Interviewed By: Stephanie Williams
After being a victim of several attacks-D.C. musician Greggory Hammond fought back the violence with his own weapon-his guitar. With no viable options that he saw fit to counter the increasing amount of violence he saw in his neighborhood, Hammond started the D.C. affiliate chapter of Guitars Not Guns with the hopes that youth could find positive reinforcement outside of their troubled households with the power of music.
Guitars Not Guns provides children aged 8-18 years old with guitars and guitar lessons free of charge, and students are placed in several levels of classes where they can hone and master their skills. Since starting the affiliate chapter in 2008, Hammond has helped hundreds of troubled youth accomplish their music aspirations.
D.C. Music Download: What inspired you to start the affiliate chapter of Guitars Not Guns?
Greggory Hammond: Several things connected and inspired me. In 1999, I studied wilderness survival, forensic crime scene evaluation and also some classes in mentoring. In 2002, I spent 96 hours alone in the wilderness with only drinking water. I sat in a 10 circle calling out for a “LIfe Vision”. In 2004, near the SW DC waterfront, I was attacked, assaulted by a gang of children approximately 8-16 yrs old. They attempted to rob me. I spent the next three days puzzled as to why and how to prevent this from happening.I attended the D.C. Gang Summit held by Metropolitan Police Department to see how I could help.
Less than a year later, two teenage boys jumped out of a car. They held me at gunpoint, attempting to rob me, and again I thwarted the attempt. In 2007, four teens hopped from an SUV and attempted to set an ambush, which I diverted. I had already been volunteering with an after school program teaching guitar to at-risk youth but the program was biased and wanted only students who were showcase performers.
My students(mostly at-risk) were dismissed from the class. I was heartbroken to find out that because the students weren’t capable of being a showcase performer, they were being turned away. I set out then and there to create a program that would cater to the at-risk youth, who needed mentoring, nurturing, and music to ensure that they knew that someone cared. I felt this would be the answer to soothing the “wild child” that ends up in the street, acting violent, attempting to rob people at gunpoint.
DMD: Describe the process of starting up this foundation? What obstacles did you face with making this happen?
GH: At first for me, the largest obstacle was finding a vice president, secretary/treasurer to complete the paperwork for the city of D.C. That took close to a year, and unfortunately, both those people weren’t able to continue after D.C. linked with VA & MD. Another obstacle has been to get volunteers to keep their word about committing to helping with the other needs of program. To date that has been the most challenging thing for me.
DMD: How do you recruit the youth that participate in the program? What neighborhoods do they come from and what are their backgrounds like generally?
GH: We partner with youth centers that are located between a child’s school and home. We offer our program to youth at these locations. Often, our participants hear about the program through word of mouth or from current and past participants. I have had classrooms operate around Columbia Heights, U Street, Anacostia, and Petworth neighborhoods. I had potential starts-up in more than 20 locations. My personal volunteer hours exceeded 40+ per week, and because of this, fell ill from exhaustion after awhile. Many potential classroom locations will start up when we have volunteers.
DMD: Can you describe the program in a step-by-step process? After the youth agree to participate, how often do they receive lessons and do they participate in any music related events associated with the program?
GH: Once a location manager and team of volunteers has been established, students are allowed to enroll. Student participants complete an agreement to borrow the guitar, and take good care of it. They sign the agreement to practice, and if no longer interested, return the guitar. Students are taught lessons once a week, for an hour long class. The level one students are taught 6 guitar chords, and must be able to name all the parts of the instrument.
When they are able to do so and can pass a test, they have earned the guitar, gig bag, strap and are awarded a certificate. All graduates of level one are invited to come back for the level two. Level two is a continuation of basic skills. Students have the opportunity to learn to play the GNG guitar anthem “Set Me Free”. The students have the opportunity to perform the song at open mics, recitals and we are working on getting a group of students who practice enough to perform at the white house.
DMD: Describe one of your most fond memories or stories of your experiences with the program thus far?
GH: Drained from teaching at three locations, and managing the DC affiliate single handedly, I dragged myself to a class on a Thursday afternoon. I was so tired that I had the towel in hand ready to throw it in. All my volunteer teachers had called out for the day, last minute. Asking for a sign from above to show me that it was worth all the work, I drove over to the classroom. I said “show me a signthat it’s worthwhile and meaningful or I am going to quit”.
That afternoon my classroom had two new boys. I handed a guitar to both of them and one immediately started strumming away and signing loudly, “My friend, my friend, I hope I find you some day my friend, because that will be the day I finally have a friend”. I choked back tears as I told him “great job, my friend” and he smiled back at me. That young man’s smile is etched in my mind and I refer to it when I am tired, worn out, and wishing that I could go out to see a show, or have dinner, or relax a little.
To find out more information about Guitars Not Guns, and also make a tax deductible donation to the program, visit their official website