Vertez Bennings grew up in Barton Village, a once decent, middle-class Augusta neighborhood of brick homes where children filled the streets.
Drugs and decay have seeped into Barton Village, keeping children inside.
Now, several groups are waging war against crime and blight in Barton Village, including a group of young performers who call themselves Barton Village Soldiers.
"Barton Village is the combat zone. We call it the combat zone because of all the drama that happens out there, all the shootings and drugs. We remember when you could go outside and just chill, but you can't do that now," said Mr. Bennings, a 25-year-old songwriter for the group.
"In Barton Village there are soldiers," says Mr. Bennings. "Soldiers die, they get shot, they have babies. There are male soldiers, women soldiers and little-kid soldiers. People who fight and struggle and survive, those are soldiers."
Mr. Bennings along with Creta Parks, John Henry and Tim Granger form the group, which also goes by the name Millionairz `N Playaz.
Ms. Parks, 22, provides the gospel and R&B sound while Mr. Bennings and Mr. Henry, 25, rap and write the lyrics. Mr. Granger, a former recording artist with nationally known B-Rock and the Biz, does the producing and lays the tracks.
They have known each other since they were 9 or 10 years old, Mr. Bennings said. But they didn't start performing together until 1994.
Although the group's music reflects a life surrounded by violence, crime and single-parent households, Mr. Bennings says it's also positive.
"We write about reality, how we live and what we see," he said. "We can't write about having mansions, Bentleys or Rolex watches. We write about one black man coming out the pen, and 50 more go in. That's what we see every day.
"It's not about killing. We promote nonviolence. It's for the family to enjoy," he said. "We're trying to unite people and want people to stop bringing each other down. We're about giving police less work to do."
Members of the group know the meaning of struggle, Mr. Bennings said. They've produced and promoted themselves for four years. They don't have a manager, nor do they have a company to distribute their music. So they do that themselves as well, he said.
Along with producer Curtis Tolbert, group members saved their money to form Combat Zone Productions as well as their own record label, Franchise I Salute Records, under which they recently released an album, Self-Employed.
Two songs from the album, She's Ma Daddy and Barton Village Soldiers, have received air time on Augusta radio stations WFXA-FM and WIIZ-FM.
She's Ma Daddy is perhaps the most popular of the two. Though some might get caught up in the smooth, head-bouncing beats, the lyrics deliver a powerful commentary on the trend toward single-parent households.
The group has been traveling and performing in several states, including Connecticut, Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Georgia. Its most recent coup was a Feb. 7 concert with nationally recognized hip-hop acts, including Da Organization and Ruff Neck DJ.
"We've been underground for six years. It's all about being positive and knowing that we're going to make it one day," said Mr. Bennings.
"We're looking for a big-time distributor like Priority Records or whoever is willing to pay for this because we know our stuff is going gold and platinum. We're not dropping nothing but home-run hits. We're ready for the big leagues. I'm telling you this music for the millennium."
We've been underground for six years. It's all about being positive and knowing that we're going to make it one day.Vertez Bennings
To Here the Barton Village Soldiers, call Infoline at 442-4444 and press 8100. You'll here part of the song She's Ma Daddy.
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