Empowering Baltimore Youth with Media, Art, Activism, and Pan-African Culture.

Ras Tre Subira, founder of The Griot’s Eye program, discusses his African-Centered approach to education and the use of media, art, and traveling abroad to Africa to inspire inner city youth to develop knowledge of self and create alternatives to mainstream media.

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Story Transcript

JARED BALL, HOST, i MiX WHAT i LiKE: What’s up, world? Welcome to another edition of i MiX WHAT i LiKE, here at The Real News Network. I’m Jared Ball.

Today we’re offsite at the legendary UB Blake Center in Downtown Baltimore for our conversation with Ras Tre. Ras Tre is a filmmaker, activist and artist who works not only with the Griot’s Eye but also Afrikan Youth Alchemy. So let’s now go to the UB Blake Center for our interview with Ras Tre here at i MiX WHAT i LiKE.

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BALL: Hi Ras Tre, thanks again for joining us here at i MiX WHAT i LiKE and The Real News Network. We appreciate you coming in.

RAS TRE SUBIRA, CO-DIRECTOR, AFRIKAN YOUTH ALCHEMY: Thank you for having me, it’s a pleasure.

BALL: So you put me on to some of the great work you’ve been doing over quite a while, now. And we definitely had to have you on to talk about that work in and around Baltimore, and around the world.

So let’s start with your Afrikan Youth Alchemy project and go from there. Tell us about that.

SUBIRA: Yeah. Afrikan Youth Alchemy, as the name implies, alchemy we’re all about, you know, we call ourselves the art of transformation with young people. And we do that through arts, through media, and African-centered education.

We have two programs in the city. We have one that’s called Griot’s Eye, and that’s kind of our youth media outreach program. We partner with youth that are in schools, community organizations, anywhere where we identify young people who have a clear need for media access. Go in and give them training, give them cameras, send them out into their communities to really address issues of immediate relevance in their lives through film and photography. And then to produce films and then have screenings. We invite the community to come out. Because it’s about generating dialogue, but ultimately action towards the issues that are important to the young people.

And then our second program is called I AM, which stands for Independent African Minds. That program is really close to my heart. That’s our rites of passage and a cultural education program. So we look to give young youth, young youth of color, particularly all the knowledge of self that they’re not going to get in the standard American school system that we know is broken in many ways, and falling through the cracks are largely black males. And so it’s really addressing that phenomenon and that particular sector of young people specifically.

And it culminates in actually taking them to Africa. So all about, as I said, learning self. And so we have, spend a considerable amount of time in learning African history, on diaspora history, culture, and we culminate in taking a four-week travel study to Africa during the summer. And I can say, it’s an understatement to say it’s life changing for these young people. They literally come back as new people. Their eyes have been opened. They don’t realize how far they have changed until they return back to Baltimore. It’s almost like someone has opened their eyes. They’ve had a chance to have sight for the first time, and then now they got to go back to a world full of blind people.

They have a lot of anxiety actually, around that. Traveling to Africa, what people consider culture shock, it’s not really so serious. Or it’s not a big — it’s not a big impact, traveling to Africa. But coming back home, they start looking at, being like, wait, why are there so many abandoned buildings in this city? And why are, why do we have food deserts? And they start asking questions and connecting dots. And it can only happen when you really expose people to stepping outside of their comfort zone. Stepping outside of their box of familiarity. And really challenging them to grow to see in a different perspective.

It gives them a lot of insight. And they come back and are really critical of American culture. Especially our education system, because they’re surrounded by young people who are thirsty and hungry for knowledge. Their peers in Africa come up to them and say, hey, you got a pen? You got a pencil I can have? A notebook? Simple things like that that they might throw away on a daily basis here, that just makes them reflect for a moment and start to be like, all right, why do we have access to all these computers, but nobody’s in the computer lab? If they are, they only want to get on Facebook or the social media.

It impacts them to see their peers hungry for opportunities. Hungry for education. They don’t have any issues with government closing the rec centers because government isn’t building the rec centers for them. The young people on the African continent, they want to do something for their community they have to put their resources together. They have to have the initiative to make it happen.

BALL: So it’s not just showing them, or attempting to show them, your students that is, some glorified, unrealistic version of Africa.

SUBIRA: Oh, no.

BALL: The point is to show the connection and to show that African people without resources are still able to survive and thrive —

SUBIRA: Exactly.

BALL: That those lessons could be brought back here, as well.

