Above: Antoine Mapp (at front, left) and his team of Sixers Stixers play every home game for the Delaware Blue Coats as well as the 76ers.
By Jim Miller
Photos by Zach Larsen, Delaware Blue Coats
Music saved my life,” says Antoine Mapp.
He’s not exaggerating. While he was growing up in on Philadelphia’s West 46th Street in the ‘90s, there were plenty of times when the temptations of joining gangs or dealing drugs knocked at Mapp’s door — and where violence and death lurked right down the street.
“I just had a lot of situations where I was nearly locked up,” Mapp says, “or I was at practice and just missed where guys came down and shot the block up.”
By “practice,” Mapp is referring to his long-standing commitment to the West Powelton Steppers and Drum Squad (WPSDS) which he has been a member of since his grandmother, Elsie Wise, founded the group in June 1991.
Mapp recalls his grandmother starting the group to help keep her grandkids and the area youth — two young girls in particular — out of trouble. At the time, Mapp was just 11, and the neighborhood didn’t have basketball courts, arts programs or youth clubs.
“If you went down [past 39th Street] to play basketball, you had to fight in order to get back home,” Mapp says, “or you got chased or you got jumped because you weren’t from around there. And if you weren’t from there, you weren’t allowed to come down there. That’s what we were dealing with when I was growing up.”
In 2000, Wise handed the WPSDS keys to Mapp, making the then college junior the head of the squad. The change in leadership came with its own rewards and challenges, Mapp says, along with constant reminders of the high stakes at hand.
Three days after Christmas that same year, the Lex Street massacre took place. Ten people were shot, and seven killed — all over an argument about a car. To this day, the incident holds the ugly distinction of being Philadelphia’s deadliest mass murder.
And it all happened just three blocks from where Mapp grew up.
“I knew majority of the people that were there and a couple of them were my friends,” Mapp says solemnly.
“The drill team got me through good times and bad times,” he adds.
‘Pay You to Save You’
For the next decade, Mapp helped steer the West Powelton Steppers and Drum Squad through its own share of ups and downs. But it wasn’t until 2012 that a chance encounter and ensuing showdown proved to be a turning point in the group’s evolution.
In March of that year, Mapp and his squad were invited to perform at the grand opening of Xfinity Live!. Their drum-and-dance routine went off without a hitch; however, immediately after they were done, the Philadelphia Eagles mascot, Swoop, instigated an unscripted drum battle between Mapp’s squad and the Philadelphia Eagles Drumline, who also had performed earlier. The crowd loved it.
“Drum battling is one of the things we like to do,” says Mapp’s trusted comrade, 43-year-old Johnny Hall, who has been with WPSDS for 31 years. “It’s like a team sport. Competition is competition.
“But the difference with our style is we will play and do steps, too. And that gives a whole other definition and outlook on what we’re presenting to you as far as the music and the dancing goes. All [the Eagles Drumline] did was really just play. So, by playing and dancing at the same time, we pretty much had one up on them.”
Members of the Philadelphia 76ers management happened to be in attendance. They were so impressed by the lively back-and-forth between drumlines that they contracted Mapp and his squad to become the “Sixers Stixers,” a name bequeathed to them by upper management.
“When we heard that they were scouting us out, man, we were jumping and screaming and through the roof because we were so excited,” says Hall.
“It was a real good feeling because we always dreamt of being on a bigger platform than we were. We always wanted to open for big artists, concerts and things of that nature. But we never thought that we would be on a bigger platform playing for a professional NBA team.”
For Mapp, the extra work meant making WPSDS and the Sixers Stixers a full-time job. For the past 10 years, he has recruited the best of his West Powelton Steppers and Drum Squad to perform as the Stixers during halftime for all of the Sixers’ 41 home games — plus, in more recent years, they brought their show to the Chase Fieldhouse in Wilmington during home games for the Delaware Blue Coats.
Becoming the Sixers Stixers also opened the door to other opportunities, like playing at events for Major League Baseball, the National Hockey League, and organizations like the University of Pennsylvania as well as brands like Disney World, Nickelodeon, and Showtime at the Apollo.
“I love the 76ers for giving us this opportunity, because the 76ers changed our lives,” Mapp says. “The 76ers were the first [organization] to pay us and, for that, I will always be grateful to them. I will always be in debt to them. It’s always going be my family.
“They are really saving kids’ lives in the community by them signing the West Powelton Steppers and Drum Squad. They don’t know how many lives they saved.
“They have allowed me to put some money in these kids’ pockets and help fund scholarships.”
Mapp calls the model “Pay You to Save You,” a means to help the younger WPSDS members who are struggling with the same temptations, pitfalls and threats that he faced decades ago.
Mapp says the Sixers Stixers gig has led to hundreds of WPSDS members getting into college via scholarships the organization has helped provide and through mentoring.
“I have kids that have started their own businesses,” he says. “I have kids that joined the armed forces. I also have kids who were in the program that have come back to help and mentor kids. And the results have been very fruitful.
“We have our tragedies, too. I have had kids that were murdered. I have had kids that murdered people. I have had kids that [are] in jail right now.
“The goal is to save them all. But you can’t save them all. It’s just hard.”
The Wise Way
Now 43 years old, Mapp reflects on 2020 — the first year of the pandemic — when it seemed like the organization was going to come to an end.
“In 2020, I lost 11 family members,” he says. Six of those deaths were COVID-related, he adds, and four were murders.
The final death that year was the most devastating. Wise – Mapp’s grandmother and the person who helped shape his life more than any other person — died of cancer on Dec. 2 at the age of 92.
