On a cold night in January this year, Daquan Lawrence sat on a metal bench in his small cell at a South End police station.
Staring at the ceiling, he shut his eyes to avoid the bright florescent lights—and his reality. He had just been arrested on charges of possessing crack cocaine with the intent to distribute. It was just one more bust to add to a laundry list of drug charges.
But this time, Lawrence says, as he put his head down and stayed quiet, he realized something had to change.
Just 18, Lawrence has spent almost a third of his life in Department of Youth Services correction centers for various drug-related crimes. But ever since that moment, he says he has stayed away from the street’s temptations that have too long pulled him back into the system.
Instead, he’s focused on his newfound love of the arts, specifically creating rap music and acting. He now puts on headphones, steps behind the microphone, and begins to flow, using his rapping as a way to escape the past and look toward a better future.
"Gotta work with ya hands, can’t expect a handout, over stand normality and still strive to standout…”
Lawrence was about 5 when he moved into his grandmother’s Mattapan home. His parents both struggled with drugs.
Charlesetta Hobson always knew her grandson was bright. He’d tag along to church every week with his now 84-year-old Nana. Sunday school teachers would pass out Bible verses on tiny slips of paper to memorize for the next week.
“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want….”
He’d already know the verse by the time they got home.
But somewhere between heading to church and school, Lawrence’s path took a different turn in the sixth grade.
“I blame a lot on me,” Hobson sighed. “He was to be in at eight. He outsmarted me. If I went to bed at nine, then he'd slip out. That's how he got into trouble.”
By the time he was 12, Lawrence started spending time with older neighborhood kids. The fast lifestyle of his new group started to look appealing.
“That’s when I thought I was tough,” Lawrence said. “Thought I was bad. I started to hang out with the kids who liked to smoke.”
Lawrence soon found himself smoking marijuana, too. He used it as an excuse to get out of his house and onto the tough streets and he began selling to cover his needs.
“I wanted to get money to support smoking weed,” Lawrence said. “I’m like, ‘Okay, I can do that instead of asking my grandmother for money all the time and getting mad when she’d say no.’”
He quickly became a fixture on the Mattapan streets. When he wasn’t selling weed, he was watching movies like "The Godfather" and listening to rap music from the likes of 50 Cent.
“I just loved to be in the streets,” he said. “I used to wanna be a gangster so bad for the influence.”
“Acceleration in the process of the progress, born to value from success, just to be the best…”
One night, walking home from a friend’s house after playing video games, Lawrence was stopped by police. He smelled of weed. Cops cuffed and booked the 13-year-old for the first time.
“I was so high,” he said. “I didn’t remember until they started searching me.”
The memories of being arrested would quickly blend together. Between 2007 and 2011, he was arrested nine times on weed and cocaine-related charges, he said. His address shifted from DYS center to DYS center.
“You had a little room cell,” he said of the living quarters. “You had your bunk bed right there and a little counter. It smelled real cold.”
He passed the time watching TV, looking forward to his favorite meal-- chicken wings, rice, garlic bread and juice-- and tried to keep to himself. He bounced in and out of what he calls “the system” throughout his teens.
“The last time I got locked up I was 17, and I was on the verge of catching my first adult case,” he said.
That was in January when Lawrence realized that this wasn’t the life he wanted. He knew he could do better. There had to be a way out.
“Every moment I was locked up I was really still and really thinking,” he said. “It was either make it or die.”
“It’s the strive from within inside that reveal the pride, but the message from the sky that show me the guide…”
Lawrence already knew what his ticket to a different life was—the arts. He started rapping at 16 when a non-profit named Genuine Voices came to the Elliot Hillside Detention Center in Roxbury. Officials from the program set up a makeshift recording studio in a staff meeting room. Lawrence knew he had found something when he spotted the microphone, the guitar, and the piano. He caught on fast.
“When I first heard him he blew me away,” said Lawrence’s former music teacher Oliver Jacobson. “He’s an amazing freestyler. He would just go and it would just come to him and flow.”
