Ian Kamau breaks down “Black Bodies” and the effects of violence on youth
by Ian Kamau (from iankamu.com)
As I write this I am sitting in a cafe in Junction in Nairobi, Kenya; one of the places that made me decide to record the album One Day Soon. I came here after spending two months travelling through South Africa (Capetown, Port Elizabeth, East London, Grahamstown, Durban, Pretoria, Johannesburg) and am now on the verge trying to confirm a trip/show in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
I have been away from Toronto, for almost twelve weeks in a particularly violent summer for the city. Anyone who has worked with young people in the areas affectionately branded (yes I mean branded) as ‘priority neighbourhoods’ by government and large non-profit agencies knows that this type of violence is not unprecedented, unfortunately in many parts of Toronto it is quite regular.
What is different about this violence, as in the case of Jane Creba on boxing day a few years ago, is that these shootings have been ‘random,’ they have put people in danger who don’t usually feel that they are vulnerable to this type of violence and that freaks them/us out. What incidents like this should reveal is how privileged many of us are to live in relative safety. Many people around Toronto and many people around the globe do not enjoy this type of privilege. For some reason we are more afraid of ‘random’ violence because it might take the lives of ‘innocent’ people. The idea of ‘innocence’ is however a value judgement on human life. ‘Innocent’ people are more valuable than ‘the guilty’ by societies standards. Unfortunately ‘guilt’ is often perceived. I’ll explain. When I walk into banks, corner stores and certain neighbourhoods I personally can be perceived as potentially guilty or at least worthy of fear despite my good intention, it comes along with the territory of being a black male in North America (and almost anywhere else in the world quite frankly).
Many young people in Toronto, often but not exclusively black , often but not exclusively male have lost their lives in Rexdale, Jane & Finch, Esplanade, Jungle, P.O., Regent Park, Blake Street, Malvern etc. etc. etc. for a long time and there hasn’t been this kind of outrage as the Jane Creba shooting or the Eaton Centre shooting that happened a few weeks back. All loss of life is tragic because all life is valuable. We show our entitlement when we think our safety is worth more than the many people who live with this kind of violence every day as a result of their economic standing, physical environment or social standing. If you are more upset by Jane Creba than Chantel Dunn for instance, you might be practicing this form or prejudice, as a matter of fact, if you live in Toronto and you know the name Jane Creba and not the name Chantel Dunn you might be subject to our medias prejudice. Why are we more outraged when this happens close to us? Why are we more outraged when the victim looks like us? What is the value of a human life?
It is spectacularly short-sighted to think that the answer to this type of violence is throwing money at the issue, more police, tougher jail sentences or kicking people out of the city (a suggestion from our amazingly short sighted Toronto mayor). If I continued to have faith in the non-profit sector I might say that the answer is more programs or something cliche like that, but unfortunately I don’t believe that the answer as that simple. The answer is somewhere in what our society values and what society does not value (I feel like I could write an entire book on society and value.. so I’ll just leave it at that).
A few years ago I saw a young man get shot in my neighbourhood; heard shots, looked out the back window of my apartment down to the street where I used to ride my bike as a kid and saw this young man on his knees holding his chest and stomach while his friend called the police. Three weeks later this young man passed away in the hospital due to his injuries. His name wasJermaine, he was not the first or the last to die of a gunshot wound in Esplanade, and my neighbourhood is not known as a particularly dangerous one. I did not know this young man and I could choose whether to be involved or not despite our proximity; another privilege.
A few weeks later his mother came to lay flowers and ask the press for support in helping to find his murderer, she came with his girlfriend and his new baby.
This incident was the impetus for the writing of the song Black Bodies. It was different to me to feel the closeness of this violence as opposed to thinking about it academically, and I still didn’t feel the effects personally; I personally didn’t lose anyone I had a relationship with.
Black Bodies references the line in the song “Strange Fruit” by Billie Holiday (later covered by Nina Simone), specifically the line “black bodies swinging in the southern breeze, strange fruit hanging from the Poplar trees.” The bridge of ‘Black Bodies’ specifically makes multiple references to the song ‘Strange Fruit.’ ‘Black Bodies’ is an attempt to re-contextualize the lynching of black people, specifically black men. At one stage people were being lynched by racists simply for being black, now, in addition to the justice system, education system, economic and social systems lynching us (statistically black people are the highest represented in prisons even where they are not the majority, highest represented in terms of drop out rates, are large populations in poverty stricken communities and are often high occupants of what some call the ‘under class) we are also highly represented as victims of violence, gun violence specifically and often from our own community. Unfortunately I now know people who “occupy both sides of the trigger” and it has changed my perspective. Some I supposed would believe that this has only to do with blacks as people, an enormous and prejudice simplification of the problem that denies so many historical, economic and social factors as to be almost laughable, if the reality completely serious (but again, I digress).
