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Image Courtesy of Kelli Joy Richardson

Black Boy Joy: How A Mom And Son Turned Trauma Into Advocacy

Entrepreneur Kelli Joy Richardson is giving parents and their children space to heal, connect, and grow.

Human Interest

We've all seen the hashtags. The #BlackBoyJoy movement has been an inspiring, empowering, and refreshing one to watch. On social, we see the lighter side of our kings as fathers, bosses, lovers, mentors, and friends, and with that has come a wave of brothers exploring all the dimensions of themselves that venture far beyond the typical black male stereotypes. Part of that conversation and celebration of black manhood involves facing the issue of mental health, with men showing it's OK to be emotional and cope with addictions and illnesses.

Kelli Richardson Lawson, founder of The Sonrise Project, has watched this manifest in her own family. Her platform provides a safe space and community for parents or guardians to explore mental health issues with their loved ones. As a wife and mother of two sons, she faced challenges with her eldest, Kyle, a 17-year-old who began to show behavioral changes related to depression and drug use in his early teens. Right before his entry into high school, Kelli said, Kyle lost interest in swimming, a sport that he loved and was excellent at---so excellent that he was invited to train for the Olympics and set to earn college scholarships.

"He came home and said he didn't want to swim anymore," Kelli explained. "We started to see him change. We thought it was typical teenager stuff. He [was just] going into high school, so [we thought] this is what they do. They become moody, they start just hiding out in their rooms all the time---all of that. What we didn't realize was that he was starting to experiment with drugs, specifically marijuana. He was 15."

Courtesy of Kelli Richardson Lawson

With time, Kyle's behavior became "progressively worse," and he'd lock his bedroom door, become defiant, and experiment with marijuana. "Previously, he was a straight-A student, a happy kid---an easygoing, happy young man. Things suddenly changed---his grades, his interest in school. Even his friends started to change," Kelli recalled. She and her husband, Keith, decided that they needed to seek help to figure out what was going on, so they consulted a mental health professional. The two had already been familiar with therapy, having participated as a family with Kyle and his younger brother, Kristopher. Through testing, Kelli said, it was discovered that Kyle was indeed dealing with depression and faced challenges of ADHD in addition to the consistent marijuana use.

The Lawsons are among thousands of families of color impacted by mental health issues. African Americans are reported to be 20% more likely than other groups to face "serious mental health problems," suicide rates have been on the rise---particularly for black boys and teens---and black men experience damaging professional and personal effects of major depressive disorder (MDD) at a higher percentance than white males.

Kelli and her husband continued to seek professional help via psychologists and psychiatrists, and they eventually enrolled Kyle in special boarding programs where he could get consistent access to therapy and life skills lessons. "Many of my friends say, 'Kelli It's just weed. it's just weed.' Yes, one could say that, but there's also the mental [health] component that is really challenging, so we're working through both of those things."

Image Courtesy of Kelli Richardson Lawson

Though Kyle has seen his ups and downs in behavior, grades, and marijuana use, Kelli said, today, he is progressing step by step, looking forward to his senior year of high school and applying to colleges. "He loves music and he is creating all kinds of songs all the time," she said. "He wants to be a musician and he's talented. He's doing online classes and a handful of courses from his school, and we're taking it day by day, trying to help him stay clean and stay well."

Kelli wanted to help other parents and that's where the idea of The Sonrise Project came from. "The project is really meant to be a space for parents [with children who have] mental illness and addiction issues," she said. "What I found going through all of this over the past couple of years is that there are really no places to talk, share, learn and cry and to have a sense of community. It's a huge issue."

"Our community still has a stigma associated with mental illness, and no one wants to talk about it. I learned, through many of [the mental health] programs, the power of talking with other parents who are going through the same things, and so that's what this is supposed to be."

Through her platform, families can participate in free weekly chats where they can share their stories and ask questions. "We have calls [in the morning], and they're confidential," Kelli explained. "I'm not an expert in this. I can only share my journey, but there's an expert---a psychiatrist, psychologist, or an education specialist---on every call."

The platform also provides information on mental health resources, and it has even evolved to expand its reach. "Because I wanted to make sure my family gave permission to do all of this and that Kyle was OK sharing his story, we talked about it. [Kyle] wanted to change some of the language, and I did. And he also said, 'Mommy this is not just black boys. It's all boys.' I said, 'Good point.' I've even had multiple women reach out saying, "I'm having issues with my daughter.' The bottom line is it's a place for people to come together to have an outlet to share, to listen, to learn, and to go through this together."

