Wilmington community activist and local hip hop performer Richard Raw and Founder/Executive Director of the Culture Restoration Project, Inc. Shah Jannele have been together for fourteen years and married for eight, but the seeds of their love story and local activism began over twenty years ago. When Rich was a teen, Shah’s father, Olvan Jones, mentored youth, teaching community classes about Black History in his home. As one of Shah’s father’s students, Rich credits him with keeping him out of a lot of trouble. He knew Shah in those days, of course, but as Rich was a few years older, he didn’t pay much attention to her. Several years later, Rich met Shah again when she was working at his sister’s salon. “You’ve grown up!” he exclaimed. That moment of attraction was the beginning of a pairing that would have a ripple effect through the Wilmington community and beyond. (And in case you wondered—Shah’s father was elated with the match.) IN Wilmington sat down with this power couple to discuss their relationship with each other and the City of Wilmington.
IN: You talked about Shah’s father’s classes. Is that what spawned your activism as a couple?
Shah “That’s on both ends. My dad was teaching classes. He later started doing work at a couple community centers in the city, so I did see a lot of that. And him raising me to understand my culture, the importance of community, how to build community. So, yes, I would say that influenced me. [To Rich] And that would be the same with you and your mom, right?
Rich: My mom [Barbara Watson] worked for the Wilmington Housing Authority, and then she worked in Methodist Action Program. She was the director of programming for youth on the East side. Youth that were having issues and trouble. That was the work that she did for a long time. She made me volunteer. She showed me the value of donating my time, working within the community, and it stuck. When I met Shah, we always talked about the combination of my mother’s influence and her father’s influence. They meshed. Our goal has always been to inspire and do something for our community. We are just continuing the legacy.
Shah: And, too, I majored in Africana Studies at UD, and that was one of the focuses there–the connection to the community and building culture, supporting the arts. That pushed me even further because that was part of my education background.
IN: What challenges, specific to Wilmington, would you like to address through your activism?
Rich: For us, we recognize there is often a disconnect in the education our children are receiving from our communities because it is not culturally relevant to them. ‘It doesn’t relate to me.’ I think that is why we have so much success, because we come to them where they are. We do it through Hip Hop, certainly, and we focus on African-centered education like Maat, Iwa Pele, Ubuntu–which are African modalities that we use to relate to them. We’ve had a lot of success with that.
Shah: And, basically with African Centered education, when you think about the inner cities in Wilmington, they are black and brown. You have African Americans, and you have Latinos, and when you try to educate them from a perspective that they don’t understand, then they rebel. So, we see a need and we focus on meeting them where they are.
Rich: Once we have their attention, we work on confidence and ways to communicate.
IN: How long have you been doing your programs? Long enough that you are seeing kids graduate?
Rich: We have three students who were our interns, and they went off to college this year. They are focusing on hip hop education. Hip Hop Pedagogy, which is beautiful, so they want to come back to the city and take what we are doing to the next level.
Shah: Even when they come home for winter break, we had them working.
IN: Can you tell me about some of the work you are doing across organizations throughout Wilmington?
Shah: There are organizations in Wilmington that are trying to bridge a gap and bring in more community-based programming. The Delaware Art Museum is one of them. They started with a push to connect about five years ago. We are seeing it more in Wilmington, but it comes in phases. There needs to be more of it, especially connections across racial lines, cultural lines, ethnic lines.
IN: What Wilmington organizations would you be interested in pairing with in the future?
Shah: Who haven’t we worked with? I feel like we have worked with everybody.
Rich: The Delaware Historical Society. Wilmington has a Grammy-nominated winning artist/producer who is a friend of mine [Sap], and his story is such a success story. So many in our inner circle know who he is. But nobody else knows. The community at large doesn’t know. It has to be a story that is told. The News Journal doesn’t cover much on hip hop any more. It’s a struggle when you have children who want to do [hip hop] as a career path but they don’t see the value of that here. The Delaware Historical Society has a responsibility to capture the story of hip hop in Wilmington.
Shah: They not only have the responsibility to capture it. They have to tell the story of the past, because there is a whole hip hop past that people don’t know…when the artists were in the parks rapping. It birthed a culture that can easily be forgotten. It is their responsibility to document that. There are pictures, videos out there.
Rich: I think our children should see that. They don’t know the history. Our living libraries will leave, and we will never know.
IN: The two of you have had a lot to deal with personally in your short, married life. Your house was destroyed by fire. Can you tell us a little about that?
Rich: In 2016 our home was firebombed. It was intentional. The community rallied around us. White, Black, Chinese…you name it…they came together and supported us because of the work that we do. They raised so much money and had so many different benefit shows for us.
Shah: We got a lot of support. We did. We definitely appreciate that. And that’s why after the fire, we still weren’t living in our home—we were living in hotel rooms—we still kept doing events and shows. We did Richard Raw Week.
Rich: A weeklong event of arts and culture.
Shah: A seven-day week of events throughout the city at different locations. We kept working. We weren’t going to stop—especially after we saw the way Wilmington supported us.
Rich: Those tragic events brought us even closer as a couple. Our love for one another was just heightened. [Looking at Shah] That’s how I know you are with me. We are going to rebound together.
Shah: We lost everything, so we had to rebuild together.
IN: Makes you realize what is important.
IN: We covered a lot of serious topics. Let’s end on a lighter note. Date night IN Wilmington. Where do you go?
Rich and Shah [laughing and in unison]: The Nomad.
Rich: We love the Nomad. Big Jazz fans. We like the vibe. It’s just where we go to hang out. We’ll probably go there this [Valentine’s Day] weekend. We have off so we will probably end up there at some point.
To learn more about Richard Raw as an hip hop artist and activist, check out richardraw.com — and don’t miss him live IN concert February 29th at the Wilmington Public Library. More information on Culture Restoration Project is available at their website.
Take a look at Shah’s all natural wellness products over at ShahJannele.com.