"Historic Memory" with Damon Davis
When we meet at Gotham Market in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, Damon Davis is fresh from a nap, doing his best to stave off jet lag after returning from South Africa. Over the last few months, he and co-director, Sabaah Folayan, have been on the promotional circuit for Whose Streets?, a documentary about the killing of Michael Brown and the subsequent uprising in Ferguson, Missouri. Davis is both worn out and talked out when it comes to the documentary. Hearing and answering the same questions can be draining, especially with such an emotionally charged topic. I suggest avoiding it altogether during our conversation, and he readily agrees.
Davis is a Renaissance man, born and raised in East St. Louis, Illinois, the youngest of five siblings. The 31-year-old is a hip-hop artist (moniker LooseScrewz), the founder of FarFetched music and art imprint, an exhibiting visual artist, and a filmmaker. He is also a self-described nerd, fairly reserved if he doesn’t know or trust you, and speaks with a welcomed honesty that anchors his conversations. Davis and I have known of each other for a few years, but this is our first opportunity to get well acquainted. Though we both went to a small Catholic school at the same time in the nineties, we never knew one another. Yet, there we sat in Brooklyn, still crushing over our favorite kindergarten teacher, reminiscing about Baptist singing in a Catholic church, and weaving our way through the path that brought Davis to this moment.
“You know, because you were in the same area,” he starts, “in the 90s, with crack, East St. Louis was the murder capital at one point that year. My parents were old, so my dad was really strict, and I was in a weird place. I guess, so to speak, I was an only child. My brothers and sisters were having kids one or two years after I was born. ‘Cause my mama's house was “grandmama’s house,” that's where everybody was raised at. I had to operate in a space where I spent time by myself...but I had to learn how to be in a family unit, where a lot of people relied on each other."
But even though he operated within a family unit, Davis explains that he often viewed the world quite differently than those around him.
“I spent a lot of time inside of my own head making my own world. Drawing, talking to myself a lot. I still do. That's just something that I developed. I spent a lot of time honing the skills that I have now. There hasn't been a time in my life where I didn't know that I was going to be an artist. It just worked out. Some people, it don't work out so well. I was either gonna be an artist or a scientist.”
For Davis, the arts and the sciences are not too far apart. He says that though science is more academic and the arts are more of the heart, both are fields in which people are trying to understand the world around them. His family supported his desire to figure out the world through art, though not necessarily as a means of income. Like many families, especially those for which money isn't plentiful, Davis’ did not see art as a viable career option, one that would take him from and keep him out of poverty.
“I come from poor people. Nobody believes in the arts. The funny thing is that black people don't put a lot of stake in the only thing...where we ever become millionaires. Most of the time it's through art. I remember when I was really getting into music, when I was eleven or twelve. You know every kid, they do a bunch of stuff. My parents didn't have a lot of money so I had to prove to my dad that it was worth him buying me equipment. He was an electronics engineer, so he had a bunch of stuff in the basement that people didn't pay him for. I took a lot of that, and made a makeshift studio. Tape decks. Old mixers. My uncle gave me a crate of records. My brother gave me a turntable and his beat machine from like the eighties, 'cause he was the oldest,” Davis laughs.
As Davis became more dedicated, his father supported him with additional equipment. Davis worked hard not only because of his love of the arts, for music especially, but because he thought music was his way out of East St. Louis and out of poverty. He was always a good student, but Davis noticed black wealth and success, especially visible black success, was most common in either entertainment or sports.
“Those are the people you see on tv [musicians]. And I was also a nerd. I want to be very clear about that. A lot of people think the hood means streets, and that’s not the same thing. Just because you come from poor black people doesn't mean that everybody was in the streets or selling dope.”
Though Davis tried his hand at street-life, he quickly realized it was not for him.
“It was around. A lot of my friends and I sold drugs before and tried to gang-bang, but that's not who I was. On a real life level, hiphop in general saved my life and gave me a purpose and identity. The things that I do now came out of me trying to make a career in hip hop. Marketing, promotion, knowing how to carry yourself in different environments…and still keep "you" in tact.”
