a conversation with avery r. young about revisiting the spiritual, “Wade In The Water

Our bodies are composed of water and bone. Throughout human history water has been a symbol of life — it is both in us and beyond us — it is in our memories. Water is fertile promise — of a future. Water is often remembered a means of liberation for the enslaved: from the Bible passage where God parts the Red Sea to save the Israelites to the negro spiritual, “I’m gonna lay down my burden, down by the river side”.

As water flows, it displaces and transforms. It is an element that is necessarily incomplete — it carries what it touches and evolves. Water is purification and water is poison. With the migration of black communities from the South to the industrialized North, the contamination of toxic water has disproportionally affected black communities. One such community, is the city of Flint….

fo(r) Flint
lead in de wattah
lead in de wattah | chirrun
lead in de wattah 
ol(d) charlie playin God wif wattah
yes | dey knew it
yes dey knew what it do to chirrun
yes dey knew it …
ol(d) charlie playin God wif wattah
but dey did nothin
& dey did nohtin | chirrun
but dey did nothin
charlie playin God wif playin
now him say him gonna fix it
him say him gonna fix it | chirrun
but i dont believe him
charlie like playin God wif wattah
charlie like playin God
wif wattah …
charlie like playin God

What moved you to first sing “Lead In Da Watah”?

I was moved to do so because it’s just heavy. It’s a very heavy situation. [Flint] is not somebody shooting somebody that is unarmed, it doesn’t have any kind of sensationalism to it. But, it is completely devastating though. It was just heavy on my heart and on my spirit. I was just flowing that night. I was in the spirit. I just did it. I felt safe enough to do it. In the context of the population of the audience that was in the room at that moment, I just felt it.

We felt it too…

Everything that I create artistically, is something that I really feel strongly about. A lot of times it not something I have been through personally, but it is something that just strikes a cord. That particular situation just lays heavy on my heart. Water is a very serious thing. The third world war… it will be about water. That’s the type of shit you see in one of those damn sci-fi films where the evil villain tries to poison the water or decides to control the people by putting some type of agent in the water that controls their minds. It’s just crazy! Don’t you think?

I do. There is no opportunity for trust when politicians are too busy defending themselves to express any semblance of sincere remorse or connection to this liminal poison. The lead is not only in the water, in our bones, and in the invisible parts of us. And we can’t get it out. But, in a sense your music is like medicine for the spirit.

The fixing of it does not seem to be about the damage that is already caused. What about the people who are poisoned? I mean, music is vibration, right? There is healing in vibration. For me, when I sang the song there was something inside of me that settled, but there was also something that made me more aware of people’s pain. There was something that made it more pertinent, that made it more flesh. hat gave it arms and legs.

When music is a part of your inner world, how did you come to this point where your music is ‘like flesh’?

I started in Church. That was where music was indoctrinated in me. Church was where I learned ‘Wade In the Water” and understood the history of ‘Wade In the Water’ as being code for slaves escaping. During the time of the underground railroad, wading in the water would cut off your scent from the dogs. If you could get to the river, you could be that much closer to freedom.

As far as how it enters into what I do artistically, I was writing poetry and big momma was like,

“you’re not singing anymore?

So the construction of these hymns as really just to appease her. She liked to hear me sing. I could have or maybe should have told her,

I’m a poet. I don’t sing.”

But, I have learned that the poetry is music. Especially the way which the work is framed. Wade In the Water is coded language. It’s something that we sung in order to obtain freedom. I have been doing that since my first urban hymn, which was “Emmett (Till de remix)”.

That is a reappropriation of the hymn, “Where you there when they crucified my lord?”. I am asking the question,

“Where you there when dey did what dey did to dat boy?”

And then the piece goes on to recount the event that that led to Emmett Till’s kidnapping, murder, and trial. And ultimately the acquittal of the two men who were charged with kidnapping him. That piece came very similar to this piece for Flint.

