Trishaun Coleman is the funeral singer for young victims of gun violence in South Chicago.
Five times in as many years, her voice has risen in sorrow beside the coffin of a murdered friend.
And because the voice is hers, it is also the sound of decency and perseverance made divine amid a war involving at least 625 gang factions in our president’s hometown.
Each one of those funerals was a reminder of the dangers Trishaun herself faces each time she steps outside her door.
She was forced to quit a job as a sales associate just a few blocks from where she lives because it was across a border into the territory of a gang whose members recognized her from a Facebook picture.
The nearest sandwich shop is also outside her home turf, and she realizes that to venture there is to risk being the next person in a coffin.
“If I go to Subway, I could lose my life,” the 21-year-old told The Daily Beast late last week. “It’s my life for a sandwich.”
Yet, as one friend after another has been killed, she has continued to venture out early each morning to classes at Olive-Harvey College, where she is a fine arts major.
“I’m in my last semester,” she reported quietly, as if it were not a remarkable accomplishment.
She has two great wishes for the immediate future.
One is that she gets picked when she auditions for The Voice in February.
“They said to get there at 7 o’clock in the morning,” she said. “I’ll be there at 3.”
Her other wish is that she not be needed to serve as a funeral singer yet again. She certainly had not been seeking that role as she stood with her 17-year-old boyfriend, Roemello Golden, outside a housing complex in South Chicago known as the Buildings on June 13, 2012.
“It was a nice day,” she recalled. “It was a normal day. It was real warm.”
Roemello was an up-and-coming rapper known as Young Ro. He had founded his own music company, Global Money Entertainment, or GME. And he had tried without success to get the dulcet-toned Trishaun to try setting aside her cherished gospel songs and join him in his genre.
“He used to be so mad I wouldn’t,” she later recalled.
The two remained so close that they lingered together as night deepened and the others outside the Buildings dispersed.
“Everybody left,” she would remember.
A 17-year-old named Keon Tolliver approached. Keon was from another turf six blocks away, but he knew Roemello from their childhood years. Keon held out his hand. Roemello took it.
“He shook his hand,” Trishaun would recall. “He asked him, ‘What’s up?’”
Keon seemed like just another of the legions of people who liked this rap star in the making.
“Everybody loved Roemello,” Trishaun would later say.
Keon then suddenly pulled a semi-automatic pistol and began firing.
“It just happened fast,” Trishaun would later say. “It just happened real fast.”
Roemello’s final reflex was to save her.
“He pushed me away,” Trishaun would report.
Trishaun escaped injury as Roemello was fatally wounded by at least 11 bullets. The police afterward described the murder as gang-related, saying Roemello was affiliated with a faction called the Titanic Stones. Roemello’s friends insisted that GME was a rap enterprise, not a gang. Some suggested that the killer may have been motivated by jealousy or by a desire for what had replaced bling and benjamins as the prime motivator in the streets.
“They call it clout,” Trishaun told The Daily Beast. “Everybody want clout.”
She added, “Everybody fighting for the same thing: ‘I’m more powerful than you.’”
In 2010, Trishaun had sung at the funeral for her best friend, 15-year-old Shayla Raymond, who was killed by a hit-and-run driver after some boys chased her from a bus stop into the street.
Trishaun now sang at Roemello’s funeral. She chose “His Eye on the Sparrow.”
Then came the 2013 funeral for Kevin Sanders and the 2014 funeral for Deandre Brown and the 2015 funeral for Valerie Gonzalez. Her hopes for a better 2016 ended just five days into the New Year with word that 16-year-old Donta Parker and 17-year-old Sakinah Reed had been shot to death.
“I was just saying, ‘I don’t want to sing at any more funerals,’” Trishaun recalled. “But they were my friends.”
The killings had come just three hours after President Obama began to weep during a televised speech about gun violence. The latest victims in his hometown had been walking from the bus after school along with a 16-year-old friend known as GMEBE Bravo when a Ford Expedition rolled up.
Sakinah had posted on Twitter a photo of herself back on Nov. 25 wearing a T-shirt emblazened with the face of a murdered friend.
“Knew My Time Was Coming…Had To Wait For It,” she had tweeted.
But a Dec. 4 posting had taken a less fatalistic turn. Sakinah tweeted of someday escaping the carnage.
“When I Go To College Im Not Coming Back To Chicago,” she tweeted.
At 11:47 a.m., right around the time the president was in tears about gun killings, one of Sakinah’s loved ones tweeted hopefully of living long enough to see the teen officially reach adulthood.
“Just want to be here for blood 21 Birthday and then imma good,” the loved one tweeted.
Now, at 3:30 p.m., Sakinah and her two friends were desperately trying to flee the gunfire that suddenly erupted from inside the Expedition. She suffered two fatal wounds to the back, Donta a fatal wound to the abdomen, their blood spattering bright red on the snow.
