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Dometi Pongo talks MTV’s True Life Crime and His Chicago Roots

Written by on January 24, 2020

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Dometi Pongo is a journalist, MTV News host and the host of MTV’s True Life Crime.

Vocalo’s midday host Bekoe caught up with Dometi about his Chicago beginnings and what it takes to produce a documentary series that explores the unseen parts of society and its subcultures.

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Bekoe: Talk about your Chicago beginnings …

Dometi Pongo: I’m from Chicago, the south-east side of the city, spent a lot of time in Calumet City, and the first case of the series originated in Chicago … our premiere episode covered the case of Kenneka Jenkins, the girl who was found locked in a freezer at Rosemont Hotel. From there the series has taken me all over the country telling stories about crimes that happened to people in all types of communities then, one of the most rewarding projects I’ve ever worked on but also probably the most difficult.

I remember you were an artist before you made your transition into journalism and broadcasting. Speak on what went into that transition …

Yeah. It’s interesting man it happened kind of haphazardly! After undergrad I worked at Target headquarters as a financial analyst for a little while, but I’d always been making music on the side. So even when I had my corporate job, I was, hosting open mics, I was in the studio, I was living in the Twin Cities at that time.

Then I just felt unfulfilled. So I eventually left that job and came back to Chicago, I was using music as a creative outlet and ironically it kind of helped me build my brand in the city. When I started making my way into journalism, at first it was just a way for me to support myself. So it was a job! But I found out that a lot of the things I loved about hip hop were the same things that I grew to love about journalism. The storytelling, giving voice to communities that didn’t really have an outlet to speak, you know, candidly and authentically, because oftentimes a lot of the publications and media outlets that, that we like to watch didn’t tell stories about us authentically. And you know, in journalism, I started off with WVON 1690 and began to fall in love with the craft of just telling stories and sharing narratives.

And when the show came along, it was it was a blessing man. I went from WBON to WGN Radio and did a lot of freelancing around the city, and then eventually this opportunity came together at MTV that took me to New York. Yeah man, it’s crazy.  It’s it’s a full circle moment because that allows an opportunity to work at Music Television, so it’s like all of my passions come together in one.

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As a journalist, what was your biggest milestone and what’s your ultimate goal?

Biggest milestone thus far? You know, it would probably be this show. You know it’s unique to have a show where you get to stuff so much content into one hour. The second episode a couple weeks back we did a story about the brutal stabbing of Junior Guzman Feliz, he’s a 15 year old who was stabbed 17 times by the Trinitarios gang in the Bronx in New York.

But that story also gave us an opportunity to explore what happens in the inner-cities that leads to gang violence. What causes gang violence and the origin of some of these gangs. As you know coming from Chicago and these are stories that WBEZ and Vocalo talk about all the time … you guys really go into depth about how the origins of some of these stories with great reporters like Natalie Moore over there at WBEZ.

So this series is really one of my Magnum Opuses because it’s an opportunity to take a deep dive into some of the stories that affected so many people in such a real way. So this is probably that milestone for me. As far as what the future holds, and what I plan to see, I just want to continue to share more stories that elevate narratives that normally wouldn’t get told. Going deeper into stories that the public maybe paid attention to, but didn’t really get a chance to really dive into and find the nuances behind.

You know, we have a story that we did a few weeks back with about Kedarie Johnson, the gender fluid team who was killed in Burlington, Iowa. It gave us an opportunity to talk about exploring gender identity. What does that mean? And how do we address homophobia and transphobia, in the world in general, but specifically in African American communities. Being able to tell those stories, that’s the goal. I’m pretty much living the dream man!

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I saw the first episode about Keneka Jenkins and I love the way you broke things down. I love how you actually went out searching for answers. What led you to uncover unsolved crimes?

Well, the show came about through MTV … they came to Chicago and they wanted to find a way to tell stories about crimes that affected young people. True Life has always been about exploring issues that people go through, different lifestyles, specifically this particular series is about crime. There’s a focus on crimes that happened to folks and went viral, that we all payed attention to and then we kind of didn’t find out what happened after the big local news camera trucks left.

They were wondering who could tell the story, they asked around the city and you know my name circled around multiple times in that space. I think in part because of my reporting at WVON but also because I had been so immersed in the activist community, and the hip-hop community locally.  If the show didn’t give voice to the victim’s identity specifically, I probably even wouldn’t be doing this show. Because, you know, oftentimes the media sensationalizes the way we report on crimes that have happened. I didn’t want to be a part of that. But what what drew me to this series specifically was this realization that this is an opportunity to talk about not only what happened to Keneeka, but also why is it that people protested and tend not to trust the police in Chicago. I got to talk about police brutality.

Not only that, but how do we talk about you know, what happens when black girls go missing? And this concern … how do we heighten the level of urgency so that the mother feels heard? Why doesn’t that happen often enough? I got to talk about that. These stories just really pulled at my heart strings.

Out of the crimes you investigated, which case touched you the most, or sticks with you in the back of your head?

Oh, man, it’s so hard because every every single story really touched me in a different way. When I’m going through the cases I’m also seeing the faces of the moms and the brothers and everybody that I’ve talked to. So everyone has a different piece of my heart.

Jerrica Banks is a story we told where a girl goes on a run and goes missing, just vanishes. We explore the troubled relationship with her boyfriend, whether that has something to do with it, she struggled with addiction issues so we look at whether that has something to do with it. This case took place in Utah, so I go and meet her family, and it’s this white family and I come in with a gold chain on talking about how we’re going to find answers … it’s an unlikely bond that I built with the family, and it was one of the most heartwarming episodes we did this season.

But then you got the Kenneka Jenkins episode that is so near and dear to my heart because it happened in my hometown … Every single case, I can’t even pick one out, because every one really deeply touched my heart.

Interview by Bekoe

Edited for length and clarity by Seamus Doheny

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