When former President Barack Obama came to Oakland last week for the national My Brothers Keeper convention, he had no idea he’d be sitting next to Leo Mercer.
Sure, he knew he’d be talking to Steph Curry during the town hall discussion at Oakland’s Scottish Rite Temple, where attendees from across all states would be in the house. And I’d imagine Obama was told he’d be asked questions by a few of the young men who sat around him on stage during the conversation.
But then there was Leo Mercer, sitting just a few feet away from him.
Leo wore a blazer over his hoodie, his long locs done up as if they were defying gravity. I watched him go from wiggling in his seat as the microphone was passed his way to standing firm and delivering a sincere two-part question to the former leader of the free world.
“What role does music have in your life?" asked Leo, a 27-year-old Oakland native. "And what role can music have when it comes to liberation, policy change, social change and all those other items?”
“Are you a musician?” Obama said, answering Leo’s question with a question. “Yeah,” Leo replied. “I’ll have to listen to some of your tracks now,” Obama said, before going into riff about the discipline it takes to become a professional musician.
If you're like most people, you'd be thrilled to hear Obama say he'll check out your music. But I couldn't help but notice that after his pivot, Obama didn't really answer Leo’s question at all.
A couple days ago, I called Leo to chop it up about his experience. Just as I figured, it was business as usual on a Monday morning. He was on BART, headed to a healing circle with the organization he works for, Urban Peace Movement, taking time to honor the lives of those who had recently passed.
I could hear the train doors open and close in the background as we talked about how it felt to be on that stage, sitting a church aisle’s distance from the first African-American President this country has seen. When he asked Obama about music, Leo said, he noticed the same thing I'd noticed.
“He didn’t answer the part about what role music can play in terms of social movements and liberation,” said Leo. “He answered the first part, 'What role does music play in your life?' So, that was cool—but it would’ve been dope if answered the other part.”
Leo went on to talk about another music reference Obama made while on stage, one that the media jumped on, when he implied that confident young men don't need to act like rappers in music videos with gold jewelry and "eight women around you twerking."
“I just saw this article in the New York Times that was kind of shitting on us. Basically saying Obama was scolding us. I disagree with that... talking about Obama was scolding us, talking about we don’t need to be wearing big chains,” said Leo. “They were basically misinterpreting how Obama was trying to get to us. And, to be honest, he was just keeping it real with us.”
Leo noted that the whole conference was about supporting young men—and even if Obama’s “scolding” didn’t come off as supportive to some, Leo understood the intention behind the statement. He understood how that tied into the overall theme of the conference. Hell, that understanding of confidence is probably why he landed in the seat he was in.
He told me he got turned down twice before his request to attend was accepted, once through an Instagram competition and again when he applied through Urban Peace Movement. He finally got the green light through the Urban Strategies Council. And when he walked in the door of that conference last week, he says he walked in there trying to gloat.
“Ya’ll not about to just have this conference out here and exclude the Oakland cats—the authentic Oakland cats!” said Leo.
As far as being on stage with Obama, Leo, a performer in his own right, says he had some butterflies.
“I was nervous, but I was nervous in a way that was like, this is the uncle I ain’t seen in a minute,” said Leo, with a laugh. “I was nervous, but not nervous enough to be shaking and shit. I felt like talking to him, it was just like talking to Prince.”
Leo wasn't talking about the Prince of Purple Rain. Dr. Prince White was one of Leo’s mentors; he was also a friend of mine. Prince passed last August. He’s one of the people Leo was headed to honor during the healing circle.
Before he passed, Dr. Prince White did all he could to push Leo into political arenas. About two years ago, Prince pulled strings and got Leo to perform a spoken word piece in front of current State Superintendent of Schools Tony Thurmond, Assembly member Rob Bonta, and Senator Nancy Skinner.
I took photos at that event. That’s about the time I took note of Leo’s potential. But I didn’t know too much of Leo’s backstory until we talked this week.
I didn’t know his father was killed in West Oakland’s Lower Bottoms neighborhood in 1993, while Leo’s mother was pregnant with his sister.
I didn’t know Leo and his family spent time homeless after losing their house in the Bushrod neighborhood, during the first wave of what we’ve come to realize is a massive overhaul of this town we call home.
I didn’t even know that Leo had dropped a new video for his latest song “Back” just a few days ago. A song Leo says directly correlates to the question he posed to President Obama.
“I wanna see what the future holds / for a brother like me, with the truth in his soul,” he raps. Overall, he said, the song is about “how I’m doing community organizing and how I’m shut out of certain spaces because of my tenacity, and how I may intimidate people.”
In that music video, playing the role of a reporter is Nicole Lee, the executive director of the Urban Peace Movement. She was also in the building for Leo and Obama’s interaction.
“I'm really proud of him,” Lee said, talking about Leo. “This conference is amazing, and it’s a national conference that’s in Oakland, and there's a lot of voices here from all over the country. And on one hand, that's cool, and on the other hand, we want to make sure the voices of the people in our city of Oakland are represented. And I think Leo was the perfect person to rep the town and the East Bay.”
I'd agree. And I'd also say that Leo already knows what role music has in working toward social change; he's lived it. And after seeing him press Obama on the idea, and learning more about his story, I'd not only listen to his music—he'd have my vote.
Care about what’s happening in Bay Area arts? Stay informed with one email every other week—right to your inbox.