The police would later say that this shooting was also gang-related, alleging by way of background that GME had allied with EBE—Eastbound Entertainment—which was supposedly affiliated with a faction called Sircon City. GME insisted that EBE also was not a gang but a rap group and that the two had joined to form GMEBE. The group was popular enough that when they played in faraway Jacksonville, Florida, in November, the fans proved to know the lyrics to their songs.
A longtime gangbanger suggested that Donta had been targeted because he and a friend had posted a video made at a Citgo gas station in Pockettown territory. The video shows them dissing not only Pockettown but one of the gang’s dead, known as Ronnie Moe, who had been held in as high regard in his turf as the murdered Young Ro had been held in his own.
But GME would contend that Donta and Sakinah died in a case of mistaken identity, saying that a voice from inside the murder car had asked if the three victims were affiliated with the Sircon City faction. GME says the shooting started before there was time to answer.
The third teen, Bravo, was shot in the foot and hand. He emphatically denies a newspaper report that he helped police identify the shooter as 16-year-old Anthony Murphy, who police say is affiliated with Pockettown. Bravo told The Daily Beast that he had uttered not so much as a word when the police came to question him after he was discharged from the hospital.
“They was knocking on my door,” Bravo said. “I wouldn’t even answer it.”
A sidewalk vigil for the murdered teens was planned for 7 p.m. the next day on the stretch of Burley Avenue where they had grown up together, living in the same building, their apartments facing each other. Roemello had also lived on this street, and it was locally known as Roeblock, in keeping with a relatively recent Chicago custom of naming streets after young gunshot victims.
A friend of Sakinah’s family asked the 32-year-old daughter of a Chicago firefighter turned pastor to lead the gathering. Dyesha Deisch had never led such an event, but she accepted the invitation, asking that the time of the vigil be changed to 5:30 p.m., before evening deepened to night. She was initially unnerved by the number of attendees filling the street when she arrived.
“Three hundred kids,” she recalled to The Daily Beast. “I’m like, ‘I don’t think I can do this.’ The kids were out there crying, they were hugging each other, they were angry. Some had questions like, ‘Why, God?’”
Deisch had brought some anointing oil and she devised an impromptu ritual. She instructed the attendees to form a huge circle and clasp hands with the person beside them, be it a boy or a girl.
“I said, ‘I need you all to get in the middle of the street and unite this thing,” she remembered. “When they finally held hands, I said, ‘God give me strength.’”
She then began to anoint their foreheads, one after another, the intimacy of the blessing imparting a sense of what these kids were feeling.
“Some of them I anointed, I began to feel their burdens,” she would remember.
She called upon the Almighty.
“Everybody that’s knitted in this circle, God, remember them right now, God, cover them from the top of their heads to the soles of their feet, God,” she prayed. “Put a hex of protection around each and every one of them, God. It’s OK for y’all to cry.”
She invoked Psalm 30:5.
“Weeping may endure for the night, but joy comes in the morning.”
The next words she cried out applied equally to these kids and to their president.
“It’s OK to cry!”
Deisch understood just as the president understood that the carnage was sure to continue.
“This is not the end,” she said.
She and The Daily Beast later spoke with the six members of GMEBE in an apartment in the complex known as the Buildings. Bravo had made a video in the hospital of his wounds. And he had since written a song titled “Demon’d Up.” He had posted a professional-looking music video for it in which he waved his bandaged finger.
“We demon’d up...don’t play with us,” he rapped predictably, but also saying, “Every night I have a dream…Every night I wake up in sweats.”
As he now spoke to Deisch and The Daily Beast, Bravo said he had penned a second, deeper rap.
“That makes me cry,” he reported.
He noted that he had known Donta since they were in first grade together at the nearby J.N. Thorp Elementary School. He said he still could not quite believe that what happened had actually happened.
“It just don’t feel real,” he said. “It was just a regular day. We got off the bus. We got caught lackin’.”
He meant caught without a gun.
“You got to carry a pistol,” he said. “You literally have to.”
He reported that his music videos have given him a kind of celebrity that can make him a target wherever he goes.
“My face is always on somebody phone,” he said. “If I sit on the bus, people going, ‘That’s Bravo!”
He went on, “That fame I don’t want. I want the fame that inspires people.”
He dreamed aloud, “I see myself selling out Madison Square Garden. That’s all I want to do. One time.”
Deisch advised the whole group—whose senior members include a cousin, known as GMEBE Pistol—that they needed to be more positive and take their music beyond the now well-worn Chicago “drill music,” drilling being slang for shooting.
“Everybody know you got a gun,” she said.
Bravo did not disagree. He was coming to appreciate the importance of reading.
“You need to read if you rap because you can’t be saying the same thing,” he said. “Your vocabulary should expand. You should have wordplay. I’m going to make myself more of a lyrical artist, change my flow up.”
But if he wanted to go to the nearest branch of the public library for a book, he would be in hostile territory. The group’s manager asked Bravo if he would rather go shopping for clothes or a gun.
“A brand new Glock,” Bravo said.
