By Mary L. Datcher
IG @mdatcher – 

Growing up in East Moline, Illinois, Kevin Freeman was part of a tight-knit community of friends and family. As a young boy, he admired the working-class culture of ‘water town’ that would one day influence his journey in helping people create resources in the underserved communities throughout the Chicago region.

Freeman is the Executive Director of Neighborhood Heroes, a nonprofit organization founded by Chicago rapper Durk Banks, aka Lil Durk. The organization was founded in 2020 at the beginning of the pandemic, when Lil Durk saw a desperate need to help essential medical workers risking their lives to care for patients plagued with COVID-19. Freeman, a U.S. Marine veteran, and business planning consultant, noticed Durk’s passion for giving back to his community in a positive way.

“Durk was already out here doing the work. He was in the community—involved with back-to-school and holiday events, so when the pandemic hit in the very early stages—he was one of the first individuals to support the essential workers at then-Mercy Hospital”, said Freeman.

Having participated as past President of Robert Morris University Illinois Alumni Association Board of Directors, a former Chairman of the Board for the South Chicago YMCA Metro Chicago, and other nonprofit clients, Freeman wanted to help bring Durk’s vision to life.

Building a Platform for Good

“At that time, Durk and I started having conversations, let’s sit down and figure out how to turn these efforts into a real plan—that’s when we developed Neighborhood Heroes, which is the title from one of his songs. From day one, when we sat down, he made it clear he was passionate about building the nonprofit and wanted to be fully involved versus a person just being a celebrity who has a foundation.”

Over the past ten years, Durk has risen to become one of the most successful and sought-after hip-hop artists in the entertainment business. From his first independent release, his mixtape, I’m Still a Hitta, in 2012, to eight studio albums and 12 mixtape releases later—Durk’s presence is rap history. However, his path hasn’t always been free of drama, and his connection to a Southside gang has made news headlines since he stepped into the music industry.

Freeman admits there is a bias towards the Alamo Records’ recording artist and his past affiliations.

He explains, “One thing I guarantee is that we’re never going to put Durk in a box that society expects rappers and athletes to be in or stay in. Durk is not the same man he was years ago, nor is Kevin Freeman the same person he was years ago. We all grow, and we all develop,” Freeman continues.

“Chicago is so big that it’s small; I’ve been in the nonprofit space, so it just made sense we put our efforts together and once again bring it to life. Durk would tell you; there is a lot of things he experienced growing up that he didn’t have access to; didn’t have the information, and he didn’t have the resources”, Freeman says. “Now, he is where he’s at today, as a person of influence—Durk understands the importance of providing the same resources and opportunities for youth based in the zip codes most neglected.”

Creating Community Partnerships

Neighborhood Heroes have aligned with two Chicago nonprofit organizations that served the Southside for years—Phalanx Family Services, located in the Roseland community, and CHAMPS Mentoring, founded by Vondale Singleton. They created the Durk HBCU College and Career Readiness Cohort. “Both organizations do amazing work. Our job at NH is to work with these organizations and individuals to help enhance their current good work. We’re taking Black young ladies and young men in both organizations. Students shared with us what their passions are because sometimes, as a society, we’re not taking the time to listen to what the youth is passionate about,” Freeman says.

He says the goal for some high school students may not be to attend college but to pursue their passion that can reap benefits that fulfills their dreams.

“Number one, that’s not always realistic; secondly—it may not be the direction one needs to go in and lastly—if you don’t know what you’re passionate about entering college, there is likely a chance students will drop out their first year of school. They cannot disconnect the dots. We must work with our students in the early stages.”

The Founder and CEO of CHAMPS Mentoring, Vondale Singleton, has approximately 400 young men in his program, reaching cities from Chicago, Tulsa, New Orleans, Brooklyn, and others in the country. He says reconnecting with Freeman was a blessing because the two men met through a mutual acquaintance, Tragil Wade-Johnson–philanthropist and sister of NBA Hall of Famer, Dwyane Wade. 

Singleton says the collaboration between CHAMPS Mentoring and Neighborhood Heroes has given the young men a sense of identity. “Some of them have been stuck in a two-mile radius and have not traveled beyond this. They have never flown on a plane; it’s their first chance to be around other positive young men and more accessibility to reach their goals. Many of them would tell me it was the best trip in their lives.” He says, “This allows me to realize the workaround mentorship and collaboration are necessary to change the narrative. Our program encompasses—education, empowerment, and exposure.”

Chicago is so big that it’s small; I’ve been in the nonprofit space, so it just made sense we put our efforts together and once again bring it to life.

A Seat at the Table

This past October, Neighborhood Heroes brought a group of scholars to Atlanta for an opportunity to sit down with executives from the Atlanta Hawks. Freeman says, ‘Execs that shared their stories looked like the students, thus making the experience genuine for students.”

“Many of these students expressed interest in sports and entertainment, but it’s more than just being the next Lil Durk; it’s more than being the next LeBron James. There are so many other opportunities than being the artist and the athlete. Now they can sit at a roundtable with executives who play a vital role behind the scenes. From senior management who write the checks for these athletes, and the IT staff who handles technology, to the marketing division who ensure the brand collateral is out there—it opened their minds,” says Freeman.

The group had an opportunity to visit Morehouse College, Spelman College, and Clark University during their visit to Atlanta to experience the possibility of campus life up close and personal. In addition, the group went on a tour of Talladega College in Talladega, Alabama. 

“We concluded our trip with NASCAR, one of our participating partners, ” Freeman says. Although NASCAR is associated with being predominately white-owned, the organization has made changes in hiring African Americans in senior-level positions. “Both NASCAR and the Chicago Blackhawks have offered internship opportunities to our students to create a pipeline for employment.”

In April, NH will travel with a group of student participants to Washington, DC. They will have a full schedule of activities, including visiting Howard University. During their visit, a special announcement will include an endowment for students attending HBCU institutions in the name of Durk Banks.

Freeman says, “We raised $350,000 on our own. Our goal for this endowment is to allow these same Chicago students who are going through our cohort to know they have some financial support while attending college.”

“I look at Durk, and he goes from sleeping on an air mattress to sleeping on a private jet. It didn’t happen overnight. Durk is 30 years old and I’m kissing 50. This young man inspires me. Durk is the only one I’ve worked with, with the best work ethic. To be in the studio for countless hours and turnaround to be in Zoom meetings in the day is mind-blowing,”

Freeman continues, “That inspires me—that inspires the rest of our team. We have an amazing board of directors, and each is an expert on the subject matter in their space and industry. The energy they give motivates me, and this is on a volunteer basis. They know at the end of the day; it’s positively impacting families.”

Revisions were made to this article(3/29/23): Corrected name, Vondale Singleton; Lil Durk is not on Def Jam Recording and Neighborhood Heroes has raised $350,000 since this article was published.