Gabrielle Dickey Chanel El and her son Ziek McCarter talk at the Long Live Love Garden in Oakland on July 16, 2021. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)
f you ask Ziek McCarter, lead singer of San Francisco soul band Con Brio, he’ll say that it wasn’t any one person’s idea to start the Long Live Love Foundation. It was God’s.
He tells me so while his mother, Gabrielle Dickey Chanel El, searches for the response to my question about the origins of their new nonprofit. She agrees.
“I take no credit for it,” she says. Gabrielle was sitting in the church after her other son’s funeral in 2019 when it came to her. “I just closed my eyes and went on a journey. I feel like I saw it all.” She saw horses, water and people on some wide open land somewhere.
The expanses of land and the horses never transpired, but on a small plot in Oakland’s Ghost Town neighborhood now resides the Healing Serenity Garden, the first physical project of the Long Live Love Foundation. Named after the album her son, Immanuel McCarter, released in 2013, the foundation is aimed at providing healing resources to families affected by violence, particularly the kind inflicted by guns or law enforcement.
Police violence is something that has haunted the McCarter family for quite some time: In 2011, Ziek and Immanuel’s dad, Reverend David McCarter, was killed by a sheriff’s deputy in front of his childhood church. The ensuing fallout took its toll on the family, particularly on Immanuel, who developed depression after a violent encounter with police in Los Angeles, where he was attending Cal State University. He died by suicide on June 13, 2019.
n a recent sunny morning, Ziek is sitting on the edge of the small stage at the back of the garden, looking off towards the front gate. He’s thinking about how nurturing these sunflowers, lavender blossoms and poppies—and his music with Con Brio—has helped him find a sense of healing after these tragedies.
“Music has always been very much medicine and therapy for me as well, but ... to be able to balance some of the inconsistencies of the music industry, gardening really provided that balance or therapy,” he says.
Ziek’s everyday demeanor stands in sharp contrast to his stage presence, where he punctuates performances with athletic dance moves to match the exuberant soul band, a seven-piece containing horns and keys in addition to the usual guitar-bass-drums makeup. Today, he’s soft spoken and a little wistful, ruminating on the to-everything-there-is-a-season, turn-turn-turn of the universe. “We just keep one foot in front of the other, and move on faith and trust,” he says. His mom, in a proud-mom move, plays some Con Brio on the other side of the garden.
He’s been balancing gardening with music since high school. For a senior English project, he wrote a song addressing global warming and filmed an accompanying music video. It went unexpectedly viral, eventually exceeding 10,000 views. His mother showed the video to the founder of CommunityGrows, a nonprofit that establishes gardens in low-income communities. “And she was like, ‘Oh, we have to have him,’” Ziek says with a small laugh. After an internship, he was offered a position teaching a gardening glass at Rosa Parks Elementary in San Francisco. “Some Con Brio songs I wrote in the garden at Rosa Parks,” he recalls.
Around 2014, his music career picked up. Unlike many independent musicians, music became a way to supplement his day job as a teacher—not the other way around. “Touring started increasing and demand for us to travel, go to Canada, go to Europe, play more [increased,too],” he says. He taught his last class in 2016, but his passion for gardening never went away.
“They’re both cathartic,” he says of his two pursuits. But his love of performing started much earlier than his interest in plants. “I’ve always had music since I could walk,” Ziek reflects. David played piano and taught Immanuel guitar. Ziek showed a sense of showmanship from an early age: “I was that kid at two years old, flipping off the couch,” he says.
Ziek’s love of connecting with audiences fits with Con Brio’s tendency to call for unity in the face of tragedy, exemplified in songs like “Nonsense” and “Free and Brave.” The aim, says Ziek, isn’t to invalidate the ways others might react to injustice—this is just the way he and the band feel most comfortable processing grief. “It’s a journey of transmuting and transforming. ’Cause there is anger, we do feel anger. ... [But] we try not to let that eat us up and internalize it and implode.”
As Ziek’s career with Con Brio started taking off, Immanuel was writing songs solo. His Long Live Love album, recorded under the name Apollo Carter at age 17, explores his personal feelings on his loss and the life he had left to live without David. “He was a treasure,” says Ziek of his younger brother. “He was a treasure chest that [he was] slowly kinda wiping the dust off of.”
he legacy of the McCarter family continues to grow in the beds of the Healing Garden. The plot rests in the backyard of Ziek’s great-grandmother’s house, which still stands to his right. Ziek grew up playing baseball in the backyard. In that way, the garden keeps familial memories alive, for both him and others that may drop by.
“We all deal with life and death in different ways, but ... that relationship thrives so beautifully in the garden,” he says. “To be able to see the relationship of plants going to compost, and have that compost enrich the soil that it just came from, and the full circle of life. It’s truly peaceful, it helps you understand the rhythm of things.”
Lead to Life, a nonprofit that melts guns and transforms the metal into tools like shovels, has begun leading cooking classes at the garden, where they share recipes that can help offset health risks associated with grief. Quiet spaces like the garden, and the sustenance it produces, can help those processing the loss of a loved one due to violence, says Lead to Life’s Stormy Saint-Val. “To be able to transmute that [grief] ... is to have a safe space where you can relax,” she explains.
Though she presses that everyone’s experience is different, trauma can manifest not just in psychological issues like PTSD, but as physical health issues like stroke and heart problems. Gabrielle says long-term goals are to offer services like yoga and acupuncture, and they’ve already got the ball rolling on a scholarship in Immanuel’s name with the San Francisco Unified School District.
In the past, Gabrielle would explicitly ask her husband not to bring her flowers as a gift. “I don’t want no flowers,” she would say. “They’re so beautiful, and they’re gonna just die.” But now she appreciates how plants can carry memories. Some peace lilies given to her by an attendee of Immanuel’s funeral are currently in the living room and the bedroom of the house. They’re still alive.
Care about what’s happening in Bay Area arts? Stay informed with one email every other week—right to your inbox.