I just started singing the song one day when I was at Oak Park and River Forest High School for a gathering as a guest poet. I wanted to write the song because earlier that week I went to a school where the kids didn’t even know who Emmet Till was. The school was right off of Emmet Till Boulevard. I was like,

you see Emmett’s name every day coming to school, how come you don’t know who he is?

Emmett Till was the first urban hymn… Whenever I think about a story and whatever the narrative can exist in a form where the message is strongest, that is where I put some kind of melody and music to it.

So, fast forwarding to three years ago, when I started to work on the race record, I knew that I wanted to take the poetry and add music to it. I knew I wanted that music to be more than just hymns. I knew I wanted the music to examine and celebrate a wide range of Black American music underneath stories that dealt with race, gender, and politics in America during the Obama era. Now we’re here in 2016, in the midst of a presidential campaign, Black Lives Matter, Flint, and police shooting unarmed black youth.

Exactly. And as you expressed, kids are growing up in this climate not even knowing who Emmett Till was. The consequences of neglecting this history are egregious… it enables a culture where the media can rationalize and even justify this ongoing violence as isolated incidents. Do you remember the first time you heard about Emmett Till?

I was young. I was watching Eyes on the Prize. It was the first time I was introduced to the story and I remembered watching it, and my big mamma then told me the real story. It gave me a whole another perspective. A couple years back I had a chance to meet Simeon Wright, who is his cousin. He was actually laying the bed with Emmett when he was kidnapped. I experienced his story and his thoughts and concerns about the way in which the story was even presented in Eyes on The Prize. I actually did the piece with him in the room and it was heavy, it was really heavy. When I do the piece it is always a reintroduction to it, to the situation.

As a performer, the work is to always get back to the space and root of what it is that you are actually talking about. So, when I do that poem on Emmett Till: The Remix, I am always re-introduced to the situation.

Even now it is always new. I guess as a performer it is exciting, but just as a human being, I wish I could do that poem and it would not be as fresh as it is. When I say fresh I mean it is still as relevant as it was. There continues to be hundreds of Emmett’s. I do the poem now and It is not Emmett who is in that poem. It is Sandra. It is Rekia. It is Tamir. It is Trayvon. All of those people are in that piece.

Recently, for the 60th anniversary of Emmet Till’s death at Oak Woods Cemetery, I was working with Chicago documentary filmmaker, Carlos Javier Ortiz, for the production of a documentary short, One Thousand Midnights. There, we met Thelma, Emmett Till’s older cousin. She was more like a sister to him. She came up for the ceremony on a bus all the way from Florida, at 96 years old. When you looked in her eyes, you did not see any hatred or anger. She really just seemed to feel sorry for people who harbor so much fear and hatred.

Oak Woods Cemetary, Chicago. Family members of Emmett Till + Geneva Reed-Veal (Sandra Bland’s mother) gather for 60th anniversary of Emmett Till’s death
Oak Woods Cemetery , Chicago. Geneva Reed-Veal stands by Emmett Till’s grave.

When I do such a piece, it is heavy, but there is also such a message of [peace]. Of the condition that brought them to being sent to ship. They aren’t worried about this world no more . There is no carrying of hatred or anything of that nature. The poem still remains relevant and hard and heavy because it still happens. It does not lie or rest in what has happened to him. That sense of rationale is a byproduct of the healing that one has to encounter, you know? And they’re healing in the process.

Can you tell me about what it was like for you to grow up here? When did you start coming into awareness of the reality of being black in Chicago and in the United States?

I had no other choice but to be comfortable in my skin. I just grew up around things that were distinctively black. I think about my pigmentation being dark-skinned in a family full of light skinned people, you know… I’m blk!

I grew up on the West Side of Chicago, where I moved when I was eight years old. Before then I lived in Englewood. So everything was immediately black for me. But I went to schools that were predominantly white, so I was very aware of my color too. But when I went home, I was with people who looked like me. Oh, we blk! We were Baptist. My family was were proud of their black heritage. My uncle instilled a lot of that awareness in me between the music and the culture. I was consumed with seeing myself as black. When I read I Am A Darker Brother: A Poetry Anthology, I fell in love with Langston Hughes. So then I went to go found everything that was Langston Hughes or on Nina Simone when I first heard her.

