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  May 3, 2015

Rapper and Baltimore Algebra Project Activist Talks Being a Black Man in Baltimore

Comrade, Baltimore rapper and activist exclusively talks to The Real Music host Angel Elliott about police brutality and activism.
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ANGEL ELLIOTT, REPORTER, TRNN: Hip-hop artist, activist, and Baltimore Algebra Project alumni Comrade has been organizing in the city of Baltimore before he was old enough to drive. The Baltimore Algebra Project, a youth-led grassroots organization served as his activism platform. The group continues to lead the charge for youth justice. They are part of creating Baltimore United for Change, more commonly known as B More United. It's a coalition of concerned citizens and activist groups that formed in the wake of the death of Freddie Gray. He died while in police custody. The Real Music talked to him about his activism in the city, and what it's like growing up as a black man in Baltimore in the 21st century.


ELLIOTT: Born in PG County. You're a hip-hop artist and activist since you were really young. But tell me the experience of how it is growing up as a black man in 2015 in the United States where there's seemingly a war on young black men. You have situations like Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner. These men were unarmed. Their lives were senselessly taken. Tell me how it feels for you, as a young black man, walking through the streets.

COMRADE: For me, it feels like a constant pressure. Since a young age, knowing that and feeling that the world is out to get you, the world's against you, and just trying to figure out that puzzle. How to make it out, how to break through, how to survive in Baltimore City. How to survive in the United States. Knowing the history of the United States towards black people and black men, and to see a lot of the nonsense and craziness happening even in 2015. So it's constantly a struggle mentally, trying to deal with that, and how to break through that. So it's definitely tough. I put it into music.

I talk about it with my family and friends, but--it's not talked about enough, you know?

ELLIOTT: And that feeling, of feeling like the world, or this country is out to get you is not unfounded. We know that there's a lot of systemic racial inequality that goes on, that contributes to the inability of black people in general not to be upwardly mobile. So tell me--you're an activist, as well as a rapper.

COMRADE: Right. Right, right.

ELLIOTT: You joined the Baltimore Algebra Project when you were in the eighth grade. You started off as a student, but then you became a leader. Tell me about that experience.

COMRADE: Yeah, so in Stadium School I started receiving the tutoring as an eighth grader, and at the end of that year I was offered a job to become a tutor myself. So I definitely took that opportunity and started mentoring the students that went to my middle school while I'm in high school. And from that, it just began to groove. To receive the tutoring, become the tutor, managing the site, and growing into more leadership positions. Like a site leader, facilitator of meetings, a public speaker, all the way up to demonstrating and organizing sit-ins and conferences. This is years, years in the making. So from middle school all the way up through college and a little after college, working with the Algebra Project. I feel like I grew up in the Algebra Project.

ELLIOTT: What spurred you on towards that activism? You weren't just a student. You were an activist. You were organizing sit-ins, you were fighting for causes like extending bus pass hours--.

COMRADE: Right, you got that.

ELLIOTT: --and education inequality. What made you want to be this person?

COMRADE: Well there's this one story I try to always tell that really kind of changed my life, changed my view on things. Because I wasn't always that guy. I was not the guy that raised my hand to speak in class. When it was time to read aloud, that wasn't me. But we was in a Friday meeting, that's like an executive meeting, with everybody coming together and all the business was handled in the organization. There was a time when they needed somebody to call the radio or something, because we were trying to get publicity on our program about to be shut down due to the lack of funding from the school system. I guess nobody wanted to take that step. They called me out, and I didn't want to back out and be like, no, I ain't going to do it. So that was my first time to really step up and take initiative and do something.

ELLIOTT: What was the result of that?

COMRADE: It felt good, calling the radio, talking about my program. I was, like, fourteen, so I never did anything like that in my life. And then, you know, people started seeing me in a different kind of light. Like, all right, he can get something done.

But it wasn't until the tenth grade where I went on a civil rights tour with City and Park High School, and went to Mississippi. Went to Tennessee, went to Atlanta. Saw the museums, walked some of the paths that our ancestors and civil rights heroes walked. That really gave me a new perspective on that, you know, all of this. The civil rights movement wasn't that long ago, and we still have a lot to do. So they sacrificed their lives and their time, and they were young people. Why can't we do the same thing? I have an organization that's about that life, have an organization that believes that we can make that change, so why not do it, you know? So I came back from that, and had a whole new mindset.

And that same year--this was the kicker. So the trip inspired me, but this second trip really brought the anger into me. The Algebra Project took about four, or like six of us, to Essex--no no, not, it's in Essex. It's called--ah, I can't believe I forgot the name. I'm going to think of the name. But it pretty much is a public school in Essex. Not that far from here. And we went on a little school tour.

ELLIOTT: Were the demographics different? Were there more white students? Okay.

COMRADE: More white students. We walked in, the hallways were shining. There were vending machines. There was like, two gyms. Computers in the room. We were just walking through the school like we was at an amusement park. So the lady that was giving us the tour actually started crying because of our excitement walking through the school. So one of the main things that I still remember to this day was there was a car in the engineering class. There were students building a playground, like, in the school.

So to us, we'd never imagine anything like that. I went to City, and they tell us that's, like, one of the best schools in the country, but we didn't even have a lot of the textbooks we need. So seeing that, I just knew. I just knew that we were being robbed. Like, it was blatant, it's intentional. There's no--they don't know how to run a school system.

And--So we went to the office, and we would tell them, like, hey, we want to go to this school, right? So to even get into the school, you have to take certain classes in middle school that of course aren't provided in Baltimore City Public Schools. Like, you got to have geometry in middle school. We didn't take geometry till like, tenth grade. So that really, like, that did it for me. I was like, let's go, let's, we've got to--I knew I had to do something. I couldn't just experience all this and have the opportunity to help be a part of something and not do nothing. So that really sparked everything, for me. So from then on I was like, I'm [riding], I'm [riding] for the cause.


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