Urban Cowboy

By Dick Anderson Max S. Gerber

Whether he's ranching. riding, or rapping, Compton Cowboys leader Randy Hook '12 brings swagger to the saddle

Randy Hook ’12 was 7 years old the first time he saddled up for an equestrian competition. “I was going to ride my big cousin’s horse—super athletic, very smart,” he recalls. “He would never try to hurt anybody—he just wanted to win. I was so little, they had to put these baby stirrups on the saddle. My horse was all antsy and ready to go and I was nervous and anxious—but I was excited to get my shot.”

Hook’s aunt, Mayisha Akbar, looked up at young Randy and asked him, “Are you ready?” “I don’t even remember saying anything,” he recalls. “Then she told me, ‘You can do it. You’ve got the skills. All you have to do is stay on the horse. He knows the patterns and he’s going to go fast, but you just hang in there with him and you can do it.’

“I just remember being so calm and confident in that moment,” Hook continues. “So, I said, ‘OK, let’s go.’ My horse took off and we did the pattern and I ended up winning that event against the bigger kids.”

That memory has stuck with Hook to this day. “Every time I’m facing a big moment where I feel nervous or anxious, I always think back to that moment and just tell myself: ‘You know what to do—just go out there and do it.’ And I end up making it through and I always do well.”

For the next seven years Hook rode with his peers as a member of the Compton Junior Posse, the program created by his aunt in 1988 following her son’s shooting in a gang-related incident. “He didn’t die, but that was very traumatic for our family,” says Hook, who grew up in the Compton community of Richland Farms on a 2½-acre equestrian ranch in a house adjacent to his aunt’s. “She just wanted to make a change after that and said the horses would be the way that she would enact change.”

Akbar grew up watching westerns on TV with her father, who was born in Oklahoma and moved to the L.A. neighborhood of Harbor City with his wife to raise their family. In 1988, Akbar moved to Richland Farms after finding out about the area through her work as a Realtor. A prodigious fundraiser, she kept the Compton Junior Posse afloat for nearly three decades working with Randy’s father, Louis Hook ’80, and helped generations of inner-city kids through equine therapy.

Akbar used the horses to incentivize the children to stay in school and stay out of trouble, Hook remembers. “She knew how much the kids around here loved the horses—she told them, ‘If you want a ride, you got to show me your report card and your attendance report.’ And slowly but surely the horses started correcting the kids, making their lives better. They made my life better.

“Growing up, we were just cowboy kids,” he adds. “After school, we had horse practice. On the weekends, we had competitions and events. Sometimes we would just go camping and enjoy the outdoors. To be in this green neighborhood in the middle of Compton and having horses in our lives was really special because we don’t get a lot of experience here with nature.”

By the time he reached high school, Hook was veering away from horses to pursue other interests, such as football and basketball and girls. “It’s not that I wanted to get away from the horses—they lived on my property,” he says. “I just wanted to explore new things.”

Hook was encouraged to go to college by his father (who in June received Occidental’s Alumni Seal for service to the community, most notably his work with the Compton Junior Posse). “He never specifically forced Oxy on me or made it a big deal,” Hook says. But a weekend cultural visit to Oxy as a high school senior sold him on his dad’s alma mater. And then he did the College’s two-week Multicultural Summer Institute, “which I really loved,” he recalls. “I was excited to be an Oxy student.”

He briefly entertained the idea of following in his father’s footsteps as an economics major, but an Econ 101 course with “one of the more popular professors teaching at that time” quickly dissuaded him: “I was like, ‘Oh, hell no, I’m not doing this.’ ” After a passing flirtation with psychology (“really technical”), he took Sociology 101 and “loved it. Sociology gave me the basis of how I operate. Everything I do is based on what I learned about people and places and things. Oxy helped me formulate the way I view the world,” Hook adds, “and the way I view the world is what guides my efforts to this day, every day.”

