BEHIND THE MOVEMENT
PRAYER FROM A LA JAIL:
INTERVIEW WITH DAMON TURNER, TRAP HEALS
by Autumn Breon, Songs for Good Advisor
At the junction of community engagement, artistic activism, and cultural leadership, Trap Heals is a collective of artists that reframe healing. The collective is a cultural architecture firm that centers self care and communal fellowship in cultural spaces. Earlier this year, Trap Heals created a justice reform activation that was strategically built in South Central Los Angeles. The installation was a fully functional greenhouse that built connections with local organizations to amplify art programming, music events, and sustainability workshops. The greenhouse included a one-of-a-kind phone booth installation with stories of incarcerated people. This was curated with the film Just Mercy, based on Bryan Stevenson’s book of the same name.
Damon Turner is the founder and CEO of Trap Heals. Although Trap Heals is a collective of multidisciplinary artists, Turner uses music to communicate his own ideas that inspire others to challenge societal norms. His cultural architecture is a practice of building new systems that celebrate and uplift the most forgotten in society. After the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, Turner released “Running Interlude.” Although the track was recorded before the fatal shooting of the twenty-five-year-old, Turner released the song to honor Ahmaud Arbery and celebrate their shared birthday. The haunting tone of Turner’s sample of “Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child” captures both the memory of Ahmaud Arbery and the hunting that Black Americans have been forced to outrun since slavery.
Turner and I discussed his art practice and the role that songs play in movements. He was generous enough to share his own introduction to music and the origin of a familiar organizing chant that has been sung around the world. In our conversation, we explored the healing properties of music and why organizing communities often need songs’ medicinal properties the most. As antiquated and oppressive infrastructures are being chanted down by organizers around the world, it was such a privilege to engage with the changemaker that created some of the melodies that these activists are singing. Damon Turner is a changemaker that not only makes songs for the movement, but also dreams and builds spaces to make the movement ubiquitous. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
AB: Hi, Damon, thank you so much for joining me. How are you?
DT: Thank you for the invitation. I'm good.
AB: The background behind you is beautiful. That looks like a true LA sunset. I want to introduce you as the founder of Trap Heals, a recording artist, and a cultural architect. What does it mean to be a cultural architect?
DT: I often ask people to imagine an architect. You know, a structural architect, someone who builds blueprints to build buildings and structures. Now imagine someone using cultural tools to build spaces for new cultures to emerge and new ideas to emerge. That’s what I do for a living.
AB: How has music played a role in your cultural architecture?
DT: Music has played a role in my entire life. I don't remember a time when there wasn't music in my life. In elementary school, music saved my life as I was going down an interesting path that my teachers knew wasn't the path for me. I was the rebellious student that wasn’t listening and that disrupted other students’ learning. I was very bored. My fourth grade teacher, Mr. Mike Moran, put a trumpet in my hand and said, “You're going to be great.” He put me around other young black boys and taught us about self-determination, the power of music, the culture of music, and the history of music. I fell in love with music then and music became embedded in my life. Music has these frequencies that make your body respond at a cellular level. It's a very interesting type of lullaby that gets into your subconscious. Because of that, music is at the core of my architecture work. It's one of the quickest things that gets to the heart and the mind of a person. It's one of the things that connects us all around the world, regardless of language or cultural barrier. Music is the thing that breaks through. So music is a huge component of cultural architecture.
AB: Why is this important for movement building?
DT: Music is important for movement building. It’s just easier to disseminate information that way. I'm often the person that is trying to stay away from too much academic jargon when it comes to speaking to the masses. There's a place for jargon. However, in movement building, I think step one is getting people interested and invested in the movement. I think we have to be able to connect to people where they are. A lot of these folks have not been politicized in particular ways. I feel like it's easier to compel people to get involved in a movement when songs engage them.
AB: You have created music that has played a really significant role in movement. Could you please tell us about the song #BLMhere?
DT: Yes. Seven years ago when Patrisse Cullors first hashtagged “Black Lives Matter,” I was a part of the LA chapter developing the organizing strategies, the direct action strategies, and the cultural strategies that shaped a lot of the national and global conversation. There was just a lot of despair. In the streets, there was a lot of pain and there was a lot of fear. I’m from Atlanta, the home of turn up and crunk music. I know how invigorating that type of music is. When you hear “Knuck if you Buck” in the club, you're ready to go crazy. It doesn't matter what age you are. I wanted to know how we could make a moment like that for people who were marching and protesting and ready to fight and ready to turn up in the streets. It was important to make this song.
