“It takes a village to raise a child,” is an adage that describes the heart of two women in the local community affectionately known as “Mamma Hazze” and “Mama Whiz.”
For Melba Gilkey, the name “Mamma Hazze” was what the neighborhood kids called her as they first flocked to her house on Fox Street in San Fernando wanting to learn how to dance Hip Hop like her then 12-year-old son Carl.
“Parents would come by to see what was going on, especially when their kids would come home trying to spin on their heads,” she laughed. Her son Carl was not only a talented dancer but by age 15 worked at a radio station as a mix master and he later literally spun into his current career as “DJ Hazze” which has provided him with work around the world.
“As I grew up people would continuously knock on our door,” said Carl. “My Mom asked me, ‘What’s going on here?’ Then she asked me, ‘What do you want to do?” And I told her that I want to start a youth center and give something that we didn’t have and my Mom went into the community to find out all the information we needed to get going to start a non-profit organization. She did that.”
Neighborhood kids would dance by the side of their house and like her son, Mamma Hazze could see that bigger and better space was needed not only dancing but for what naturally became mentoring and the Hazze Hip Hop Culture Dream Center was formally born.
This year will mark 19 years for the center with hundreds of kids “locking, popping and breaking” not only learning how to dance but and the positive culture of hip hop.
Carl said that Mamma Hazze not only helped him realize his dream but the dreams of many other young people in the community. “I owe her great gratitude and people have told us that we helped to save their lives. The center has dancers who have built their own careers by competing internationally and like DJ Hazze have traveled the world.
When Carl is traveling, it’s Mamma Hazze who is picking up people and holding classes. They have found that you never know what door can open. One of their street dancers performing on the 3rd Street Promenade was spotted by Mel Gibson, who put him in one of his films. There are also those who have chosen the Hazze Hip Hop Center over gangs.
For Mamma Hazze, who is never one to take big credit or a bow, she shares her recent moment of joy when being out in the community she heard a youngster in the grocery store calling out to her. “The little boy said ‘Hi teacher, Hi Mamma.’ I thought how nice that he sees me and thinks of me as his teacher or as Mamma.”
She’s also taking great joy in seeing the athleticism of the art form being recognized, “For the first time in this year’s junior Summer Olympics there is a competition for Hip Hop,” she said.
She’s always known as someone who sings the praises of others while she’s really the one you can count on. Her phone rings when folks are shorthanded and in need of volunteers, and while volunteering, she’s ready to reach into her pocket to make her own donation. While she can now be considered a senior citizen, without fanfare, she’s out there picking up trash during community clean up days. She has expanded the work at the Hazze Center to promote the spoken word with events that highlight free expression, music and poetry that she calls, “Mental Mondays.”
Pierre Ivan Arreola has learned much from both Mamma Hazze, the Hazze Hip Hop Center and from Mama Whiz.
He calls these two Mammas “very humble people who are in truth, powerful community-centric women who have over the years thrown out many life lines.
“They taught me the principals of making something from nothing,” he said. “We learned that if we each pitched in ten dollars, we could pay to put on an event.”
Pierre, now a graduate from Brown University, found a home with Mama Whiz and her two sons Lorenzo and Eric Chapman, after his own family kicked him out while he was a senior in high school.
“I was on the wrestling team at San Fernando High School with the Chapman brothers and when they told Mama Whiz I was homeless, she let me stay with them.”
Since they were little boys, the Chapman brothers had been going to the Hazze Center with their Dad, Lorenzo Chapman who had fondness for break dancing back in the 80’s growing up in Pacoima. “Back then there wasn’t a positive view about it and we’d get tickets for dancing in the street,” said Mama Whiz. At the Hazze Center, I could see the positive results that it brought.’
Her sons formed their own dance crew they named, “The Whiz Kids,” and then naturally their parents were called Papa Whiz and Mama Whiz. Their home became known as a “dojo” as a safe place to practice similarly to the early years at the home of Mamma Hazze, their house was used as a place to practice.
“Hazze and the older boys mentored my sons and I saw such a positive outcome from the hip hop culture and so I welcomed them, because I saw such good results and it was a great outcome instead of being in the streets where we live in Pacoima. And it just became the dojo,” Mama Whiz said.
“After my husband (Claudio “Larry” Chapman, aka Pap Whiz) died it became part of his legacy that we wanted to continue even more.”
Mama Whiz, who also works for legal aid services in the community, taught her sons that if you want to improve your community, it starts with you.
Both Mamma Hazze and Mama Whiz are quick to offer compliments to the other one.
“After her husband Lorenzo died, Mama Whiz didn’t skip a beat, and she kept bringing the boys to the center and while at first she might not have been as into the scene as her husband, she supported it and from that experience, she supported the efforts of her sons with Pierre and now others in forming and building the organization, GR818ERS (pronounced ‘Great-one-eighters),” said Mamma Hazze of her counterpart.
“We always go to the same events and see each other across the room and smile knowing that we are both still here,” said Mama Whiz. “Mamma Hazze has done so much.”
Since it’s inception, the GR818ERS has expanded the center of the hip hop culture to offer components for graffiti art, community organizing, academics, athletics and a wrestling club. Mama Whiz is the glue for the organization.
“The boys came up with the idea because a lot of the events my husband would take them to were quite a distance away, so they wanted to start an organization in the valley. As a mom it’s so great to see, they made it real.”
They have incorporate their love of hip hop and have opened the door up even wider to build on what they learned at the Hazze Hip Hop Center.
“Maybe not everyone wants to be a dancer, maybe they may want to learn how to do something else, maybe even run an organization, so we mentor the kids and have them set up events and they learn how to do that and by offering more we can reach out to every kid.
“My community has always been important to me. I believe if you want to see positivity around you, it starts with you and I’ve always said that to them. I wanted to make sure my kids understood that and ask them what are you doing for your community?”
Both of her sons, now grown men are working in jobs that are meaningful for them and connected to their early lessons.
“It’s because of what was first started that lives have been saved,” said Carl (DJ Hazze). “Many have come back to us to tell us that. Pappa Whiz said he didn’t want to see his two boys get into gangs, so he brought them to our center and those youngsters started the GR818ERS which is now really a movement that includes the GR818ERS juniors.”
There are now four generations, that began with the support of Mamma Hazze that have come through the center and has expanded spread with the GR818ERS.
One of the dancers that Hazze calls a “little brother” is now considered one of the best hip hop dancers in the world. So many are doing well. Arreola now works at the Los Angeles Human Relations Commission in downtown Los Angeles.
“ Can you believe that I almost turned down my opportunity to go to an Ivy League school, but they encouraged me to go. Mamma Hazze and Mama Whiz are gems in the community, holding it down in the valley. They’ve even helped me to reconcile with my own biological mother.” said Arreola.
“They saw past who were were, they see what we can become.”