Myself and Randall Thorne (RT) started disguising a concept for the visuals for this song over a year ago; we applied for and received a VideoFACT grant (which I wasn’t expecting). The original idea was a short documentary with the mothers of victims of gun violence from different part ofToronto telling their stories form their perspective. We went and met with five families who had lost their sons to violence and listened to their stories, their frustrations, their pain and their joy. For me, despite this idea not panning out, this was the most important part of me creating this song. Unfortunately because of the sensitivity of the subject matter we ended up not being able proceed with the original idea for the video as we had envisioned it and decided to go a more traditional route due to logistics and an over-extended production schedule.
I would however like to thank all the mothers and families that we met with for sharing their stories, opening their doors and more than anything educating us about a side of these stories that I still don’t feel like has been properly explored. Thank you so much for your time, resilience, strength and vulnerability.
Below are the lyrics to the song (I thought for this one it was important). Thanks again to all the families that we spoke to and thank you to RT and Rinku for being so patient and working so hard on this project.
This video is dedicated to all those people who have lost their lives too soon.
Black Bodies (Lyrics)
(Verse 1) In the shadow of the gun the unsung live away from the sun / the river of peace it’s often the shallowest one / though once some hung to silence our voices / violence and riots for denying our choices / now the choice it’s for black boys to fall like rain / bullets make a body fold like paper cranes / our lives at a time both sacred and profane / and black folk selling black folk crack cocaine / and the business is good / customers come to visit if you live in the hood / so now we love the ghetto we believe it’s our home / the streets are our kingdom the corner our throne / we’re like flies in the fibers or spiders webs / trapped / taking orders like Simon says / we no longer court the truth but seek a bullet instead / ‘cause the world barely cares if we’re alive or dead
(Chorus) Black bodies on the concrete / falling down / calling out / save our souls / black bodies on the concrete / falling down / calling out / save us / black bodies on the concrete just like mine / we believe it’s fine / to pay no mind / black bodies on the concrete / here and there / everywhere / who really cares?
(Verse 2) Like stakes in the heart bullets like bats tend to fly after dark / so we make sure the children are home from the park / a shame, everyday another name to discuss / flood the streets with their guns and they blame it on us / always at the back of the bus as they say / Jane made the front page after boxing day / these guns you can get them off the streets of the shelves / so the youth make the purchase to protect themselves / parents unaware of what the new reality is / tragically a catastrophe where families live / and many black boys becoming men on their own / you won the lottery if you got a father at home / so we find the wrong influence looking for a father figure / don’t see the irony in why we call each other “nigger” / it kills the concept of a brother or a sister / no surprise we occupy both sides of the trigger / standing in wonder / under the cover of the sun / listen the distant thunder of the summer of the gun / put the truth right in front of our eyes we don’t see it / that’s why these young brothers say “peace” but don’t mean it / fighting wars unaware of what we’re dying for / foolish, the streets they ain’t mine of yours / so we cry and say goodbye to the lives we know / ‘cause as fast as they come they go
(Bridge) Our mothers weep / for their fallen youth / in this urban war / we are the hardened troops / still on the front line / yes the strangest fruit / falling like autumn leafs / cut off from the root / no longer southern trees these days it’s city streets / what a brutal fait we force ourselves to meet / by our own hands / so those that know won’t speak / what a cost we pay for thinking life is cheap / our spirits weak / we pray our souls to keep / bullets sing lullabies for an endless sleep
(Verse 3) Like playing with flame / kids are killers now their making a name / only some but our community it’s taking the blame / though the killer knows the blame is essentially his / most folks are unaware of who the enemy is / it’s distorted, whenever a life is aborted before its time / and our kind sure can’t afford it / still it seems that the dream of the streets won’t cease / but we know that blessed are those that make peace / guns make a mockery of the life we treasure / leaving flesh twisted like treble clefs in a measure / calling out loud screaming “love” we can’t say it enough now / we’re smearing our blood on the pavement / giving the same pain / making the same claims / living the same shame / killing to maintain / because we don’t trust we doubt first / a life without worth it’s prone to outbursts / so we’re still dying / only the killer has changed / Africans once in the waves the worth of a slave / now the dope on the street is the rope on the tree / and these guns are the box kicked from under our feet / the hate is not replaced it’s the fists in the fight / respect for life it’s rotting before it’s ripe / we didn’t chose these ghettos, favelas and slums / but it seems they made these Goddamn guns… for black bodies