On February 16, I attended my first concert at the Back Room @ Colectivo while the cafe was still open. Fun fact: the Back Room is setup as such that you can hear the music if you’re hanging out in the cafe. However, what you miss by not being in the Back Room is an intimate atmosphere with great acoustics.
Madison based folk-pop duo Seasaw opened the show on the 16th. Had I just been hanging out in the cafe I would’ve missed the joyful looks that Eve Wilczewski and Meg Golz shared while playing.
I would’ve also missed the beautiful, sparkling, multi-colored sequin top worn by Wilczewski. Not to mention, I would’ve missed their sick Autoharp skills. All told, Seasaw delivered a spirited set before Indianapolis sister act Lily & Madeleine took the stage.
The chemistry between Wilczewski and Golz might convince you that they’re sisters. In fact, the ladies have been creating music together for more than six years, though most of that time they were living in different cities. Both are Illinois natives who first became friends while working together at an Italian restaurant in the town of Freeport.
Shortly after they met, Golz moved to Madison to attend the Madison Media Institute, where she received a degree in audio engineering.
“We were long distance for that whole time when we were starting the band,” Wilczewski tells me after their show at the Back Room.
“Then when I moved to Madison in the summer of 2015, it just so happened that I moved into a house that had a partial recording studio in the basement. We were going to record the album anyways, so it was very serendipitous,” adds Wilczewski.
With their infectious 2016 album Too Much of a Good Thing, Seasaw has emerged as a premier Wisconsin indie act.
Seasaw’s performance at the Back Room was their fifth time playing in Milwaukee. However, they had a few more shows that fell through.
“Three times in a row we had to cancel in Milwaukee. There were either weather problems or sickness or car trouble,” says Golz.
These unfortunate events yielded an uncanny result. Seasaw ended up playing their first ever Milwaukee show at Summerfest. They took part in the 2016 Emerging Artist Series on the Johnson Controls World Stage. Seasaw won the fan favorite vote, awarding them gear that they now use in their live performance. Since then they’ve played Club Garibaldi, the inaugural Milwaukee Fringe Fest, and Riverwest FemFest.
Wilczewski and Golz’s endearing onstage banter was well-suited for a performance at Green Bay’s Meyer Theatre opening for comedian Paul Reiser. In their young career, Seasaw has shared a stage with Lucius, Thao & the Get Down Stay Down, You Won’t, SOAK, Run River North, Lissie, and Dead Horses. A few years back they played Mile of Music’s opening ceremony at the Fox Cities Performing Arts Center.
Seasaw kicks off their latest tour tonight in Madison at The Frequency. The tour will take them to the 2nd annual Daytrotter Downs festival in Davenport, a Paste Magazine live session, Union Hall in Brooklyn, and a dozen stops along the way.
During their Back Room set Seasaw performed a stirring cover of Weezer’s “Say It Ain’t So.” The ladies repertoire also includes “Dearly Departed” by Shakey Graves, “The Boys Are Back in Town” by Thin Lizzy, “Mercedes Benz” by Janis Joplin, and “Stone’s Throw From Heaven” by Madison freak-folk legend Josephine Foster.
The ladies so enjoy doing covers that they formed a Yeah Yeah Yeahs cover band — with Golz as her idol Karen O — and a White Stripes cover band, which debuted last Halloween. They’re bringing back the Stripes band for a performance in Madison on March 25.
Seasaw’s tour kick-off tonight at The Frequency will also serve as the premiere of their new music video, which was digitally animated by Chad Smith. The video is animated in 3D and works with the old school, blue and red paper glasses. The day I spoke with the ladies of Seasaw their video for “Into the White” had just come out.
“I’m doing a dance routine that Eve doesn’t know, so she’s trying to mimic my moves,” says Golz.
“It was shot in one take so it’s like performance art,” adds Wilczewski.
“It’s got some great outfits and we’re giving it everything we got,” says Golz.
Katie Lafond is no stranger to the big stage. She’s performed (as Siren) all over the country alongside her partner Sam Ahmed (WebsterX), anchoring his signature hit “Doomsday.” Even before becoming the New Age Narcissism (NAN) collective’s secret weapon, she was playing to thousands of people with just her guitar and breathtaking voice, including her own sets at Summerfest and State Fair.
On February 11, Lafond performed her most high profile solo set as Siren, opening for Chicago poet/rapper Noname at The Miramar Theatre. Noname has delivered standout guest verses on Chance the Rapper’s mixtapes, but a recent appearance alongside the Grammy winner on Saturday Night Live has made her an overnight sensation.
Noname’s entire tour has sold out, evident by the number of Chicagoans who made the trip up to Milwaukee because tickets to Noname’s hometown shows went so fast. By the time Lafond took the stage, half the dance floor was packed with an eager and attentive audience.
Lafond’s charming awkwardness and magnetic vocals quickly won over the crowd. She was backed by most members of the NAN band, rebranded as “The Truth.” Lafond debuted a new song, “Context,” which had a jazzier bent than her previous material, but that could be due to the The Truth’s interpretation. Saxophonist Jay Anderson — who has added marvelous depth to live performances of Lafond’s signature track “Queen Medusa” — shined during a solo near the end of her set.
By the time Siren and The Truth played their final song, “RIP MCR,” the crowd was gleefully singing along. Lafond praised the lineup for being all-female — Rayven Lenae performed before Noname took the stage — and offered a parting refrain, “My name is Siren, I’m from Milwaukee. You can find me on the streets doing legal things.”
The next day, I spoke with Lafond over the phone.
“Last night was too much fun,” she says. “Because I’m used to doing bigger shows with Sam, it’s really different when it’s for me. I got way more nervous and I kept forgetting the spotlight would be on me.”
“I was like, ‘Why is everybody asking me questions?’ You know, stuff that Sam usually answers. It was super cool and exciting though.”
Lafond is the only member of NAN to have not yet released an EP, mixtape or album. In that respect, she has a soul sister in Noname, who had a notoriously long delay before releasing of her debut project Telefone. Noname’s live performance touched on this early in the show, projecting on the screen above her and her band a barrage of tweets from impatient fans asking about Telefone.
“Sam and I were talking about that. I was like, ‘Damn, that’s so me.’ I don’t have this EP out yet and people keep expecting it to happen. Hearing from Noname and seeing how successful she is, that was kind of a relief. It’s cool that I’ve built this buzz and it’s gonna be raw when I am finally able to get my stuff together.”
Lafond’s perfectionism is the main thing keeping her debut project from being unleashed into the world. She’s also not eager to relinquish her relative anonymity. As Chance’s skyrocketing popularity propelled Noname into the spotlight, WebsterX’s upcoming debut release and growing notoriety may do the same for Siren.
Personally, I’ve grown accustomed with Lafond being “our little secret.” But it’s only a matter of time until the Siren call spreads beyond Wisconsin.
