Editor’s Note: This interview with Jarrel Phillips took place in July 2011, two hours prior to his departure for Zanzibar, Tanzania, Africa. Phillips is the Zanzibar Stone Town Capoeira (ZSTC) project manager and AVE founder. Within a period of three months the Zanzibar Stone Town Capoeira Project raised $15,000 to bring professional/master instructors to train with the ZSTC youth this summer in Zanzibar to further strengthen their skills in each discipline (Capoeira, acrobatics, and break dance). 

By Christine Joy Ferrer

I see him. Surrounded by 4-5 year olds, a pandeiro (tambourine) in hand, chanting a Capoeira song in almost-perfect Portuguese. He’s teaching the children how to play Capoeira at AcroSports in San Francisco. He smiles and laughs as they circle up in a Roda and ginga, , rolê, cocorinha and negativa. There’s no place else he’d rather be.

Jarrel Phillips, a 24-year-old small, young black man with ‘locks almost down to his shoulders, is a child and adolescent development major at San Francisco State University. Phillips has been working with youth since the age of 14—and traversed almost every neighborhood in San Francisco, serving a vast community of youth from a wide-range of cultural and socio-economic backgrounds.

Phillips teaches Capoeira, basic tumbling, gymnastics, and works with special needs children as head coach of the preschool department at AcroSports. He also teaches Capoeira to middle and high school teens at the International Studies Academy. Phillips started learning Capoeira in the early ’90s. Since 2008, he’s trained under Mestre Urubu Malandro of Capoeira Ijexá.

I’ve yet to meet another twenty-something more passionate about youth, arts, and culture, who’s taken on various roles in pursuit of his aspirations, whether it be a counselor, teacher, coach, mentor, etc.

I would have never guessed that Phillips has also lived one hell of a past. In another life, his uncontrolled revelry meant engaging in reckless behavior. He found himself in the wrong situations at the wrong times, on the other end of  a loaded gun, and witnessed many a friend shot and or murdered. Growing up on the streets of Fillmore in San Francisco, he’s seen a number of illicit things and taken part in activities he’d rather not speak of.

Yet, here he is—a transformed man, sitting next to me, driving to the airport on his second journey to Africa.

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Christine Joy Ferrer: What saved your life?
Jarrel Phillips:
Capoeira and my future.

I should’ve been dead by now.  But my life wasn’t a struggle. I wasn’t dealt a bad deck of cards. I had both parents in my life. I just made a lot of stupid choices. What changed me were those life threatening incidents that kept happening over and over again in a small period of time.  Because I made it out of those situations in one piece, I like to believe I’m here for a reason and hope to make all my actions meaningful.

As I was slowly leaving that crazy, hazardous lifestyle, I started Capoeira. I did it for a few months, then a couple friends got shot, one killed, one paralyzed. So much was going on. I stopped. After another few months, I decided to start Capoeira again. I reunited with the same master I had trained with as a little kid, Urubu, which I don’t think is coincidence.

After a couple weeks, I realized how much I really loved Capoeira. It was my escape. When I quit my previous lifestyle cold turkey, I trained 7 days a week. In exchange for sponsoring a youth to have a Capoeira uniform, Urubu let me train for free until I could get back on my feet.

Everything in my life revolves around Capoeira. It introduced me to Barrett, my co-partner on this project. It has me going back to Africa, has me in performances, opened many doors, and connected me with amazing individuals.

CJF: This is your second trip to Africa. On your previous visit, what is the first thing that comes to mind?
Each morning I woke up in Ethiopia, I’d go outside and the children would run to me from a block away and scream, “Johnnie, Johnnie!” They couldn’t say “Rel” or “Jarrel,” so they’d call me “Johnnie.” And we’d play soccer. We would talk, dance… I’d flip for them. They would share their stories. I’d share mine. I was just chillin’ with these positive people.

CJF: How did you get your Capoeira nickname, “Chumbinho?”
Urubu gave me the name two years ago. It means “little bullet” in Portuguese, or “made out of lead.” I’m flat-footed, heavy, but small, and I’d like to believe I’m fast. I do wanna’ get this “bullet butt-head” in the Roda one day.