How do you become this person who exudes so much illumination, and confidence, and deep, intrinsic love. Just soulfulness. You seem so comfortable in your skin, perhaps more than anyone I know, regardless of their class, skin color, or gender…

So, that’s a jumpstart on the confidence level because I had to believe I was as pretty or as beautiful as the people around me, who were not necessarily as dark as me. I think Church has a lot to do with my confidence… just going up in a very Missionary Baptist Church. So that had a lot to do with me being indoctrinated with blackness. I wasn’t around people that told me that I was shit or that I wasn’t going to be nothing. I was surrounded by people everyday that were telling me that I was smart, that I could be anything I wanted to be…except because of my feet, I would not be able to work a hard job, so I would’ve had to go get me a sit-down job.

I think a lot about my feet in relation to the level of confidence that I think people see in me. So, when I was born, I was born with club feet. I have had corrective surgeries on my feet. You can tell when I walk that I’m like club-footed or whatever, if you’re paying attention.

That’s right. I know, but I forgot because you don’t make it a thing. I’ve actually never noticed your feet when you are performing. But at first, when I saw your feet, I admit, I thought, “Wow, that must suck to live with.” I wondered if they gave you pain — not just physically, but spiritually. If your feet made you have to deal with a lot of looks, at lot of teasing, a lot of discrimination coming up.

I remember being really young and a couple people were like making fun of my feet. And I was crying. So I went back to the house and my big mama was like,

What’s wrong with you?

And I was like,

“They talkin’ about me”.

She was like,

“Who is they?

And I was like,


And she was like,

Well, they talk about Jesus. So they gonna talk about you. What you better than Jesus?
She said this to me as a really young child, and I did not know how to answer the question. But I would mark that as the pinnacle of my confidence. What else was I going to do but continue to walk…. and get around the world with the feet I have?

That attitude spills over into everything about me. What else am I gonna do but be black? It’s the skin I’m in. What else I’m gonna do but be queer? What else I’m gonna do but do it and be it. Just her asking me,

You betta’ than Jesus? Is that what you cryin’ for?

I really don’t think it was about her teaching me not to cry, it was about her teaching me the “and what…?

Okay, so. You’ crying, so….?

I mean, being club-footed — it’s in me. At first thee doctor told her when I was born,

You should cut his feet off. They’re not going to grow right. He’s not going to be able to walk so you should cut his feet off. And if he is able to walk, he is going to have a very difficult time walking.

But I learned how to walk. And the doctor was just like,

What!? Well, you still should cut his feet off because they are not going to develop, they are not going to be able to hold up his body, so he needs some more support.

Big mama was just like,

No. If he gets older, he wants to he can cut them off, but I’m not gonna take that from him. Right now that little boy, he runs, he jumps, he dances… he does anything that people with two normal feet do. So, ain’t nothing wrong with the boy’s feet. Well not to him! You cant tell him there’s something wrong with his feet.

That’s the source of my confidence. You can’t tell me that there is something wrong with me! That is why my favorite line in poetry is from Nikki Giovani’s Ego-Trippin’, “I’m so hip even my errors are correct”…

You can’t tell me I don’t walk right. You can’t tell me I don’t talk right. That’s my attitude about it. Like I said, I did not grow up with people doing anything but loving me. You see what I’m saying?

Yes, your home sounds so soulful…

I think when people talk about children they talk about the responsibility in the sense of resources — like monetary things. I believe our biggest responsibility to children is the energy and the environment that we raise them in. As far as resources, I know kids that have everything they want or could have, but they don’t know what their daddy and mommy smelled like or they never hugged them.

