerment and racial justice through their songs “Guns Down,” and “Young Kings.” But as protests and unrest have gripped the city and nation, the Young Flames have brought their advocacy into the streets, leading historic-sized marches, assembling demonstrations, and turning their lyrics to action.
In recent weeks, the Young Flames have screamed, “I can’t breathe,” as they knelt in solidarity. They’ve read powerful poems that brought the Point Breeze crowd to its knees. They were invited to perform at the Reading NAACP Chapter’s Juneteenth event.
“This is a real civil rights movement,” said Amir Crawford, 12. “It’s nothing to play with. You gotta let your voice be heard.”
“If nobody is going to fight for us, for the black community,” said Kaiear McGhee, 11, “then we need to fight for ourselves.”
Most members of the Young Flames, ranging in age from 8 to 12, have attended the same South Philly school since kindergarten. The group was formed in 2016, when Crawford, McGhee, Jaden Barasky, and Safee Johnson made a rap for a fourth-grade music project. Then, at an after-school mentorship program, they met Chris Giddens, who is now the group’s manager. Their school was hosting an anti-bullying rally and they worked with Giddens to create a song for it.
“A lot of young black boys have transit people in their lives and I didn’t want to be one of those people,” said Giddens, 28.
From there, Giddens helped them with lyrics after school, building songs about getting good grades and anti-bullying. Friends started to take notice, and the group slowly grew to 10 rapping members (with two honorary members). They eventually settled on the name “Young Flames,” inspired by Philadelphia native Meek Mills’ mixtape “Flamers.”
They released “Guns Down” in January, and in March, “Young Kings,” a song of positivity and empowerment. Now, they’re working on a new song about police brutality, inspired by the recent movement.
Their friendship translates to contagious energy as they perform. People picnicking as they practiced at Wharton Square Park cheered, “Get it Young Flames!” and moms, cousins, and aunts danced along.
The boys write their own songs — with slight edits from Giddens for flow — which advocate for positivity, equality, and anti-gun violence. Verses from “Guns Down” include:
“A majority of the boys have personal experiences with gun violence,” Giddens said, “so they’re drawing on the inspiration of their personal lives.”
When Amir Crawford was 8 years old, his 12-year-old brother was shot in the back by stray bullets while playing outside, said Amir’s mother, Natasha Crawford. His brother survived, but the experience was traumatizing for Amir.
“You’re at a young age ... a preteen, and you’re experiencing what a bullet feels like?” said Amir. “That really hit me.”
Joining the Young Flames became a form of therapy for Amir, his mother said, and gave him the confidence to talk about important community issues.
“We want to stop this from happening,” he said. “We are young and we are powerful, and we need other young people to know that.”
Making an appearance on The Ellen Show and performing with Meek Mill are the Young Flames’ top goals, they said. Money the boys make from their performances and songs is put into a trust, Giddens said, which will be equally divided among the members once the youngest turns 18. They also hope to build a nonprofit to bring mentorship and hip-hop into urban classrooms to make subjects like math and science more interesting.
Outside of Young Flames, they play soccer and football, and ride bikes around town. Before one of their twice-weekly practices, they shared the latest middle-school gossip, swapped sticks of gum, and practiced made-up dances.
“You can’t hit the Johnny like me,” said Bahij Goodwin as he bounced up and down.
“Wait, wait! Hit the ‘Slaparoo!’” said Jahmill Meadows as he danced while holding a bag of Flamin’ Hot Fries.
Giddens joked that he has to make his point within 30 seconds or their minds wander. A few minutes later, just as he was explaining the next routine, their ears perked up to the jingle of the ice-cream truck.
“Mr. G can we please get ice cream?” asked the youngest member, Kaaliq McGhee, 8, using their nickname for Giddens. “Please Mr. G! Please!” the rest of the boys chimed in.
He didn’t give in, they had to get ready for their Juneteenth performance.
“The kids are kids,” said Baseemah James, Bahij’s mom, with a smile. “But when it’s time to perform, they become young men.”