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Five years and some tough times later, three Baltimore artists reflect on the impact of the unrest on their art

Tate Kobang, a Baltimore rapper and musician, returns home for a visit. Kobang said the period of unrest following Freddie Gray's death was a difficult time for him personally. He was photographed at the Canton Waterfront Park. April 21, 2020
Tate Kobang, a Baltimore rapper and musician, returns home for a visit. Kobang said the period of unrest following Freddie Gray's death was a difficult time for him personally. He was photographed at the Canton Waterfront Park. April 21, 2020 (Amy Davis)

Five years into the wake of the unrest sparked by the death of Freddie Gray in police custody, several local artists gained national prominence for the ways they captured the complexity of life in Baltimore. Their growing platforms differed in scope and reach, but always held true to the city’s contradicting impulses.

These brilliant creators refused to ignore Baltimore’s well-documented problems that were apparent well before 2015. They also celebrated the beauty and joy that exists side-by-side with that pain..

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D. Watkins earlier this year at Bocek Park in East Baltimore.
D. Watkins earlier this year at Bocek Park in East Baltimore. (Karl Merton Ferron, Baltimore Sun)

D. Watkins

D. Watkins writes as though the page was on fire, his pen racing along a few words ahead of the flames licking at the margins.

Watkins, a former drug dealer turned college professor turned author, had begun making a name for himself even before the uprising as the author of provocative essays anchored in his economically challenged East Baltimore neighborhood.

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But in the the five years since Freddie Gray’s death, Watkins has signed contracts for five book deals. Three — two books of essays and an autobiography — have already been published.

The fourth is a memoir he‘s helping the Baltimore-born basketball star Carmelo Anthony write. It’s scheduled be published by Gallery Books in the fall of 2021.

The fifth, a meditation on what led Watkins to become a father at the age of 40 will be released by the Hachette Book Group in 2022.

But that’s not all.

Watkins is an editor at large for Salon and a lecturer at The University of Baltimore. He’s among the activists featured in an upcoming HBO documentary directed by the actress Sonja Sohn about the aftermath of the Freddie Gray uprising.

Finally, he’s experimenting with screenwriting under the guidance of former Baltimore Sun writer David Simon, the creator of the critically acclaimed television series “The Wire.” Watkins is one of several writers working on a new HBO miniseries about the Baltimore Gun Trace Task Force corruption scandal. Several officers were convicted or pleaded guilty to robbing citizens of money and drugs — and in some cases planting evidence — for years.

Being in that particular writers room, Watkins exults, “is like college.”

But even the miniseries is far from his greatest current challenge. No, the project that dwarfs all others, the challenge that alternately enthralls and terrifies him is his new family.

Last year, Watkins wed attorney Caron Brace. On Jan. 15, she gave birth to the couple’s first child — a big-eyed, round-cheeked little girl they named Cross Ashlyn.

Watkins has written about running a crack cocaine operation. He has stared down the barrel of a gun and was traumatized by the murder of his revered older brother.

But fatherhood, he writes for Salon, “is the scariest thing that I have ever faced.”

Tate Kobang, a Baltimore rapper and musician, said the period of unrest following Freddie Gray's death was a difficult time for him personally.
Tate Kobang, a Baltimore rapper and musician, said the period of unrest following Freddie Gray's death was a difficult time for him personally. (Amy Davis)

Tate Kobang

One rapper in particular seemed poised to blow up following the unrest: Tate Kobang, who incidentally released his video for “Bank Rolls" on April 19, 2015, the day Gray died.

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The original freestyle track and popular 2015 remix update local producer Tim Trees’ 2000 banger “Bank Roll." None of the songs have the signature Baltimore club sound, but the beat knocks hard with the production of that subculture’s legendary producer Rod Lee. Fearlessly opening the track with the lyrics, “Bitch I’m from Baltimore, you say I was, I’ve never seen you,” Kobang claimed the city at a time when outsiders vilified both it and its residents protesting police violence. At present, the video for the remix (which also references late Baltimore Club Queen K Swift) has over 6 million YouTube views.

Five years later, Kobang, who splits his time between the Baltimore area and others around the country, said that he recognized the track’s significance to so many people at the time.

