Devine Carama has built his life around community organizing and creative expression. The Lexington hip-hop artist is the driving force behind a literacy project that distributes children’s books and an annual coat drive for needy kids in central and eastern Kentucky.
Since May 2021, Carama has also been the director of One Lexington, a program created by Mayor Linda Gorton to reduce violent crime, especially among the city’s youth. Carama says the job draws upon his years of work with groups across the community.
“I try my best to leverage those relationships I’ve built over the years, that trust that I’ve gained to pull people together,” says Carama.
A Community Approach to Violence Reduction
According to a recent Wall Street Journal article, violence among youth has skyrocketed since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. Federal data indicates that the number of murders committed by children under age 14 is the highest in two decades.
Carama attributes that increase to systemic issues of poverty, racism, and childhood trauma that were exacerbated by COVID-related school closures. He says at-risk youth depend on the structured routines, healthy meals, and positive reinforcements that schools can provide.
“I don’t think people don’t understand what a lot of these young people have had to endure,” he says. “When the pandemic hit, all of those resources that those underserved kids who are already potentially in that cycle of violence, we essentially snatched it away from them for two years.”
One Lexington, which was created in the wake of nationwide racial justice protests in the summer of 2020, seeks to organize and deploy community services and resources to intervene with youth before they resort to violence, especially crimes involving firearms. Carama says he and his staff of three will go into schools or into the community to work with a youth in crisis.
“What makes gun violence reduction unique is you have to be hands on, frontlines, and you have to be touching those individuals who are in that cycle of violence or potentially entering that cycle,” says Carama. “There’s no way around it, it’s not pretty work.”
One Lexington partners with entities as diverse as the city’s police department, the public schools, and the University of Kentucky Trauma Center to community groups like Sisters Working Against Gun Violence and the Marafiki Center that works with local African immigrants. Carama says he serves as a bridge among these entities to help them collaborate, share resources, and better serve at-risk youth.
“This is life and death, this work,” he says. “It’s not time for bureaucracies, it’s not time for confusion.”
Initial indications are that One Lexington is succeeding. As of last year, the city had experienced a 50 percent reduction in gun-related homicides committed by youth and young adults.
Carama says he understands the sentiment that young offenders should be held accountable through punishment. But he says statistics show that incarceration alone won’t lead to safer communities. He says segments of the community that may have been at odds with each other must come together to create a comprehensive approach that includes prevention, intervention, enforcement, rehabilitation, and reentry supports.
“We’re never going to see the gains we want to see until there’s more trust and a better relationship between communities of color and law enforcement,” he says.
More work also needs to be done on systemic issues of race and poverty. Carama says food insecurity, affordable housing, and access to health care can factor into cycles of violence. Individuals of color also continue to encounter racism in multiple aspects of their daily lives. Carama says he experiences racism even doing this work for One Lexington.
“It’s a stark reminder as a Black man [that] it don’t matter how much you’re making, it doesn’t matter what your position is, it is something that you’re going to have to face,” he says.
Coat Drives, Book Donations, and Rap
Even with his busy city schedule, Carama continues his side projects as a musician and with his organization Believing in Forever. That non-profit conducts an annual winter coat drive that has distributed more than 20,000 coats to children over the past nine years.
He says that project started after she saw a child standing at a bus stop with no coat to protect him from the winter cold. When he asked the youngster why he wasn’t better dressed, the child replied that his mother couldn’t afford to buy him a coat until she had a few more paychecks in the bank. The interaction reminded Carama of his own life challenges and inspired him to act.
“I started to remember when I was a single father, struggling, sleeping on an air mattress, and how the most simplest things were hard to get,” he says. “So it just really took me back to that and I said this is something you can do to give back.”
His other high-profile project is called Luna Library, which collects donations of new or gently used children’s books on African American history or that feature Black characters and distributes them to needy youth. That initiative honors Carama’s daughter who died in a car accident in 2020 at the age of 18.
His latest musical endeavor is a rap video entitled “Kentucky, We Fight” that highlights the resiliency of those who have endured the recent natural disasters in rural western and eastern Kentucky as well as gun violence in the state’s urban centers.
Together we fight for what’s right,
Every day and all night.
Sometimes it feels like my state is unlucky,
But that’s truly what makes us great in Kentucky,
When the odds are stacked, we fight.
The song took only an hour to write, according to Carama, and he says he hopes it helps people around the nation understand the affection Kentuckians have for their home state and their desire to make it better.
“Part of that love is the accountability for it, but then the hope that you can continue to perfect it, which is what our ancestors of all races did,” he says. “So why should I be any different? You can hold accountable, you can fight for it to be better, but love it at the same time, and that’s how I feel about Kentucky.”
With everything that he’s juggling between his One Lexington duties, his creative projects, and his family, Carama says colleagues have encouraged him to cut back on some activities. But he says it’s the work – and his commitment to it – that has helped him get where he is today.
“That’s how God made me, so I think I’ll stick with that,” he says.