Amid moss and murder, Savannah mobilizes

A few blocks from Savannah's historic squares and horse-drawn-carriage routes lies a world that Jason Johnson, the rap artist "Camoflauge," knew all too well - a backwater of dingy housing projects haunted by drugs and the echo of gunshots. For "Down by the River" and other songs, the city was Mr. Johnson's inspiration. It was also his downfall.

On May 19, the "thug life" he rapped about caught up with him: A lone bullet killed the dreadlocked rapper as he walked outside his studio, Pure Pain, carrying his infant son. The boy was unhurt.

Johnson's death was the third of four murders in five days, all in a muggy Gothic city swathed in as much myth as moss. Then, after nine days of calm, a fifth man was killed outside a nightclub Friday. It's a homicidal streak that police call "exceptionally unusual" for these sleepy streets.

In one way, the spree illustrates how America's hip-hop wars have jumped the borders of New York and Los Angeles - and leapt into the sleepiest corners of the South. But from vigils to funerals to late-night summits in church rectories, Savannah's black community is reacting to violence with vigor. The aim: Not just to end the current shooting spree, but to make sure disillusioned African-American kids, here and elsewhere, have a chance for careers beyond despair.

"This is a time of violence, but it's also a time of opportunity," says Rev. Thurmond Tillman of the First African Baptist Church.

A Gothic city and an old opportunity gap

For Savannah's black community, behind the stately Georgian architecture and moss-laden squares, Camo-flauge's death marks a deep cultural disparity between Savannah's poor blacks and wealthier whites. Black youth, many here say, have few options for advancement, and some have begun to lose hope for the future.

Some say it's a situation made worse by the thuggery glorified on music videos and made vivid in the staccato rhymes of streetwise rappers like 50 Cent and Ja Rule. But others hope the black community's rapid response, including vigils and calls from Camo's grandmother, Bessie Green, for an end to the violence, will prove to be a more enduring legacy.

At Camoflauge's funeral, 150 young people "accepted Christ as their savior," says Mr. Tillman. And in what amounts to an emergency strategy, black leaders are trying to establish a new consortium of churches, neighborhood groups, and business groups - all with the help of Savannah State University, the city's historically black school - to train young adults from the black community and, more important, find them fulfilling jobs.

"This has hit us all very badly, but it's hurt our African-American community the most," says Savannah native Dicky Mopper, a real-estate broker and mayoral aspirant. "We have to do more."

The violent streak threatened to spill into the economy last week, as some tourists bypassed Savannah and stayed in motels far outside the city limits. In response to the murders, the city has heightened security at public schools, set up a new task force of undercover detectives and beat cops, and even sent a Georgia Bureau of Investigation helicopter on patrol.

Crime isn't new here: This was once a raucous port town, after all, filled with carpetbaggers and rum-runners. Made mythic in John Berendt's bestselling "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil," it has long been the haunt of celebs like Clint Eastwood and Jacqueline Onassis - and 3 million tourists just last year. But it hasn't seen this kind of gang violence since the early 1980s.

Even now the danger is, to some extent, contained: Police say none of the shootings have been random. All five victims grew up together in the projects and all were known to Savannah police. Camoflauge himself spent three months in jail in 2000 on murder charges, which were dropped after the grand jury failed to indict him.

In the hip-hop industry, a string of violence

Groping to explain the violence, critics blame not just the stubborn socioeconomic disparity between Savannah's black and white communities, but also a recording industry that seems to favor promoting conflict and "dramas" over positive messages. Camoflauge's death was the hip-hop industry's third fatality in one month, a string of violence that stretched from here to San Francisco.

Fighting a penchant for vivid violence, groups like Temple of Hip-Hop and rapper KRS-1 are trying to bring Christian themes to rap fans - but are usually shunted aside by a music industry that gravitates to beefs and bucks. Too often, critics say, positive messages are squeezed off the limited airwaves available to black artists.

"We can't separate the death of Camoflauge when we're asking, 'How does this happen?' " says hip-hop historian Davey D in Sacramento. "These crime waves aren't just happening in big urban cities, but they're now happening in smaller cities like Savannah and Providence."

A role model for city youth

Despite his bad rap with the police, Camoflauge was an icon to many of the city's kids. On the corner where he was shot, a boy rode his bicycle last week with a magic-markered sketch of the chubby-cheeked rapper on his t-shirt. Savannah high schools opened their doors to Camo to host pep rallies. He was invited to headline the 2001 Father's Day celebration at a city park.

Before his death, Camoflauge could be seen regularly - from the historic Cuyler-Brownsville neighborhood to the Fred Wessels projects - rolling along in his black Ford Expedition with his portrait and name painted on the side. And beyond his appeal to the city's youth, even community elders saw his potential for doing good - and inspiring children to rise above their circumstance.

"This is a waste of of a very young life that had the potential to do good for this community," says Marilyn Braxton, a black real-estate agent at one of the city's biggest firms.

One of Camoflauge's posse, Tommy Hill, says his friend was a "good kid" who, last Thanksgiving, gave out 1,500 turkeys from the stoop of Pure Pain. At Christmas, he was "Santa Flauge" - donning a Santa suit and handing out gifts. Unlike other local artists, like Big Boi from Outkast, he stayed in Savannah and became a role model for young blacks here.

"We lost a franchise player," says Mr. Hill. "The truth is, he didn't live the way he died."

At Na'Robia's, a greasy spoon where Camoflauge used to eat smothered shrimp and where he recorded the video for his single, "Hot Grits," patrons are still in shock at the violence. Their chief concern now is whether the black community will be able to answer the one question on everyone's mind: Why?

Says one gray-haired man with a cane who often shot the breeze with Camoflauge outside the restaurant: "Right now, there's too many boys not reaching their life potential."

Material from wire services was used in this report.

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