When I told Vox Sambou of the Montreal hip-hop collective Nomadic Massive I had an interview lined up with Emrical his face lit up. “He’s very….” The Haitian emcee paused and silently did his best Tommie Smith impression lifting a black power fist like the African American sprinter atop the podium at the 1968 Olympics.
Survey a few of Emrical’s tracks and you’ll quickly see that Vox isn’t joking. While his style bares a greater similarity to MC Solaar’s soft spoken lyricism than to Chuck D’s socially urgent anthems, listen closer and it’s easy to detect a simmering anger just bellow the surface. Indeed the Haitian-Québecois rapper is just as likely to dive into a heated debate about a community centre founded by the New Black Panther Party in the Parisian ‘banlieues’ (of which he’s in favour) as he is to pen introspective poetry.
Lately Emrical’s anger has begun to bubble over in a song called Reste debout, written to commemorate the third-year anniversary of the death of Fredy Villanueva, a teen that was shot by police in Montreal-North on August 7, 2008. It is a succinct and scathing critique of what Emrical considers a racist and inept police force, a justice system with no teeth, and local media who have distorted the Villanueva story from the beginning. He is also putting the finishing touches on Combien de morts?, which tackles racial profiling in Montreal-North, a low-income borough with a racially diverse population.
For the past three years Emrical (born Ricardo Lamour-Blaise) has been part of a core group of Montreal activists including Montréal Nord Républik who have supported the Villanueva family through a coroner’s inquest into Fredy’s death. He has also helped organize candlelight vigils to raise awareness around the issue. Despite all this, the MC has adopted the alias Emrical, found time to stay on his musical grind: In 2010, Emrical brought his act to Montreal’s Place Des Arts and grabbed the mike at Les Francofolies, one of Montreal’s premiere outdoor music festivals.
In addition, he released a haunting video for Mon rêve, a song that runs the gamut of social ills from racial tension to high rates of depression, and sees Emrical condemning the perils of an unexamined life in a fast-food society: “We jump into life’s activities without direction / We swallow without chewing and suffer indigestion.”
The opening shot of Mon rêve features the rapper kneeling in front of a headstone of a recently deceased friend in a cemetery blanketed in snow. As the video plays out, Emrical imagines an alternate history in which the young woman’s suicidal attempt is thwarted.
Although Fredy Villanueva is not directly referred to in Mon rêve, the grave could just as easily be his. April 6, 2010, the day the video was posted to YouTube, is also the day that the Honduran teenager would have celebrated his 20th birthday. Now, three years after officer Jean-Loup Lapointe fired on Fredy and a group of his friends in a park where some members of the group were playing dice, the Villanueva family is still awaiting the results of the coroner’s inquest.
To make matters worse, the Villanuevas’ elder son Dany may be deported to Honduras. On Wednesday, August 3, the Canadian Immigration and Refugee Board ruled against Villanueva’s appeal in which his lawyer argued that he should be allowed to stay in the country based on humanitarian or compassionate grounds (mainly that Villanueva would be targeted by gangs back in Honduras).
While the decision to deport Dany Villanueva is based on his criminal record (Villanueva was charged with armed robbery in the Spring of 2006 and served an 11-month sentence that same year), Emrical agrees with Dany’s lawyers who say the timing is all too convenient. While these types of removal proceedings are generally initiated eight to ten months after a conviction, Dany received the news that he was to be sent back to Honduras in August 2009, more than three years after he was charged. Blaise is also quick to lash out at the Montreal media who he feels focused more energy on demonizing Dany than on the inquest into Fredy’s shooting.
In the following email interview Emrical cuts through the sensational headlines and gives me his raw uncut take on the Villanueva affair, Montreal-North, and his role as a politically conscious emcee.
Art Threat: What do you think of the Montreal Gazette’s recent coverage of the march to commemorate the third-year anniversary of Fredy Villanueva’s death?
Emrical: Some portions [of the article] are garbage: “A social worker who was there, and who works with youth in difficulty in the area, told a Gazette reporter that she found it ‘so sad’ to see children so young so full of hate for police.” It is indeed. Why is it sad? The kids are aware of the truth, that’s it! The sad thing is that the police did murder Fredy and wounded Denis Méas and Jeffrey Sagor Métellus. All this without punishment.
Dany is not a member of a street gang. We have no proof that Fredy was playing dice as mentioned. It’s police hearsay. [Quoting again from The Montreal Gazette] “The police aren’t perfect, and it’s going to take time for preschool kids in Montreal-North to stop calling police officers murderers to their faces.” What is that? As long as Fredy’s assassin doesn’t pay for his crime the kids will call a cat a cat and a dog a dog.
