All words by Crys Matthews
When the footage surfaced of George Floyd being murdered by a police officer in Minneapolis while several others just watched, every creative of color in my friend circle — singer-songwriters, dancers, poets — started checking in on each other. Most of us are used to lending our art to social justice issues and using our platforms to speak out and stand up, and do so regularly. We were all brokenhearted and outraged about Trayvon, about Tamir, about Sandra, about Philando and Alton, about Stephon, and about Atatiana. But there was something very different this time. Was it because we had just witnessed the killing of Ahmaud Arbery and Breona Taylor too? This just felt…different.
I’m a fairly pensive person (not unusual for preachers’ kids). When things come along that are too big for me to talk about, I usually sing about them instead, so I started writing a song called How Many More. In the process, my tour mate and Singing OUT Tour co-creator Heather Mae, who is white, but whose music is also deeply rooted in social justice issues, said “We have to do something!” We put our heads together and started organizing a concert called Amplify. In 24 hours, we had hundreds of RSVPs to the event, had confirmed artists like poet Dr. C.C. Carter, dance and spoken word duo Nia & Ness, and a handful of some of our favorite singer-songwriters of color like Kyshona Armstrong and Raye Zaragoza, and one of our heroes Holly Near. As the performances began, all (and I mean ALL) of the black artists were in tears at some point, and it caught us all off guard in a way. We are accustomed to wearing our hearts on our sleeves when we perform, but this was…different. There was just too much hurt for us to do our usual compartmentalizing, the thing that allows us to experience traumas like these so regularly and still perform in front of largely white audiences time and time again. It was just raw emotion — beautiful and powerful.
In his book, Why We Can’t Wait, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. says, “Just as a doctor will occasionally reopen a wound, because a dangerous infection hovers beneath the half-healed surface, the revolution for human rights is opening up unhealthy areas in American life and permitting a new and wholesome healing to take place.” This ugliness, like so much of the ugliness we’ve seen in years past, but specifically since 2016, has had an unintended consequence — artists of color are taking our heartbreak, our rage, our fear, our absolute insistence that this no longer be allowed to pass as ‘normal’, and turning it into art. Tom Prasada-Rao wrote a beautiful song called $20-bill, Kyshona’s entire album Listen is a revelation, C.C. Carter, e nina jay and Staceyann Chin’s poetry (just all of it). Dr. King called freedom songs (which, for our purposes, includes but is not limited to poetry, dance, visual art, theater, etc.) “the soul of the movement,” and I think he would be proud of the way artists of color are meeting this moment. “They are more than just incantations of clever phrases designed to invigorate a campaign… [they are] the sorrow songs, the shouts of joy, the battle hymns and the anthems of our movement.” And so, if you are an ally in search of something to help center you as you walk shoulder-to-shoulder with black people, as you, yourselves, meet this moment in the ways you are able, seek out artists of color. We are singing out just as our ancestors did. It is in the deepest fibers of our being. Lean in.
Featured photo by Rah Foard
Crys Matthews is a DC local social justice songwriter and proud black butch lesbian. She is currently on the first ever virtual Pride tour. Her DC/NYC concert is tomorrow, Saturday, June 6th. Tickets can be found here: bit.ly/bytsot66. For all other dates and cities, check out singingouttour.com.