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Story by John Murray
A fierce rivalry between the ATM gang and the 960 gang rocked Waterbury the past three years with shootings and violence triggered by music videos posted to YouTube. Most of the gang members were teenagers and young adults, and insults in the videos led to bullets being sprayed into cars and homes, and a shooting at the courthouse in downtown Waterbury.
The most heated debate in Connecticut right now is how society responds to the uptick in juvenile crime; gang activity and car thefts topping the list.
Waterbury Mayor Neil O’Leary and Waterbury Police Chief Fred Spagnolo have called the situation a crisis, and have asked the State Legislature to address the issue by tightening laws that allow a handful of teenagers to revolve through the justice system and terrorize a city.
Some legislators want to slam the revolving door shut, while other elected officials want more funding for youth programs to provide vulnerable populations more opportunities to expand and grow without turning to crime. Juvenile crime will be the #1 topic in the 2022 legislative session in Hartford.
Far from the political halls of power, a Waterbury resident, Tyler McElrath, has an idea to empower city youth through music and film that creates a less violent and more productive way of artistic expression.
McElrath is launching a program to develop young artists – from age 15 to 25 – to learn the inside game of creating a live musical event that includes seeking vendors and sponsorships. His organization is called DOE.Live (which stands for Definition Of Entertainment. Live).
Former mayoral candidate Tyler McElrath is still fighting for change in Waterbury.
“The mission is to teach young people and young adults how to create their own live events without shootings,” McElrath said. “Waterbury has a rich history of arts and culture, but the Millennials don’t know how to develop their art. No one is connecting to the youth.”
The leader of the 960 gang was Zaekwon McDaniel, called Yung Gap, and McElrath said McDaniel was a talented musician.
“Some people get deep into the streets,” McElrath said, “but you can’t commit crimes and take care of your family and lift your community up. Music is a powerful tool and our mission is to flip a negative, into a positive.”
McElrath, a local music promoter, and a candidate for Waterbury mayor in 2019, is launching his organization DOE.Live this Saturday with a fundraiser at the POLI Club inside the Palace Theater. DOE.Live has received funding from the Connecticut Community Foundation, Neighborhood Housing Services of Waterbury, the Leever Foundation, and the Waterbury Arts & Tourism Commission.
“Crime is up and there are a lot of people not being heard,” McElrath said. “We have received support from organizations that believe in our mission.”
After the live musical event this Saturday, which includes live performances from Li, Toxic Holiday, Ian Matthew and Mello Cartier, DOE.Live will turn its attention to launching its training program to educate, develop and support young artists. The program will start with twelve apprentices meeting for a total of 24 hours, over a six-month period.
Happening this weekend in Waterbury
At the completion of the program McElrath believes the participants will have gained the knowledge and skill to develop their own event, sustain it, and make it a worthwhile experience for themselves, and the community.
“We want to empower local artists,” McElrath said. “We are going to develop sound technicians that can help stage events. We are taking a long approach to this, and hope to partner with graduates of the program to build a sustainable model for young artists to perform in the city.”
The Millennials – aged 35 and down – live on their smartphones, and McElrath said many have encountered barriers in the city trying to engage in the civic life of Waterbury.
“Millennials are living a different life and it shows,” McElrath said. “They are the big consumers of music and entertainment in society. Imagine if they are empowered and begin to develop their own scene here in Waterbury. We can change the culture here in the city, and improve the quality of life in Waterbury at the same time.”
It’s too late for Yung Gap to hear McElrath’s message – he’s in prison facing a murder trial – but if the community can get behind McElrath’s vision, there is a possibility that in the future a young talented musician in Waterbury will make a healthier choice to pursue art than guns and gangs and violence.