Tell me a little bit about the song you wrote about Montreal-North. When did you write it? What issues do you discuss?
The song is called Combien de morts?. I think our western systems are psychopathically cold on a certain level and I think that the lack of strong institutionalized mechanisms for introspection sends a very sad message. It’s “Shut up or die” at a certain point.
So this song is inspired by the events that caused Fredy Villanueva’s death. I’m working on the fifth version of this song and I’m never satisfied. There’s too much stuff to talk about and since I’ve been very involved in this situation, I feel like I have to make extra efforts to connect the dots artistically and emotionally on behalf of the people who skim over the news of Fredy’s death and the riots in Montreal-North that followed.
The aim of the song is to talk to those who don’t want to come to Montreal-North for various reasons, and have a strong crystallized opinion about the Villanueva affair.
How has Montreal-North changed since Fredy’s death?
Well, I don’t live in Montreal-North, but I know for a fact that there are way too many cops patrolling that area. There are solitudes between the wealthy folks on Gouin Boulevard and the less fortunate ones in the “hood”. This remains the same.
There’s also a lack of consensus between the community organizations. It’s nothing like St-Michel, another Montreal neighbourhood that has suffered from the presence of youth gangs and racial profiling. Some organizations are forgotten while some are seen as the reference to explain the ailments of the youth. The problem is that these very community organizations act as if the youth were the ailment, as they try to temper them just like cops. Do they want the kids to smile broadly while police chase them out of parks, parking lots and off the street corners?
Sometimes, you can spot initiatives to implement basketball games between police and citizens. They want kids to go with police officers hand in hand while Fredy Villanueva’s face can’t even be painted on a public building. It’s as if his name was a taboo. His memorial (a decorated tree behind the arena at Parc Henri-Bourassa) is constantly sabotaged.
Montreal in general suffers from a lack of vision. They will build an arena in Quebec before they will connect Montreal-North to downtown Montreal via the metro. They will build a Université de Montreal campus in Laval before they will open up campuses in popular areas. What a shame. The only thing that stays and sometimes grows is the number of people with black skin and white masks who work for city hall. I have nothing in common with them besides the melanin of my skin. They aim for integration. I aim for restoration.
The Villanueva shooting was a catalyst for the creation of grassroots citizen groups like Montréal-Nord Républik. Have you seen any signs of progress?
We are still in the fight and we are rarely approached by those in power. We have to make random appearances in a way that makes it kind of impossible to refuse dialogue. When those folks are campaigning they will speak with a rat.
Besides that, you have to be a little naïve like me in order to keep on creating opportunities for dialogue. There was no progress as some of my colleagues were arrested in the G20 summit held in Toronto and had to do the impossible to make Hoodstock 2010 (a social forum in Montreal-North) happen.
We are working part-time against a system that is strangling us full-time. Some of the Montréal-Nord Républik leaders keep quoting American cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” This motivates us to keep going.
In August 2009, Montreal Mayor Gerald Tremblay called veteran police officer Gilles Deguire the perfect candidate to help build a united and strong community in the borough. How would you rate Deguire’s performance?
I give Deguire a perfect 10. He is who he has been asked to be, a screensaver with a perfect hairdo. Denial was and still is his profession. I always wanted Will Prosper (one of the founders of Montréal-Nord Republik) to run for mayor, as I thought that the momentum was great, but I know that some think that the system cannot be changed from the inside, but that it has to be uprooted. My only question is: Since the universe
does not like what is empty, what are we proposing instead?
How do you respond to those who say that despite his role as a key witness in the coroner’s inquest into the death of his brother, Dany is a criminal who should be deported?
The only reason we know Dany is because of what happened to his brother. Oh, the other reason why you still hear about him is because he is not a Canadian citizen. Dany will be killed if he returns to Honduras. His family receives death threats. He has paid his debt to society.
Last year, he was arrested in Repentigny on the night of April 15th. His brother Fredy was born on April 6th. People should do the math. How can you find peace, sleep and freedom when the media portray you as a criminal and as responsible for the death of your little brother? The strength that this gentleman has is singular. If the wealthy cynics could just extend a hand for full rehabilitation instead of trying to choke him into a corner, I think it would be constructive for all of us.
As a socially conscious artist do you find yourself at odds with other musicians who produce art that doesn’t question the status quo?
I think that who we are as artists and human beings is not always far from who we were as kids. We asked numerous questions. We each had a way of doing it. I have this in-your-face style because my sensitivity tells me to rap a certain way and talk about certain things. If everybody around me used the same tone, I’d probably be different.