Temples pulsed wildly with anger and fists clinched tightly enough that fingernails ripped into skin. Gabe Dominguez, formerly named on “Waco’s Most Wanted” list, remembers a fellow inmate pushing paper and pen into his hands and demanding that he write it out.
While he can’t remember what led him to rage, he has never forgotten the powerful release he experienced.
It’s a process he calls “making the pen bleed.” As the director of Mission Waco’s Youth Program, Dominguez’s goal is to keep the kids of East Waco from following in his footsteps.
Music is a lifestyle for the younger generation. It is their mentor, friend and constant companion. In a culture of permanent earbuds and waning attention spans, reaching kids through music can be the only wake-up call. Dominguez founded the MDub Music Program three years ago on this premise. His vision is teaching young people a healthy way to express themselves without using the barrel of a gun.
Participants in the program are taught the basics of production, copyright and job training. Although the members are talented, the program isn’t geared toward producing professional musicians. The goal is to teach kids that honest work can pay off through a sense of pride and accomplishment that selling drugs cannot compete with.
This past summer, the MDub group spent 300 hours in writing time for their first full album, “Medicine,” which is set to release in December.
Those taking part in MDub describe the pre-recording studio as the place where they truly bond. Lyrics cannot leave this room until they’ve been practiced and recorded perfectly. The boys spent most summer days here from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.
The idea of recording in a state-of-the -art music studio is appealing to most young rappers, but the program requires more than just a willing heart. An application and interview process must be completed and hours of writing and pre-recording take place before the studio doors are opened.
Competition drives the lyrics brought to the studio. Each of the members are all too familiar with consequences of negative actions, but they’re learning quickly the rewards of hard work.
Their lives outside of music and recording have benefited greatly from the work ethic learned at the center. With the support of Mission Waco staff, several of the boys are making the transition from high school to college. It’s a dream most of them never dared to have.
One of the college-bound boys, Christopher “Buddy” Robinson, said he would be dead or in jail if he hadn’t spent his Saturdays at the youth center. Robinson now teaches at an elementary after-school program in Waco. He laughs as he recalls the second-graders’ constant teasing concerning his “too close for comfort” namesake, a Winnie the Pooh character. His face breaks into a wide smile, and it’s hard to imagine this light-hearted young man bearing any other expression. Surprisingly, he describes growing up with an unquenchable anger that created a cycle of starting fist-fights for no reason.
“I thought it would make me feel better. I realized it just hurt my hands,” said Robinson.
A normal upbringing in these streets equips kids with a deaf ear to gunshots and a numb reaction to watching people die.
Aaron Garcia, another member of the group, grew up with Robinson. As a child, he recalls witnessing a drug deal gone bad. It ended with his 10-year-old best friend lying dead on the pavement.
Most of the boys in the music program at the youth center know what it’s like to run with the rough crowd, selling drugs and robbing houses. Some did it for the attention, others to put food on the table. With scant support systems and a seemingly unbreakable cycle, it would be easy to expect lives of crime from them. Mission Waco, however, does not endorse victimization. It’s about commitment and empowerment.
Dominguez encourages them to write about their past, obstacles they’ve overcome and the things that make them emotional. In turn, they’re given an outlet of expression and a positive activity and atmosphere where they can devote their time.
Recordings from the boys at the youth center may sound different to fans of the current rap music scene. Themes of cars, money, drugs and girls are replaced with positive messages. When asked how their music is unique, Robinson laughs and says, “Do you turn on the radio and hear somethin’ about getting a job? You don’t hear that at all.”
Dominguez gave the boys firm guidelines on the standard of music the MDub studio would produce. Robinson admits it’s hard for street rappers to adjust to rules, but in the end it brings out the best lyrics.
“A cuss word shows you’re a weaker rapper,” Dominguez said. “Why would you cuss? That means you have no vocabulary.”
The goal is to send out an uplifting message, but this doesn’t mean they censor their troubles. Many of the songs serve as personal testimonies of the boys. They cover heavy topics of suicide and abuse, ultimately embodying hope for listeners who may be dealing with similar situations.