SUBIRA: Most definitely. Because we really stay away from the tourist centers. This is not a tourist trip. We consider ourselves brothers and sisters returning home. And so we go to all of the really non-tourist site destinations. We visit the slave dungeons. We have conversation — there’s a really large African diaspora community in Ghana. In fact, really large African-American community in Ghana. We have dialog with them.

We go and visit the queen mothers of the Ashanti. The young people are renamed, and go through a birthing ceremony. So it’s about giving them an eye-opening — just like you said, to the world young people are living in outside the United States., and seeing themselves as a part of that world.

BALL: Let me ask you real quick, this is a little, an aside given what we’re — but you just mentioned this connection to Ghana. And I’m wondering — I’m just wondering, I’ve been reading recently and late, I’m late to it, the work of Saidiya Hartman. Are you familiar with her work?

SUBIRA: I’m very — vaguely. I’ve heard her name around many times in Ghana.

BALL: Right. Because the reason I bring that up is because she writes a very critical story about her attempt to reconnect with her African past and her African background in Ghana, and the struggles of Africans from the diaspora coming back to Ghana. So I was wondering if any of this plays out in the work that you do?

SUBIRA: Oh yeah, most definitely. I mean, I’ve been blessed, myself. I’ve been, I’ve spent about five years of my life in East Africa, between Kenya, Tanzania and Ethiopia. Traveled to Uganda, Ghana, Liberia. And so I say that to say I have something to compare and contrast Ghana with.

Ghana is, very much so, a British colony. You know, English and the English-speaking culture and British-speaking culture is very alive and present in Ghana. But the one thing I find really refreshing about Ghana is that because of — you know, there’s some similar, I think, reactions to British colonialism. Particularly in Ghana, Kenya, and Jamaica. Those three places, I see some very similar responses to colonialism that have really kind of birthed a cultural renaissance, if you will. In Kenya with the Land and Freedom Army, what they call the Mau Mau. Obviously in Jamaica with the Maroons and the subsequent Rastafari movement.

And in Ghana, they have a group of priests. The Akan priests, and particularly it’s a group called the Okomfos, that they really identify with wearing locs and certain things I guess that are outwardly African culture. And so —

BALL: And resistant.

SUBIRA: Yeah. And resistant. Yeah, that resistance piece. And so I’ve seen a lot of diasporans come to particular areas in Ghana, feel at home there. For whatever reasons. Maybe that part of the history they identify with and they feel at home there.

But yeah, you know, that is very much so a challenge. A lot of our young people actually are disappointed at how American, or how European, or how Westernized it is when we get to the continent. I always tell our young people, even for themselves, they won’t realize how American they are until they step out of America. Then they start being like, oh man. You know, just things —

BALL: Right.

SUBIRA: — just organically start coming up that make them realize. Even those that have had a really, I would say a grassroots upbringing, were still very sheltered. Were still very disconnected from the realities of African people worldwide.

BALL: And that first trip to the continent, as you sort of explained already, can be both disheartening and inspiring. I mean, it’s good — it sounds like it’s great that they get to go with you, where you can try to help balance and nurture that. Because it is true that sometimes people go for the first time and it’s not the fantasy that they expect. They don’t get the welcome that many of us hope to get. And then, you know.

But very quickly, before we move on, because I do want to come back to some of your work specifically. But I want to, I’m sure that there are some who will see this who will have a certain reaction to your constant reference to African and African-centered. Being an English speaker, being here in Baltimore, I believe originally you’re from Chicago.

SUBIRA: From Chicago, that’s right.

BALL: So this question of, how is this African identity important to you? How do you use it? How do you even understand it, and how do you teach it to the young people that you work with?

SUBIRA: That’s a great question, and it’s a good, perfect segue from the previous conversation. I’ll share a little personal insight.

So I first reached Africa when I was 19. I was very young. And I went with a camera. I was young, a young teenager from the South Side of Chicago. And at that time there was beautiful graffiti art throughout Chicago. It was a really strong, vibrant scene. No one was documenting it except me. And really quickly I became known as being, yeah, that’s that camera guy. That’s that, that’s that dude that’d be taking all the pictures.

And so I went with a camera to Africa, and that’s where I think the filmmaker in me was born. Because when I got there, my first reactions, I felt angry. I felt angry, I felt I had been lied to my whole life. I’d been seeing all these late-night infomercials where it’s, you know, for only 30 cents a day you can feed Marvin, and he’s swatting flies out of his eyes and looking, you know, as miserable as he can be. And when I got to the continent, I didn’t see that. Instead I saw all these other stories that I felt had been purposely, intentionally glossed over.

