On a typical weeknight, earsplitting beats and a pounding bass line would provoke the ire of next-door neighbors.
But the opposite held true for the sounds of the DollarBoyz dance practice blaring onto 29th Street near Susquehanna Avenue last week. The North Philadelphia residents who shared the 2200 block with the group welcomed the noise, stopping to check out the music and congratulate the dancers for “doing great things” for the community.
DollarBoyz and DollarGirlz is the brainchild of Tyree Dumas, a 22-year-old entrepreneur who has brought hundreds of area youths from the streets to the dance floor and beyond.
DollarBoyz is more than just its members’ break moves. The group hosts movie trips, cookouts, bowling nights, and parties throughout Philadelphia in addition to having a large social media presence. It’s not uncommon for the Facebook statuses of the group’s rising stars to receive several hundred likes in an hour, said Dumas.
Created as a for-profit company in 2005, DollarBoyz Inc. has become a youth movement whose CEO is equal parts organizer, older brother, and inspiration.
“We have to reach them where they are, and that is exactly what Tyree does,” said John Brice, a colleague of Dumas’ and a Philadelphia program manager at the national mentoring initiative CBM Cares. “He uses hip-hop; he teaches them about being self-motivated. When we go out, we’re wearing the same T-shirts, and he teaches them about equality.”
Dumas, who last month received a $35,000 Black Male Engagement project grant from the Knight Foundation, founded DollarBoyz at age 14 under the umbrella of his nonprofit Y-NOT, “Youth Now on Top.” He wanted to target his own demographic of students who were not interested in traditional nonprofits and who would often find camaraderie in gangs and drug dealing instead of school.
“At the end of the day, a drug dealer on the corner will care about you, but for all the wrong reasons,” he said in a recent interview.
At first, Dumas’ idea to give young people another option was simple: Get a group of his cousins together to shoot dance videos. Now, DollarBoyz’ YouTube videos have six million views total, and from 30 to 100 youths contact Dumas per week, he said, including his first international student, from the United Kingdom, last week.
Dumas’ friends and family attribute his success with DollarBoyz to his relative closeness in age to the group’s members and his commitment to a phone that rings constantly with requests for help.
He has been on panels and in meetings with city officials to combat flash mobs and has encouraged his group’s members to “stay positive” instead of causing trouble.
“Why would somebody at his age be worrying about 5- to 6-year-old kids?” said Tamir Austin, the group’s choreographer, known in the group as “DB Havocc.” “Normal 22-year-olds care about girls, money, and jobs.”
Calling himself a “problem child” who used to follow the wrong crowd, Austin described how Dumas approached him at a party three years ago and said he should use his dancing talent in a positive way for DollarBoyz. The chance meeting proved a turning point for Austin, whose manners and speech make him seem far beyond his 15 years.
“I learned to be a leader, not a follower,” he said.
Dumas’ mother, Eva Wanamaker, said the DollarBoyz and DollarGirlz often see her son as the one person who will give them the attention they need.
“You can have all the money in the world, but there’s nothing like that time one-on-one,” she said.
Having envisioned DollarBoyz as an alternative to dropping out of school to earn money, Dumas often connects members with singing, acting, or dancing abilities to agents and other organizations that can help them turn their talents into profit while still in school.
“Right now society looks down on you – you can’t be 10 and own your own business,” he said.
Dumas said he planned to expand DollarBoyz in the next year through partnerships with companies and organizations in the city. Plans are being considered for a collaboration with the clothing company Villa Inc. that will give members the chance to design products for sale in Villa stores, as a possible gateway to starting lines of their own.
With a recent activities grant from the city Department of Recreation, Dumas also will have access to three locations for dance practices. The grant will pay for additional instructors and snacks for the students.
Experimenting with a “school of the future,” Dumas has opened preregistration for DollarBoyz Academy, in which students who have trouble in traditional school settings may enroll at Pennsylvania Leadership Academy Charter School, an online school. It will work with Dumas to help students complete their core curriculum in addition to business and music-industry classes twice a week.
A 2012 PLACS graduate, Dumas has always been an entrepreneur, starting with childhood games in which he and his sister imagined that bits of paper were money. His mother recalled that as a middle schooler, he even turned the cookies she brought home from her job at Kraft Nabisco into a business.
“I would always wonder why the cookies would be low in the cabinet,” Wanamaker said. “I found out he was selling the cookies to the kids at school.” Those memories and the nickname “Top Dollar” from his father provided Dumas with the inspiration for DollarBoyz.
From toddlers to high schoolers, the
DollarBoyz logo of two hands making a “DB” was on every shirt at last Wednesday’s dance practice at the First Responders Banquet Hall. But the popularity of the group is also seen in its message, which 10-year-old “DB San” Alhassan Dumbuya summed up in one question:
“What’s the point of wasting your time on the streets?”