Movement Profile: Ric Wilson
photo by Michael Salisbury
Ric Wilson, is a 23 year old artist, entertainer, and prison abolitionist from Chicago.
Chicago has a vibrant art scene right now, in multiple ways, multiple art forms and obviously a very thriving organizing ecosystem. How have these two worlds contributed to the growth of the other?
I think that creative folks have always been the more critically thinking folks. They are usually the folks that influence social movements happening. My first panel discussion was with Dick Gregory at an event that Crossroads Fund sponsored. I was impressed by how he was a very creative actor and comedian and he still played a major role in the Freedom Summer. There is a long history of that here in Chicago. I remember being a young person and seeing the two merge and seeing, you know, Chance the Rapper kind of being born of those two communities and myself born of the two communities. We have the No Names, the Sabas. We have Jamila Woods. We have Bree Kapri. We have Chris Thompson. We have these folks through programs like Young Chicago Authors or YouMedia, just the ones I’ve been a part of. They kind of create these artists and give these artists the responsibilities to hold a certain status or higher standards to do something that benefits the community and I’m just a baby of that.
As a young person, you were a Freedom Follow at Chicago Freedom School (CFS) and you were a part of We Charge Genocide campaign. How do those particular experiences, among others, influence and inform the kind of music and art you create today?
When I did CFS, Mariame Kaba and Mia Henry took me under their wing. I went to events with them and met folks within the community who were organizing and learning what organizing looks like just by watching folks and, then, also being part of the open mic scene and seeing young people grow in their artistry. I got together with a lot of people in Chicago who were already organizing against policing, against different aspects of the prison system. A group came together and formed “We Charge Genocide” as a coalition. I got introduced to that through Mariame, who thought that I could learn how to be a vital part of it. I went to college for a year at Clark Atlanta and by the time I came back to the community and, it's like two to three years later, I became a part of it, things start growing, the music scene in Chicago is growing, the activism and organizing community in Chicago is growing. That's what I mean when I say I’m a baby of it because I was in the intersections of both of these communities and saw them merging into one. I remember just because of what happened after Darren Wilson killed Mike Brown and the growth of Black Lives Matter - everyone knows the power and impact of Black Lives Matter - and I remember Louder Than A Bomb that year not hearing one poem that wasn’t about policing and how messed up policing is in Chicago. I just remember literally watching the two communities merge because the organizing community fought so hard - literally a protest every single day after August 14th - and after the indictment there was a protest every single day until after New Year’s. I just remember seeing that was just boomin’ and feeling like I was being a part of an actual era in Chicago.
Is there a way in which the feel of the activism and the emotion of that activism influences your sound and the sound you want in your music?
Oh yeah. I remember being mad and I think that my music embodies me being mad and also being happy. You can be both those two at the same time and that's just part of being human and stuck in America. It’s figuring out how to balance both those things because if you don’t then one or the other will destroy you and becomes a part of you that you don’t know how to control so it’s about balance.
Are there any specific lessons that you feel that artists can learn from activists and organizers about the way in which art plays a role in movement building?
I think sometimes as an artist you have to understand your music is the soundtrack so when I make music I’m like, “where would this song fit?” Could we play this song at a direct action? Should we play this song at an actual riot? Or should we play this song at a “peaceful protest” that a lot of white liberals love? I’m always wondering where my songs will fit in those things so sometimes I think about that but that's just because I grew up in and around the organizing community. Being in the organizing community and being an organizer has taught me how to be a more organized artist and more responsible artist. People should definitely know that because of my organizing background I'm able to keep up with my artist life and have a responsible artist life so shout out to all the folks who introduced me to this world and made me a better artist and a better person
As you mentioned before, you were on a panel with Dick Gregory. There's a long history, long lineage, of artist and activists - artists who are activists and activists who are artists. Are there other specific people that you admire that have been influential to you in terms of what it means to be an artist and an activist simultaneously?
Being an artist, I always think about how I need to be part of the protest not just I’m an artist here to protest and push music. If I were to become famous, I would hold it to myself to be an actual part of it and not just an appearance at a protest you know what I mean? Because that just plays into capitalism too. I need to be a part of that and not just make an appearance at protests. With that being said I feel like my influences as an artist and activist are Henry Belafonte, Nina Simone, and Assata Shakur. I like Chuck D, how he balances his activism and art and he speaks out about those things. My friend Pigeon inspires me.
Something that people always talk about with the importance of art is that art can help envision a new world and what a just world look like. I mostly hear that idea when it comes to authors and writers. I’m sort of curious what that looks like with music. How does music help us to envision a more just world - the world that we want, the world that we deserve - and not just lyrically but sonically? If you were asked to create a song that envisions a just world what would that sound like to you?
There’s a song. It’s "Ella's Song" by Sweet Honey In the Rock where it goes: “We who believe in freedom cannot rest.” I think that music is the atmosphere for the whole ass world. Music sets the atmosphere for the whole world so it’s interesting when people talk about art only as authors because those authors are listening to music and they get inspired by some sort of music. I feel like that it’s the atmosphere in particular, with young folks especially, where lyrics are super powerful because if you’re really, really young and you like a really good song and then lyrics fill you with power. Not just for you but the people around you and then you keep listening to that and it’s empowering you and it makes you feel like a human being. When I feel like that, that just shows the power of music. I feel like music is everything. I can’t listen to anything that makes me feel bad about myself. Music helps you with whatever you gotta go through in life.
Is that why you make music for young people in a lot of ways?
I guess people say I make music for young people. I make music that feels good to me and also because I grew up in this community. My music just happens to sound very positive because I’m not oppressing people with my music. I’m very aware of the language that I use when I’m writing and sometimes people just take that language as tryna be “Mr. Positive” and positivity can’t hurt. It’s just me trying to be myself and I’m not walking around saying certain things or feeling certain ways about people so why would I put that in my music? So people hear my music and say your music makes me feel good, it doesn’t make me feel a certain way even when I’m talking about heavy subjects. I don’t know, I guess that’s just who I am. Maybe one day we’ll figure out why my music is so positive and jumpy. Every time I open my mouth, every time I’m writing a rap it’s something really, truly, wholeheartedly me. I think the best artists are the artists that can’t control that.