Musician and Poet Derrick “DJ” Stamper ‘07: From a Difficult Childhood to Inspiring the Next Generation

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This is the 36th article in Bears Doing Big Things, a weekly column celebrating the stories of notable M-A alumni. Read the last article here.

Stamper (right) as a toddler with his grandfather.

“I’ve always been into words,” said Derrick “DJ” Stamper ‘07, a musician, poet, photographer, and educator. “I don’t like to say the same thing twice. I’ve written thousands of songs, and I’ve probably said the same thing maybe once or twice.”

Stamper picked up poetry and rap at a young age, writing songs in an old notebook on his mother’s couch. “When I had a rough day, I would just pick up some paper and a pen and start writing,” he said. 

“As a kid, I was super into music, and I also enjoyed playing pick-up sports games around my neighborhood,” Stamper added.

Stamper (third from the right) as an elementary schooler.

Born and raised in East Palo Alto, Stamper has many connections to M-A. “My mom graduated from M-A, my uncles went to M-A, my two siblings went to M-A with me, and I’ve got some little cousins who are at M-A right now,” he explained. 

Stamper attended Cesar Chavez Ravenswood Middle School, and remembered, “Chavez was cool—it was all of us growing up together.”

“When I was growing up, my home was safe, and school was safe,” he said. “When we were outside, anything could happen. We were just kids, but, at the time, our city was the murder capital of the country. People were dying and going to jail.”

Stamper (top middle) at his M-A graduation.

During Stamper’s freshman year at M-A, he remembered, “My uncle was murdered down the street. My dad took it hard. He got sick after that. I had never seen him so broken. I think that, unknowingly, I took a burden on myself to be strong when I didn’t need to be. I think I was trying to be too grown up too fast.”

“I wasn’t really in a good space at that time,” he added. “I started getting in trouble more and more. I was in a lot of pain.”

At the beginning of his sophomore year, Stamper’s close friend, Jamel Mims, was shot and killed in a drive-by shooting. “You hear about death, or see it on the news, but it’s different if it’s close to you—it’s horrible,” Stamper said. 

Stamper wrote a poem, “Never too Young,” and read it at Mims’ memorial service. “That poem was the outlet I needed,” he said. “That was the first time I realized I could really connect with others through my writing.” 

A Palo Alto Online article on Mims’ memorial service describes 15-year-old Stamper as “shy, soft-spoken, quick to relax yet with a bright smile—and much older than a 15-year-old should be.”

Stamper originally wrote “Never too Young” for an assignment in Lisa Otsuka’s sophomore English course. “Ms. Otsuka got me through a lot,” he remembered. “Her classroom was a safe place for me. It was somewhere I always knew I could go. She really helped me with my writing and was very supportive.”

“I have a lot of respect for the teachers at M-A, and not solely from my own experiences,” he continued. “I watched them step up for others as well to try to give us a sense of normalcy.”

Stamper with a group of friends outside the student store at M-A.

“I remember taking a photo with a bunch of kids in front of the student store at school—around 15-20 of us,” Stamper said. “Four of those people are now either dead or doing life in prison. I look back at that picture, and I think, ‘We weren’t supposed to do well.’ I don’t even like the tone I’m talking in right now because it’s submissive. It’s like giving up—and that’s the tone we all had, back then. We figured, ‘This is what we’re supposed to be going through.’”

“We didn’t know how to cope,” Stamper continued. “You know how dads sometimes tell their sons, ‘Be tough, get up, get over it.’ Imagine that, but with everything. Your aunt’s doing drugs. Get over it. Your friend was shot. Get over it.”

“But, even though we were going through so much loss and hardship, we were still able to come together,” he added. “Those high school dances and rivalry sports games were the best things we had to look forward to. We were so young, and there was so much going on in our world, but when we were together, that was enough for us.”

Stamper attended a continuation school through juvenile detention for his junior year, and returned to M-A senior year. 