CJF: If you had 15 minutes, how many flips do you think you could do in that allotted time?
Phillips: A million! Hah! No… probably 200 if I had to.

CJF: What is it that inspires and motivates you?
The opportunity to do. I relish it.

CJF: From the living and the dead, who would you most like to have a conversation with?
Phillips: Tupac. Despite how the media portrayed him, yes, he was an individual who saw a lot and did a lot of stuff he had no business doing, but he had a mindset that I truly believed could have changed the world. He connected with at-risk, urban youth and adults who needed guidance. He was on to something before he got caught up in the rap limelight and hood life. I want to ask him, what would he have done differently? Why did he approach situations the way he did? His mother was a black panther. He had a doctrine for black communities that would have influenced positive change.

CJF: Why do you believe in AVE?
I’m on a constant journey to find myself, but I also want to help others find themselves. And when I say self, I mean purpose. AVE can mean a lot of things. Access Via Exposure, Arts Via Education, Artieum Educar, Avenues, Experiences… My mom use to tell me that growing up, I learned through experience, which I know is not always a good thing. Kids go after what they want and have playful attitudes in life, until they’re tainted by exposure to negativity, or told that they can’t do something. It takes away their innocence that allows them to listen to their heart. I’m hoping to create and expose youth to meaningful experiences using different avenues through arts and education that will positively impact their lives.  I want to especially focus on Black youth, and then branch out to connect with other communities and cultures, whether here or abroad.

CJF: Tell me about the Zanzibar Stones Town Capoeira youth and how did they change your life?
ZSTC started with a dream. They saw this Capoeira movie that they liked and wanted to do what they saw. So, they trained on their own—all day, every day, whenever they could. They chased their dream. I’m just doing what they did, going after something that started as an idea. I was inspired by what I saw in them, and now this project is manifesting into reality. If you come at things with a good heart, good intentions and take action, things happens.

CJF: What song do you currently have on repeat?
Oh, I usually have a few. But one of them is by Konshens, “Realist Song.” The last verse, talks about waking up everyday and no matter what being happy. And thanking God, or whoever is you believe in, for another day.

CJF: You and your family roll deep. What’s it like having a family that truly supports the work that you do?
To be honest, I’m so use to my family always being there that I take them for granted sometimes.  But sitting back and thinking about it now, it’s dope. I have never had my family not show up or support what I do. I honestly don’t know anything else. It makes me want to do my best to support them as well. I always know that I can call someone in my family, or ask if I need anything, like a ride to school in 10 minutes, and they’re there.

CJF: What’s the first thing you want to do once you get to Zanzibar?
Phillips: Flip [Laughs]. I also want to go and talk to the father of one of the Zanzibar Stone Town Capoeira crew members. He stopped his son from training.  He believes there’s no future in performing arts. I’m not trying to change his mind, but I want to show him a different perspective. I want to explain what an opportunity this is for us to train with his son. We’ll support his son if he’s down to allow us to.

CJF: If you were to die tomorrow, what do you want to go down in history known for?
Phillips: Going after what I believed and what I wanted. And, that I lived.  I hope others can do the same.

CJF: What would you like to do that you haven’t already done?
I want to bring as many people as I can to Africa that haven’t gone—to see a different black people, in a communal, positive light—to see them speaking multi-languages, with college degrees—hopefully, this will change their lives and open their eyes. I wish I could have brought my friends who were killed years ago to Africa, especially my friend Adriel. Maybe it could have changed his life and he’d still be here today.


Keep checking back for updates on the ZSTC Project Documentary Reel Part II, coming soon. Those part of the ZSTC project are blessed to have had the support of Capoeira Ijexá, Sons of Cayuga, and the AcroSports community, donations by local sponsors and community businesses, the hundreds of believers who’ve raised awareness about the phenomenal talent of the ZSTC and the change out of people’s pockets. To read more about the ZSTC project visit www.zanzibarstc.org and watch the ZSTC Project Documentary Preview Reel. Like it on Facebook.

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