I remember how my big mama smelled because I hugged her and I sat up under her enough times to understand that she wore that Elizabeth Taylor perfume — “white diamond”! I remember that so vividly.

I did not grow up with the energy that I was anything lesser than anybody or anything… outside of Jesus. [laughs] You know, I remember being in third grade and a white girl saying I was dirty. I was like,

“I’m alright. I’m not dirty!”

I refuted that at eight years old. You know, I’m pretty sure if you talk to an aunt or an older cousin of mine, they’ll tell you he has always had that mouth. That confidence, that sense of self. It has little to do with the skin I was born in more about the feet I was born with.

When Africans were brought to America to be slaves, they were stripped of their agency of voice and body. Our feet is how we got our shit back. Dance is how we got our bodies back. The running is how we got our lives back.
“Yeah these feet are crooked, but I’m gonna run motherfucka, I’m gonna run. Watch this! “You feelin’ me?

That element of my life is my greatest source of confidence. These crooked feet are like my hair. That is why when I turned thirteen,

“You know what big momma, I ain’t going to do one more surgery on my feet. I’m tired. I’m tired of these doctors cuttin’ on me. Hey, I walk! I can do anything that I wanna do. I’m good.”

And she was like,

I’m with you. Okay, baby!”

And they say the doctor said,

“You only have a little way to go….”

And I was like,

Fuck it. I’m good!. I’m good.”

I cannot imagine that doctor telling a white mother to cut off her kids’ feet. Your experience speaks to this distrust of doctors and/or institutions that so often is felt in the black community. And of course, now we have Flint. If you had a message, what would you say to the government and people of Flint?

You should be completely ashamed of yourself that you would allow such a situation. I am thoroughly dedicated to doing whatever I can to galvanize folks from flint into believing and knowing that you are way more valuable than what your government took you for.

Your voice and music so gracefully send that message.

I just wanted it to be classically black. Classic music is a refined music of another caliber, so to speak. But, I also wanted it to have that root in it because the root is where are most valuable. My contribution and my prayer for the people of Flint is to get other people to understand the value of these people from Flint. There is much more than water that has to be fixed. There is way more than pipes that have to be relaid. The people are worthy of full retribution.

I want people to know the real truth of what happens in this world — that people love each other. Pain and killing — yes it happens, but it is not what really goes down. This world can only function with love, you know?

I believe that my work as a performer is to transform space. Transform with healing through vibration. I am always trying to break that fourth wall and let people know I am not here for you to look at me, I am here for us all a good time. I am about to talk about everything and anything. Some of it is going to be uncomfortable because that’s the shit we exist in. But, we goin’ to rock through it together and we goin’ to be loved at the end of the day.

When I sang “Lead in da Watah’, by the end of the night we had everybody in that building singing “Resurrect Fred”. Fred Hampton, a nineteen year old that was shot and killed laying next to his pregnant wife can bring all those types of folks together shouting freedom in his namesake. Let’s resurrect Fred! Let’s understand what he was about. He was about justice. He was about people being able to eat and exist and live in a world that is designed to get rid of them. That ain’t what those people on Fox News want you to believe can exist in this world — but it does.

All those folk laugh. All of us exist in joy. That’s what I’m doing. I’m bangin’ on the pipes of joy. Mama Toi Derricotte has said, “Our greatest resistance is joy.” That is beyond black/white, man/woman, rich/poor. To understand joy and to know it, keeps me from losing my mind.

Yes, joy is a belief-system. In a sense it is a religion…

Like a song I learned in Church, “this joy that I have, the world did not give it to me”. The world did not give it and the world cannot take it away. In my upbringing, I needed to hear that. I needed to believe that. And now I must demonstrate that.

This joy that I got, ain’t nobody give it to me. I got it clenched. Tight. It’s mine. Joy is my tool. It is the tool that I use to create whatever it is that I’m calling my art. I have to live with it. I have to walk with it. I have to walk in it. I have to sleep with it. I have to love with it. Joy, it is a motherfucker.