With Akbar nearing retirement in 2015, the future of the Compton Junior Posse—and of the family ranch itself—was in doubt. “Just two years earlier she had suffered a stroke that left her bedridden for a month,” Walter Thompson-Hernández writes in The Compton Cowboys: The New Generation of Cowboys in America’s Urban Heartland (William Morrow). “She had slowly eased her way into the background of the ranch’s daily operations.”

Hook, meanwhile, was completing a graduate degree in music industry administration from Cal State Northridge and was living in the San Fernando Valley with his longtime girlfriend, Mariah, and their young son, Lux. Running the ranch and a nonprofit wasn’t in his five-year plan “because I wanted to be a big music star,” he says—more on that later—but he stepped into the role on one condition: “If I’m going to do the horse thing, I have to do it my way.”

The catalyst for the Compton Cowboys as a brand came in mid-2017. “We got a call to do a Guinness commercial,” Hook says. “We were just these cool Black cowboys in this high-level marketing campaign. We spent three days on set shooting—just like filming a movie—and it’s a beautiful piece of art. It’s still the best work we’ve done.”

The experience got him to thinking: “What if we could make this a career?” he says. “What if we could be these cool Black cowboys that shoot movies? I’m like, ‘Boom.’ But if we’re going to do that, it has to be cool. It has to be dope. It has to be fresh. So, I said to my boys, ‘What if we just call ourselves the Compton Cowboys? We can make an Instagram page, make a website, do a logo. Let’s just run with it, man.’ ”

By the time the Guinness campaign came out, the Compton Cowboys were in lockstep as a brand. “We did all our contracts and our trademarks and everything,” Hook says. “I knew once that commercial came out, there would be a storm of interest in what we were doing. And that’s precisely what happened.

“The Compton Cowboys is like an alumni club of the Compton Junior Posse. And that cool brand and aesthetic allows us to tell our story and raise money that we can give back to our nonprofit. That was my vision. I said, ‘If I’m gonna run the nonprofit, I can’t be knocking on doors begging for money. I can’t just go and do GoFundMes. It’s too much work and it’s going to take away from my dream.’ Then I thought, ‘What if I built the whole entertainment business based on the horse thing?’ So, Compton Cowboys is the big engine that drives everything.”

Having decided that, it was important to Hook to distinguish the messaging between the for-profit Compton Cowboys and nonprofit community organization. “I wanted the Compton Cowboys to be the brilliant, edgy side of things,” Hook says. This was not his aunt’s uniformly dressed junior riders. “We got tattoos. We might be drinking or smoking weed, but we’re all good people and we’re all about community,” he says.

With his aunt retiring, he adds, “I wanted her to be able to have that name as her takeaway—she built the Compton Junior Posse and that’s now a legacy name.” So they rebranded the nonprofit as the Compton Junior Equestrians, or CJE for short. “CJE is the extension of my oversight, my management,” Hook says. “Equestrian is a lot cleaner to me.”

Before COVID-19 shut down operations in March, the CJE had about 12 active riders and an equal number of horses. “I like to keep a 1:1 ratio of horses to kids,” Hook says, “because it’s about that hyperfocus on that partnership between a horse and a kid. It’s not about creating summer camp vibes. It’s about focusing on these kids that are underserved and at-risk to give them the attention they need to help them grow up. I’m excited for all this stuff to hopefully clear up soon so we can get back to serving our kids.”

With the ranch closed to his students, who range in age from 10 to 18, Hook is busy planning for their return. “I have two new horses that are in training right now,” he says. “They are young, beautiful, athletic horses from a great stock that came from a championship cowboy out in Texas who donated these horses to our program. But they were so green, and so raw, that you couldn’t ride them. But now that they’re in training, they are going to be ready for my kids when they get back.”

One of Hook’s students is really excited about doing rodeo, he adds, and one of the horses that’s being trained is the one she is eager to ride. “I am excited to put them on a journey together to see how they do,” he says.

Another recent participant in the program is now chasing his dream of being a bull-riding professional. “He’s in camps and doing circuits and junior rodeos, just trying to make a career out of that,” Hook says. “He grew up rough and tough and he had a potentially negative path that he could’ve gone down. But once he came into the ranch, we just coached him up and now he’s fully committed to the Western sports industry. That’s what it’s all about.”