“It was the hardest year of my life,” Mapp says. “Lost family. Lost all my income. Didn’t know what direction my drumline was going to go. The only thing that was keeping me sane was that my kids — the steppers and the drummers — kept reaching out to me and were like, ‘Can we practice on Zoom?’
“And we just practiced on Zoom until it was safe to go outside again in groups.”
His grandmother was gone, but she had always been a fighter, and her spirit remained strong in the organization she started.
“She did so much for that community and neighborhood from bringing in resources and bringing jobs and doing turkey drives,” Mapp says. “We’d do a Christmas party every year at Presbyterian Hospital, where we’d serve 125 underprivileged kids. She was just a bundle of resources.”
In addition to being the founder of WPSDS, Wise also served as president of the West Powelton Concern Community Council and was a member of the People’s Emergency Center Community Development Corp. In 2015, that organization named an affordable housing apartment building after her and two other community activists.
In Wise’s Philadelphia Inquirer obituary, Bernadine Hawes, chair of the People’s Emergency Center CDC, paid this tribute: “Her energy and passion for the West Powelton area was not surpassed by anyone . . . She was one of those unsung heroes.”
Mapp says his grandmother’s undaunted approach became known as “The Wise Way” — a work ethic she instilled in WPSDS members from the start.
“Keep your head up, and if you believe the dream, you’ll become the dream,” Mapp says. “That was The Wise Way.
“I watched [WPSDS members] grow from boys to men,” he says. “I watched them go from dealing drugs to becoming churchgoing folks, to becoming stand-up fathers, and becoming mentors and community activists in their respective communities.”
The Wise Way worked for him as well.
“That’s why I’ve stayed so long with the drum squad,” Mapp says. “It has saved my life, changed my life, and helped me become a better man.
“It helped me become a better father. It helped me with my biggest fear, which was public speaking. Today, I’m not afraid to get in front of anybody and talk. I can talk and perform in front of 20,000 people night in and night out.
“It definitely helped me become just a better person all the way around.”
WPSDS continues to stay busy. There are currently 35 members; the youngest is 4 and Mapp and Hall are the oldest. Between the WPSDS and the Sixers Stixers, the squads performed 369 times from June 2021 to June 2022. One day they performed at seven events.
“I do so many community events and people ask me all the time, ‘Why are you doing community events? You’re bigger than that now,’” Mapp says. “No, I’m never too big for anything dealing with the community.
“West Powelton was built to save the community.”
Getting in Line
Hall, Mapp’s childhood friend who joined WPSDS when he was 12, agrees.
“Our organization became so strong because, as we were growing up, we saw the things that [Wise] did for us and that were instilled in us — showing kids that there are other things out here that you can do besides doing negative things and hanging around the negative.
“The drill team was a big part of that. It helped us stay on the straight and narrow so we already knew that it could help any other person dealing with family situations, the peer pressure, what your friends think about you, and things of that nature.
“We’ve tried to show people that by playing drums and marching on a drill team, you could still be a cool person. People still could look at you in a good way and see that you’re doing positive things. And it also helps you in the long run with your everyday life.”
In addition to running practices three days a week from 5 to 8 p.m., WPSDS leaders make sure the younger kids are keeping up with their homework. Mapp stresses the necessity of good grades to stay in the program.
But the time is spent in other ways as well. “Sometimes we even get to talk about personal things that are going on in our lives,” says Chris Green, a 22-year WPSDS veteran who started when he was 10. “We have a lot of girls in the program, but with the guys — a lot of these guys may not have a father figure around to help them understand things about growing up. And they ask for advice.”
Twenty years ago, Kiaheem Simmons was a South Philly kid in need of that kind of mentoring. His father died of a brain aneurism, leaving 13-year-old Simmons in search of answers and options.
“I grew up in a rough part of Philadelphia where there was a lot of people dealing drugs and stealing,” he says. “That’s where my head was when I joined.”
He says Mapp and the drum squad “opened my mind to something different.” His father had passed away in January of that year, and by September he was playing the snare and learning steps.
“If I could say, Antoine, he raised me, man,” Simmons says. “He was that father figure, that godsend.
“The whole experience showed me that there is a better way. That was something I wasn’t used to, to see kids my age on a positive note.”
What does he think would have happened had he not joined the West Powelton Steppers and Drum Squad?
“I’d probably be dead or in jail right now, honestly,” Simmons says. “Because all the guys I grew up with, half of them are either in jail facing life or dead. I’d be somewhere bad.”
Green can relate to Simmons’ story. And he feels that the need for the squad is even more urgent than it was two decades ago when he and Simmons joined.
“Man, I think for kids growing up today, it’s 30 times harder than when I was growing up,” he says. “Yes, I kind of grew up in the era of social media, but it wasn’t as big as it is now. It has a huge influence on younger generations. And the music and the things that they see on the street. Then you have incidents of police violence against young men in our community
“There are a lot of things that we feel we are pressured to do. And many of these kids still need to worry about food. It’s just so hard right now.”
Yet he sees hope in organizations like the West Powelton Steppers and Drum Squad and the Sixers Stixers.
He likes the fact that the organization takes bold stands, marching against gun violence or for drug awareness. It makes a difference, he says.
“I didn’t have my father growing up,” Green says. “It was like, yeah, I listen to my mom. I love my mom to death. But a lot of things I was trying to search for as a young black guy, I couldn’t relate to anything. Until I saw this, and it really changed my life.
“A thousand percent.”