It is unwise to employ the term “genius” loosely. Gratuitous use can degrade its meaning and discredit your judgement.
That said, I find Brandon Thomas — also known as bliss & alice — to be a genius. Since his debut project —Poetry Volume One – The Shit Talker Tape— was released in 2014, he has been heralded as a hip-hop virtuoso.
Thomas can be understood as a “rapper’s rapper” — not particularly popular with the masses, but well respected by his peers. Above all else, Thomas is a genuine artist. He creates art for art’s sake — not as a means to an end, be it fame, fortune, or accolades.
The latest release from bliss & alice —Mama Tried— expands Thomas’ limited yet extraordinary body of work. The record is a heartfelt masterpiece.
I spoke with Thomas over the phone in early December.
Brandon Thomas grew up an only child in Wausau, Wisconsin. The town is located almost directly in the middle of the state, with a population under 40,000.
“It is very insular and to itself. I guess it shaped me in it’s own way,” Thomas says of his hometown.
His father was born in Wausau and met his mother by chance, while she was visiting a friend. His parents played a significant role in shaping the man Thomas became, but were hands off when it came to influencing his tastes in music and art.
“I was very independent and they were very supportive. I was inclined to explore and learn on my own,” he says.
Musical exploration proved difficult in Wausau, where the radio was “a full year or two behind everything” when Thomas was a child. But, in his teenage years, the internet leveled the playing field, opening up new artistic outlets. He recalls Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea as one of the first albums he loved.
In high school, Thomas was a focused painter, drawn to the work of Banksy and Basquiat, among others. He was also an avid reader.
“I still read a lot,” says Thomas, who was reading alongside the Wisconsin River when I called. “I might spend too much time reading.”
“I think through the practice of reading you gain an understanding of voice and the value of a word,” he adds.
Painting was important to him, but he never lost focus on words, especially rhyme schemes and how they fit together to create stories.
Thomas began writing poetry near the end of middle school and he began rapping in high school. While he appreciates the natural beauty that Wausau has to offer, he says the town lacks any semblance of a music scene. As a result, he was exposed early on to the idea of creating for the sake of creation, a process and approach he still enjoys and finds value in.
After high school Thomas moved south to attend UW-Milwaukee. He was an intended arts major but switched to psychology and graduated in December 2015. Before living in Milwaukee Thomas had not been exposed to other rappers. He recalls the first time he met Sam Ahmed — also known as WebsterX — one of the top hip-hop prospects out of Wisconsin.
“We met at Jay Anderson’s place while he was still living over by Alium. When I walked in, I saw a kid rapping straight through the living room. He was freestyling and we went verse for verse for a while. We didn’t hang out right away, but as we got to know each other, we formed a pretty tight relationship. He’s one of my best friends in Milwaukee. He’s a super supportive dude and he’s got quite the vision.”
Before putting out Poetry Volume One, Thomas had only rapped for himself and for friends at parties. This first project was a culmination of everything he had learned, reflecting his understanding of what he wanted to accomplish with poetry and music at that moment in time. As it was with Mama Tried, the writing and recording process was cathartic.
The response to Poetry Volume One was positive across the board. DJ Bizzon and Jank of 91.7 WMSE’s ‘Those Hip-Hop Guys’ crowned it the best Milwaukee hip-hop record of the year, while 88Nine Radio Milwaukee gave it an award for Best Independent Release.
“I was blown away by the response. It truly did change my life. To go from being a completely unknown rapper to doing interviews, going into radio stations and having people say really thoughtful, encouraging words about the work.”
“All the while I was still in college and didn’t actually have anything figured out. A lot of people believe that you have things figured out if you can do one thing successfully. It was an interesting way to grow. It was something I didn’t know I needed until I had a chance to step back from it,” recalls Thomas.
After the release of Poetry Volume One, there was a lot of anticipation for Thomas’ next record. But any pressure he felt was internal. Thomas recognizes that his brand of hip-hop is outside of the vein of traditional radio play and not easy to commercialize.
“To me it’s not really about the reach. I don’t sit down to write projects and think, ‘This needs to be better than the last,’ or ‘This is going to be my big break.’ It’s about the feeling and the emotion. Now that I have a platform, hopefully I can touch one person that needs some motivation or inspiration.”
“At the end of the day I’m writing songs that I need as a human. There’s always this artist in you that wants to be there for your fan base and try to articulate things as a public figure. But then there’s a 24-year-old that has stuff going on.”
“There are a lot of aspects to life. I have a lot to sort out and music is one of those things. I was very blessed to be put in a position where people listen, which comes with a certain level of responsibility and I’m still navigating that.”
Between album releases, Thomas worked as a consultant on a film in Milwaukee, helping the crew utilize local musicians and “think about the process of making something organic in Milwaukee.”
He took his time with Mama Tried, holding on to it for a while. Some of the production was done in-house, but mostly he reached out to remote producers through the internet whose music he resonated with and “tried to do their work justice.”
The result is a gorgeously hypnotic and cohesive record. Thomas’ poetry hasn’t lost its ferocity or wit, but there is not as much bravado. The tempered confidence remains, yet there is a vulnerability and emotionality that cuts deeper than anything on Poetry Volume One. Ultimately, Thomas is able to say more with less words on Mama Tried.
It is clear from the album art that this is more than music. The cover features an adorable picture of a young Thomas on his mother’s lap overlaid with a film-style “R rating” for “violence, grisly images, language, some nudity and sexuality.” Like Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid, M.A.D.D. City, the album elicits the feeling of cinema — from the sound of the glass bottle rolling on the floor at the end of “Bathwater,” to the funeral procession horns in the middle of “Silver Buttons,” to the voicemail from his dear friend Tebs Maqubela on “Requiem Mass – July ‘15.”
“I think I had a lot to say that I wasn’t getting across on Poetry Volume One. Discussions on race and violence in Milwaukee, trust and relationships, how they fit together and how I fit into that. I think it touches on fears and emotions that people don’t really want to tap into.” “A lot of it is just trying to write about your own life, instead of always seeking a narrative. Sometimes people need an honest opinion. There’s a lot going on right now. And I think that in a lot of ways this project breathes that into the world.”
The night before Mama Tried was released, Thomas posted the following message to his Twitter account: “It takes years – to better understand process, to consider the weight of a word, to broaden a sense of identity. It is inherently detrimental to conflate the pursuit of catharsis and perfection. Tomorrow my life changes – the moment when it all switches hands, this work becomes yours – the blemishes intact, knowing that once this was all in my head. I want to thank you for your patience if you’ve waited. This is a product of letting the universe unfold and learning to feel everything. I wrote this as a reminder to myself: Thomas, B Well.”
When I talked to Thomas, hip-hop superstar Kanye West was in the news. Without addressing West’s situation directly, Thomas offered his perspective on celebrity and the media.
