Rashiyah Dennis was 13 years old and thinking of suicide.
The petite Philly eighth grader was tired of always getting picked on at school. The thought of facing the bullies who made fun of her size and her braces-inflected smile was making her sick — to the extent that she often faked physical illness to stay home.
“She started pretending like she was sick to miss school,” music manager Vera Sawyer told Billy Penn, “and started to think about hurting herself.”
Sawyer runs hip-hop trio The Royal Mix, of which Dennis is part. Though the up-and-coming girl group has been making a splash, with performances on local TV and numerous Philadelphia festivals, Dennis — stage name Bronze — had become more and more agitated by her classmates’ bullying.
“It really affected her because she didn’t get why [her size] was a big deal,” Sawyer said.
Nearly 1 in 5 students in urban areas like Philadelphia report being bullied, according to the National Center for Education. Per those stats, bullying has actually declined nationwide over the past decade, from a high of 29% in 2005. But it certainly still happens. Black students are bullied at about the same rate as white students, both more than Latinx students.
For Dennis, things eventually reached a fever pitch and she got into a physical fight with one of her bullies at G.W. Childs Elementary School, a boy. But by that time, she’d been equipped and empowered to stand up.
By that time, Bronze was a Royal Geek.
Viewed more than 10,000 times so far, Royal Geek is a professionally produced and directed bit that Sawyer orchestrated to show kids what could happen when bullying catches on. More than just a good idea — the video itself is good.
The dance moves? Fire. The outfits, styled by Philly’s own Ayasa Af? Super cute. The acting? Seriously Oscar worthy. You’d never know that the flick, filmed in one 10-hour day, was full of kids who’d never acted before.
From bullied to empowered, thanks to new friends
Starring alongside Dennis were her Royal Mix singing mates Giselle Martin, aka Gigi, Saniyah Babb, aka Jaye. Babb was also bullied for her braces, which made Royal Geek a deeply personal project, Sawyer said.
The group started researching anti-bullying resources and techniques, gathering numbers to call and organizations to reach out to. They were also heartbroken: the girls learned the country’s youngest bullying suicide victim was just six years old.
“They were moved to tears,” Sawyer said.
About 15 girls studied lines and dance moves for upwards of six weeks to prep for one intense shooting day. The video was directed by Peterr Parkkerr, a filmmaker who’s worked with local actors and rappers like Gillie da Kidd, Mystikal and Eva Marcille.
The result was a total success, that’s been met with thunderous acclaim from the girls’ peers and beyond.
“They’re both doing a lot better,” Sawyer said of Dennis and Babb, “and their confidence is through the roof.”
It’s hard, Sawyer observed, to bully girls who’ve become some of the most popular in school for their work. Babb even felt empowered enough to approach her bully directly to address the problem on her own.
The Royal Mix performed at Christmas Village last week and will be at the City Hall tree lighting ceremony on Wednesday. They’ve traveled as far as Houston to perform at conferences and their ode to Air Jordans, called “Reppin’ 23,” has been viewed more than 400,000 times on YouTube.
But the Royal Geek has had more impact than any of their other fame. “Now they really are advocates,” Sawyer noted. Babb stood up for a student who was being bullied in real time in front of the whole class — and was pleasantly surprised when other students jumped in to help.
“They just really want to share that message,” Sawyer said, “and put out there that it’s okay to be uniquely you.”