As outrage, despair, and reform continue to flare across the nation in response to the recent police killings of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks, and countless others, local musicians are leading the fight against police brutality and systemic racism right here in Cincinnati.
One of the driving forces behind the local Black Lives Matter movement is Lauren Eylise. Earlier this month, the celebrated Cincinnati singer-songwriter performed at a vigil in Washington Park, commemorating what would have been Taylor’s 27th birthday.
“It was a beautiful event; I was grateful to be a part of it. We uplifted her memory in song and in poem,” Eylise says. “I cried—and that’s OK, to cry through the song. It’s a sad situation. We shouldn’t be here. She shouldn’t be dead. She should be living her best life as a beautiful, young black woman.”
In honor of Juneteenth, Eylise also helped organize a weekend-long initiative, where volunteers used the used plywood from previously boarded-up storefronts to build tables—a symbolic gesture that encouraged inclusive conversation. Although she realizes her responsibility as an artist to “reflect the times,” she also reminds musicians to take care of their mental health.
“It’s a crazy time for everybody, but being black and a woman makes it a little crazier,” she says. “We can’t encourage or mobilize or lead anything if we’re not taking care of ourselves.”
Cincinnati rapper-producer Devin Burgess is also supporting the movement by donating the profits from his new beat tape, SayTheirNames, to the families of Taylor and Floyd. Each track on the project is named after a victim of police brutality or racist violence, including Ahmaud Arbery, Atatiana Jefferson, and Botham Jean.
“Music is everlasting, but people come and go every day,” Burgess says. “It’s very easy for people to lose momentum over things like this after a week or so. Even on my timelines—there’s already a lot less petitions. So with this tape, I could put [the victims’] names to music, and hopefully they can continue to live on.”
In recent weeks, local activists have also gathered in the streets to march against these injustices in protest—one of which was helmed by rapper Jay Hill. “I’m very proud of how it went. It was really emotional, and I learned a lot,” Hill says of his experience organizing the protest, which also included live musical performances. “Even if it’s one step forward and two steps back, we’re still not as far back as we were. Let that small victory fuel the next move.”
Hill, who also belongs to the local hip hop trio Patterns of Chaos, says his next step will be creating a space for citywide dialogue, as activists plan to affect policy and institutional change. “For constructive dialogue, we need empathy,” he says. “We need to talk, and we need to act—but we also need to reflect.”