“I was in so much trouble that graduating was my biggest goal, because there were times when I wasn’t on track to graduate,” he said. “Teachers held me accountable to some extent—I told them what I wanted to do, and they pushed me to do it. I just wish that I had told them I wanted to go to college.”

During his senior year, Stamper took Diane Martinelli’s Government course. “I’m pretty sure Ms. Martinelli and Ms. Otsuka were in cahoots trying to help me graduate,” he said. “Ms. Otsuka was very gentle and kind, while Ms. Martinelli was stern. She was like, ‘I’m not gonna play with you today, DJ. Get it together.’ It was a good balance between the two of them.”

Stamper graduated from M-A in 2007 and went to Cañada College right away. While at Cañada, he worked scanning pages for Google Books at Google Headquarters in Mountain View in the afternoons.

“I was hanging around a crowd I shouldn’t have been in, and I was a follower,” he remembered. “While I was going to Cañada, I’d get home from class and put my backpack down, and my friends would heckle at me like, ‘Why are you going to school?’”

“I was a good kid,” he added. “I made some bad decisions, but I wasn’t a bad person.”

In November of 2008, Stamper was arrested for possession of a controlled substance and went to jail for two days. After he was released, he dropped out of school.

“When I went to jail, it was not a super shock. We had neighbors who were going through similar stuff, and loss, death, and trouble has been going on for generations in our family. I wish I would’ve gotten scared off and didn’t see it as normal, but I did. It seemed normal,” Stamper said. 

A few weeks later, Stamper was shot on the street in East Palo Alto. “I didn’t know the person that shot me—I was just standing on the street in the city in the wrong place at the wrong time,” he said.

“After that, I was in trouble and on the run,” Stamper added. “Because I got shot, I didn’t report to court when I should have. I should’ve been scared, but I was so desensitized that I wasn’t.”

“I was running the streets with no direction and no destination,” Stamper continued.

A year later, Stamper was sentenced to 13 years in prison for a robbery charge. “I spent all of my 20s there, and it was nobody’s fault but my own. I know now that it was just not wanting anything. I needed guidance, and I didn’t have it in the environment that I was in—I wasn’t looking for it,” he said.

In prison, Stamper said, “It took me a few years to start reading. At first, I was reading a lot of books for entertainment, and then, I started to get into self-help books.”

“I would read a book, and I would write a letter home about it,” he remembered. “I’d write four-page letters, front and back. It gave me an escape. That pen and paper gave me time to be outside of my situation.”

“I figured that I could either sit in there and feel sorry for myself, fight, become a drug addict, or I could decide to do something with myself,” Stamper continued. “I decided that I wanted to come home and turn my life around. So, I started calling home, and asking my family to send me more books to read.”

“I was getting so much strength from the knowledge that I was projecting it on the people I was seeing in there,” he said. “I got some of the tough guys in prison into reading and journal writing. I got a sense of validation from that because in there, nobody is supposed to be sensitive or emotional. To hear these tough guys acknowledge, ‘Hey, man, you can be impactful. Words are powerful,’ was huge.”

For his last year in prison, Stamper attended a state firefighting program called Deadwood Conservation Camp, which employs thousands of inmates each year to fight forest fires. “We’d hike 10-15 miles a day up hills carrying 50-pound backpacks and chainsaws, cutting trees and breaking things down to bare minimum soil,” Stamper remembered.

“I got my work ethic from firefighting,” he said. “I would look up at some big mountain and think, ‘There is no way I’m gonna get up there,’ but I always did. I realized that I had more in me than I ever thought.”

“I feel like my time in prison saved my life, to an extent,” Stamper reflected. “I had to look in the mirror and take some time to reflect on who I wanted to be in the world.”

“Now, anything I do, I want to do it to the best of my abilities,” he continued. “In prison, the little things were what I missed the most. Pictures were better than money or food. They allowed me to see the people I love, and to see the kids grow up. It almost felt like I was there.”