“I think there is an inherent restructuring going on with the internet age. Artists might have personal boundaries, but now people are allowed to cross those boundaries unabated. In that way, you’re either put on a pedestal or on the chopping block. You can be demonized very quickly for any sort of outburst.”
“It’s worth recognizing that information is moving so quickly and generally speaking, we’re not getting most of the story. Having an outlet like I do, it allows a certain lens through which you can process things in a different way without having to speak on them as they’re happening.”
“I also think there’s something to be said about the dehumanizing nature of entertainment in general. That’s something that young artists need to recognize now, because it’s not going away. It has a lot to do with how well you know yourself and what battles you’re willing to pick. What you say is out there, it can be found. It’s important that you really know where you stand before you start talking.”
Thomas is no longer based in Milwaukee, having relocated up north. He doesn’t paint like he used to. These days, his words are his brush. After being exposed to a community of artists in Milwaukee and getting a taste of success, Thomas remains invested in the virtue of his work and what it does for him.
“It’s going to change and fluctuate and hopefully resonate with who I am at the moment. I’m making stuff for me and as long as I’m growing through it, I’ll be happy. There’s more coming, it’s just a matter of when and how and being proud of the work.”
WiG Where you at right now?
THOMAS I am reading on the Wisconsin River.
WiG What city?
THOMAS I’m up towards Wausau, Wisconsin right now. It’s my hometown.
WiG I read that you were from Wausau. What was it like growing up there? Is it in the western part of the state?
THOMAS No, it’s almost dead center in the state of Wisconsin. It’s a town in the middle of nowhere. It’s pretty. It is very insular and to itself. I guess it shaped me in it’s own way.
WiG How’d your parents end up there?
THOMAS My father was born here and my mother met him by chance while she was visiting a friend. So they are here now.
WiG They are still there?
THOMAS Yep, they’re still here.
WiG Do you have any brothers and sisters?
THOMAS Nah, I was an only child.
WiG What were your parents exposing you to musically and artistically growing up?
THOMAS They were pretty hands off actually. I didn’t really grow up listening to the music my parents listened to. I was very independent in that way. I found my own thing and always sort of moved towards that. They were very supportive of it. They played a very significant role in shaping the person that I am, but musically I was inclined to explore and learn on my own.
WiG When you were a child, what music did you gravitate towards?
THOMAS I was kind of all over the place. Again, being from a small town, I would say that the radio here was a full year or two behind everything while I was growing up. With the advent of the networked age, you know in my teen years, being able to explore a little further into what music was available, that just opened it up. So I started listening to a lot of different stuff. I wasn’t necessarily pinned down or particularly interested in what anybody else was listening to. My group of friends growing up they were all really interested in eclectic, “this is not what other people from our hometown are listening to” type music.
WiG Can you recall some of your favorite pieces of art, whether it be an album or a book or a movie or a play?
THOMAS I remember listening to so much different stuff and being really invested in the arts while I was in high school. An album that really resonates with me, I think the first album that I ever really loved was Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. It was one of those things that always sort of popped up and people jammed that a lot. Learning how to start writing, that was super important to me. I was always reading. I still read a lot. I might spend too much time reading, just in terms of having a lot of other stuff going on. I’m partial to a lot of writers, but it’s hard for me to pin one down and say, “This is a writer that defined me and helped me grow.”
I think through the practice of reading you gain an understanding of voice and the value of a word. So I guess just reading in general shaped me as an artist. In terms of visual arts, I don’t know, I was all over the place with that too. I totally went through a Banksy phase of being a 15-year-old kid totally disconnected from the rest of the art world. So I had a lot of those topical, not to say that Banksy is a topical artist, but the visual artists that rose to the top and have things written about them and were pretty prevalent in culture, and I think that I’m strayed from that in a lot of ways. I was super into Basquiat. I was doing recreations of Basquiat when I was 16 in my painting classes and trying to channel that, he’s just such a different person than me. I was definitely all over the place.
WiG Besides painting, what other art where you actively creating as a teenager?
THOMAS I was in a really, really great arts program at my high school. I was a focused painter through that time. It allowed me to use various materials to really get into painting. That was by far my most intimate outlet. I guess I started rapping when I was probably 15, 16. And I was writing poetry before that, so rap was the logical next step I think for me in that era. I don’t know, it was mostly words. I loved to paint, but I was always much more focused on words, rhyme schemes and how things fit together to create stories.
WiG Was there an outlet for spoken word or rap performances in Wausau?
THOMAS No, not at all, and there still really isn’t. I mean, it’s a beautiful little city, but it is in the middle of nowhere. It’s a place that a lot of people come back to after they leave, but there’s also a lot of people that never really leave here. I would say my first real experience being around other rappers wasn’t until I was 18, 19 and that was all in Milwaukee. Just trying to get a feel for what an actual music scene looks like.
I think in my hometown I was just connected enough that I knew every musician in town, but there was no movement, there was no collective, there wasn’t anything that was really going to progress other than these kids making music, probably going off to college and their bands sort of splitting up and going separate ways. A lot of what I was exposed to early on was this idea that you can create things and enjoy it for the sake of creating. And that was in and of itself very valuable, but my take on rap and trying to grow into a rapper, being a particular type of artist, I don’t know if that ever really caught hold. I think I was exposed to it in moving to Milwaukee, but overall I’m pretty invested in the virtue of my own work, what it does for me I suppose.
WiG And what brought you to Milwaukee?
THOMAS School. I attended UW-Milwaukee. I started as an intended arts major, then recognized the program wasn’t exactly what I thought it was going to be. I wasn’t going to get what I wanted out of it. You know, at seventeen, it’s pretty easy to look at things in a short sighted, “This isn’t what I want right now” way. But I ended up switching over to psychology and last December I graduated with my bachelor’s, so I’m pretty stoked about that.
WiG How did you develop a relationship with Sam (aka WebsterX)?
THOMAS Sam and I met each other at Jay Anderson’s place while he was still living over by Alium. And I remember when I walked in with a buddy of mine, I believe it was Chris Thompson, who actually executive produced this last project that I just put up. And I remember I saw a kid rapping straight through the living room into this sort of dining room area. And you know Jay, there was a sort of drum set in there and instruments everywhere, and I remember seeing this kid rapping, he was just freestyling. I remember just walking into that space and we went verse for verse for a while. That was the first time I ever met Sam and you know, we didn’t hang out right away, but as we got to know each other, we formed a pretty tight relationship. He’s one of my best friends in Milwaukee. He’s a super supportive dude and he’s got quite the vision.
WiG You put out your first project in 2014. How did that come to be? What was the process like?
THOMAS Well, I guess it can kind of be said of any first project, it’s sort of a culmination. I was 20-years-old when I put that project out, so I had been rapping for myself and for friends at parties in the vein of just learning to rap and understanding what I wanted to do with it, or trying to understand what I wanted to do with it.
