Damani Harrison is done talking.
The activist, musician, and all-around C’ville art community anchor recently orchestrated the release of an ambitious three-part creative project he calls “One for George,” and he wants the work—a hip-hop song, music video, and portrait series—to speak for itself.
“Woke up this morning to a post / Another black soul getting choked / The whole damn nation on the ropes / Please tell me how the hell can I cope,” Harrison raps in the song’s opening lines.
Why is Harrison done talking? According to his “One for George” collaborators, whom he asked to speak about the project on his behalf, he’s more interested in action. According to his collaborators, he’s so “busy fighting racism on all levels,” he’s tired of talking.
“One for George,” at any rate, speaks volumes. Before Harrison went media-silent, he told it like this: Producer Lekema Bullock shared an instrumental track he wrote in the wake of the George Floyd killing in Minneapolis. The track opens to a warbling melody overlain with Floyd’s final cries—“Please… I can’t breathe”—before giving way to a methodical snare and haunting vocals handpicked by Bullock to “represent my pain and how I was feeling.”
“I was devastated. It was senseless,” Bullock says. “I normally don’t turn to my music when I’m upset. But I wanted to honor George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and all the senseless murders that have happened to date.”
The act of police brutality against Floyd, which sparked Black Lives Matter protests across the nation and around the world, had also inspired Harrison. “It only took about 20 seconds of listening to the song before words started gathering in my head,” he said in a social media post shortly after the “One for George” release. The song’s lyrics were on paper three hours later, declaring “we won’t be silenced no more,” and recorded about 48 hours after that.
Harrison’s longtime collaborator Mike Moxham stepped in to record and mix the track.
“I would never want to speak for him, but I got the idea he felt like it would be easier to get the emotional content down if he wasn’t recording it himself,” Moxham said. “When you try to convey heavy emotional content, the last thing you want to do is worry about technicalities.”
As Moxham went to work mixing the final recording, layering a backup vocal with heavy distortion over the original to highlight the angst-ridden rhymes, Harrison brought in others to carry out his vision. Video producer Eric Hurt and photographers Jason Lappa and Ézé Amos joined the team. Seven days after Harrison’s lyrical inspiration grew from Bullock’s beat, the “One for George” team was on set shooting a music video.
The video focuses on Harrison, performing in stark black and white against a fire and smoke-filled backdrop. Interspersed with the performance are images of hate—enslaved people and police brutality, but also homophobia and broad xenophobia—and local activists standing with Harrison and the equality movement writ large.
“We didn’t want to go too broad,” Hurt says. “It’s mainly about the African American struggle, but Damani wanted to make sure it wasn’t just that.”
The music video shoot, which according to those on set took on a peaceful protest, almost festival-like atmosphere, went down one week after Harrison had heard Bullock’s beat. Lappa sat the activists featured in the video for still photo portraits.
“Still images have an impact. It’s a persistent view,” he says. “There’s something in those photographs that is real, visceral. This subject is real and visceral.”
One week after the video shoot, the crew had released the entire project, with the photo series posted to an Instagram account, @oneforgeorge.
“Everyone just came together. We all knew this was bigger than us,” Harrison said on Instagram at the time. “This wasn’t easy for any of us. It wasn’t easy to relive trauma. It wasn’t easy to confront demons. But everything told us to go forward. We have to go forward.”
Where does the “One for George” project go from here? Moxham says the group hopes for organic exposure for the art series. Bullock hopes social media influencers might take up the mantle and help push the message: Folks all around the country, including Charlottesville, stand with those who’ve been killed. They are hurting along with all those families.
To a person, the “One for George” crew says they’re hoping for real, sustained change in the way this country confronts racism. Some signs indicate they’re not alone. A survey by online research firm Civiqs shows countrywide support for the Black Lives Matter movement has reached as high as 53 percent in the months since Floyd’s murder. The number had hovered around 42 percent for the two years prior, up from below 40 percent at the time of C’ville’s own civil rights horror, the white supremecist-driven Unite the Right rally in 2017.
Will support continue to grow? The way Bullock puts it, it has to. The Black Lives Matter movement, he says, is really about one simple thing: “Stop killing us,” he says. “Black Lives Matter at its core literally means, ‘our lives have value.’ That’s it. Our lives have value. Stop killing us.”