I mean, the African continent is a landscape full of storytellers. Full of very colorful, just expressive culture that you can’t go wrong. And so that alone made me realize the power in media, and that what we are seeing is very much so a representation, it was a framing of African culture, from a very particular lens. And so I at that time became very aware of particular paradigms that we have and how we carry media. How media informs that and helps, impacts that.

And so I’ve been since that time on a journey of really developing my African-centered, you know, cosmology. Perspective. Whatever you want to say.

BALL: When you say African-centered, what do you … quickly tell us what you mean by that.

SUBIRA: What I mean is placing Africa at the center of all of, whether talking about social, economic indicators, whether we’re talking about cultural indicators, placing Africa and its people as one people, and using that as pretty much the definition from which we look at the world.

You know, we’re not minorities, for example. We, African people, brown skin, black — you know, brown skinned and dark skinned people are the majority of this world’s population. We are very much so scientists. We are very much so astronomers, and all the kind of sciences that sometimes the Western world kind of paints Africa as it was absent of science. Hard, hard science. And literature. You know, we’ve, in Ethiopia, the Amharic language dates back to Biblical times, and even before that. And so when I speak of African-centered, I’m speaking of all of our arts, our sciences, our history, our modalities of expression that kind of unite us, and keep us in common.

BALL: So you’ve said something about the power of media. And I’m interested particularly in your use of the medium of film and its impact with the young people that you work with the most. Say if you would another word or two about that. Why the medium of film? How does that medium work with the — how does it impact, rather, the young people that you work with? You know, what other insights you might have.

SUBIRA: Yeah, I’m real keen on that, because I find our young people, particularly in the urban areas, are excellent media consumers. You know, they can tell you every Facebook site, every social media site, and when it comes to being media producers that’s what we’re lacking. And so I see a lot of power in that. Because producing your media means you have to develop your voice. You have to develop your ability to really be a critical thinker, to read between the lines and to put two and two together that sometimes is not always readily available in terms of this kind of analysis.

And then there’s very much so power in that because let’s face it, the media industry is a multi-billion dollar industry that over the past 20 years has been consolidated to about four or five major players that own all of the media outlets. Print, radio, and television. And so if you can just by virtue of being outside of that matrix produce your own media. Just with a simple camera, computer, and be able to start telling the stories of your community, of your family, of your history, you begin to take ownership of your narrative.

And that’s really important with young people, to expose them to owning their narrative and not allowing BET, MTV to tell them who they are. What dress like, what they talk like, what their interests are. As being a product of late ’80s and early ’90s hip-hop. I see now that my generation as a whole, I see directly — when I look across the board, I see a lot of people my age that grew up on that brand hip-hop are educators.

BALL: Yeah, we were a little spoiled.

SUBIRA: We were spoiled.

BALL: We were a little spoiled.

SUBIRA: We were a lot spoiled. We were a lot spoiled. But across the board I see us really represented in education, in arts, in community-related fields. And I look at the young people, look at the music, look at the media they’re consuming, and what is that going to inspire for them when they’re in their 30s, and building their careers? What will that inspire in terms of how they reach back to the next generation?

BALL: So unfortunately, we have to wrap up. But quickly tell us a word or two about Project PAYE, and then how people can follow up with that work after they see this interview.

SUBIRA: Sure. So some of the work I’m currently doing, one project in Park Heights community is called Project PAYE, and that stands for Pathways to Arts and Youth Entrepreneurship. And the whole gist of that program is training young adults to give them the professional, technical skills in media — and not just media, because there’s other sectors. There’s actually hip-hop and spoken word. There’s entrepreneurship as well. I just run the film side of the program.

But the idea is to give them the training, but then also the business skills so that they can develop their own freelance businesses, develop a sustainable income. And be able to see some stability in their lives through the exploration of art and media. And so that program is in Park Heights. It’s open right now, we’re still recruiting. It’s got — actually we’re starting in October. But we still have space, and so anyone that’s interested should get involved.

This program is actually, it’s got multiple years of funding, and we’re blessed. So you know, the young people that are involved will be taken from point zero all the way through being professional media producers. So it’s a great opportunity for the young people.

BALL: Well, Ras Tre, thank you for joining us in this segment of i MiX WHAT i LiKE on The Real News Network.

SUBIRA: Thank you for having me. It’s been an honor.

BALL: And thank you for joining us here at The Real News Network and i MiX WHAT i LiKE. I’m Jared Ball. Peace if you’re willing to fight for it, as Fred Hampton used to say. We’ll catch you in the world then. Peace, everybody.

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