And so the process of that was just collecting verses that I already written and packaging things, trying to put together a narrative. Challenging myself to create something that was more than just a verse and finding the production, starting to understand the steps that it takes to really craft something.
It was definitely a process of learning and so was Mama Tried. It’s all, for me, this sort of cathartic, get this off my chest, understand myself a little better and hope that other people might enjoy it and go from there.
WiG How did you process the response to the first project, which was overwhelmingly positive?
THOMAS I was blown away by the response. I’m still blown away by it. I love to think that rap is something I will always have as an outlet. It’s a process of putting words together and expressing things that I think that I need for myself and hopefully that rubs off on other people. But the response, I don’t want to say it was overwhelming, but it truly did change my life. It was something else to go from being a completely unknown rapper to doing interviews, going into radio stations and having people say some really thoughtful, encouraging words about the work itself. All the while I was still in college and sorting through life and didn’t actually having anything figured out.
A lot of people believe that you have things figured out if you can do one thing successfully. It was an interesting way to grow, just learning a lot about an industry and a the process, a business, but never having had to go through any of that. I did it on my own with no real management or resources. I don’t know, I think it was a growing experience. It was something that I didn’t know I needed until I had a chance to step back from it and to this day it still blows me away.
“Apex” had 600 plays the first week it came out and I still am completely in awe of the idea of 600 plays on a song. Even though I’ve had tracks that have far surpassed that, I kind of always fall back to 600 plays and how many different times and instances people were hearing me, regardless of whether or not it was affecting them. It’s really interesting to think about how small of a count that is in relation to the internet, but it’s still hard to believe. So I feel very blessed.
WiG And you know “Madness” was being played on 88Nine on the regular and to this day I’ll still hear it occasionally. It’s such a breath of fresh air to me every time I hear it. It never loses its power.
THOMAS Well, thank you. I appreciate that. And you know, 88Nine, what they do for Milwaukee is understated by a lot of people. Just having had the opportunity to go in there and speak with the DJs and all the people that hold that place together. They do outstanding work for their community and they’ve done a lot for me as an artist and always have extended this belief in the people, in the community, and I really do appreciate that. I think that it can’t be taken for granted how important it is to have your local radio station actually put on for you.
It is kind of crazy when you get that phone call or that Snap or that text saying, “You’re on the radio right now.” It’s very surreal. A lot of artists all over the world spend their entire career trying to get some radio play. And so to be in a position where a widely listened to station goes out of their way to play local stuff and for them to sort through it and enjoy my stuff enough to put it in rotation, it’s something that I thank them for greatly. With the Radio Milwaukee Awards that year, it was this elevated distinction. It’s a super cool thing for Milwaukee artists to have and we should all be very thankful that they do that, so shouts to 88Nine.
WiG As a result of the reception and success of Poetry Volume One, did you feel any sort of external or internal pressure in terms of the follow-up?
THOMAS Yeah, I think that there’s pressure involved in anything, right? I think most of the pressure I feel is internal. I’m really invested in becoming a better writer. And a lot of what I’m writing is very much outside of the vein of radio play, it’s not necessarily easy to commercialize. A lot of the things that I’m trying to get across. So it’s not really about, I don’t know, to me it’s not really about the reach. It’s about the feeling and the emotion. Maybe touching that one person.
Now that I have a platform, hopefully I can touch one person some motivation or inspiration. But I don’t sit down to write projects and think, “This needs to be better than the last,” or “This is going to be my big break, this is my magnum opus,” or anything like that.
At the end of the day I’m writing songs that I need as a human. Not as an artist, but I need to get some of this stuff off my chest and I need to process a lot. It’s interesting. There’s always this artist in you that wants to be there for your fan base and try to articulate things as a public figure. But then there’s a 24-year-old that has stuff going on, you know?
There’s so much to life and music is something that I don’t want to say fell into my lap, like I work really hard to create what I create, but it’s not the only thing. There a lot of aspects to life. I have a lot to sort out and music is one of those things. I was very blessed to be put in the position where people listen, which comes with a certain level of responsibility and I’m still navigating that.
WiG I want to talk briefly about live performances. You’ve only done a handful over the last couple years. How do you feel about live performance?
THOMAS I love performing. Because I don’t perform a lot, it’s a moment for me. And I want it to be special to the people that show up. There are definitely people that have waited a long time to see a live show. And a lot of it for me is just making sure that if we’re going to go out and do it, we’re going to do it right. Put soul into it and performing in spaces that I prefer to perform at. Being cognizant of the fact that it’s pretty specific material.
You know, a lot of it is not stuff I want to throw out at a dance party on a Friday night when people are trying to have a real good time and get loose. It’s a specific brand. To an extent I would like to make sure that it’s in the right place. It’s not that I don’t care to perform or that I won’t be performing in the future. It’s totally a matter of making it right and feeling like it’s the right time and the right space. And maybe I over think that to an extent. For now I’m very happy with how often I perform. I think it’ll pick up in ‘17, but for now I’m coolin.
WiG In the time between when you released Poetry Volume One and Mama Tried, I think Kristina had mentioned to me that she talked to you at a party and you had said you were working on some non music stuff. What were you getting up to creatively in the interim?
THOMAS I was working on a film. It was being shot in Milwaukee at the time by a director and screenwriter who are beautiful people. I was really kind of exploring the idea that there’s more than one creative outlet and looking at the different ways that people put things together, in terms of how do people make movies versus how do people make music videos. How does that all conflate and differ? What is there to see and what is there to do?
Being artist can be about being very well-rounded and not necessarily always being in the public eye with material. I’ve learned so much in the last two and a half years about entertainment, the business, the practice, and the purpose of going out of your way to create something for other people. And you know, at the same time I’m writing and developing my sense of what I want to do with this work and the forthcoming work. So yeah I’ve been working on films.
WiG In what capacity? As a writer or actor?
THOMAS For them I wasn’t acting, I was doing a lot of consultation. Talking to them about music, seeing what could be done about using local musicians. While I was working on the last film that they shot, a lot of location scouting and thinking about the process of making something organic in Milwaukee. And just trying to take care of a process and a city that needs good work to come out of it. So for that I’m very behind the scenes. I have the opportunity to look at a process that is not necessarily my own and start seeing how to make it better.
WiG How did Mama Tried come together?
THOMAS I think that project is kind of here and now for me. I think I had a lot to say that I wasn’t getting across in Poetry Volume One. I think that there’s a certain sense of maturity to it. I think that there’s things that I wanted to speak on, like discussions on race and violence in Milwaukee, trust and relationships, all of these different things and how they fit together and how I fit into that. Especially being sort of a called upon representative for a city. There’s a lot to unpack and come to understand about the circumstances that exist.
