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Sporting surgical masks, cloth masks, and an Elmo head mask, the Positive Movement Entertainment drumline this weekend marched through South Philly streets and went viral — again.
Drumline founder Tony “Tone” Royster, who is the subject of a newly-released documentary, said the well-received excursion almost didn’t happen. The troupe had recently been at the receiving end of some social media hate, he told Billy Penn, and had been stopped by police because of coronavirus restrictions when marching in Germantown earlier.
Royster decided to go for it anyway. “Something was like, ‘Let’s just march two blocks and see how it goes.’”
During that impromptu jaunt, Positive Movement Entertainment was so warmly welcomed by the quiet South Philly enclave they visited, the group ended up marching down nine blocks. Neighbors on both sides of the street hung out of their houses and slid boxes of money across the pavement to make socially distant donations, Royster said.
“As soon as we marched that first block,” he said, “everybody was coming out and everybody was giving us so much energy.”
Afterward, the drumline was met with a card and a $20 donation from a woman whose husband had been tested for COVID-19. “Listening to you drum and watching you dance made me happier than I’ve been in days.” she wrote.
The card was signed “Love, Your Neighbor,” which Royster said touched him deeply.
“I’m not even gonna take the money out,” he said. “I’m gonna leave it in there and I’m gonna laminate it, and that’s gonna be my motivation forever.”
Royster, now 30, founded PME in 2014 to provide a constructive outlet for young people in Philly who might otherwise be drawn in by the allure of street life. The troupe and its Elmo-wearing drum major went viral playing at a Kensington scrapyard fire in July 2018.
Before that, though, their work caught the eye of Tim Harris, an executive producer and director at the Philly-based Seven Knots Film & Media. Late last week, Seven Knots dropped an 8-minute film called “Mr. Y Not” about Royster and his drumline, bringing its subject to tears.
“I was so humbled,” Royster said. “After the documentary dropped, just to see all the good feedback, it just touched me, way more than it ever did before.”
‘Put down the guns, pick up some drums’
Sometimes his drumline doesn’t get the best feedback, Royster noted, especially from social media commenters. His troupe of about half a dozen youth has had a tough time finding a place to practice — or even getting more kids to join.
“At times, it makes it discouraging,” he said, but that’s never stopped him before.
“Mr. Y Not” puts a zoom lens on Royster’s optimism, which persists despite his tough journey. He grew up in Philadelphia’s now-demolished Pulaski Town housing project, was part of the now-defunct Germantown High School drill team, and then went on to found PME.
Seven Knots’ documentary was selected for the local Media Film Festival and the national American Documentary Film Festival, but both were postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic. So Harris and his team, including cinematographer Austin Smock and audio engineer Eric Carbonara, decided to release the film online.
Harris met the film’s bubbly subject four years ago while attending a party where Royster and his PME drumline were performing.
“They led us on a march from this house in Kensington to a bar in Fishtown,” Harris told Billy Penn. “Tone had so much energy, and they were chanting, ‘Put down the guns, pick up some drums.’ I was like, ‘Man there has to be something more to their story.’”
There certainly was more. In just a few minutes “Mr. Y Not,” delves into Royster’s difficult upbringing and the challenges he continues to experience in his quest to use drumming to save lives.
“Basically where I come from is…the heart of negativity,” Royster says in the film. “I was left behind and trying to catch up.”
He turned to drumming to escape that environment, but the journey from there hasn’t been a straight one. Royster, who did not receive a high school diploma, has at times foregone employment and endured poverty to keep PME going. His sacrifice is one of the film’s biggest takeaways, Harris said.
“The thing that originally struck me about Tone is this is a guy [who’s] chosen passion over basic things he needs for survival,” Harris said, “and that’s resulted in trying to change the city and the world and, on a microlevel, these kids.”
Harris hopes Royster’s story makes people ask: “If you follow what you love doing, could you make a greater impact on the world than if you just focused on the things you need to do to survive?”