Baltimoreans use photos, music, other outlets to make sense of Freddie Gray's death, ensuing unrest

Since last April, Baltimore artists have responded to unrest with photos, music, other outlets.

Sometimes, it seems that the world has to fall completely apart before it can be put back together. One of the great paradoxes of living through a time when everything is up for grabs is that nothing is out of reach.

Throughout history, periods of tumult and upheaval have also served as pressure cookers for generating lasting, meaningful works of art — and often relatively quickly.

April of 2015 was a watershed period in the city's history, particularly the weeks between Freddie Gray's arrest on April 12 and the May 1 announcement that six Baltimore police officers were being charged in his death. It was one of those jolting shocks to the system that have a clear "before" and "after," a period when things change very rapidly, when life is altered in possibly permanent ways.

In the 12 months that has followed, Baltimore has experienced a burst of creativity.

To local artists, it has felt vitally necessary to form the roiling muck of thoughts and feelings generated by the death of the 25-year-old man and by the subsequent confrontation between police officers and brick-wielding citizens into something that makes sense, into poetry or a sculpture or a melodic phrase. The words and pictures were so vivid and insistent that they practically shoved their way out. They almost demanded that the artists sit down — not tomorrow, but right now — and let them emerge.

"People are trying to find a creative outlet that will help them understand what happened," said Karsonya Wise Whitehead, an associate professor of communications at Loyola University, and the author of the soon-to-be-published "RaceBrave," a book of writings inspired by the unrest. (Whitehead occasionally contributes to The Sun.)

Gray rose in stature after his death, Whitehead said, because it was his fatal ride in that police van that helped Baltimore find its voice.

"His death became a symbol for all the frustration that people had been feeling for a long time," she said. "Freddie Gray was one of our own, and it became very important to name what was happening in our city. All that tension came to a head, and the only way it could be expressed was by writing a song or throwing a rock."

There are artists now, in particular, young artists of color, whose responses to the tragedy have propelled them into the national and even international spotlight.

The most obvious example is Devin Allen, the photographer who at age 26 went from posting his work on Instagram to seeing one of his shots on the cover of Time magazine — just the third instance in which that coveted spot had been awarded to an amateur photographer. Allen is now a staff photographer and media designer for Under Armour and is planning a possible showing of his artwork in Venice and Rome.

He's glad he can make images that speak to and for his audience. He's thrilled he can use his newfound celebrity to get cameras into the hands of at-risk kids. He just wishes his opportunities hadn't resulted from someone else's misfortune.

"I'm not riding Freddie Gray's coattails," Allen said. "I was catapulted into the spotlight. It's sad to me that we as artists are getting all this attention because of the death of another person."

He isn't the only Baltimore artist to unexpectedly find himself with a wide new following.

That roster includes D. Watkins, a former drug dealer turned author and college professor; the poet Kondwani Fidel, whose spoken word recitation on YouTube before a high school class has been viewed more than 2.8 million times; and Joy Postell, who released "Hands Up, Don't Shoot" on the day of Gray's funeral. The R&B soul song brought her a level of attention that lead to her first-ever tour.

The 23-year-old Postell, who grew up in Baltimore, watched national coverage of the unrest from Los Angeles, where she was attending college.

"I felt very helpless because I was so far away," Postell said. "I just felt the need to contribute something, even if it was just a song."

It's difficult to imagine being an artist creating in Baltimore during the past year whose work hasn't in some way been affected by Freddie Gray.

That's true for the city's largest companies, such as Center Stage, which scrapped one of its planned productions to instead mount Dominique Morisseau's "Detroit '67," for the anniversary month.

After the uprising broke out, composer Kevin Puts and filmmaker James Bartolomeo felt the need to revise their multimedia piece that attempts to capture the many faces of Baltimore. "The City," which was commissioned by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, celebrated its world premiere last week. And the Johns Hopkins University launched "Redlining Baltimore," a series of conversations and original artworks aimed at addressing the root causes of discrimination.

Members of the city's smaller arts groups have felt similarly driven to make their voices heard.

On Friday, Cohesion Theatre will debut "Force Continuum," which playwright Kia Corthron wrote in response to Gray's death. Judah Adashi's "Rise," a choral work about the civil rights movement from the 1960s to the present, will take its Baltimore bow on Tuesday at Mt. Vernon Place United Methodist Church. And filmmakers Bobby Marvin Holmes and Justin Gladden will premiere their documentary, "Free Young Blood: Combating the Mass Incarceration of Black Males," today at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture.

"Justin and I had no choice but to center in on the unrest," Holmes said of his film. "Baltimore is our home. This is where our families live. We've been covering Baltimore for over 10 years, so the stories are very intimate to us."

The list goes on.

Some artists are pleased, if bewildered, that things they've been saying for their entire lives are suddenly finding a receptive audience. After Freddie Gray's death, the media began courting a group which had long been ignored: young African-American artists living in Baltimore's poorest neighborhoods.

