Sitting down at a table in the quiet Midtown coffee shop where she works, Malaika Aminata Clements watches "The Art of Organized Noize," a documentary about the Atlanta trio of musicians responsible for crafting the sound of OutKast and many others, from a TV mounted to the wall.
She almost loses her breath talking about the group. "It's just like that classic Atlanta sound. When you hear it and you hear Atlanta that's like, that's all them," she says. "But the way that it feels it's like the perfect soundtrack to just everything. The feeling of what it's like. It makes sense."
She talks about how different places—Baltimore, California, the south—have their own vibes that affect how you unconsciously navigate the place, from how you walk and talk to how you dance.
"Sometimes I describe cities like people," Clements says. "Baltimore's definitely like a… yo, it's like a teenager—just coming into realizations about things, and knows its power, but you know, it's been exposed to a bunch of stuff that might not be the best, but also knows there's more out there."
"I kind of just go places based on my intuition," she continues. She came from Atlanta to Baltimore in 2009 to attend Morgan State University, where she majored in print journalism.
Last year, during the Baltimore Uprising, Clements marched, walked, ran from place to place, and occasionally sat down, with her camera, filming what was going on. Eventually, roughly eight hours of footage, recorded between April 23 and May 1, became the 50-minute documentary "Not About a Riot." It serves as a snapshot of the Baltimore Uprising, a breathless and ever-evolving pastiche of that week. Clements says it's still not technically finished.
There's no linear story, and it shows a range of expressions from people; people are sad, fed up, and jubilant. People talk casually about the National Guard blocking off streets, about buses shut down. People stand and dance and rap on stoops after curfew, people march and chant and raise their fists into the air. A middle-aged black woman standing on the sidewalk at night, at an intersection, talks about the similarities between this time and the 1968 riots. In Penn North, amid a throng of out-of-town media on April 28, Clements captured one reporter asking a young black protester if this was fun for him.
"Does this look like a fun time to you?" the protester said.
Clements says that although her impulse to pick up a camera and start filming was borne out of her own need to process what she was feeling, "Not About a Riot" wound up being more about people's collective and varied experiences. It didn't need a traditional structure, and it kind of asks people what they're feeling, rather than creating a linear story with a rigid frame. "It showed an authenticity to a bunch of people's narrative," she says, describing it as "a 360 view of the situation."
For a month last summer, Clements was in Ghana and she says friends there, who'd seen the mass media coverage of Baltimore, asked her what was going on. One person mentioned that he was following Baltimore photographer Devin Allen on Instagram, which gave him another perspective.
These conversations helped motivate Clements to finish and share the documentary. "If we didn't have these other people who were in media who were telling the story from their own personal point of view, who were capturing those stories, then history would go down as whatever Fox, CNN, and whoever else—ABC, NBC—whatever they're projecting or whatever they're showing [as] history," she says. "But when you have other voices...that capture something that shows what people are saying, what people are doing, what people are feeling at a point in time, then that changes the whole story."
"Not About a Riot" first screened (without sound) at Artscape last year, thanks to Luminous Intervention—the artist/activist group which Clements has since joined. And she wasn't even finished editing it yet. She credits Nia Hampton (a City Paper contributor), who helped by booking screenings and pushed Clements to finish editing the film, as a co-producer.
While Clements recognizes the value of making art from pain ("Especially black people," she says, "we've always taken pain and made it beautiful"), she wants art to be tangible and to provide insight, to move past "the spectacle" of pain. She's still working out how to do that, how to make the film screenings go beyond conversations and to "create real actions." At the first full screening of the film at EMP Collective last November, she and Hampton organized a salon style art exhibition in the space.
"[I'm] trying to make sure what's surrounding the film, what can be grown from the film, happens—'cause there's no point showing it if it's just to be shown," she says.
Hesitant to stick with any particular label for her work (as a filmmaker or an artist or a writer), Clements embraces fluidity in medium and form. "Usually if something's powerful for you, it's moving for other people in some way." Documenting things, she says, "that [are] tangible not only helps that urge that you have at that moment to get whatever it is out and to share your truth, but also helps others."
Somewhere around the second or third day after April 27, Clements frantically began planning an arts-centric rally that began in Sandtown, passed down North Avenue, and ended at the Spin Cycle laundromat on Howard and 21st streets, where Melani Douglass' "Love on the Line" pop-up performance/exhibition series was just about to start, on Sunday, May 3. Douglass and "Love on the Line" performer Stephanie Safiyatou Edwards, of the Baltimore Girls, appear a couple of times in "Not About a Riot"—a few of many familiar faces in the documentary. In one scene, Douglass talks about the reason for the laundromat setting for her project in the context of what was going on during the uprising, that this place represents various types of cleansing, care, and remedies.
In addition to cleansing and cleaning up, this time was also a time of frenzy, of coming together, of running to catch up with protests—all of which the documentary shows. Everything felt urgent, says Clements. "It shows what people can accomplish when they just make the decision to do it."