Music is a thread that can connect us, comfort us and, sometimes, move us to action.
That’s the message local musician Rufus John wants to bring to audiences from across Waterloo Region to around the world, with the Freedom Marching Project. John is one of 14 recipients of the first Create and Connect grants funded by Centre in the Square and the City of Kitchener's film, music and interactive media office.
Creating and connecting come naturally to John. Born in Toronto, John and his family moved to Kitchener when he was 10. Growing up in Kitchener, John found music as an outlet where he could speak freely about his frustrations and challenges.
“By the time I was in high school, I was able to take that skill and use it, not to just sing covers, but use it too as a means of therapy,” he said.
John described his childhood home as a central hub for families in his neighbourhood. “Growing up, our house was kind of the house where if kids are having a crappy time at home or a kid needed some food to eat, our door was always open. That really played a role in seeing the benefits of giving back to the community.”
The drive to give back led John to his “nine-to-five job” as a child and youth worker. While he finds his work fulfilling, music is still his outlet for what he’s thinking about what’s happening around him. Last summer’s Black Lives Matter march was a moment of pause and reflection.
“When all this stuff was happening, I knew I wanted to say something, do something, but I didn't know what that was,” he said.
John took a break from social media to focus on using his music to make a difference.
“I looked at that march and I want my kids – one is 5 and one is 2 – I want, when they’re like 17 and 14, to look back and say my dad not only went to the march, but then he did something. He became activated, he became engaged, and he was able to use his platform and do what he felt he could do as a man to push for change.
He started connecting with local community leaders and the organizers of the march to educate himself and increase his understanding of the issues involved.
“I understood all of this on a surface level. You’re going to schools that teach you about Martin Luther King, maybe Harriet Tubman, but they don’t really get into the nitty gritty of how this all came about. I took the time to understand how this system was created and how this system impacts me.”
Once John got to a certain point in research, he knew it was time to start writing. He was driven to make something that would inspire the community and represent its diversity.
“That’s where I started to build my village around the song. For the artists that were going to be involved, I wanted all shades, shapes and sizes of Black excellence represented in the song.”
The research and reflection led John to the idea for the Freedom Marching Project. It’s a multi-channel project that uses music, public service announcements and a behind-the-scenes documentary series to showcase voices from the Black community on the need for systemic changes to fight back against anti-Black racism, oppression and white supremacy.
While the song is a crucial part of the project, John said it is a tool to highlight the project’s educational components.
“The music is just for people to take note of what I’m doing,” he said, “and then I’m going to quickly get them to what I actually want them to focus on, through the public service announcements showing the things that we, as a community, are facing and struggling with, and that we are resilient.”
Beyond awareness, John hopes the public service announcements will drive donations to community organizations involved with these issues.
“These are organizations that you could donate to if you can,” he said. “But this is also a call to do your research and find organizations that are impacting your community. Maybe you want to invest in those. But here are some great places to start if you don't know where to begin.”
The stories for the public service announcements are designed to bridge gaps in our community, especially systemic gaps not often discussed.
“These are our challenges. The public service announcements are going to be rooted in facts and rooted in personal stories,” John said. “At the end of the day, I just need you to see me, not just my skin colour. I need you to understand that we are one and the same, but this system that we live in, it doesn’t work that way.”
The Create and Connect grant will help John get the project started, but he hopes other members of our community can find ways to get involved and help bring the project to life. He’s looking for help with digital marketing, venues for public service announcement recordings and a space for a live music recording once larger gatherings are allowed.
And as with any large project, John is also looking for volunteers to help with production work on the music video and live music showcases.
John hopes the stories, music and opportunities to volunteer will inspire action.
“It could be as simple as looking into these organizations on the frontline, or investing in them, whether that’s volunteering your time or investing monetarily, because these people are on the ground doing the work.”
If you or your company are interested in learning more about volunteering with or donating to the Freedom Marching Project, you can contact John directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.