I think Mama Tried in some ways is a commentary about being me in Milwaukee and looking at it all. There’s so much more to it, there’s a lot that I want people to be able to uncover by themselves. It was definitely a process of being honest and emotional and vulnerable. I don’t think I’m trying to be particularly unique as much as I’m trying to be me. Sometimes people need an honest opinion. There’s a lot going on right now. And I think that in a lot of ways this project breathes that into the world.
WiG I definitely feel there’s more vulnerability on Mama Tried. The personality and the emotion comes across heavier and cuts deeper, even though there may be less rhymes…
THOMAS Yeah. There’s definitely an emotionality to it. Without getting too deep into it, a lot of it is just trying to write about your own life, instead of always seeking a narrative. Trying not just to be a writer, but being a person that people can connect to. But maybe foremost a person that I can connect to within the music. There’s a lot to stomach in that project. It’s not necessarily something that I think people will sit down and play front to back always. I think that it’s effective in that way. I think it touches on fears and emotions that people don’t really want to tap into.
I’m not necessarily sure what the response is yet. People are listening and digesting it still. To that end I’m happy. That within itself says a lot about the content and the weight of it. I also think that it took a lot out of me to make a project like this. The continuity of it and sort of the whole structure, it’s something that I wanted to make. It’s not necessarily something that I think a lot of people want to hear in terms of just emotionality.
A lot of that tends to be lost on people. Maybe not in a bad way, but it’s definitely a specific listener that will take a whole lot out of it. And maybe more so it’s for those people. It touches a lot. And sometimes I think that that’s important, maybe more so than racking up plays or being in the spotlight or having any sort of acclaim attached to it. I think it’s important work for the people that are going through it, or I least I hope so.
WiG And how do you connect with the producers?
THOMAS Almost all of the producers on Mama Tried are remote to an extent. People I’ve never met personally. Long email chains. But I think how I connect to them is that I found their music through one outlet or another and it resonated with me to an extent that I felt obligated to try and reach out. I tried to do their work justice. A couple tracks were done in-house with people close to me, but to a degree I was looking for production that I thought fit the general feel of it.
WiG I’ve been thinking about this lately, I don’t know if you saw Dave Chappelle when he was on Inside the Actor’s Studio…
THOMAS No I didn’t.
WiG At one point he was talking about when Martin Lawrence allegedly went crazy and was standing on the roof of his car with a gun shouting, “They’re trying to get me, they’re trying to get me.” Dave said something to the effect of, “To call somebody crazy is dismissive,” and “maybe there’s something sick about their environment.” I’ve been thinking about this in light of what’s been going on with Kanye lately and I’m interested in your opinion as a psychology major and as an artist and a thinker.
THOMAS Without commenting directly on Kanye or Martin Lawrence, I think that there is an inherent restructuring going on with the networked age. Artists might have personal boundaries, but now people are allowed to cross those boundaries unabated. In that way, you’re sort of put either on a pedestal or on the chopping block. You can be demonized very quickly for any sort of outburst, whether it’s a serious thing or not. Being in the public eye and being expected to be sort of perfect, there’s a lot of pressure in that.
I think for me the way that that manifests is that I personally have opinions on everything that is going on. I personally am paying attention to the realities that are, but then again I take care of myself. It’s not that I don’t care to comment. I have a responsibility to dig through it all and process it and try to understand every angle and not caught up in the frenzy of any event. To try and look at it objectively. I don’t know if that’s necessarily something I conflate with having studied psychology. I just think it’s worth recognizing that information is moving so quickly and generally speaking, we’re not getting most of the story until it’s all played out. Even then a lot of people are only getting one side of the story from whatever media outlets they choose to associate themselves with.
It’s stuff that I put into my work. I think that having an outlet like I do, it allows a certain lens through which you can process things in a different way without having to speak on them as they’re happening. But I’m not some multi-millionaire artist, I’m not on billboards and I’m not playing stadiums. So my perception of it and the coverage of anything I say is very, very different.
I also think that there’s something to be said about the dehumanizing nature of entertainment in general. And I think that that’s something that young artists need to recognize now, because it’s not going to go away. It has a lot to do with how well you know yourself and what battles you’re willing to pick. Some people pick those battles just for the sake of having their name somewhere. It’s worth considering, especially as you’re crafting a career. What you say is out there, it can be found. It’s important that you really know where you stand before you start talking. I guess that’s the biggest takeaway.
WiG Do you feel like you’re taking care of yourself better now than in the past?
THOMAS I think as you grow up you try to. I’d love to think so. I think I have a different perspective than the last time I was making other music. I wouldn’t say that I’m better than I was when I was making Poetry Volume One. I might be a little more focused, a little more self assured, a little more able to process and articulate what it is that I’m looking at in front of me and what my career is to me. It’s hard to say if you’re “better.” I think we all get very, very concerned about whether or not we are better than our last showing, especially artists. I’d like to think I’ve grown. But I don’t really look at it that way for the most part. I’m pretty healthy. I’m working towards goals. There’s not much else I’m intending to do right now, so in that way I guess I’m very much the same.
WiG I guess that brings me to my last question, which is your creative goals and what you have coming up?
THOMAS I’m just looking for growth. All of it in terms of having opportunities, having conversations like this, having opportunities to be heard. I think my biggest creative goal is to continue to make anything that advances and articulates the person that I want to be, the person that I feel like I am at the moment. I’m going to keep creating. It’s going to change and fluctuate and hopefully resonate with who I am at the moment. I’m making stuff for me and as long as I’m growing through it, I’ll be happy. There’s more coming, it’s just a matter of when and how and being proud of the work.
WIG Are you still painting?
THOMAS Yeah, I’m still painting. Less than I’d like to, but I will continue.
WiG I appreciate you taking the time. I love the new project. I’m still digesting it and finding new things.
THOMAS Definitely. I’m interested to see the reviews if they ever come out. It was a labor of love and I’m kind of glad that it’s not easy to digest. It’s something you kind of have to hold on to. I held on to it for a long time for that reason.
Milwaukee Public Schools, along with the City of Milwaukee, Milwaukee Police Department, Milwaukee Fire and Police Commission, Milwaukee Bucks and Running Rebels, will launch a Midnight Basketball League Feb. 7 at Bradley Technology and Trade High School.
The Midnight Basketball League is part of the new MPS C.A.R.E.S. (Community and Recreation Engaging Students) initiative, which was announced in October.
Milwaukee Public Schools will host three 10-week Midnight Leagues at Bradley Tech.
The first league will start March 1 and each league will serve 80 to 100 players.
MPS has worked with partners in planning the league as a way to engage and support young men and connect them to community resources in Milwaukee.
“This is about more than just basketball,” said Darienne Driver, superintendent of Milwaukee Public Schools. “We want our community and young people to know that we have our doors open for them and that we are here to help support them.”
MPS is working with Running Rebels to bring community-based organizations and resources to participants during the league so young men can access a variety of programs including employment services, driver’s license recovery, child support services and other options.