For more information about The Sonrise Project, you can visit their website here.

Featured image courtesy of Kelli Richardson Lawson

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Before she was Amira Unplugged, rapper, singer, and a Becoming a Popstar contestant on MTV, she was Amira Daughtery, a twenty-five year-old Georgian, with aspirations of becoming a lawyer. “I thought my career path was going to lead me to law because that’s the way I thought I would help people,” Amira tells xoNecole. “[But] I always came back to music.”

A music lover since childhood, Amira grew up in an artistic household where passion for music was emphasized. “My dad has always been my huge inspiration for music because he’s a musician himself and is so passionate about the history of music.” Amira’s also dealt with deafness in one ear since she was a toddler, a condition which she says only makes her more “intentional” about the music she makes, to ensure that what she hears inside her head can translate the way she wants it to for audiences.

“The loss of hearing means a person can’t experience music in the conventional way,” she says. “I’ve always responded to bigger, bolder anthemic songs because I can feel them [the vibrations] in my body, and I want to be sure my music does this for deaf/HOH people and everyone.”

A Black woman wearing a black hijab and black and gold dress stands in between two men who are both wearing black pants and colorful jackets and necklaces

Amira Unplugged and other contestants on Becoming a Popstar

Amira Unplugged / MTV

In order to lift people’s spirits at the beginning of the pandemic, Amira began posting videos on TikTok of herself singing and using sign language so her music could reach her deaf fans as well. She was surprised by how quickly she was able to amass a large audience. It was through her videos that she caught the attention of a talent scout for MTV’s new music competition show for rising TikTok singers, Becoming a Popstar. After a three-month process, Amira was one of those picked to be a contestant on the show.

Becoming a Popstar, as Amira describes, is different from other music competition shows we’ve all come to know over the years. “Well, first of all, it’s all original music. There’s not a single cover,” she says. “We have to write these songs in like a day or two and then meet with our producers, meet with our directors. Every week, we are producing a full project for people to vote on and decide if they’d listen to it on the radio.”

To make sure her deaf/HOH audiences can feel her songs, she makes sure to “add more bass, guitar, and violin in unique patterns.” She also incorporates “higher pitch sounds with like chimes, bells, and piccolo,” because, she says, they’re easier to feel. “But it’s less about the kind of instrument and more about how I arrange the pattern of the song. Everything I do is to create an atmosphere, a sensation, to make my music a multi-sensory experience.”

She says that working alongside the judges–pop stars Joe Jonas and Becky G, and choreographer Sean Bankhead – has helped expand her artistry. “Joe was really more about the vocal quality and the timber and Becky was really about the passion of [the song] and being convinced this was something you believed in,” she says. “And what was really great about [our choreographer] Sean is that obviously he’s a choreographer to the stars – Lil Nas X, Normani – but he didn’t only focus on choreo, he focused on stage presence, he focused on the overall message of the song. And I think all those critiques week to week helped us hone in on what we wanted to be saying with our next song.”

As her star rises, it’s been both her Muslim faith and her friends, whom she calls “The Glasses Gang” (“because none of us can see!”), that continue to ground her. “The Muslim and the Muslima community have really gone hard [supporting me] and all these people have come together and I truly appreciate them,” Amira says. “I have just been flooded with DMs and emails and texts from [young muslim kids] people who have just been so inspired,” she says. “People who have said they have never seen anything like this, that I embody a lot of the style that they wanted to see and that the message hit them, which is really the most important thing to me.”

A Black woman wears a long, salmon pink hijab, black outfit and pink boots, smiling down at the camera with her arm outstretched to it.

Amira Unplugged

Amira Unplugged / MTV

Throughout the show’s production, she was able to continue to uphold her faith practices with the help of the crew, such as making sure her food was halal, having time to pray, dressing modestly, and working with female choreographers. “If people can accept this, can learn, and can grow, and bring more people into the fold of this industry, then I’m making a real difference,” she says.

Though she didn’t win the competition, this is only the beginning for Amira. Whether it’s on Becoming a Popstar or her videos online, Amira has made it clear she has no plans on going anywhere but up. “I’m so excited that I’ve gotten this opportunity because this is really, truly what I think I’m meant to do.”

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