The MDub program is set apart from other music-focused ministries by the level of commitment the staff brings to the table.
While many ministries focus on music, Dominguez’s staff lives life with the kids. The key question is, “What happens when they go home?” While the avenue connecting with the group is music, the goal is much bigger. It’s a holistic approach including the spiritual, physical, emotional and educational outlook of each young man walking into the studio. This effort requires people giving much of their own time and energy.
Hope Mustakim is just one of the longtime volunteers at the youth center. She now serves as the assistant director to Dominguez and is able to work closely with each of the boys in the music program. As a singer, Mustakim works with any of the young girls who show interest in music. She believes strongly that the only way to create lasting changes is through relationship.
“If every privileged person in Waco chose one kid to never give up on, it would be revolutionary,” Mustakim said.
Another vital member of this ministry is Will Suarez. Without his involvement the group would never have a chance to hear its words put to music. He uses his experience as an audio engineer to make beats and background tracks from scratch. Not only does he volunteer his time, but he also brought his equipment, $32,000 worth, for the boys to use.
“They don’t have resources to produce for themselves, but they have potential,” Suarez said.
He invests in them because he did not grow up in their shoes. When he first started working with MDub, he would spend two hours a week just hearing stories to get a feel for how the music should sound.
“Listening to them, I realized they had gone through more in one week than I’d gone through in a lifetime,” Suarez said.
The music program has many success stories.
Damon Thames’ father said it completely changed his son, allowing him to come out of his shell and freely express himself.
Before his involvement with the program, Aaron Garcia was a 17-year-old father struggling with depression. He credits this ministry with getting him a job, a car and strength to get up in the morning.
“I went from having no faith at all to thinking if Jesus Christ could change my life, he could change anyone. And that started with releasing my emotions through music,” Garcia said.
With help from youth center staff and Mission Waco, Darnell Jones received the resources to attend college. He currently holds a steady job at Taco Bell, where his manager described him as “an excellent employee.” In return, he wrote songs for each chapter of the job training manual to make the program more interesting for the other kids.
Robinson has been accepted to Texas Southern University and hopes to run on its track team. He never thought of college as a possibility when he was younger. Now his long-term goal is to direct a mentoring program like the youth center.
“People say they’re going to get out of the ghetto and never come back. That’s not my goal. I’m gonna come back. I love my city. But it’s gonna be for the better,” he said.
These four young men have been the faithful leaders at MDub studio for the past three years. Most would consider their stories a success, but those successes are atypical. Dominguez has invested in many other young men who disappear for weeks at a time or never come back.
Several obstacles stand in the way of making the program as effective as possible. Combine working on a part-time basis with kids whose lives are in shambles and no direct funding and you have an accurate picture of the situation facing MDub volunteers.
“We’re not there yet as far as being successful,” Dominguez said.
His first priority is a life change within each participant, but the next important step is fundraising to ensure that the program can continue helping others.
“I’d like to see the program go full circle. I want to see some of the boys come back, and us be able to hire them to help us produce — that would be a success,” Dominguez said.
Dominguez’s high standards have challenged the group to dream big. The idea is to extend the message of musical catharsis across town and beyond Waco’s city limits. Rap music has been greatly influenced by nearby cities, and the guys at the youth center think Texas is big enough to share.
“First Houston, then Dallas. It’s our turn. We hope to put Waco on the map in a positive way,” Robinson said.
The program has grown into something bigger than just musical therapy for each member. The boys want to reach others who are hurting and trying to overcome their past.
In October the Mission Waco Youth Center was filled with vocational music ministers attending a conference hosted by renowned musician David Crowder. Some were from Oregon, others from Virginia. All chose to tour the youth center and listen to a 15-year-old’s recording about the death of his cousin.
Teary eyed, a young blonde widow thanks him for telling the story of peace after death. An Asian woman speaks up from behind: “I could relate to every word.”
Damon Thames may have written the song with scenes of East Waco in mind, but the bond of grief transcends zip codes.