Jacobson, who was studying for his music therapy degree at Berklee College of Music, worked closely with Lawrence. For six months in 2011, they played the guitar together and wrote songs. While the writing process didn’t come as naturally to Lawrence as freestyling did, Jacobson knew he was a natural.
“He has the ability to turn that fire on,” the 24-year-old Jacobson said.
Lawrence picked a nickname for his new persona--True.
“He personifies his name,” Jacobson said. “Given what he’s gone through, he just keeps moving.”
Lawrence loved creating music. It provided a chance for him to be unique.
“I wouldn’t want to rap like everyone else or say something real negative,” he said. “I wanted to have something positive. I’d write about what I was learning from this experience.”
He began looking forward to the weekly sessions when the program would visit the center. Various instructors would drop in, helping Lawrence develop by giving him pointers on his rapping. He’d sometimes work with other kids in the DYS system. They’d perform as a group of two or three—someone on the guitar, another on the keyboard. Lawrence was always placing the headphones, emblazoned with skulls, into his ears as he stepped behind the microphone. Closing his eyes, he’d zone out.
Word quickly spread about his talent.
"I heard from the different teachers 'this kid is doing great, he's really talented,” said Genuine Voice’s president and founder, Juri Love.
It was around that time that Lawrence was set to perform at a local multicultural festival. Despite it being his first performance, he says he wasn’t nervous.
The event was held on a rainy day outside near Boston’s City Hall. Waiting for the storm to pass at a nearby Starbucks, Love and Lawrence traded life stories. During the hour-long conversation, Love was most struck by Lawrence’s focus. She thought that he was different from other kids.
“I thought he'd get out and do very well,” she said. When he got busted again for drugs, she said, she was caught by surprise.
Lawrence was back in the system and back to refocusing on his craft.
“I looked at it as practice,” he said. “I feel some of the best music comes from struggle that eventually gets turned into triumph.”
“At the same time, we are leaders, overachievers, once was stuck in the vision and precision of believers, keep looking up to the sky, you keep flowin’, never stop in the dark, you are glowing…”
Lawrence was released from the DYS in August. He’s back at his grandmother’s home now, determined, he says, not to revert to his old lifestyle.
“A lot of people I used to hang out with I don’t anymore,” he said. “I’ve become more conscious about what happens when I hang with certain people.”
“Every day and every minute,” Hobson says. “He's trying to figure out what he should accomplish.”
But where music used to fill his day, Lawrence has recently decided to try his hand at acting. His first role was as Romeo in a DYS production of "Romeo and Juliet." On stage, he just focused on the moment.
“I wish I could just go there every day,” he says about his weekly acting classes at a local school. But the lessons don’t come cheap. His Saturday acting lessons cost $320 a month, which Lawrence pays for out of his first job. He began working as a canvasser to solicit donations for political groups during election season and now goes door-to-door seeking new business for an energy company.
“It feels like I’ve been productive in every way,” he said. ”Before I used to say ‘I don’t need a job, I can drug deal.’ I feel like right now, it’s real right for me. A job is meaningful.”
His former teacher Jacobson thinks that Lawrence has come too far to take a step backwards.
“If he gets caught again then he’s going to go to big-boy prison, and he knows that if that happens he can’t make music,” Jacobson said.
Hobson‘s voice breaks anytime she talks about her grandson. Her Daquan got his GED and has even mentioned college.
“I’m just crossing my fingers and trusting in God that it’ll work out,” Hobson said. “I’m just so proud of him.”
Through everything, Lawrence keeps writing, keeps rapping, keeps listening, keeps acting. He’s not exactly sure where his future will take him, but he’s determined that it’ll be a mission of helping others who have been in similar situations.
“It’s taught me to have a direction, to have a goal, be the best you can be,” he said about his journey. “If I wouldn’t have went through what I went through, I wouldn’t be as strong.”
This article is being published under an arrangement between the Boston Globe and Emerson College.