In December, Jeff Campbell, the head of Emancipation Theater Company, realized that his online messaging advocating an end to encampment sweeps wasn't getting anywhere.
"We’ve been working on this Message to the Mayor campaign," he explains. "We were really trying to get our petition and our public-service announcement circulated, but to no avail, because Facebook is not allowing you to do these so-called 'political ads.' I was having trouble getting the message out."
Campbell, who ran Denver's Hip-Hop Coalition from 1997 to 2006, decided not to rely on Facebook ads to rally people to the cause of stopping the sweeps approved by the administration of Mayor Michael Hancock. Instead, he called up some longtime artist friends to collaborate on a rap song aptly titled "Message to the Mayor."
The song, released as a music video on January 21, features a catchy chorus sung by Kid Astronaut, aka Jon Shockness of Air Dubai, an award-winning local hip-hop band. "Mayor Hancock, the streets need you, you promised to do something, but we don’t believe you. Mayor Hancock, the city needs you, you promised to do something, but we don’t see you," Shockness sings during the chorus.
"This is just an ask to say, is there more that can be done?" explains Shockness, who just dropped a new album titled Cosmos.
Aside from Campbell and Shockness, "Message to the Mayor" features Adrean "Bumpy Chill" Jones, Jeffery "Kingdom" McWhorter and Shannon "Mizta Sandman" Richardson collaborating with Mic Coats, producer of the song "I Can't Breathe (Again)," which focused on the killing of George Floyd and the protests in Denver that followed.
The six of them got together in mid-December at Get Busy Livin Studios in Five Points to record the song.
"I was super-excited that they wanted to participate in it," says Campbell. "Mic put together that beat in a couple of days and sent it to us all, and those cats were ready immediately. It was cool, because they didn’t need any prompts around the subject matter. They’re close to the street and close to the topic, and some of them have even experienced homelessness themselves, so it was a perfect fit for those that I recruited and the topic."
The music video for the song, crafted by community organizer Brother Jeff (Jeff Fard), includes footage of an encampment sweep last year that involved major clashes between Denver police officers and demonstrators. "We don’t need sweeps, we need solutions. Hypothermia just keeps executing," McWhorter raps as the video shows tents covered in snow.
For months, Campbell has been working with the group From Allies to Abolitionists, along with homeless service providers, advocates and some developers, to ask Hancock to stop sweeping homeless encampments, particularly during the pandemic, since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has advised they not be cleared, in order not to spread COVID-19. Denver Homeless Outloud and ten homeless individuals filed suit against the city and other defendants in October, arguing that the sweeps violate their constitutional rights; a federal judge just ruled that the City of Denver needs to always provide some form of advance notice before sweeping encampments, even when there are exigent circumstances.
"It just doesn’t make any sense," Campbell says of the sweeps. "It’s as if you’re just trying to push them until they die."
According to Theresa Marchetta, a spokesperson for Michael Hancock, the mayor has seen the video; she provided this statement in response to it: "When it comes to street homelessness and encampments, our highest priority is to connect people with services, shelter, housing, family, treatment or care. We have a half-dozen different outreach teams engaged in this difficult but important work. Last year alone, the Denver Street Outreach Collaborative successfully placed 334 people in stable housing, and we prevented thousands more from becoming homeless in the first place. There are numerous public health, sanitation and safety hazards – disease, drug abuse, rodents, human waste and violence — that encampments pose to the people living in them and to the general public....We remain committed to standing up more and better shelters and affordable housing, increasing mental health care and substance abuse treatment, and delivering alternative options such as two tiny home villages and managed campsites."
While Campbell, too, would like to see more safe outdoor spaces, he doesn't agree with Hancock on much else. In the song he refers to the mayor's "pass-the-buck policy" and "history of hypocrisy."
But there is hope, as shown by Jones's rap which tells Hancock to "home in on the issues getting fixed, so we can praise you on the next one, remix."
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