This past April, I found myself scribbling the words “Memento Mori” on a page of my notebook, using the aura from the stage lights to make sure I spelled them correctly. On stage, the gentleman at San Francisco’s Swedish American Hall was busy explaining that during post-battle victory parades, Roman Generals often kept an enslaved person by their side, whispering in their ear those words, “memento mori,” as a reminder that no living being escapes death.
This was the opening performance to a weeklong series in April called Reimagine End of Life, in which speakers, artists and musicians took to stages all around San Francisco, presenting ways to look at death differently; the idea being that while death is inevitable, how one views the process is malleable. And the catalyst for that change is a simple matter of how the story is told.
From the second-to-last row, I took in the night's stories: one about San Francisco’s lack of cemeteries, and how the bodies once buried there were moved (well, most of them, anyway). There was also a father and daughter who discussed the emotions of death. Eye-opening were the comments from the elder gentleman, who said he’s not worried about dying, nor old age, but missed his friends. That hit an emotional string.
Then there was Angelica Ekeke's performance about the death of a man who wasn't old but young, who still had friends, who still had family, who still had a lot of life ahead of him.
His name was Sahleem Tindle.
On the surface, Ekeke’s performance was about Tindle, and his fatal shooting by an armed BART officer in January of this year. But The Removal, as she titled it, was also about three kinds of elimination: “The removal of these loved ones’ voices, the removal of black and brown men from society,” she tells me, “and the fight of a mother who’s speaking for the removal of the men who killed her son.”
Ekeke opened with details of the Tindle’s death: he was on his knees when he was shot multiple times in his back on Jan. 3, 2018, by BART officer Joseph Mateu. Even with existing body camera footage, the cascading and sometimes changing stream of information about the shooting has caused, like so many other extrajudicial executions, a storm of questions about what really happened on that day.
Lost in all of this would be the real story of who Tindle was — be it not for Ekeke realizing she had to tell it. But a simple story wasn’t sufficient. A powerpoint presentation wouldn’t do. A poem or song wasn’t enough. It had to be, what Ekeke calls, a “visual symphony.”
At the Swedish American Hall, there was the video that played in the background. There were quick-paced clips of recorded interviews, home videos and photomontages of Tindle and his family. The footage was like watching the apex of a tearjerker movie; the stuff they show right before the credits roll.
And as the footage plucked every heartstring of the harp in my chest, there was Ekeke, singing her ass off.
I mean, high-note vocals; not church high note, but opera high note. In a celestial soprano, she sang lines brought about by the interviews with Tindle’s family, her lyrics inspired by her conversations with them, framing their words artistically.
Thus, she merged journalism and art, a fine line Ekeke has walked for some time now. She says she’s incorporated art into her reporting since her undergrad years, and that she's almost always met some sort of backlash. People would tell her, “you’re always trying to make this too artistic,” or “just paint the picture, that’s it.”
To that, Ekeke would say, “I want this to be truth." It's a very risky thing to do, she says, to mix journalism and art, “but I think that it’s needed.”
It is needed, especially at a time in which traditional journalism outfits are rolling over left and right, be it the Chicago Sun-Times’ plea for subscribers, the Denver Post’s harsh words for their owners, the Sacramento Bee’s recent layoffs, or the East Bay Times, which has been constantly downsized, even after winning a Pulitzer. Meanwhile, corporate media is constantly exposed for pushing certain agendas. There needs to be something new.
“The difference between me and the news is that, they say they’re telling you the truth, when in fact, there is another part that’s missing,” says Ekeke. “Well, OK, I can tell the other part that’s missing.”
Journalism, this weird hybrid of art and public service and trade, is supposed to be unbiased and balanced, but we all know it can never completely reach that ideal. And in a world where stories dictate how people live, and in some instances, die, there needs to a new approach to how stories are told.
“What are some ways we can continue to engage people on different levels by touching every part of the human experience?” asks Ekeke, almost rhetorically.
And just as quickly, she answers her own question: “Come see the person beyond another statistic, come see who this person was. And do it in a very artistic, and still journalistic way, that will hopefully impact them on an emotional level and on an intellectual level.”
Ekeke’s piece indeed highlighted another case of police brutality against a young man of color, something we’ve seen so much of since the filmed shooting of Oscar Grant by a BART cop in January of 2009.
It was the people who took to social media, the streets, and eventually, with Fruitvale Station, the silver screen to ensure that the young man’s story was told properly, so he would be seen as a human, flaws and all.
I was one of those people pushing his story to be told. I remember, while tweeting from 14th and Broadway during the protests, someone responding to me that following my social media was giving them a better picture of what was happening on the ground than CNN.
Traditional corporate media news is the Roman General, still a champion in the journalism world, but it's constantly being hit with whispers of "memento mori," reminding it of its impending doom, and need for re-creation.
Journalists are realizing that more and more. There needs to be a new approach to storytelling. Something that not only tells the full story but hits an emotional chord with people. And I know, I know: I’m writing this in a piece for a traditional news outlet.
But after watching Ekeke's performance, all I can think is: Man, if only I could sing.
Pendarvis Harshaw is the author of 'OG Told Me,' a memoir about growing up in Oakland. Find him on Twitter here.
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