WASHINGTON -- Since Freddie Gray’s death after a “rough ride” in police custody, the nation has become familiar with the systemic problems facing Baltimore.
Charm City’s school system is, essentially, segregated; the police routinely harass civilians and the city’s government prevents them from speaking publicly about the alleged facts of civil suits they file in response. This is the same police force that poorly handled the protests and riots that rocked the city following Gray’s funeral on April 27.
The western portion of the city, which includes Gray's neighborhood of Sandtown-Winchester, is home to over half of all people released from Maryland's prison system each year. The violent crime rate in the neighborhood is 23 incidents per 1,000 residents -- almost double the city's rate as a whole and six times the national rate. More than half of the area's residents ages 16 to 64 are out of work, and many people end up with minor drug convictions.
R&B group Dru Hill wants to address that by doing what they do best -- making music. “Change,” a new song from the group, which rose to prominence in the '90s, discusses some of the most high-profile cases of extrajudicial killings of unarmed black children and teens -- including 12-year-old Tamir Rice, 18-year-old Michael Brown and 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.
The group decided to release the song on Monday to coincide with the start of the first of six trials of officers charged in Gray’s death.
Along with the release, the group is launching #BMoreNow, an international campaign dedicated to facilitating change by encouraging conversations addressing the most debilitating issues facing communities -- such as poverty, racial discrimination, poor educational opportunities and health care access.
Dru Hill is also partnering with several Baltimore-area businesses including The Fudgery, the fudge shop where they were discovered, which is creating an exclusive fudge flavor to raise money for Baltimore; The Stokey Project, an entertainment company that aims to inspire people to use their talents to succeed and is led by Carmichael "Stokey" Cannady, a former drug dealer-turned-activist; and the Baltimore Community Fund. The group will send all proceeds from “Change” to the fund’s Endowment for Neighborhoods, as well as other charities over the course of 2016.
The Huffington Post talked with Mark "Sisqó" Andrews, Larry "Jazz" Anthony, Tamir "Nokio" Ruffin and Antwuan "Tao" Simpson, all of whom grew up in Baltimore, about the song and the future they would like to see for their city.
What inspired this song?
Nokio: We were out of town on the days when everything first started happening and I was sitting in my room ... and I was like, “Man, we gotta do something. What can we do?” One of the ideas we came [up] with was doing the song and it was really just watching TV, growing up in the neighborhood, you know, experiencing different things and just kind of like -- it was just like a burst of emotion came out.
Is there anything in particular about Freddie Gray’s death that resonated with any of you?
Nokio: Growing up in Baltimore, you see different things. Like I said, the neighborhood that everything happened [in] just happened to be the neighborhood that I grew up in and that we used to rehearse in. It’s just one of those things that, after a while, enough is enough. And regardless of how people feel across the board, when it comes down to unrest and things like that -- all that we know at this point is that something happened while he was in police custody.
And now we’re gonna have a chance to get all the facts [in the trial] and see what happened and hopefully, along with that, begin to have a discussion about these incidents and what we can do between community members and police to just have it cease now. Things have been going on for too long … and now’s the time to start some healing and some changes.
That’s one of the things that has stuck out to me the most about Freddie Gray’s case. The public knows absolutely nothing at this point. So, what do you hope this song will add to the police brutality narrative? Or just the conversation that we’re having in this country right now?
Sisqo: One of the reasons I think it resonated, this kind of piggybacks to what Nokio said, about kind of feeling like enough is enough. I can recall being in different parts of the world and seeing different cases of police brutality and every time they would mention … where it happened, I would think to myself, “Please don’t let it be Baltimore.” And soon as I heard it was Baltimore, I said, “Uh oh. It’s about to go down.”
Our city -- most of the city is tough to come up in. And I know, firsthand, a lot of the youth programs we used to have growing up aren’t around anymore, don’t have funding or even have a facility to put these kids in. I just felt like they were just looking for something to do. And when the emotions of this case ran high, [that] made it really difficult for those young kids.
I think the only thing that really kind of got to me was that our families [live] in that Baltimore, Maryland, area. And we were calling because the way it was portraying us on the media was as if the entire city was burning, but it just so happened to be the neighborhood where Nokio lived and where we used to go to rehearse every day.