In addition to resources, the league also supports positive police and community relations. The Milwaukee Police Department will provide mentoring opportunities for young men during the leagues.
The Milwaukee Bucks have played a role in the formation of the MidnightBasketball League and will continue to support the league tips off in the coming weeks.
Bucks forward John Henson said in a news release, “I am honored to be part of this important initiative.”
“Creating meaningful improvement in the relationship between the youth and young adults of Milwaukee and the local police is significant. It is our hope that the city’s MidnightBasketball League will be an avenue for all of us to learn from each other, gain insight from different perspectives and help build a level of trust and respect.”
On the Web
Visit mpsmke.com/cares to learn more about the Midnight Basketball League and the MPS C.A.R.E.S. initiative.
For the bulk of its existence, hip-hop has been a culture and a music championed by youth, much to the chagrin of parents. This paradigm is shifting now that hip-hop is nearly a half century old. As I discovered talking with young Milwaukee hip-hop artists, many of their parents love hip-hop and some are even performers themselves.
“When I was young my mom played so much Mos Def, I just wanted to be as smooth as him,” says the magnetic Taj Raiden, 21, during an appearance on 91.7 WMSE’s Those Hip-Hop Guys.
On December 23, 2016, I had the pleasure of organizing a benefit event for Freespace, the monthly, all-ages, (mostly) hip-hop showcase housed at the Jazz Gallery Center for the Arts in Milwaukee’s Riverwest neighborhood. There I witnessed powerful performances from artists who have not yet reached legal drinking age.
Taj Raiden— who was performing at another benefit event later that night — came out to support the young emcees. She even took the mic — after some encouragement — during the community cypher, blowing the crowd away with her ferocious brand of hip-hop.
On January 18, Taj was a feature performer at Freespace’s annual “Femmespace” event, which takes place the week of Riverwest FemFest. Katie Lafond (Siren of New Age Narcissism) hosted the event. Lafond pointed out that while Taj is a “sweet little angel baby” offstage, her onstage persona couldn’t be any different. As Taj explained, the stage is where she releases her emotions and energy. This need to release is what got Taj started doing poetry, then making music.
Taj is aware of the double standards set on women. She questions the notion that if a woman is confident onstage that means she’s going to be stuck up in person. Taj understands the importance of male support, citing male friends who gave her confidence when she was starting out. But she also says that women should be wary of men who might try to dictate their artistic path.
Strength in numbers
While the first hip-hop act to gain national attention was The Sugarhill Gang back in the late 1970s, solo rappers became the norm in the the late 1990s and into the 2000s. The last decade has seen a resurgence of the group dynamic. Though Taj Raiden often performs solo, she is also a part of Team Ugly, which includes members YL64, Wolf tha Man, and Will the Glide.
The group dynamic was on full display during the Freespace holiday benefit when A.D.H.D. (“Adolescent.Devious.Harmonic.Dominance,” members Josh Jenkins, JalenG, Liv, and G-Gifted) took the stage.
As I spoke with A.D.H.D.’s Josh Jenkins, 19, I learned the group shares core values about hip-hop culture — the propagation of lyricism, community activism, and addressing social issues. Though the group is just out of high school, A.D.H.D. already has its own business cards.
“Hip-hop is very universal, so I enjoy performing in front of diverse crowds,” says Jenkins.
Jenkins first rapped onstage at a Juneteenth event when he was just 7-years-old. His father is also a rapper, singer and guitar player.
“It’s an exhilarating feeling to be able to do something I’m passionate about and have loved since I was a kid,” he adds.
While all the members of Phat Nerdz weren’t able to make the Freespace holiday benefit, Marquise Barnes (Young Epic) represented well for the crew, who are also just out of high school. Barnes stage presence and command of the mic showed skills far beyond his years. Like Jenkins, Barnes became involved with hip-hop at an early age.
“We loved how beatboxing and beatin’ on tables sounded, and how all the chaos in the class or lunchroom stopped and people would sit around and listen to us,” says Barnes.
“For me, that was big. Knowing that the vibrations of music and the sounds of instruments and our voice can attract people or at least grab their attention for that moment. After that I was just like, ‘I want to do music,’” he adds.
Thanks to his mother’s penchant for the Fat Boys and Biggie Smalls, Barnes — who is related to B.B. King on his father’s side — was inspired to incorporate the old school slang term “phat” into his crew’s name. Young Epic is joined by Myndd, S.I.N.P., Vimmy-T, Mayyh3m, and Captain Martian in the Phat Nerdz crew.
Not your average basement party
Phat Nerdz budding career got a boost when they started going to True Skool, an organization in downtown Milwaukee that “uses urban arts as a tool to engage youth in social justice, leadership and workforce development.” In the lower level of the Grand Avenue Mall, Barnes and company learned how to network and meet people outside their circle of friends. This led to a busy 2016 — opening for Lorde Fredd33, performing at the Milwaukee Art Museum, and appearing on the radio.
True Skool is a common thread among the younger generation of Milwaukee hip-hop artists. Jenkins and the A.D.H.D. crew, as well as Taj Raiden, have all spent time at True Skool. At the beginning of the year Barnes threw a holiday party at True Skool, inviting Team Ugly, A.D.H.D., and others to perform.
“I decided to kick it off with an open mic, because the party wasn’t just for us. It was for the city and the fans. It was a way for all the people who supported us in 2016 to come express themselves and enjoy the fact that we’re all coming together for one reason, and that’s to show love,” says Barnes.
Even though he is technically still a teenager, Barnes is already thinking about the kids that will come after him.
“I’ll be honest, I wanted to quit making music so many times. But in my mind I kept reminding myself that I’m putting in work now so the next generation, the kid who is like me and looks up to me, I’m doing it so they won’t give up,” says Barnes.
“I want them to feel like they can do anything in the world. That’s what I represent, the fact that even when the odds are stacked against you, you can become and do whatever you want in life.”
A.D.H.D. performs this Thursday, February 2, at Club 200 in Walker’s Point. They will also play a Valentine’s Bash on Friday, February 17, details forthcoming…
Phat Nerdz will open for The Fatty Acids on Friday, February 24, at Anodyne Coffee Roasters in Walker’s Point. Stay tuned for another show announcement the week of February 13…
State Rep. David Crowley, D-Milwaukee, is calling for the immediate removal of David Clarke from the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s office.
Crowley, chair of the Milwaukee legislative delegation, sent the following letter to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker:
The duty bestowed upon law-enforcement officers is to protect and serve. Unfortunately, that is not what the Sheriff of Milwaukee County is most concerned with. Today I call on you to remove Sheriff David Clarke from office for his willful neglect of duties, repeated inappropriate and incendiary comments, his promotions of violence, and use of intimidation against innocent civilians.
