Ashshahid Muhammad, 39, originally from Memphis, grew up in the streets for many years, before eventually finding himself through art.
At the age of 13, Shadid, as most call him, was involved in a robbery. He was convicted and sentenced to eight years in prison but only served six.
He said once out, he continued the street life of selling drugs until one day when things didn’t go as planned.
“At age 21, I got shot in my head, and at that point it changed my life,” he said.
Because of the bullet wound, Shadid lost his right eye and now uses a glass eye.
He said he felt as though he failed in life and turned to using drugs, some of which were the same ones he had sold. He became homeless, and eventually started traveling across the eastern coast of the United States.
“It took about 10 years for me to mentally and emotionally look in the mirror and say, ‘It happened. You can’t change it.’”
“I was lost. I was trying to find myself, but I didn’t know how. I didn’t even know why I was running,” he said. “In my travels, I started noticing art in places like New York and I knew I could draw so I started drawing.”
Shadid drew a lot as a child and reconnected with the art after he had been shot.
“I found myself when I found art,” he said. “I knew who I was. I knew I was an artist.”
Shadid said he learned from street artists.
“Once I started seeing it I started to become more passionate about it.”
Now no longer homeless and having a positive influence in the community through a social art organization called Poverty and the Arts, Shadid likes to draw sketches of people and emotions, things he saw when he was in the streets, and other things related to that time in his life.
THE ROAD ENDS in NASHVILLE
Shadid moved to Nashville in 2012.
Before Tennessee, he was incarcerated in Atlanta and came face to face with a possible 10-year sentence. Being represented by a public defender, he asked the lawyer if the judge would consider letting him go with the promise of never returning to the state of Georgia.
“The judge started laughing, but he said ok, and he told me to never come back,” he said. “By my traveling, I knew all the big cities and in those cities, I drowned. I couldn’t swim because the drugs were everywhere.”
Shadid said he had been to Nashville before and knew of a nonprofit organization named Room In The Inn, which helps the homeless.
“With Room In The Inn, I saw a genuine love to really want to help people, so I said that’s where I’m going. I’m going back to Nashville.”
While at Room In The Inn, Shadid started to participate in programs offered and then found himself applying what he was learning. He said he asked himself, “Is it time for me to stop running? Or is it time for me to grow up and be a man?”
In 2013, he answered that question and decided to go to school.
Initially, Shadid didn’t pass the Pre-GED test when he took it at TSU. He was about to say forget it when his teacher from the course called him about a month later.
“She called and told me not to give up,” he said. “So I tried again and passed.”
After getting his GED, Shadid set his heights higher toward a college degree and enrolled into Nossi College of Art in the winter of 2014.
By going to school, Shadid learned a deeper aspect of art.
“I learned there are principles to art and colors mean something,” he said. “I used to think people who went to school and got degrees were arrogant but now I understand you’ve got to earn a degree, and it’s not easy.”
Shadid said it’s a different world from the street world to the real world.
“It’s all new to me, but it’s exciting,” he said.
Shadid will graduate from Nossi in 2017 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in illustrating.
“When I was a drug dealer I couldn’t see the cause of the damage I was doing to not just the person I was selling to but their whole family,” he said. “I remember women would be calling me to sell all their food stamps for crack. I would get it and see the kids but my mind wouldn’t see that I was actually taking food out of these kids mouths.”
Shadid said he couldn’t see the effect of drugs because he was caught up in cars, women and jewelry.
“Once I started doing drugs and I saw how it damaged me and my family and the pain that it took me through, I saw what I was doing to other people.”
Shadid said he had to start looking at the reality and had to come to grips with terms that he lost the battle in the streets he had fought for so many years.
“If it was left up to me I’d still be getting high, but God took it,” he said. “I know God took me out of that, and now I know my mission is to reach back to people who are homeless and the youth,” he said.
POVERTY and the ARTS
Years later, after putting the past behind him, Shadid has begun to speak to children in schools about the dangers of drugs, bullying and crimes.
“I mainly tried to warn them about what happens when you take the wrong choices,” he said.
Shadid said he wants to help children understand the decisions they make today can affect them for the rest of their lives.
“Through mentoring with the schools and the Nashville Arts Magazine, I connected with to Poverty in the Arts,” he said.
According to their website, Poverty in the Arts is a social art organization that helps homeless people generate income, job skills, security networks as well as a purpose in life.
A few of the things the organization provides, as listed on their website, are: Artistic outlets that support self-esteem and boost confidence, professional development opportunities/job skills, income-generating opportunities, an alternative environment to the street that will drive behavior in positive ways among others.
In their inaugural year (May 2014 to September 2015) and with two artists, Poverty in the Arts had cumulative earning through art sales reach over $1,000.
Now the organization has over 10 artist and many more exhibition opportunities.
Shadid has been working with Poverty in the Arts for nearly a year now.
“When I see someone who’s homeless with art trying to keep the faith in art when they have to think about being hungry or having nowhere to sleep, I’ve been there,” he said.
He said one thing that he noticed was the impact art had on other homeless people.
“You can see the art set them free,” he said. “When I’m going through something whether I’m feeling depressed or sad, when I create it takes me another world where I can be free and creative. “
CREATIVE and COMMUNITY
“With art you can speak to the world, or you can change the community perspective by what you create,” he said.
Shadid said most of the things people see in the world are art because at one time people designed it before they created it.
He now lives in Donelson and has been off the streets for three and a half years. He sells his artwork now, and is working toward telling stories through comics. He said while he was imprisoned he dreamed of the day he could do that, and now it’s a reality.
In between school and art, Shadid helps his landlord with a tree removal service to earn extra money.
He said his landlord, a man he met through Room In The Inn, has helped him become a better person by showing him what it means to live responsibly.
“If there’s one thing you’ve got to do, you’ve got to pay rent. I haven’t bought shoes in three years; the ones I’ve got on someone gave me. It’s all about rent,” he said in a light spirit and laughing.
Shadid said the homeless in Nashville concerns him the most.
“Everyone that’s homeless isn’t on drugs,” he said. “A lot of it is mental issues and we’ve got to figure out a way to help these people.”
In an email with Neat Nashville, Nicole Brandt, founder and executive director of Poverty and the Arts, said, “Community is when we can count on each other when things go bad. The number one reason for homelessness is the [loss of] security nets. Burnt relationships and a lack of community are what cause people to spiral into homelessness.”
Nicole said having a community of people surrounding you that believe in education, hard work, perseverance, as well as other things will make all the difference for our homeless population as they try to come out of homelessness.
She said community is imperative to their success, and she hopes that through her organization’s programming, they can connect a larger more diverse Nashville community together.
As for the future of the Nashville, Nicole said affordable housing is a big concern.
“As if everyone isn’t talking about it already, affordable housing is key,” she said. “Housing is the first step to providing an environment where homeless individuals can start to generate their own success.”
She said she doesn’t have any real solutions but suggested lawmakers make policies that protect renters just as much as they protect landlords.
Thanks for reading, Nashville!
Every Thursday at noon Neat Nashville embraces the community by highlighting an individual in a feature article that tells their story and voices their concerns about the city moving forward. It is our hope to inspire good change locally, to be a force of unity, and support the people we call neighbors.
It starts with community. It starts where you are.