Reflections on a Year of Racial Uprisings

On February 23, 2020, Ahmaud Marquez Arbery, an unarmed 25-year-old African-American man, was shot while jogging in Georgia, U.S.A. by three white residents. I watched the news about the incident and the aftermath in horror. The “stand your ground” laws were cited as the defence for this fatal shooting: Arbery case exemplifies abuse of ‘stand your ground,’ but the damage is broad and systemic (nbcnews.com)

Many states have enacted so-called “stand your ground” laws that remove any duty to retreat before using force in self-defence. Arbery’s killing, and the delayed investigation and arrests reignited debates about racial inequality and systemic racism.

Despite a pandemic, 2020 has demonstrated the harsh truths of racially motivated violence and police brutality which have been internationally acknowledged and has made the world reflect on the injustices that exist in systems and institutions. I felt my way through 2020 along with the rest of the world, witnessing atrocities such as the death of George Floyd. Reading the stories and watching the protests, I spent hours reflecting on how humans view humans, and how that is enacted in our lived realities.

The title and message of the song is my artistic attempt at reclaiming “Stand Your Ground” for racial justice rather than an excuse for discrimination.

Am I your token POC?
Take a pat on the back
But you don’t see me
Just another stat

Performative acts,
prestigious praise
Degradation
in newfound ways

Diversity is not a metric,
statistic, or bottom line
It is a just way of being
So open up your eyes

Chorus
You do what you want
I don’t get a say
Would I have a voice
If you had your way

Nations divided,
Prejudice abounds
A battle for our lives
Who will stand their ground?

We teach genocide as history
The present is much the same
Take our current story
How we play this human game

A stop at a corner store,
Out for another run,
Never know when out the door
If you’ll see the setting sun

I’m a human being
With goals and ambitions
But what is that to you
And all your ammunition

Dictators, pandemics,
Institutions, wars,
There is no equalizer
We all survive through hope.

Chorus

Should we stay silent?
Or should we grab a bull horn?
Should we stand on our soap box?
Or lobby governments and thrones?

Time to face our biases
Time to face our fears
Time to raise our voices
Institutions get in gear

A human is a human,
It’s time to end the silence,
Don’t fade into darkness
Stand up and fight for justice

A year later, I am heartened by the recent announcement from the Governor of Georgia towards reforming the citizen’s arrest laws in the state: Georgia Governor Announces Bill To Reform Racist Citizen’s Arrest Law | NewsOne

I look to 2021 as a new year, with new hope, new visions, new learnings, new understandings, new beginnings even amidst the challenges we are still enduring.

Displaying Music in Museums

Who says music can’t be put on display in a museum?

In the fall, I went into a meeting with the wonderful folks at Kitchener’s THEMUSEUM to talk about how I could bring junk music into their programming. I discovered that the upcoming exhibition was all about climate change. So, I pitched the idea of installing an exhibit of my own. 

And they agreed!

In the fall, I set out to install an interactive junk music wall at THEMUSEUM’s new pop-up location at the Shops at Waterloo Town Square.

 

Of course, you can’t have an interactive junk music wall without some music to play along with! I created a few instrumental tracks recorded with junk instruments. 

Inspired by the topic of climate change, I created a song especially for this exhibit, Earth Lullaby. This song is about sustainability from an intercultural perspective. The Middle Eastern melody and guitar line represents where I come from, and is combined with Western influences (piano) and an indigenous drum and message representing where I currently live.

The song is a narrative of the Raven, a Creator, a magician, a cultural hero, and a trickster in traditional indigenous stories. The Raven uses his cunning to bring important life-giving elements to humanity such as fire, light, and the tides of the sea.

In Earth Lullaby, the Raven warns us about how we are consuming this world through greed. The refrain is influenced by vocable sections in indigenous songs, a way to make music accessible across different indigenous nations and languages during shared musical experiences.

 

Sustainability is a global issue which ties us all together, regardless of race, language, ability, or location. We all share this one planet. I wanted this song to reflect my roots (Egypt), and where I currently live (Canada). I am honoured to have worked alongside inspiring Indigenous elders and musicians on Earth Lullaby for both the music and the Indigenous teachings. This song is truly a remarkable collaboration of artists from an array of traditions. The result is an elegant mix of musical influences bringing diverse voices together to speak about a global concern in one accord.

A Musical Narrative of Homelessness

Photo from a A Better Tent City Waterloo Region provided by the Social Development Centre of Waterloo Region

A Musical Narrative of Homelessness

After taking some time to work on grant applications and working out the logistics of this community album, I began making more connections in the community and exploring conversations happening in the media. One person I spoke to was Aleksandra Petrovic Graonic , Executive Director of the Social Development Centre of Waterloo Region. She reached out to me at a community dinner and asked if I would consider writing a song about the affordable housing crisis in the Region of Waterloo. 

The crisis has been featured in the news as of late. Even in my own neighbourhood, near downtown Kitchener, there have been concerns about high rise developments and gentrification displacing affordable units and housing as well as shelters.

The Social Development Centre of Waterloo Region collaborated with the University of Waterloo to produce Life Stories of Displacement, a series of podcasts where local residents who live on low incomes and have experienced marginalization in its many forms spoke about their stories.

These interviews highlighted many things; the challenges such as the limitations with systems and resources, the stigma of being a homeless person in our community. But they also featured uplifting stories of grassroots community circles of support. When Aleksandra told me about the initiative, I decided to take a weekend and immerse myself in all of the material available. I listened to the podcasts available online (there were six at the time). I read the transcripts from all the interviews. I reviewed the thematic analysis done by the researchers.

And I got angry.

I got angry at how the system is failing. I got angry at how people could be treated like dirt. I got angry about unfair stereotypes and unjust circumstances.

I gravitated toward one particular story: Wayne’s story. The way Wayne spoke about his frustration with society’s labels and how life sometimes “just takes wheels off your wagon” inspired me to start jotting down lyrics. Wayne suffered from mental health and personal issues that basically stripped him of his entire livelihood. 

Listen to Wayne’s Interview:  We seem to be a society of labels

Wayne’s Poetry: Don’t Laugh At Me 

It took three days for me to finish the lyrics with the ear of my bandmate, Len McCarthy. For three days, I was steeped in anger for what Wayne and the 14 other interviewees has had to deal with in their lives and how we, as a society, have decided to respond to people in these circumstances. Their stories inspired the song, For the Weary.

I met Wayne and worked with him on this song to make sure it reflected his narrative in sound and lyrics. Near the end of process, I shared our rough recording of the song with Wayne at Queen Street Commons Café over tea. He got teary eyed and told me that we had captured his sentiments perfectly. 

With Wayne’s full endorsement, we officially had a song from community, for community!

Len McCarthy, Jeff Cowell and I headed into the recording studio for a couple of hours.

 

Wayne noted that the heartbeat rhythm in this song reflected how he continued to persevere, fight, and survive despite all his hardships. 

Having a safe place to rest our head should be a universal right.

This song was used as the theme song for the Social Development Centre of Waterloo Region’s podcast, Homes 4 All, featured on CKMS Radio Waterloo 102.7, providing listeners with recommendations for meaningful grassroots solutions.

Homes 4 All Episode 1: Changing Mindsets 

Update February 1, 2021

The Unsheltered Campaign spearheaded by the Social Development Centre of Waterloo Region is a campaign led by community advocates to provide 24/7 alternatives to shelter for all unsheltered people in Waterloo Region. Learn more about the advocacy work happening in our community and how you can help by visiting: www.civichubwr.org/unsheltered-campaign

Photo from a A Better Tent City Waterloo Region provided by the Social Development Centre of Waterloo Region