Since April of 2016, four people, including a newborn baby, have died at the Milwaukee County Jail under the supervision of Sheriff Clarke. The Jail is woefully understaffed due to a high rate of jail staff turnover, as well as a lack of adequate training and supervision. In November, a court-ordered monitor of the jail reported that the previous three deaths all came from mistakes in medical care and/or poor monitoring of vulnerable inmates. Yet still in public, Sheriff Clarke has remained remarkably silent regarding the deaths and staffing concerns. Instead, behind closed doors, he took to verbally threatening the Milwaukee County Chief Medical Examiner over the information that he had made public regarding these deaths.
Those are not the only inappropriate comments that Sheriff Clarke has made recently. He has used the official website and Facebook page of the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office to personally attack and intimidate his opponents and accusers. He has used racial slurs such as calling an African-American commentator a “jigaboo.” Further, he has repeatedly threatened or insinuated violence, recently claiming that if people “messed with him” they would get “knocked out.”
This last statement was made in response to a new complaint filed against Clarkeby a Milwaukee resident who claims he was unlawfully detained, interrogated, and escorted out of Mitchell Airport because he shook his head at the Sheriff while on a flight home. After the incident, the Sheriff took to Facebook to taunt and intimidate the individual. He posted a picture of the individual with the statement “Cheer up snowflake. If Sheriff Clarke were to really harass you, you wouldn’t be around to whine about it”.
The comments and actions of the Sheriff are completely unacceptable for any public official and constitute a cause for removal from office. I call on you to remove David Clarke from his position as Milwaukee County Sheriff immediately. The people deserve a Sheriff who is committed to protect and serve, not one committed to threaten and intimidate. The time for action is now.
Well, the day has come. President Trump. Brace yourself. Deep breaths.
They say the pendulum tends to swing in American politics, but I can’t imagine a bigger swing than this. From a charismatic community organizer who appeals to the best of our nature, to an obnoxious businessman who appeals to the worst of our nature.
Milwaukee hip-hop artist Vincent VanGREAT — fresh off a performance at Milwaukee Record’s Local Coverage — felt there was no better time than today to release his new video for “Radical (Prod. VVG x Q the Sun).” The frenetic track is accompanied by clips of police brutality and shots of VanGREAT on snowy Milwaukee streets letting his, um, middle fingers do the talking.
Trump supporters like to allege that police brutality and race relations have gotten worse under Obama’s watch and that he’s somehow responsible. This is nonsense. Police brutality was undoubtedly worse under previous administrations.
What changed during the Obama years is that now almost everyone has a video camera in their pocket, making it easier to document and expose police brutality. An increase in racial tension is simply a response to this increased visibility and awareness of police brutality.
It is important to note that when we say “Fuck the law,” we are not advocating anarchy, but expressing anger towards an unjust system that disproportionately harasses, arrests and imprisons people of color and marginalized communities. We want an end to police brutality, not an end to police. Ultimately, like VanGREAT says in the video’s preamble, we want more “love, peace and light.”
“Radical” is the second visual from VanGREAT’s excellent self-produced 2016 album UnGREATful, which you can buy on iTunes. The video was shot by JSwaqq.
“This record/visual is not to promote violence nor hate towards law enforcement or government of any kind. It is simply to raise awareness of current situations that are affecting many people around the world. With all the darkness and evil that we are forced to live with these days we must ALL remember to spread love, peace and light no matter what race, age or gender we are. God is love!” – Vincent VanGREAT
(It’s also important to note that when we say “Fuck Trump,” we mean FUCK TRUMP!)
Some members of Congress are boycotting the inauguration of Donald Trump on Jan. 20. U.S. Rep. Gwen Moore, D-Wis., plans to attend the inauguration. The Milwaukee congresswoman explains:
I support my colleagues in their decision to boycott the Presidential Inauguration, but knowing how he operates, I suspect President-elect Donald Trump will use this expression of free speech as an excuse to bypass Democrats and to push his extreme agenda with utter impunity. With that in mind, I refuse to be a pawn in the president-elect’s efforts to rally support from congressional Republicans. As a proud Democrat, I want President-elect Trump to see me front and center as he’s sworn in. I want him to see exactly what his opposition looks like. When he sees me, I want him to see The Resistance.
I did not come to this decision lightly. I weighed my responsibility as an elected official against my disgust over the president-elect’s vile tactics employed to ascend to the presidency and the disrespectful treatment of revered civil rights icon Congressman John Lewis. I considered the multitude of supportive phone calls and tweets from my constituents in light of the embarrassing and ongoing petulance employed by the president-elect. I prayed on this and thought of First Lady Michelle Obama as she reminded us to refrain from abandoning decency in the face of intolerance and moral depravity.
It’s no secret that I find President-elect Trump and his policies repugnant and anathema to my efforts to pursue social justice, and I know a majority of my constituents feel the same. In November, Milwaukee sent a strong, clear message that Donald Trump was the wrong man to lead our country. I intend to deliver that message with my presence at the Presidential Inauguration and serve a symbol of opposition, not normalization.
According to a report published by the Milwaukee Homicide Review Commission in 2013 entitled “Estimating the Number of Sex Trafficked Youth Using Contacts with Milwaukee Police Department,” more than 77 youth below the age of 17 were trafficked in our city. This information is now more than 3 years old and does not account for adults.
There are many great organizations working to fight human trafficking in Milwaukee and abroad.
Please learn about, volunteer with and work alongside these groups.
Here are a few: Racine Coalition Against Human Trafficking, Human Trafficking Task Force of Greater Milwaukee, the Milwaukee Police Department, the Commission on Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence and the U.S. Attorney’s Eastern District Task Force on Human Trafficking, along with many nonprofits.
For a comprehensive list of organizations, please see the Human Trafficking Task Force of Greater Milwaukee’s May 2013 report entitled, “Survey Results: Services for People Who’ve Been Trafficked.”
Another organization is Diaconia Connections, an international aid and development organization affiliated with the Presbyterian Church USA, the Czech Brethren and the United Church of Christ. Diaconia Connections maintains an office in the Plymouth United Church of Christ on Milwaukee’s East Side.
The following is a personal reflection from their director, Jeremy Ault, about his trip to Moldova, documenting the anti-trafficking work being done there.
After nearly two hours of traveling, my Moldovan colleagues Adrian and Livia stopped the car in the middle of a gravel road at the top of a long, winding hill. They made their way to a rusted gate that demarcated the property line of a family that lived in a dilapidated house. Turquoise paint peeled away from warped, sun-bleached wooden planks, while the breeze sucked curtains out of broken windowpanes. The yard was bare and rusted hulks of farm equipment could be seen through the crushed walls of a collapsed barn. There was no electricity, no running water and the outhouse door was left ajar.
It was at times like these between Adrian, Livia and me where our language barrier was most noticeable. I had no idea of their plans, so I just followed.
Upon reaching the threshold of the gate, I caught a glimpse of an elderly women making her way to the door. She walked with a severe bend in her spine — most likely the consequence of years of farm labor and osteoporosis.
