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They met in the center of the room and bumped elbows like a basketball team ready to take the court. Except this was a music group, giving a virtual performance for an audience they couldn't even see.

One by one, each performer took off his COVID mask for a turn in front of the camera. The chill Detrell Melodies tried to fight back a smile while singing the hook. Young Light sounded fierce as he rapped, his eyes burning with controlled fire. The bespectacled Ju$$Lyfe spit out his words with abandon. Bayo threw down his bars with animation and confidence.

Then Young Light returned, singing the hook to "Looking to My Brother" — "Praying to the Lord, I'm trying to do right."

This is the Ujamaa Music Group (UMG). These men, ages 19 to 28, ended up together because of homelessness, addiction, unemployment and other issues — but also a shared love of music.

They came together at Ujamaa Place, a St. Paul social service agency for Black men. Their music therapy sessions evolved into recording a single and performing three tunes virtually last month for the Twin Cities chapter of the African American Leadership Forum.

Speaking days later via Zoom, Bayo couldn't hide the smile that frequently overtakes his face.

"We've all done music before. But to be doing it on a scale where we've got shows and we've got post-show interviews, that's so exciting," he said.

Bayo Idowu of the Ujamaa Music Group.
Bayo Idowu of the Ujamaa Music Group.

ANTHONY SOUFFLÉ • anthony.souffle@startribune.com

Bayo — short for Omobayonle Idowu — is kind of the unspoken leader of the group. Maybe because he's one of the older guys at 25. Maybe because he has been releasing music for years under his own name. Maybe because he sits at the front desk at Ujamaa, greeting everyone who comes in the door as his day job.

Growing up in Woodbury and Oakdale, he played football, basketball and baseball at East Ridge High School, then attended the University of North Dakota before drugs derailed him. After going through treatment more than once, he met Ujamaa's CEO, Otis Zanders, at church.

"I had a couple of rough years with family, legal troubles and addiction. Otis took me under his wing," recalled Bayo, who enrolled at Ujamaa Place in December 2016. "Music had always been a big passion of mine. It remained consistent through the addiction and the ups and downs. After my last treatment stint, I made a commitment that I wasn't going to let my talents go to waste."

Creating music wasn't one of the two dozen programs offered by Ujamaa, which was founded in 2009 and is based in the Griggs Midway Building at 1821 W. University Av. But an idea was hatched after the organization's film club worked an event at the Dakota club in Minneapolis.

There, Ujamaa officials met drummer/producer Kirk Johnson, one of Prince's longtime associates, and decided to create a music program with him.

"We've been talking about this for years. How do we make this thing happen?" said Stevenson Morgan, Ujamaa coach and employment coordinator.

"Music in our community has helped us numerous times. We think back to slavery days and out there humming and just trying to move forward and keep that positive spirit going. And I think that's what we've been able to craft with the Ujamaa Music Group."

Kirk Johnson is a mentor to the Ujamaa Music Group.
Kirk Johnson is a mentor to the Ujamaa Music Group.

ANTHONY SOUFFLE • anthony.souffle@startribune.com

Mentor was 'a little nervous'

When Johnson went to Ujamaa for the first time last August, he was "a little nervous because you don't know what you're going to get when you get five young Black men in a room."

On Wednesday afternoons, Johnson, who is Black, visits Ujamaa, where he helped set up a recording studio last fall. Some days, he invites behind-the-scenes speakers — an entertainment lawyer, a sound engineer, a publicist, a rep from a music pressing plant. Johnson, a consultant to the Prince estate, even arranged a private tour of Paisley Park for UMG. On Saturday afternoons, Johnson meets one-on-one with two UMG music makers in the studio.

"I'm teaching and motivating them to do something they wouldn't do by themselves and holding them accountable," said Johnson, who does a similar thing when he leads a cycling class twice a week at Life Time Fitness. "It motivates me at the same time."

He devotes up to 15 hours a week to UMG for minimal pay. While Johnson said he appreciates UMG's energy and talent, "we've had our moments: 'Why are you late and why didn't you tell me you were going to be late?'

"These types of moments will help you moving forward in other situations. 'Just because it's free, don't jack it up. Everybody's depending on you.' "

Morgan also sees the value in "making the effort to let these men know that, even though you may not get to the promised land of music, there's other areas if you use the same diligence and same confidence ... There will be other doors for you to be successful in."

UMG is about more than music, Johnson said. "We have these little discussions about life before we get to the music side — dating, jobs, what do you do after you leave Ujamaa, how's it going to help you moving forward.

"They're guys who went the wrong way in some cases, and we kind of get them back on their path."

Meeting Sheila E.

This winter, UMG had a news conference to announce their single, "On a Mission," and Johnson invited renowned percussionist/singer Sheila E. to join in from Oakland, Calif., via Zoom.

After she praised the new jam, each UMG member introduced himself and explained what music meant to him.

"Music is like the only way I can really be understood. Words don't do any good," said Sensae Da Waelaah (Sundiata Tongrit-Green, 19).

Responded Sheila E.: "That's life-changing."

"Music helps me out every day," said Ju$$Lyfe (Justin Langeslay, 25). "If I don't start my day off with music in the shower, it's just all off."

Devonne Tinsley
Devonne Tinsley

ANTHONY SOUFFLÉ • anthony.souffle@startribune.com

For Detrell Melodies (Devonne Tinsley, 24), "music has been my escape from everyday life. Times get hard sometimes, but when I go to the music I can get away from it."

"Music is powerful," Sheila E. declared. "Amen."

Kevin Berry
Kevin Berry

ANTHONY SOUFFLÉ • anthony.souffle@startribune.com

"Music means life to me," said Young Light (Kevin Berry, 28). "I love writing music and get my mind off things and inspire people to hopefully change their lives."

Bayo explained that he was introduced to music in church and started playing drums in first or second grade. "But later in life, I struggled with addiction and music was that refuge I found in treatment," he said. "God and music was what brought me back to myself. Music is everything to me. You can hear it, you can feel it."

Talking about music among themselves is one thing, but getting props from a veteran star like Sheila E.?

"Oh, man, that's just cool," Bayo said later. "Every person who presses play and listens to our music, it's absolute gratitude."

Justin Langeslay
Justin Langeslay

ANTHONY SOUFFLÉ • anthony.souffle@startribune.com

With help from musician pals like saxophonist Walter Chancellor Jr., Johnson brings beats and instrumental sounds to UMG. He even got guitarist Mike Scott, who has toured with Justin Timberlake and Sounds of Blackness, to play on the single.

But the members pen their own lyrics. "Be positive and keep it clean," Johnson encourages them. UMG has now completed three songs — "On a Mission," "Looking to My Brother" and "Let's Get It."

Since the group came together, Johnson has observed "growth and consistency. It's been worth every moment."

The next step is getting ready for a concert in front of an audience. "Maybe at the Minnesota State Fair," said Johnson.

Twitter: @JonBream • 612-673-1719