Hordes of Richmond youth and a sprinkling of elders overflowed the RYSE Center Tuesday evening, filling every seat, couch, and tabletop. They gathered to celebrate the premier of “Street Literature” a hip-hop song and video created by local youth to speak out against the criminalization of minorities. The RYSE Center is an organization for youth that focuses on social justice.
Gemikia Henderson, a 20-year-old filmmaker, was inspired to make the music video after she watched the George Zimmerman verdict on TV. She went to bed disgusted, she said, and had a dream about making a music video. “I remember sitting there thinking, why don’t I just do a music video for Trayvon?”
But after doing some research, Henderson found that many videos already existed on the topic. Looking to her Richmond community, she decided there was so much more to be said.
“So we incorporated Oscar Grant, Israel Hernandez, Darius Simmons,” said Henderson. “The purpose of the video is not just to highlight the Trayvon Martin case, but to highlight all young people of color that have lost their lives to such tragic incidents. It’s time for our voices to be heard.”
For Henderson, it’s also personal. She lost two best friends to violence as a teenager. “It was kind of a memorial for them too,” she said. “I lost so many over the years that it’s not only my voice but it’s their voice too.”
Throughout the five-minute video, a seemingly ominous figure cloaked in a black hoodie appears in different locations, including the Fruitvale Bart station, where Grant was murdered. The rappers passing by look at him suspiciously. But at the close of the video, each rapper is seen removing the black hoodie. The point: It could be anyone under there.
“That could have happened to any one of us that was here tonight. Any one of us could have been Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin, or Israel Hernandez,” said Henderson. “And since we weren’t, and were blessed that we weren’t, we might as well stand up for them, since nobody else is. That’s the whole purpose of me doing the work that I do here.”
Over a dozen youth worked together for two months to produce the music video.
The video could not have been possible without direction from Manuel Floriano, another video production assistant at the RYSE Center and “rising Richmond director and photographer” said his supervisor and mentor Mark Oltmanns. Floriano, 20, saw the vision that Henderson had for the music video and was on board from the beginning. Floriano said he thought it would be a good look for Richmond.
“In the media, they portray Richmond as this horrible city, but we’re here to say we’re not horrible people, we’re human beings as well” he said. “I just want to be here to inspire that one Mexican kid who doesn’t think that the world is theirs. But the world is theirs, and everything is possible with hard work, dedication, and passion.”
Jahi Johnson, William Hartfield, David Alacaraz, and Donte Clark are the rappers in “Street Literature.” Johnson, who knew Oscar Grant personally, said he still reels from the killing. “I still can’t believe to this day that I’m never gonna see him again, it’s like I say in my verse on the song, ‘I’m never gonna get to shake his hand again.’”
“Street Literature” is the beginning of a longer, maybe never-ending project, said Henderson. “There’s so much work to be done. I don’t think it’s ever gonna be done,” said Henderson. “I don’t care if it’s a PSA, a documentary, another music video, a song, we just not gonna stop telling our stories. We’re not gonna let our voice not be heard.”