Arts·Point of View

3 buses of Toronto artists were held at the border en route to Obama's inauguration — and I was there

After watching President Obama's final farewell speech earlier this week, Amanda Parris began reflecting on how his era began.

On the eve of Obama's inauguration, and 8 years after the fact, the struggle is far from over

Barack Obama is sworn in by Chief Justice John Roberts as the 44th President of the United States, Jan. 20, 2009 in Washington, DC. (Getty Images)

After watching President Obama's final farewell speech earlier this week, I began reflecting on how his era began, and a singular experience I was a part of eight years ago.

One icy cold morning in January 2009, I joined more than 160 other young creative types — musicians, filmmakers, photographers, party promoters and more — on a trip to see Obama's inauguration. We hopped three buses bound for D.C., compelled to witness this historic moment.

The scene on one of the buses. (Courtesy of Rich Kidd)

The atmosphere on board was electric.

"The idea of a black president was something that seemed impossible when I was younger," Paul Jeffries (a.k.a. nineteen85) told me by email. The Grammy-nominated producer (Drake, Nicki Minaj) was among those on the journey.

"When I found out I could actually witness the inauguration in person, I knew I had to be there," he writes.

The trip was organized by Tyrone "T-RexXx" Edwards. Now a television host on E! and Much, in 2009 Tyrone was a party promoter with 1 Love T.O. and program leader of the business program at The Remix Project — and many of the people who came along for the ride have gone on to shape the cultural fabric of Toronto in incredible ways.

The idea of a black president was something that seemed impossible. [...] I had to be there.- nineteen85, music producer

Our plan was to arrive in D.C. the night before the ceremony. A hotel was booked and a party was planned with DJ's Super K and Future the Prince (Drake's current manager) lined up to spin the tunes. The next morning we would all head out to the inauguration. 

Those plans were never realized. Not quite, anyway.

When we reached the Peace Bridge, two of the three buses were detained at the border for seven hours. The FBI was called, and Edwards — plus all of the passengers of Somali descent or who were born in Saudi Arabia, including Future the Prince — were taken off the bus, fingerprinted, photographed and questioned. They all held Canadian passports. Meanwhile the remaining passengers were left on the bus, not allowed to exit. 

Some of the 160+ people on the bus trip to Toronto to D.C. for Obama's inauguration. We were held at the border for seven hours. (Courtesy of Rich Kidd)

The border can be a terrifying place. One's rights are unclear and the power of border officials can often seem absolute. Hoda Ali, a grad student and co-founder of the non-profit organization Gashanti Unity, was among those who were questioned.

"I have no doubt in my mind that we were racially profiled that day," she told me over email. "It made me feel criminal, humiliated, anxious, hurt, angry and helpless all at the same time. I had never been fingerprinted before or held without an explanation."

The border officials seemed suspicious of the intent behind the trip. "We were a bus full of minorities, not just racial minorities, but minorities in the true sense of the word, 'the unrepresented,'" Jeffries explained over email.

"Visible minorities, women, religious minorities, middle to lower-class citizens of another country, all travelling to watch this man, who they feel represents them, become the new President of the United States. I know that was an unsettling time for a lot of people in authority because the minority becomes the majority whenever we can all agree on something."

I have no doubt in my mind we were racially profiled that day.- Hoda Ali, co-founder of Gashanti Unity

At the border, we realized something. Our situation was a perfect metaphor for the struggle that led to this historic moment — the inauguration of the first black President of the United States.

"I remember telling the group that most success is birthed from struggle and that this was just a part of that," Edwards told me over email.

Taking the bus microphone, we gave speeches about the injustice of the situation. It was a bus full of artists, though, so we were soon freestyling ciphers and singing songs of freedom, too.

Seven hours later, we were released and continued our trip to D.C., skipping the hotel party and heading straight to the inauguration.

I remember waking up on the bus to find that we were stalled to a crawl. Every lane was packed with cars, vans and other buses all heading toward the National Mall.

Obama posters were pasted on windows, American flags flew from the roofs and "Yes We Can!" bumper stickers were plastered on every car. Strangers hugged and welcomed each other. Elders raised fists of solidarity to the young people they passed. Children spontaneously yelled, "Yes we can!"

After seven hours at the border, we arrived in D.C. where the streets were packed with people heading to the National Mall for Obama's inauguration. (Courtesy of Rich Kidd)

"It was cold as hell," Juno-winning music producer and filmmaker Rich Kidd remembers. "But I was warm on the inside from the feeling of respect and pride for the first black president."

When Obama finally delivered his speech, people were climbing trees, standing on electrical boxes, hanging off branches, all trying to catch a glimpse of this man who had inspired so much hope. Khadra Ali, a food-sustainability advocate who was there with me, recalled the feeling of unity that moment inspired. "I remember feeling inspired to do good and care for my fellow human beings."

It was cold as hell but I was warm on the inside from the feeling of respect and pride for the first black president.- Rich Kidd, music producer

Eight years later, with Donald J. Trump about to enter the White House, the philosophy of hope feels somewhat naïve. And yet, everyone I spoke with is still captivated by the Obamas.

As artists, many of us recognize the power of image and we can all agree that eight years of this black first family has had an immeasurable cultural impact on the world that cannot be easily dismantled or repealed.


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