When Darren Wilson (the police officer who killed Mike Brown) was acquitted by the grand jury, me and six other BLM LA comrades shut down the 101 Freeway on the day before Thanksgiving in 2014. And we got arrested. When I was sitting in the jail cell, I used my only phone call to call my friend Daniel French. He's in the band Las Cafeteras and I said, “Bro, log into my Bandcamp and go upload the song “#BLMhere! We got to put the song out!” So I released the song from a jail cell. It was just a very simple way of telling people that Black Lives
Matter here.And shout out to the homie Jasmine Richards, a queer Black woman from Pasadena who turns up. She heard the song and turned the hook into a chant. When I heard her do that and heard people chanting the song, I realized that this is bigger than me. When I heard people in the Mall of America chanting the song, I knew it was bigger than big. It was bigger than me and it was bigger than rap. It was a moment.
AB: I know that I’ve told you this before, but I have actually chanted that song at actions. I didn't even know until recently that you were the creator of that song. It was the first time that I saw that song beyond the notes, words, and frequencies that you described. I was reminded that somebody made this song and that it has an origin story. It’s even more fascinating that you created that song from a jail cell. And as you were talking, I thought of Martin Luther King, Jr's “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Did your song feel like the equivalent of Dr. King’s letter?
DT: It's more of a prayer. I realized that most of the songs that I released as singles have been prayers.The hook is very simple. At the end of the day, I've released a lot of these songs at the height of us being killed. I released a lot of this content at the height of folks capturing this content on their phones. It didn't feel like an empowered time. It felt very dark, dismal, and heavy and I knew that we needed to shift that energy.
I think that my cultural architecture is seeing where people are, understanding where we need to go, and figuring out the means in which we get there. And making it very cool, making it dope, making it accessible, making it beautiful, making it joyful. As well as making it extremely scary for the opposition. When the opposition hears 10,000 people shouting “Black Lives Matter here!” they realize that they killed one or two of us, but they can’t kill all of us. It was really important to make these repetitive, chant-like anthems to invigorate folks to become involved and participate.
AB: The context that you’re describing sounds very similar to today. Why is music important right now?
DT: I don't go a day without listening to music and I just know how much it brings to me. Sometimes I don't think people realize how the medicine they need is in music. We often reduce music to a luxury or some sort of entertainment, but it is a healing agent. If you put on “A Love Supreme” right now, that is going to do something to you right now. I think music is so important right now because there are a lot of people who feel lost. A lot of people want to do something and don't know how to do it or where to do it or when to do it. People are looking for hope and direction. They're looking for passion and a place to cry. A place to emote. They're just looking for that space. I think music holds that space in a very sacred way.
AB: The Songs for Good 2020 Challenge is asking folks to write their original anthems for justice, record them, and submit them. Why should people submit their songs?
DT: I'm interested in thinking a little bit more about this idea of making an anthem. I think that idea is thrown around a lot. I think anthems get the audience engaged. It’s more than just making a big record. It's more than making a big song. It's such an intimate user experience that goes along with the song. Sometimes it can happen on purpose and other times it just happens. I don't think Kendrick was making “All Right" to become the new Black national anthem. He was just making space. Authenticity is important. It’s important for people to really consider making songs right now, but I pray that people make songs from a place of authenticity. Make the song that you need to hear right now. It might be a song about love. I hope that folks submit true and authentic songs and that people can find the medicine to attach to it.
AB: I really like what you said about authenticity. I wholeheartedly agree with that. We’ve discussed art and activism and how they show up in our work. I think it's so important that both art and activism are authentic.
DT: Agreed. Agreed. It definitely does.
AB: Do you have a favorite song that speaks to your spirit and makes you feel a part of a movement?
DT: I like Christian Scott. He has a record called “The Last Chieftains” It might be one of the most emotionally charged records that I've ever heard. If you understand his backstory as a Black man from New Orleans of Native blood. The second to last song on this album is about his royal Native blood. When you listen to it, it's a war anthem. He's a trumpet player and that’s a powerful horn. That song is like a war anthem. Every time I watch him perform that song, I am actually ready to do something to someone, or to make art, or to just be fully present in my day and maximize the twenty four hours that I’m given. I don't necessarily put it on when I'm going to a protest, but I'll put it on when I want to feel as connected as I can be to my humanity and those who are around me. When I listen to that song, I can feel the pain, I can feel the power, I can feel the fear, I can feel all those things as if I’m standing on the front lines getting ready to engage in war with the rival tribe. It’s powerful.
AB: Thank you so much, Damon. Thank you for this conversation. Thank you for your knowledge. Thank you for your music. Thank you for your art. Thank you.
DT: Likewise, Madam Curator. Thank you for that.