Nokio: The biggest thing is to start to have a narrative. Like if there could be more understanding on both sides -- understanding from police officers that work the inner-city neighborhoods, understanding the neighborhood that you’re in and the things that happen, getting out and knowing the people. We won’t have to walk around -- especially inner-city youth -- as soon as I see a police officer, I feel like something bad is gonna happen. That’s not a good place to start. And that’s a feeling that we’ve all had since we were kids.
Sort of when you’re in kindergarten and third grade and you see “Officer Friendly” and it’s like, “Oh, maybe I want to be a police officer.” Then you go out and get a little bit older and you’re in your neighborhood and get harassed. Or you have a family member that’s assaulted unnecessarily … The generation now, they don’t wanna hear any talk about anything. Like Sisqo was saying with the youth programs being gone, education being bad, just nothing to do -- it’s like, OK, it’s time for some change. It’s time for something to happen. And if you’re not going to see that in yourself, then we’re gonna make you see it.
There has to be a point where somebody says, we’re gonna break the cycle and we’re really gonna get in here and try to figure out how we can have better community relations so that we can bring back some of the things like the police athletic league … and other things like the rec center that give another direction to their energy so that youth don’t feel like the only way you gone hear me is if I go out here and I really make some noise. It shouldn't have to get to that point.
Based off the lyrics, it looks like y’all are taking a very humanizing approach because, as we all know -- especially in cases of police brutality, black people are not really seen as human. I don’t know if y’all read what Darren Wilson had to say about Mike Brown but he was basically talking about how Brown was this supernatural phenomenon who just had really superhuman strength. Do y’all have any comment on this idea that black people aren’t seen as people?
Nokio: It’s part of the perception that comes from not being in the neighborhood and around us. To not understand where you are and the people that you’re around, there’s gonna be a disconnect and there is gonna be some type of perception that’s not reality. That in context of police brutality is only going to dwindle down and eventually cease with having people come in and understand that all of us aren’t criminals or criminals-in-training. A lot of the kids out here expressing themselves the way they are -- they're very intelligent and have ideas and they just wanna be heard. So if people get the chance to be heard by people [who] don’t understand [them], maybe that will begin to take away part of that stereotype.
Sisqo: Also not having a car and having to walk to the bus stop every day makes you pretty strong [laughs]. People who are underprivileged build more than just character.
You’re right, I feel you. My next question is broader and more visionary. What changes would you like to see in Baltimore?
Sisqo: I would like to see us figure out a way to … have a couple more youth programs, a couple more people step up and sponsor more things for the youth instead of giving up on them. [And] figure out a way to give them something to do to channel that energy. The arts and music are great ways as well as sports. I know that several times before, I’ve bought football uniforms for my old high school. They actually called me last week about being inducted into their music hall of fame -- that’s kind of cool.
But, for me, I would just really like to see more of a concerted effort to help the youth instead of giving up on them.
Nokio: Definitely seeing money go back into education here instead of having schools closing, and overcrowded and not enough teachers. A lot of schools in the inner city, I can remember a few years ago they did a documentary on HBO about me and Jazz’s old high school, Frederick Douglass -- which is actually the high school that a lot of these kids came from when they started rioting at Mondawmin Mall … That’s a big part along with seeing money come into neighborhoods for people who want to open up businesses in their own neighborhood and possibly offer jobs to the youth in the neighborhood. So not only would they be able to work, they wouldn’t have to go way across town and have things interfere with school.
Jazz: Back in the day, you always heard the saying “It takes a village to raise a child.” And I think that whole personal ownership of the community is lost. From your neighborhood watch to … your rec center -- there were so many things included in what was going on that a lot of the new youth that were in the community were known by name. Even the police officers there had a relationship with the business owners there and some of the elders in the community.
It seems everything has been desensitized … We need some positive, creative things to get these kids involved because they don’t believe in nothing anymore. A lot of talk has been given and no action. At the same time you got so many kids dying -- they not really up for a whole bunch of talking at all. Like Sisqo was saying, you gotta be tough to live in the neighborhood, period. The cops really going hard at these kids because they’re not backing down, but at the same time it seems like the whole police force has become a gang. They complain about the kids but, shit, the whole force has become a gang itself. So, really, unification has to be met.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.