One of the other members, GMEBE Allo, noted, “It’s a risk for us even to get a pair of shoes. It’s just a lot that goes on.”
Deisch had another warning for them if they kept on as they had been.
“They got a casket for each one of you all,” she said. “Or a jail cell.”
She afterward gave Bravo a ride home.
“What’s this war about?” she asked him.
“I don’t know,” Bravo said.
“You’re in the middle of a war and you don’t know what it’s about?” she asked.
“I honestly don’t,” he replied.
Deisch is also cousin to Trishaun, who sang once again at a funeral, this time for Donta. The song she chose was “Take Me to the King.”
Shots were fired from a passing car after the funeral as well, as after the repast.
“They want clout,” Deisch said of the gunmen. “Two people aren’t enough for them.”
Trishaun was spared singing at the services for Sakinah. She was back to hoping that she had sung at her last funeral as she sat at the dining room table in Deisch’s mother’s house on Jan. 15, which would have been Martin Luther King Jr.’s 87th birthday.
King would have applauded the indomitable character not just of Trishaun but also of Deisch, who is one of the neighborhood’s truly heroic figures.
At 18, Deisch took her godmother’s three children—aged 7, 11, and 13—into her care. The godmother and the children’s father were both incarcerated. And the children no doubt would have otherwise been consigned to foster care.
Deisch spent a decade raising them as she would have her own while working three jobs and continuing her education, earning first a bachelor’s degree and then a master’s in social work. She was on the go at 5 a.m. each day and she kept going until after 10 p.m.
“I made sure they saw me work my tail off,” she said of the kids to The Daily Beast. “I showed them you can do it. I took them to church. I got them busy.”
Deisch could now report that her two oldest charges had landed good-paying jobs. The youngest, now 19, is sending out his résumé. Deisch had herself become a social worker and was raising a 7-year-old son of her own.
Trishaun had also secured a good job. But she had been forced to quit because it was a half-dozen blocks away in what was called Slaughtertown, which considers those from Roeblock to be “opps,” or the opposition, the enemy.
These days, such things in Chicago are decided not by membership in a particular gang but simply by where you happen to live, not by who you are with but where you are from.
“I can’t walk out my door without being afraid,” Trishaun said. “Do I go left or right? If I go right I might get shot.”
Greater danger lies beyond the boundaries of her home turf, which is bereft of basic amenities.
“No stores, no Laundromat,” she said. “We don’t have anything in our neighborhood.”
She sometimes risks going to another neighborhood to get something to eat, but she has to remain on high alert.
“I never sit in a restaurant,” she said. “It’s really scary. I’m scared to do anything.”
She further understands that hers is a city where a perceived slight can mean your end.
“If you bruise their egos, it’s over,” Trishaun said. “Once your bruise their ego they are not going to stop until they kill you.”
That prominently includes even seemingly minor insults online.
“Social media is the root of all evil,” she said. “Social media can get you killed.”
She spoke of one young woman whose picture had been posted on a fake page along with an image of a baby with wings, the wings signifying the baby was with the angels, which is to say dead. The image is sure to cause great offense and could lead to the woman’s all too actual death.
“She dying for nothing, because somebody using her picture,” Trishaun said.
Trishaun reported that she had asked a friend of the two latest fatalities in Roeblock how he was feeling.
“He said, ‘I’m used to it, so it doesn’t bother me,” she recalled.
Deisch wondered aloud, “How do you get back to normal? It’s becoming normal to them, and that’s not normal.”
She added, “These young people have been turned cold. They call each other demons.”
She noted that the streets are now about guns, not drugs.
“These kids don’t even want to make money,” Deisch said.
She who had seen the power of love while successfully raising her godmother’s kids was now seeing the result of its absence in too many other kids.
“All it goes back to is no love,” she said.
The result turns deadly when the lack of love is joined by the power of a gun and no sense of consequences.
“Thinking they’re invincible,” Trishaun said of the young gunmen.
Deisch reminded everyone that it was what she called “Martin Luther King’s actual birthday.”
“He gave his life for us,” she noted.
She spoke of those who joined King in the struggle.
“They got spat on, got beaten, got killed, did all this,” she said. “For us to turn on each other…”
In the week to come, the police would arrest a second teen for the killing of Donta and Sakinah, and hope that their grieving friends in Roeblock would not feel compelled to seek revenge.
But for now, the moment came when Trishaun sang not for a funeral but on the great man’s birthday. The Chicago skyline, a short drive and a world away, was lit blue for Martin Luther King weekend, that being the hue the United Nations had chosen to symbolize peace. But a deeper tribute to King came as Trishaun sat at the table on Burley Avenue with her fellow hero and prepared to launch into what she announced is her favorite song.
Trishaun began to sing, filling the room with that sound of decency and perseverance made divine, a voice that Martin Luther King surely would have found sublime.
The last line seemed to come from an inner mountaintop and put to shame a nation where an altogether magnificent person such as her lives in fear along with so many others.
“Lord, I thank you for my life.”