With her came three children. Their ages varied, from 10-16. There were two boys and a young girl. They didn’t speak to us. After some hushed conversation, Adrian turned to me and waved me inside.
I made it to the steps leading to the entrance, glanced at the children, and then turned back around. I walked across the yard, back through the gate, and stood by the car. I didn’t leave that spot for an hour.
In the summer of 2015, I traveled with three representatives from the Presbyterian Foundation to the European nation of Moldova to document the work of Diaconia Connections (the nonprofit I work for), and our Moldovan partners CASMED and ProCoRe. Our goal was to produce a video about the work being done to fight human trafficking.
Human trafficking is a reprehensible crime. And Moldova, Europe’s poorest country, is ground zero.
Cornered between Romania, Ukraine and the Black Sea, the country has experienced years of economic dysfunction, political corruption and civil war. For working-age adults and young people, opportunity is often found by seeking employment in Russia or the European Union.
Moldova is rated as a Tier 2 Watch List by the U.S. State Department. It is a primary source of men, women, and children trafficked for sex and forced labor. Victims are sent to Turkey, Greece, Cyprus, Russia and the European Union. Nearly 80 percent of those trafficked work in the sex industry.
The problem is most egregious in Moldova’s rural communities, where educational and economic opportunities are lacking. Individuals in the countryside are desperate for opportunities. And desperate people without the proper means to acquire work visas, are prime targets for human traffickers. In Moldova, there are plenty of potential victims.
We met up with our Moldovan colleagues, Livia and Adrian, early on in our trip and they stayed with us for a few days, driving us around Moldova, where we visited villages and farm communities. But instead of listening to stories of capture, abuse, escape and healing from individual survivors, we instead visited the damp, musty homes of elderly women suffering from diabetes and high blood pressure.
We came upon the cottage of a 75-year-old man uncontrollably shaking from a neurological disease that rendered him unable to speak or feed himself. The nurse from CASMED that cared for him walked over 7 miles a day to wash his soiled bed linens and slice his bread.
We had lunch with a single mother and her son who was physically disabled and unable to leave the house. We listened intently as she pleaded with local government officials to assist her in rebuilding the foundation of her home. In the middle of the conversation, the mayor of the town leaned over to me and said in English, “Her house is going to be condemned next month. We don’t know what to do. We have no money to help.”
At some point I couldn’t take it anymore. I felt like a voyeur. The overbearing sense of helplessness began to weigh on me, so I created an alternative reality.
I convinced myself that the people we were visiting were acting — perhaps for the camera. I decided to look away, to ignore the problems that were presented before me — which is why, at our last stop, I refused to enter the house.
I stood by the car indignant and upset that Adrian and Livia had taken me to the home of an elderly women, caring for children, who was clearly uncomfortable and in need of some kind of material aid. Once again, I brought nothing. I had no food and no money. And this time, I had little empathy. I don’t know, maybe I was ashamed of my own privilege?
My colleagues from the Presbyterian Foundation, along with Adrian and Livia, returned to the car. None of them asked me about my decision to stay outside.
Instead, they recounted another tragic story that had become all too familiar: Six years ago, the children’s mother was lured by work “recruiters” from Russia, promising a job in the hospitality industry in Moscow. Thinking that she would work in a hotel or café, the mother gave money to the recruiters to purchase a work visa. She left. And has never been back. It is now known that she was trafficked into prostitution by an organized crime syndicate. Her children have spoken with her only twice since she’s been gone, and they do not know when or if she will return. The task of caring for her children has fallen to her impoverished and elderly mother — a situation that only continues the cycle of poverty and vulnerability that enables traffickers to take advantage of desperation.
After some reflection, I thought more critically about my own decision to not enter the house. Livia and Adrian, in the face of problems, never looked away. They listened to the stories of people and actively found ways to help. The work of CASMED and ProCoRe are testaments to the power of the human spirit in the face of overwhelming challenges. The nurses from CASMED provide not only medical assistance, but offer company and conversation, reminding those they care for that they are loved and remembered. Social workers from CASMED and ProCoRe assist elderly caretakers with their expenses, providing educational materials, a living stipend and food throughout the year. Youth counselors and workers provide job training, therapy sessions and organize cultural outings to help young survivors of trafficking heal. I began to feel ashamed that I, in my privilege, did not allow the children or the grandmother to tell me their story.
Livia, Adrian and all the individuals we visited, forced me to realize an often forgotten fact: that a crime like human trafficking affects entire communities in addition to those trafficked. Men who have been sent away to Moscow to work on construction sites as bonded laborers are unable to remain home and attend to their ailing mothers. Women forced into prostitution in Turkey are unable to care for their aging fathers. Bright students desperate for work and educational opportunities drift away to cities and across borders, weakening their communities and impoverishing the life and future of their villages.
But the story doesn’t need to stop there.
No matter how insidious the crime trafficking can be, together, survivors and regular people like you and me can fight back.
It is why Adrian and Livia continue to care and provide healing for all of those affected — the survivors and those who are left behind.
It’s why survivors themselves are often their own best advocates. They are strong, resilient people who have a lot to teach us.
It’s why we should never ignore their stories.
It’s why we should actively search for those places in our communities where trafficking is happening and volunteer, donate to, or work alongside those organizations fighting this terrible crime.
We were about an hour and half north of the capital Chisinau when I saw my final glimpse of the Moldovan countryside. It was awash in an auburn, early-morning light that intensified the dour hues of plowed fields and barren hillsides. Thousands of dried sunflower stalks shuddered in the wind while elderly farmers dressed in loose-fitting cotton overalls lounged under spindly beech trees. Women’s Orthodox headscarves splashed radiant shades of red and blue across the landscape as they slowly herded untethered cows into the irrigation canals for water. It was a bucolic, peaceful scene. For while the land showed signs of serious erosion and the people working the fields conveyed a life bereft of material wealth, it was nevertheless enticing. It was one of the few moments where I really paid attention, when I chose not to look away.
While Moldova might be far away, the trauma of trafficking hits close to home. As citizens of Milwaukee and the United States, we should work to fight injustice and human trafficking here and in places like Moldova. It might be uncomfortable and we might have to learn where we can be of help, but much more is lost when we avert our eyes and stand listlessly by on the roadside.
Jeremy Ault is the director of Diaconia Connections and an Analyst for Spectrum Nonprofit Services. He lives in Milwaukee’s Riverwest neighborhood. For more information, please visit www.diaconiaconnections.org.
> Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service, “A Crime Hidden in Plain Sight: Human Trafficking in Milwaukee,” Allison Dikanovic, Feb. 29, 2016,.
> Trafficking in Persons Report 2016, US Department of State.
> Homicide Review Commission Report, April 15, 2013, “Estimating the Number of Sex Trafficked Youth Using Contacts with the Milwaukee Police Department.”