Ed. note: As long as humans have been making music, it’s been used as a form of protest. As part of KQED Arts’ 100 Days project, documenting artists’ responses to our new administration in its earliest days, I’ve asked Bay Area musicians to get in touch with songs they’ve written or recorded that serve as reactions to our current political climate. A new one is posted each week.
When 12-year-old Tamir Rice was killed by Cleveland police officers in 2014 — after a caller reported a young black male brandishing a gun, which turned out to be a toy — Americans reacted in the now-familiar ways we respond to police shootings. There were protests in the streets, hashtags on Twitter, and press conferences on the evening news.
But for Dame Drummer, a Cleveland native and a father of two, the shooting was personal.
“I felt helpless,” says Dame, a drummer, singer-songwriter, and producer who’s lived in Oakland since 2012, working with a broad swath of artists in hip-hop, R&B and jazz. “As a father of a young black boy, it was, ‘My son likes to play with Nerf guns. It could have been him.'”
That “place of heartbreak,” says the musician, is what inspired “Black and Beautiful,” a track from Dame’s forthcoming album LOVEolution. With lyrics that speak directly to black youth about the importance of reclaiming their roots, taking pride in their history and rejecting negative messages about their worth from both inside and outside their communities, it’s based on a poem by the spoken word artist OneTruth, a close friend of Dame’s from the open mic scene back home in Cleveland. Dame composed the melody and hook around it, then reached out to two musician friends with whom he’d worked before — pianist/emcee Kev Choice and rapper Zumbi from Zion I, who promptly responded with guest verses.
The video, directed by Kevin Taylor, includes poignant scenes of children — two of them Dame’s own son, 9, and daughter, 4 — in and around Oakland, dropping in on neighborhood stores and running into the track’s featured artists. Spliced into their journey are flashes of racist cartoons and other jarring imagery from slavery’s dark past. Throughout the video, people are also seen wearing crude face masks — which, Dame says, stand in for the stereotypes that young black kids must resist internalizing.
LOVEolution, which is Dame’s sophomore solo effort, doesn’t have a release date yet, but the songs that are completed include features by Mistah FAB, Viveca Hawkins, and more. There are love songs, says Dame, and more upbeat party songs as well. “I just want to use my gift to make art that’s positive, that speaks to my community,” he says. “It’s my obligation as an artist, and it’s also my responsibility to my kids, to be their teacher.”
In the video for “Black and Beautiful,” it’s no accident that the kids’ journey culminates at the Roses in Concrete school in East Oakland, a two-year-old community school attended predominantly by students of color, with a curriculum geared toward social justice. (The school is named after a poem by Bay Area native Tupac Shakur.) The kids there were quick to understand the messages of the song when Dame came in to explain it, he says. They also helped make the masks in their classrooms.
“That’s a school that empowers the black and brown community, and [those students] are already sharp,” he says. “I came and told them, ‘Those masks represent all the lies, everything that’s negative that’s said about you.'” Which, of course, is what makes their smiles so very sweet when they finally pull the masks off.