Davis learned much of what he knew, and still knows, by experimenting, discovering, and self-teaching. From photography, to Photoshop, to making beats, the entrepreneurial spirit of hip-hop has instilled in him a deep work ethic and a multifarious ambition. In addition to family, he credits a handful of creative teachers at his alma mater, Althoff Catholic High School, for taking special time with him. One in particular, Dave Woesthaus holds a special memory for him.
“I remember Mr. Woesthaus and one of my classmate's mom…helped me out a lot. The first time I hung anything on a wall, exhibited anything, they set up the shows. I remember they were getting me these gigs where soccer moms wanted me to paint their sons’ bedrooms. I was getting paid! The first time I got any press, I did a mural on the side of Lincoln Theater [in Belleville, Illinois]. I did a big Godzilla thing out there. It was a big deal for me. My dad still has the clipping.”
While high school was place where Davis felt supported and guided, college at Saint Louis University often left him feeling out of place. Classism and prejudices tarnished his experiences with peers, both black and white, leaving him few avenues for bonding or artistic collaboration. Eventually, Davis found a community with an often-overlooked group of people: the school’s black working-class employees.
“The janitors and the lady at the lunch line, they fucked with me. I remember one time I was going to class, and one lady stopped me. There was a door down in the lobby that I never knew what it was, and they brought me in there. They was having a potluck...and they wanted me to eat with them. There were times when I wouldn't have ate, ‘cause I ran out of money.”
In describing these moments, Davis gets quiet, and it’s apparent that the staff who took him in, who saw and accepted him, meant a great deal.
Davis graduated with a degree in Communications; his father wasn’t sure that he would find a sustainable career in the arts with a BFA, and that doubt eventually transferred to his son. After a short stint working for the East St. Louis school district and a period of unemployment, Davis delved into his art full-time. Many of his experiences as an outsider, from youth to young adulthood, shaped the kind of art that Damon Davis has made and the audience for whom he creates it. His work is political. It has a specific meaning and purpose.
“I don't like the word activist at all. I think when you talk about being an activist that means you have a choice in it. You know like 'I'm a doctor.' That means you chose to do that shit. I feel like I'm in a fight for my life. I woke up in this shit. I'm always active. I don't clock in and clock out. I'm trying to save myself and the people around me.”
We discuss more about Davis’ work and how it fits into culture as he defines it.
“Culture is almost like historic memory of a specific place, and people, and time. And as long as that place and those people exist, and as times goes on, culture goes on and changes. Culture is not the numbers, it’s the spirit of the collective, of the people, and that can manifest as furniture, architecture, sounds around you, the ways people dress. It’s self-expression and self-expression on a communal level…Self is ‘us' instead of ‘I.’… When I do my work, I'm trying to add to the positives. Positive don't always mean happy, and getting people angry can be positive.”
I ask Davis if he thinks about what it means to be successful, and he says he thinks about it a lot. For him, success means many things: it means completion of a project, being able to pay bills, knowing that he has a roof over his head, helping out his loved ones when he is able, and waking up everyday knowing that he is still his own boss. When he is home in his studio, he approaches his work like a day of circuits at the gym: a little bit of everything with additional time devoted to time-sensitive projects. In the future, he hopes to work with Chinese political artist Ai Weiwei, American artist Kara Walker, and has varied musical collaborations he hopes to explore. Damon also has several projects in his queue, which he looks forward to bringing to life after Whose Streets? is released.
“I think black people deserve to see themselves other than being fucked up all the time. I think the best way to do that is through Sci-Fi. I have a few scripts and pilot TV shows. I want to get into that. I'm into Afro-Futurism very much. I'm trying to come up with new stories that center people of color.”
Damon Davis, we can’t wait to see what you do next.
Whose Streets? premiered on August 11th in theaters nationwide.