“Now that I’m out, I push so hard to enjoy every moment and to love the kids in my life because I know that my days aren’t promised,” Stamper added.

During the time that Stamper was in prison, the rent for his family’s 2-bedroom apartment nearly doubled. “Those bills can be tough,” he said. “I help pay them now, and I take pride in being responsible and showing up.”

When he got home, Stamper bought a camera, a computer, and some studio equipment, and began to record and produce music. 

Stamper with a graduating senior at a Live in Peace senior celebration ceremony.

In January 2023, Stamper joined Live in Peace, an education-focused nonprofit in East Palo Alto. He now works as a Live in Peace Life Coach, mentoring students in the community who are identified by their high schools as the most at-risk for dropping out. 

“I work at Live in Peace every day,” he explained. “I have a podcast there where I talk with teenagers about high school situations and life. I want to help them discover something for themselves—to find their own destinations,” Stamper said. 

Stamper (left) at an Alive and Free program training with Dr. Joseph Marshall (right).

“I understand that getting in trouble is often a sign of hurt,” he continued. “I believe that all babies are good babies. As we get older, we learn what we learn. When I see someone in a bad place, I know it’s pain more than anything.”

“When I was in high school, I was always following others,” Stamper reflected. “I’d think, ‘My friends are doing it, everybody in my class is doing it, everybody in my neighborhood is doing it.’ Everything but I. But, you have to be responsible for yourself. That’s been a big thing I’ve realized, and something I want to really help instill in the kids.”

“I take my time to relate to the kids, to empower them, to be kind to them like Ms. Otsuka was to me, and to hold them accountable like Ms. Martinelli did for me. I keep the bar high for them,” he continued.

Stamper with his camera.

Stamper’s advice to current M-A students: “Fall in love with something. For me, it’s photography. When I get on my camera, taking pictures and videos, hours will go by, and I don’t even notice. I love how disarming it is—I’ve never seen people open up and be so happy like when a camera is on. You see the brightest smiles when the camera is on, and I like giving people that feeling. Find something like that for you—something that makes you forget that time is passing by. When you have something you love, you have something to do.”

Stamper recording music in a studio.

“I still love music and poetry,” Stamper said. “I still write and produce songs. Music is one of the other things that saved my life—I couldn’t imagine not having anywhere to express those thoughts. Those pages saved my life,” he said.

“I also love reading,” he continued. “If I’m walking down the street and I see someone reading something that looks interesting, I’ll ask them about it. I love going to bookstores. Kepler’s is okay, but I’m more of a hole-in-the-wall kinda dude. Old-fashioned used bookstores are my favorites.”

On his favorite books, Stamper said, “I loved As a Man Thinketh by James Allen. It’s about mentality, heart, and self-reflection. It’s short, but super powerful. I also loved Outliers and Blink by Malcolm Gladwell, and The Purpose Driven Life by Rick Warren.”

“I try to let the kids see me reading,” he added. “I go over to my little cousins’ house and pick up a book, just so they can see that reading is cool.”

“When I was younger, I felt like I was just floating aimlessly,” Stamper continued. “Now, it feels good to wake up every morning. I’m waking up early, studying, reading, loving the journey, and encouraging others to love theirs.”

“I feel like my story is still being written,” he added. “There’s so much more to do, and to learn. I’m just getting started.”

Disclaimer: Bears Doing Big Things is not meant to be a list ranking the most accomplished or famous M-A graduates on Earth. It is a collection of people with a wide range of expertise, opinions, and stages of life who were kindly willing to share their stories. As Maria Popova once wrote, “There are infinitely many kinds of beautiful lives.” Every M-A alum—and every person—is “accomplished” in their own way, and everyone has a story to tell.

Caroline Pecore is a senior in her first year of journalism. Her column, "Bears Doing Big Things," runs every Monday. She enjoys meeting new people through journalism and writing about the M-A community. Outside of school, she spends most of her time rowing for Norcal Crew and also enjoys reading, drawing, and exploring the outdoors.

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