DJ makes dreams reality with 'Gold Mind'
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Screaming sirens and the sound of gunshots were the norm for 9-year-old Aleeshia Watson growing up in Charleston's roughest housing project.
The crack cocaine trade was king in 1991, and brought with it record crime rates and an unwilling audience to its havoc in the Orchard Manor community on the West Side.
"I wasn't exactly scared, it was just reality for me. I guess you become a product of your environment and get used to it. You grow up poor, but you don't know you are," Watson said, reflecting on her childhood.
Inside her grandparents' Orchard Manor apartment, a young Watson dreamed of a modeling career and previously told the Gazette-Mail she wanted to be president.
Local city officials were dedicating thousands of dollars to provide kids like Watson a haven from the drug-riddled neighborhood through after-school activities.
Twenty years later, it's Watson, 30, better known as "Leeshia Lee," who has seized the reins to help people in her "hood" find alternatives to drugs and violence.
In an effort to demonstrate to people in the community that they don't have to leave West Virginia to make a difference, or turn to drugs and violence, Watson recently founded "Gold Mind Promotions LLC."
"People think you have to go out of town to be successful in whatever you want to do, but you can do it wherever you are. 'If you think it, we can create it' -- that's our slogan," Watson said.
From 9-year-old dreamer to local celebrity as a disc jockey and assistant program director of Charleston radio station 98.7 FM "The Beat," Watson's voice is heard by thousands.
"The Beat" features a mix of Billboard Top 40, hip hop and R&B and attracts a significant minority audience. It's the only station of its kind in the state.
Her entrepreneurial endeavor with Gold Mind is an effort to help locals, businesses and events achieve success. It will encourage dreamers to dream and creative people to create, she said.
"If everyone talented and creative leaves, where will that leave West Virginia?" Watson asked.
The company has compiled a CD of aspiring hip hop and rap artists from the Charleston, Huntington and Beckley areas titled, "I'm so 304." The plan is to show the world that West Virginians are more than a stereotype, Watson said.
"It seems like people are always chasing a gold mine and want to leave for someplace more popular," she said. "When you have a 'Gold Mind' you can be successful wherever you are."
Watson will pass the CD along to connections she has made in the music industry during her 10 years as an on-air personality, and show off talent from her home state.
"She takes her role seriously, she's a good role model," said Mike Buxser, vice president and general manager of West Virginia Radio Corp. in Charleston. "She wants to make a difference in the community; she wants people to grow. She has one of the best bonds with listeners ... and I've been in this business a long time.
"We're only about five miles from where she grew up, but she's come so far," he said at the corporation's office on Virginia Street East.
Listeners can often relate to Watson's journey, Buxser said. Some of her family and friends' lives didn't turn out as well.
"She has a rare ability to connect with listeners in the community that most radio personalities aren't able to establish," he said. "'The Beat' is a very unique radio station. The station has a voice in a community that doesn't have a lot of voice."
The importance of connecting with the community is something Watson learned from her grandfather, Jack Watson, she said.
"My dad wasn't in the picture, my grandfather raised me -- he was the father figure for a lot of kids in [Orchard Manor]. He wanted people to understand that just because you lived in the project, it didn't define you.
"There are a lot of talented and smart kids that grew up in the Manor -- some just took an alternate route," she said.
Having lived on the West Side her entire life, Watson, who is a mother of two, hopes her new business and footprint in the community inspires her children, like her grandfather motivated her.
"There are different sets of rules for different people in West Virginia, like when you're poor and grow up here you don't have the same opportunities -- you don't go to the same schools, you don't have the same avenues to take," she said. "But what I hope to show people is even if you're not born with a silver spoon, you can dream -- you can have a 'Gold Mind.'"
Reach Kate White at email@example.com or 304-348-1723.