A heady pulse of dance beats led Roosevelt Brown to park his car on his journey home through Clifton Park on Sunday afternoon.
The thumping music, a fast-paced mixture of disco and soul, drifted from a park stage where six DJs spun records as part of an annual event hosted by Hug Don’t Shoot, a nonprofit run by Val Jenkins. Brown stopped to check out the scene at the “Christmas in July Music Fest” back-to-school giveaway and continued his trip home to Broadway East with a bag of nonperishable food and toys for his granddaughter.
“I was fortunate to be riding past,” said Brown, a lifelong Baltimore resident who hoped to buy a Hug Don’t Shoot T-shirt to promote the organization in his community. Holding up a green plastic bag containing food, he added: “There are more people in the neighborhood who could use this help.”
Jenkins, who started her nonprofit in 2017 after hearing about a fatal shooting in Baltimore, likes to switch up the theme of her annual event. This year’s Christmas in July party featured donations of food and household items separated into red and green plastic bags. Children lined up to pick out toys spread across a table. Parents followed behind, sacks of donated goods slung over their shoulders like Santa Claus.
The fifth-annual event also gave away 20 bikes for school kids and hosted local retail vendors and food trucks. Amazon donated 50 boxes of toys, food and household goods for the back-to-school giveaway.
Hug Don’t Shoot’s mission is to bring positivity and a sense of peace to every neighborhood in Baltimore, Jenkins said. She runs the organization herself and largely on her own dollar. It’s not easy planning events small and large, such as Sunday’s party at Clifton Park. Jenkins relies on a network of roughly 200 volunteers.
Dressed in a hot pink bodysuit and rainbow stickers, Jenkins radiates joy. She waves off handshake greetings and goes straight for the hug.
For someone who is often called on for support, Jenkins recently experienced personal challenges and loss herself. She underwent extensive surgery after a cancer diagnosis and her mother died last week. She continued to plan nonprofit events — including an elementary school fashion show and a makeover for older women living in a senior center — from her hospital bed and while arranging her mother’s funeral.
“It’s hard,” Jenkins said. “I haven’t had time to grieve.”
Grief is abundant in Baltimore, where more than 200 people have been killed in shootings this year, including at least two people killed this weekend.
Demand is high for a shoulder to lean on, a listening ear, or simply a hug. Every time Jenkins thinks about walking away from her nonprofit, someone calls her back. Two weeks ago, Jenkins ran into a woman who told her she planned to die by suicide until she randomly met Jenkins a few months earlier. The woman told Jenkins her hug made her reconsider, Jenkins said.
Like the Hug Don’t Shoot nonprofit, house music is known for its uplifting message, along with its euphoric sound. It was created by legendary DJs in Chicago for a primarily Black and queer nightclub audience. Although house music has been around for decades, it cycled back to mainstream popularity with recent dance albums like Beyoncé’s “Renaissance” and Drake’s “Honestly, Nevermind,” on which he sampled, without credit, local artist Rye Rye and DJ Blaqstarr’s 2007 track “Shake it to the Ground.”
“House music is therapy,” said Glenn Brand, known by his stage name, DJ Technics.
Brand started DJing in Baltimore in the early 1980s as a 10-year-old at a Chuck E. Cheese teen night, he said.
“Baltimore has a rich house music culture. And the best house DJs on the planet,” he said.
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Brand pitched the idea to Jenkins of setting her annual party to a house soundtrack. He recruited Baltimore DJs Geoffery Cee, DJ Knuckles, DJ Chris D, DJ Fella and Mr. Showtyme for Sunday’s set.
Even though Baltimore’s house scene has a loyal audience, there are few venues to frequent ever since Paradox, an iconic club on Russell Street, closed in 2016, said Robert Hector III. Hector, who grew up in Baltimore, is a “house head” who donates and operates generators for house shows.
People both young and old stepped and grooved in front of the Clifton Park bandshell and under a group of trees. Gray storm clouds rolled through the park, kicking up leaves that twirled around revelers who danced in the warm breeze.
“This is the spirit of Baltimore,” said Mayor Brandon Scott, who attended the event along with Police Commissioner Michael Harrison. “I’m happy to be here as the mayor and as a Baltimorean.”
Ujimma Masani was driving through the park on her way to Hamilton when she was attracted by the booming tunes and line of cars flanking the bandshell. Masani decided to stop in with her daughter and granddaughter, who selected a toy from the toy table.
“Look what they gave her!” Masani’s daughter said, placing a box of sparkly shoes into a wagon while her granddaughter jumped along to the beat.