For instance, before Gray died, Watkins was under contract to write two books, a collection of his essays and a memoir, that draw on his experiences growing up in East Baltimore. Some have likened them to dispatches from Baltimore's urban war zone.

But it wasn't until after Gray's death that Watkins became an in-demand pundit for such mainstream publications as The New York Times, The Guardian, The Baltimore Sun and Rolling Stone. Watkins' book of essays, "The Beast Side: Living (and Dying) While Black in America" is in its second printing, and his autobiography, "The Cook-Up: A Crack Rock Memoir," comes out on May 3.

Watkins' message hasn't changed. But, his audience has.

"People began listening in a different way," Watkins said. "We began reaching a whole lot of places that normally wouldn't be interested in what someone like me from the community had to say."

He's proud that he and other writers from his neighborhood played a vital role in the way the unrest is viewed worldwide. As he put it:

"We were the first ones to say, 'Don't call us thugs.' We were the first ones to introduce the narrative that the confrontation with police wasn't just reckless destruction, but our response to an oppressive system that has been in place since our grandparents were growing up.

"We said, 'This is bigger than a riot.' We talked about it being an uprising, and we used that language over and over again until other people started using that language, too. We controlled the narrative, and whoever controls the narrative controls history."

For Jana Hunter, lead singer of the indie-rock act Lower Dens, the unrest revealed a schism in Baltimore's popular music community between white and black musicians.

Last July, Hunter wrote an op-ed for the music website Pitchfork titled "White Privilege and Black Lives in the Baltimore Music Scene" in which she described what she perceived as the marginalization of artists of color.

"Whatever benefits there are for non-black artists and musicians to live in and move to Baltimore are directly indebted to the majority black population of Baltimore," wrote Hunter, who is white. "Our liberties come at the cost of theirs."

That fall, the singer put her money where her mouth is by bringing with her on tour Abdu Ali, an experimental African-American musician whom Hunter greatly admires.

Ali was nervous about the experiment, as he and Lower Dens sound nothing alike.

After he performed, "some people asked me to come back," Ali said. "I think it was a good, unsuspected combination. I think more artists need to tour together."

The unrest also has changed traditional definitions of what it means to be an artist. Shortly after the uprising, the Maryland Historical Society put out a public call to amateur and professional photographers for images documenting the unrest.

Thousands of images — many shot on smart phones — were submitted and later posted online at baltimoreuprising2015.org. The images are being compiled into a video that will go on view at the Historical Society on June 29.

Charles Bethea, the Lewis Museum's chief curator, thinks the technological advances that put smart phones into the hands of virtually everyone means that now when life-changing events occur, the impact is more visceral and immediate than it has been at any time in history.

"Because of the technology, people are seeing events as they unfold almost in real time," he said. "You can send it out into the world, and it almost instantly it goes viral. In the past, people had to catch it by word of mouth, or in a newspaper or on television."

The Baltimore-born, MacArthur Award-winning actress and playwright Anna Deavere Smith was in the city shortly after the unrest doing research for her work-in-progress, "Notes from the Field: Doing Time in Education" about the school-to-prison pipeline.

Smith said she has "seen an incredible shift in the public's interest in vulnerable African-American people" that began in the summer of 2014 after Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson.

Smart phones weren't a significant factor in documenting race-related violence before then, she said, because they hadn't yet saturated low-income markets.

"What makes these little gadgets so powerful is the truth of what they show," Smith said. One person portrayed in her show is Kevin Moore, the Baltimorean who filmed Gray's arrest on his cell phone.

"News crews choose what to leave in and what to edit out," she said. "They're engaged in a form of theater, and everyone knows it. As Kevin Moore said, 'Cell phones are the only weapons we have to show what's really going on.' "

Whether or not those "weapons" in the forms of photos, films and murals will result in lasting change remains an open question. Most artworks created during any period have short lives and then disappear.

But one or two might stand the test of time, to be read or performed or viewed decades or even centuries later. It's those works of art that help keep the conversation alive.

"In the year since Freddie Gray died, have Baltimore's policies changed for the better?" Whitehead asked, and then answered her own question.

"They haven't.

"Has Freddie Gray's community changed for the better?

"It hasn't.

"What I am seeing is a new sense of agency in the community. Young people are organizing and claiming their voice and their space. They're saying, 'Baltimore is our city and we still have to live here.'

"That is where you can see the change. At least, that's the hope."

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

wesley.case@baltsun.com

Sun reporters Tim Smith and Quinn Kelley contributed to this article.

Unrest events

For events marking the anniversary of the unrest, go to:

http://bsun.md/1RT6KrL

More arts figures weigh in

Read what other Baltimore arts figures are saying about the works they're creating and programming related to the unrest.

http://bsun.md/20Js9cI

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