Art as artillery: Damon Davis on Black Lives Matter and Trump's America

Damon Davis, an artist from St. Louis, Mo., was in Montreal this weekend for the Culture Shock 2016 conference, where he delivered the keynote address.

The artist behind 'All Hands on Deck' discusses Donald Trump and art as 'soul food' for the oppressed

Damon Davis is co-director of the documentary 'Whose Streets?' about the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and the protests that followed. He was in Montreal this weekend for the Culture Shock 2016 conference. (Stephen Smith/CBC)

Of all the things that inspire his art, Damon Davis puts empathy at the top of the list.

"I'm built as a person to be empathetic. I can't control it. If I could, I would be a lot happier in life," he says.

That uncontrollable feeling for others led the St. Louis, Mo., native into the streets of nearby Ferguson after a white police officer shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, on Aug. 9, 2014.

Davis emerged from the protests that followed a committed activist whose "All Hands on Deck" project became a defining symbol of nonviolent resistance and the Black Lives Matters movement.

Two years later, the interdisciplinary artist remains an influential contributor to that movement, providing what he calls the nonviolent "artillery" of images and sounds.

In early 2017, he and co-director Sabaah Jordan will release the documentary "Whose Streets?" about the Ferguson movement and the battle for "the right to live" that they say it came to symbolize.

Davis was in Montreal this weekend for the Culture Shock 2016 conference, where he delivered the keynote address on Saturday.

CBC Montreal sat down with him prior to his talk. Here are excerpts from that interview.

On the election of Donald Trump

The same s--t has been happening for the last 500 years. To me, it's just another day — same thing my grandaddy woke up in, same thing my father woke up in. I'm not really surprised. I kind of find it hilarious that white people are just figuring out that life ain't fair. Some people just found out Santa Claus isn't real. I was born in that, I understood what was coming...I don't judge people if they want to take a step back and mourn. I think everybody's got their own way of dealing with things. But I'm not very hopeful for what I see out of humanity most days. These things just reinforce and solidify the ideas that I'm constantly thinking about...

Donald Trump showed us what America is for the people who were confused about it, for the liberals who live on the coasts in New York and L.A. But I live in the heart of it, and there's never been a question in it for me about the way most white people think. But it wakes these other people up who get insulated in their thinking, who think it's not that bad. They eat vegan burgers and think they're not coming for you, they won't burn a cross in your yard. My parents have told me stories about things they saw with their own eyes, that they survived.

An image from the All Hands on Deck project. (Damon Davis)

On empathy and hope

I'm built as a person to be empathetic and I can't control it. If I could, I would be a lot happier in life. When I say I'm not very hopeful, I'm just based in reality and the things that I have seen in my life, and that doesn't allow for a lot of hope usually, when you see things from a realistic point of view. That doesn't mean that I think people don't have the capacity to change and have compassion for each other, because I've seen that with my own eyes. too. But the numbers and the amount of instances when I have seen people choose to do harm to others supersedes the amount of times that I've seen compassion and empathy, especially on a mass level...

Hope can be an opiate for people. When we need to be awake for a fight, sometimes it's not time to be hopeful and sing and hold hands. Sometimes it's time to strategize and be fully aware of what your enemy is capable of doing. That's how you allow yourself to be exterminated and destroyed, is by being hopeful. Stokely Carmichael said that for nonviolence to work, you are assuming that your enemy has a conscience, has compassion, but the United States government has shown none — they have none.

Hoping that people who have clearly voted in the direction counter to your best interests, to your survival, who have the upper hand and are not being forced into anything, who are not in danger the way you are, will just miraculously come to their senses and show love and compassion for you is asinine and outright dangerous for your survival.

Power: From The Mouths of The Occupied. (Damon Davis)

On art 'giving the invisible something to feel good about'

That's much more where my work is currently. Empathizing takes a lot of energy, and the energy really gets paid back. I feel that by fortifying the oppressed, the underdog with the soul food that you need to weather the storm of just regular life and by showing the glory and the magic of who these people are to themselves, by default, whoever is looking at the sun will be affected by how radiant it is.

I focus on these people no matter what space you're in, whether you're in the space of the oppressed themselves and they're looking at themselves with glory, or you're in the space of the oppressor — if you're in the gallery or the museum —  if you're telling the same story about how great the people who you come from are, people have no choice but to recognize that. They have no choice but to grapple with the majesty and the resilience and the anger and the joy — the complexity of the humanity is much more evident in the people who are brutalized than the brutalizer.

An image from Davis's 'Negrophilia' exhibit. (Damon Davis)

On his role in Black Lives Matter

I'm just the guy who provides some artillery. I make the imagery and the sounds you need to get your point across if nonviolence is your way of dealing with things. I try my best, from experience, to stay out of the politics and the hierarchies and all that s--t. I don't have the stomach for that part, but I respect the people who do want to take up that level of leadership. I'd rather be a thought leader than be the guy telling somebody what they need to be doing and how they need to be moving in strategic ways because lives get lost. Lives get lost regardless — even if you're just writing, lives get lost, people get broken and destroyed. I'd much rather be Achilles than be the king.

I serve a purpose, I know what my job is and I know how I can help people. I don't want the responsibility of being a moral compass or the guy telling you where you need to go. I think people are smart enough to figure out how their lives should be. And if they're not, we need to make them that way. You teach people to fish, because that's where we're at.

A still from Davis's upcoming documentary 'Whose Streets?' (Damon Davis)

On the Reclaim Martin Luther King campaign

People like to sanitize Dr. King and make him into the 'beat up on me, turn the other cheek' guy. But that was just a tactic. He was one of the most radical people this country has ever seen and now he gets a holiday. It's just funny how people appropriate things to serve the status quo when he was completely and blatantly against it.

Nationally, a lot of Black Lives Matters organizers were trying to rebrand the image of MLK because he's been sanitized. People — older black people, white people — were saying MLK never marched and stuff that was blatantly lies. They just wanted it to go away. They were trying to rewrite the man's history for a generation of people who weren't there. But everything we're doing, MLK already did. That's where we get the ground plan. I hope it did for his legacy what it deserves. I did what I thought MLK would want.

On American culture

There is no American culture without black people, the descendents of slaves. America is a byproduct of blacks. There would be no streets, no buildings without the people that built them. That's what we did. That's the role that we played. The only true American experience is that of black America. They wiped out our original culture. The only culture that you can call 'American' is that of black America.  

The image Davis created for the 'Reclaim MLK' campaign (Damon Davis)