“It was just perfect timing, for real, everything happened for a reason,” he said. “God made that record take off the way it did at that time, who knows what the reason is for? But what it did is it definitely gave people something to move to and restored some feeling back into the city.”

Kobang said that the song was already getting play at clubs and in car stereos across the city by the time the unrest took place. He ultimately scored a deal with 300 Entertainment, the record label co-founded by Baltimore native and music executive Kevin Liles, but his situation there unraveled, he said.

Kobang said he couldn’t commercially release music on major streaming services, other than a few singles through 300 Entertainment. (300 Entertainment did not return requests for comment by press time.) Instead, he released a series of free mixtapes—"Since We’re Here," “Silent Waves,” “Tate Ko” and “28”—over the ensuing years. These releases and other projects also saw him collaborating and connecting with the likes of Pusha T, Denzel Curry, Nineteen85, Swizz Beatz and other internationally successful artists, he said.

In addition to these changes, he’s found new management from Jason Holzman and Unruly Records’ Shawn Caesar. He also launched a production team called 28 and signed a publishing deal with Sony last year.

Over his releases, he’s embraced different sonic textures while staying true to his roots as a prolific and agile MC. He said that he’s grown and matured significantly over the last half-decade.

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“I’m actually not the same person I was or at the same space emotionally, mentally, spiritually, as a man, as a father, anything," he said. “When everything came out, ‘Bank Rolls’ and all that stuff, I was actually in a horrible space. It was a horrible time, and I really don’t even want to ever have to think about that s--- anymore.”

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Another heavy hit came this year when Kobang’s cousin, the rapper Dee Dave, was shot and killed in Baltimore County. He said that the situation “put a fire” under him to make money, support his family and friends and take advantage of every opportunity.

“Dee was a hard-working man,” he said. “His work ethic was definitely unmatched, and he was my role model in terms of that.”

Dee Dave appears in the upcoming music video for “Big 28," which Kobang releases April 26. The song appears on his newest project, “Wrote On My Body," that drops two days later—Kobang’s 28th birthday.

Kobang is working on an upcoming R&B song with Nelly, collaborating with Nineteen85 (who has worked with Drake and is part of the Canadian R&B duo Dvsn) and other projects. His passion for all kinds of music and uplifting those around him drives him to heights that he’s only just beginning to reach.

Devin Allen's Instagram shot from 2015 that became the cover of Time magazine.
Devin Allen's Instagram shot from 2015 that became the cover of Time magazine. (Devin Allen)

Devin Allen

In the five years since the death of Freddie Gray, the photographer Devin Allen has embarked on a pilgrimage, a kind of sacred quest that he could pursue for the rest of his life.

A black-and-white photo that Allen shot during the uprising of a man running in front of a line of baton-wielding Baltimore police officers landed on the cover of the May 11, 2015 issue of Time magazine — just the third time an amateur photographer received that honor.

That image made the 26-year-old self-taught photographer from West Baltimore famous. Opportunities poured in. Some, he accepted. He became a staff photographer for Under Armour and toured Asia, where he photographed basketball star Stephen Curry.

He published a book of his Baltimore photographs called “A Beautiful Ghetto” in 2017 and his work has been featured in art shows in Washington, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Venice, Italy.

But Allen declined other opportunities that could have resulted in a major national career. He won’t leave Baltimore, where his 10-year-old daughter, Amari lives.

Besides, there are plenty of creative outlets locally. He’s recently begun dabbling in fashion photography; his friend Bishme Cromartie was a finalist on “Project Runway”. He’s experimenting with painting under the tutelage of another friend, the visual artist Jeffrey Kent and finds that he’s drawn to abstract compositions.

”Photographing my community only allows me to express certain emotions,” Allen said. “But when I paint, I can deal with what’s going on in the rest of his life.”

Allen loves creating art. But he’s even more passionate about passing on that vital form of self-expression to at-risk Baltimore kids.

He founded the Through Their Eyes Project, which In the past five years has put cameras in the hands of about 500 middle school students.

Allen plans to expand the program’s scope in 2021. He envisions working with 10 to 15 kids for an entire school year, culminating in an art show. Under Armour has offered to pay transportation costs and provide a stipend for the students.

”Under Armour’s support will allow me to take my program to the next level,” he said. “I will never stop looking for ways to help my community.”

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