Nfld. & Labrador

Moved by George Floyd's death, this songwriter penned a powerful tune

A songwriter in N.L. has written an anti-racism song inspired by George Floyd's death. To ensure his lyrics show sensitivity to the topic, he connected with a Black jazz musician in Florida who works to combat racism.

A musician in N.L. uses his white privilege to send an anti-racism message in song

N.L. songwriter David Peddle consulted with Fred Johnson, a jazz musician in Florida, to seek feedback on an anti-racism song. The two musicians teamed up on a livestream presented by Steady Entertainment. (Used by permission of Steady Entertainment)

The horror of George Floyd's death in Minneapolis last month has inspired a Newfoundland musician to write a song.

But penning the words that came to his mind made David Peddle so uncomfortable, he was initially reluctant to put it down on paper.

Peddle said he felt ill-equipped as a white man in Canada to present a message calling out systemic racism, so he connected with someone who could ensure he was being sensitive to the issues he felt compelled to address.

"I don't have roots in the Black community that would give me a strong sense of the context and of the lived experience," said Peddle, "even though as a human being, I was certainly shocked by what I saw."

Peddle's song, Mama, I Can't Breathe, includes the lyrics:

"Run too fast they shoot you in the back / Oh mama I can't breathe /

"Run too slow it's a knee on the neck / Oh mama I can't breathe."

An image of George Floyd is hung above people taking part in a protest to defund the police in a place they are calling the "City Hall Autonomous Zone" in the Manhattan borough of New York City, New York, U.S., June 25, 2020. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

One human being to another

Peddle's feelings of not being worthy to share such a strong message led him to connect, through a mutual friend, with a Black jazz musician in Florida who's also written a song about racism.

Fred Johnson's song, Down on One Knee, is based on the experience of Colin Kaepernick, an NFL player who was the target of criticism for taking a knee during the singing of the American national anthem.

David Peddle said it was important to him to have his own song heard by someone who's experienced racism first-hand.

Johnson said he was very touched by Peddle's lyrics and he said it shows the deep connection between human beings who know injustice when they see it.

"This is what Black Americans want everyone to acknowledge and recognize," said Johnson.

"This is what Black Lives Matter is all about, is 'Please see us as human beings.'"

David Peddle heads up the band Rev. Dave and the Sin Eaters, which has an album coming out in July. He wrote the song, Mama, I Can't Breathe, based on his reflections after the murder of George Floyd. (Submitted by David Peddle)

Making an impact    

Peddle said he would never have considered himself to be racist, but he admits he didn't grasp the need for an anti-racist movement in the way that he does now.

"When I first heard the phrase, Black Lives Matter, my gut response was, 'Wait, all lives matter,'" said Peddle.

"But when you think that not all lives are under threat, and that this community lives under threat, to me it was really eye-opening, and it forced me to look at my own response to racism."

Peddle hopes his song can help cause others to feel horrified about systemic racism, whether it's in the U.S., or in Canada with regard to Indigenous or immigrant communities.

"Are we as inclusive? Are we as open as we really want to be?" asked Peddle.

Johnson said, in Canada, based on what he's heard and seen, a message Canadians need to take to heart is "Indigenous lives matter."

Fred Johnson is a jazz performer based in Tampa, Fla., who has performed with artists including Aretha Franklin and Miles Davis. (Jayne Drooger)

Fostering understanding

In addition to being a musician, Johnson has worked with police departments and Black communities in the U.S. to build consensus and to foster understanding.

He said he believes there need to be stronger connections between police officers and the people whom they are responsible to serve and protect.

"It's a really deep responsibility when you're given a position of power over other people," said Johnson.

"How do we raise that curve of humanity, and have that officer understand that his or her responsibility is to serve that community, to represent protection to a measured degree that it needs to be?"

Johnson said sensitivity training for police and community members would go a long way.

Watch David Peddle and Fred Johnson in conversation, and then a performance of Mama, I Can't Breathe

See the hurt

Johnson said all people have a role to play in combating racism.

"I think those members of our community who have had privilege really need to understand more deeply the impact upon someone when, merely because of the colour of their skin, they're treated different," he said.

He said Peddle's contribution by writing a song wasn't really about the notes he played on guitar or the lyrics he sang.

"The most important thing that everybody can do is what Dave did. We must see our humanity," said Johnson.

"We must recognize that, if one of us is hurting, then all of us are hurting."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

About the Author

Bernice Hillier is a host of CBC Newfoundland Morning, which airs weekday mornings across western and central Newfoundland, as well as southern Labrador.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now