On the Compton Cowboys side of the equation, Hook says, “We’re doing some incredible stuff out here in the culture right now—and I’m actually about to take it to another level.” Which brings us back to the music. Back in June, Hook spent several weeks in the home studio of rapper/producer Andre Young—the legendary Dr. Dre—on Hook’s debut single, “Colorblind,” which he released July 4 under the name Randy Savvy.

“I had been trying to get connected with him anyway because the whole spirit of our brand is N.W.A plus horses,” Hook says. “It’s anti-establishment but it’s community. We’re breaking barriers, standing up, fighting the power. We just added horses to the mix.”

In addition to supporting the work of the CJE, Dre listened to Hook’s music, loved it, and invited him over to his home studio. “He’s like a big homie—like an uncle to me, you know what I mean?” Hook says with a smile. “Now my music video is coming out and he produced my song. It’s super exciting.”

In spite of the pandemic, Hook is having a year for the ages. About a month after California (and much of the country) went into lockdown, Thompson-Hernández published The Compton Cowboys. The book grew out of a feature story that he wrote for The New York Times in March 2018.

“To be honest, I didn’t know this had the makings of a book until the Timesstory came out and dozens of literary agents contacted me,” says the KPCC radio host and podcaster, who spent a year and a half embedded with the Cowboys, experiencing the joys and pains of their daily lives. “I just wanted to create something that was true to their story,” he adds. “Horses have the power to heal, and writing this book helped me understand that.”

Thompson-Hernández, who has a master’s in Latin American studies from Stanford, was in a Ph.D. program in Chicano studies at UCLA prior to becoming a reporter for the Times. (He’s also the son of Kerry Thompson, associate professor of biology at Oxy.) “The access I gained was driven by sincere trust and admiration and connection,” he says. “I grew up minutes away from the Cowboys’ ranch and have so much in common with them. It sometimes felt like I was hanging out with old friends, and I hope that comes out in the book.

“Randy is such an incredible leader,” he adds. “He understands that each person in the Cowboys has different needs and he succeeds in understanding how to interact with everyone. He has really earned their trust.”

The response to the book has been “overwhelmingly positive and supportive,” Hook says. “It’s just been beautiful. The book has helped us raise more money and tell our story and just get people aware about this culture.”

In an era scarred by divisive language and systemic racism, the Cowboys’ story has been “such a positive, uplifting thing for so many people, and they express that through our channels,” he adds. “They come to our social media or websites or send us letters in the mail and tell us how much we are inspiring them. When I start getting down on myself or anything, sometimes I’ll just look at fan mail and it keeps me going.”

Over time, Hook would like to expand the Compton Cowboys aesthetic into a host of lifestyle categories, from breweries and restaurants (“One of our members is a chef”) to clothing and, of course, music. The other side of the operation is fine-tuning the equestrian program and scaling it to ranches all around the world—not just in the inner cities but wherever kids are underserved. “We’re taking it one day at a time, but that’s the bigger mission—to have global operations that are both building business enterprises and doing great work in the community.”

Following the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer in May, Hook and his fellow cowboys were compelled to take action. They joined a peace walk in Compton on June 6, inviting other riders to join them with their horses. “At least 100 other Black cowboys and cowgirls showed up,” Thompson-Hernández­ says. “It was a powerful experience because horses have tended to be used by mounted police units. Seeing Black men and women on horses with the demonstrators was something I had never seen.”

Hook himself describes the experience as “definitely emotional—so many emotions that it’s hard to even articulate. First of all, the whole time I was overwhelmed with joy, just being out there with all the people on horses. We showed up for the walk, and there were all these fans there that brought their own horses.

“Then I was thinking about the legacy of my family and what my aunt’s vision was for changing our community and looking around and thinking, ‘Wow, this was her dream.’ And she gets to see it and we get to live it every day. Finally, I was thinking about the future. Look what we started, look what we’ve done—and look what we can do now.”

Photos by Max S. Gerber, Walter Thompson-Hernández, and Kemal Cilengir.