Photo: Gus Bennett
Sean Ardoin On Addressing Racism In His Powerful New Song & Video "What Do You See"
Hard times call for hard questions. Louisiana-based GRAMMY nominee Sean Ardoin is asking one such question with his new song and video that addreses, head-on, racism and injustice against black males in America. At a time when the nation is mourning George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man who died on Monday after pleading with Minneapolis police for help while one white officer knelt on his neck, "What Do You See" not only carries a powerful message in the conversation it seeks to start about race but also grapples with perception's grip on reality in this country. Have a look and listen:
We connected with Ardoin over email to get more information about his powerful new video, the origins of the song, his diverse all-star collaborators in the video and the conversation he hopes to start with "What Do You See."
Let's start with the song. Can you share the mindset you were in when you wrote it and how you were able to find these moving words
I wrote this song four years ago, the day after the Alton Sterling murder. It was just a really heavy time, you know? For me, to see the execution was too much. Then on the heels of that, another one, then another one... I felt like it would never stop. That period was a dark time for me because I was grieving for the senseless loss of black life AND I noticed NONE of my white friends posted about the murders when they happened... not one.
I couldn't understand it.
How they could see what I saw and not feel moved to say something about it or even just share it and say this doesn't seem right. I mean they say they're my friends right? We hang out and are cool right? We're like family right? In my interactions with white friends, there was never a mention of it, even though it was the top news story. It was uncomfortably absent in our conversations.
In my church, there never a mention from fellow white Christians about the atrocities committed against people that look like me... a flood, a fire, a tornado, a mass shooting overseas, famine, terrible regimes, sure, all fodder for conversation, but the killing of an unarmed black man pinned under a gang of officers getting shot execution style in the head for the world to see just two hours away.... nothing. The silence was deafening!
As artists, we are sensitive to atmospheres. I could feel the heaviness in the country. I was deeply hurt for the families affected. Then I felt the outrage as, like a knee-jerk reaction, certain news outlets started assassinating Alton’s character, causing others to have to investigate his past. But his past had nothing to do with why he was assaulted, tackled, and killed that day, because the officers didn't have that information pre-encounter. All they saw was a large black man and their perception of what that means is how they proceeded to treat him.
I'm 5'11" and over 250 lbs., so I could be seen as a threat to those same people. That could have been me laying dead in the street. So I sat down and wrote the song as a way to release the angst and grief inside of me.
It was then I realized that one of the root issues in the racial divide is perception. How do white people perceive black people? I learned a phrase in college that I've held on to, "perception is reality." How a person perceives something is how it is to them... whether it is the truth or not.
So, I wrote the song in the form of a conversation with a white friend. I like to "lead with love," because I believe it truly conquers all. I ask, what do you see when you see me? In my mind, if I could help my friends, who say they love me, to really think about how they see me, for real...honestly. Then we could have a real conversation about it, in order to line up what they think with the reality. All this, hopefully, in the end, coming up with a basis for how they then see other black people.
But when the song was done, I hesitated to release it. Because the song was so powerful, personal, and painful to me that I wasn’t sure it would be received in the way I hoped it would be. This was not a political statement, not meant to accuse or berate, just to ask the question, because it felt like we weren’t being seen as fully human. Basically, the song was not released four years ago because I didn’t want to be misunderstood.
Now here we are, four years later and nothing has changed....and I am past caring about those who choose not to get the message. So, I made a lyric video for it and released it May 11th and in two weeks got about 7000 views.
How did the concept for this powerful video come together?
I sent the lyric video to my friend, Ricky Anderson, currently the Secretary for the Recording Academy Texas Chapter, and he said, "Man I love it! It is an "on-time" message that needs to be heard, BUT you're gonna have to do a visual video..." I was kind of nervous about doing a video myself because I didn't want to mess it up. Ricky says, "...I've known you a long time and I know you to be a creative, so, how can the guy that wrote the song, mess up the video? You've got to do it yourself, don't wait, do it now!" I said, "Yes sir" and got to work!
In my mind’s eye, I saw cell phone video from real people mixed in with static images of black men and boys in any pose other than a mugshot and past images that show how we got to these misconceptions. I felt like the song and this video would be a tool for breaking down those dangerous stereotypes of black men.
So, I reached out to the guys in the video, and told them I wanted them to start the recording looking down and then slowly raising their heads until they're making contact with the camera. Then hold it there and give me whatever emotion that they wanted, EXCEPT, anger. Most of the guys complied, and the ones that didn't, the creatives in the bunch, gave the little extras that the video needed to make it even more special, in my opinion, and it's even more proof that we're not one dimensional. I wanted to show positive images of us and then at the end of the chorus, where it says "all you see is a black man," to share negative things that happened to us, like lynching, redlining, and slavery etc. This, I felt, would go a long way to the viewer's ability to choose to see us as people, not caricatures. I want the viewer to see that we have gone through all these things that should have broken us. But we still are here, we are still productive members of society, we are thriving in all fields of human endeavor, and we are there for our children. That last part was really important for me to show, because there is a narrative out there that says all black men are absentee fathers....which is false. For a time, I was a single father who loved and cared for my son.
The hardest part, was the video editing as I am NOT a video expert! I just would not be beaten! I did a couple test runs and my friend, filmmaker, Mike McGowan, kinda got me over the hump on a few details that would get me to the product you see here. So, really, even in producing this video, we have disproved another stereotype of black people, that we don't work together. The beginning and end were really important for me stylistically. I wanted it to be only words so that I could set the tone. The words were chosen prayerfully, as were all the static images. Once I got those together, the dish was complete and I released it yesterday at 8:20am and as I type this, 29 hours later, it has almost 29,500 total views!
Tell us about some of the people you brought in to be featured in the video.
I wanted the men to be from all socio-economic backgrounds, all different hues, shapes, sizes, styles and education levels. It needed to be as complete a picture as I could paint from my contacts. GRAMMY winner Kirk Whalum immediately said yes after hearing the song, he really believed it will be impactful. There are lawyers, law enforcement, real estate professionals, servicemen, journalists, photographers, former pro and collegiate athletes, airline personnel, producers, musicians, zydeco artists (I'm a Louisiana man so it was necessary lol), business owners, and black youth. I tried to get all of "us."
How do you see music as a way to unite around fighting injustice and express collective emotions?
A song has the power, if you listen to it, to give you a message or tell you a story. You hear it without immediate chance for rebuttal. In today’s climate, it seems we are programmed to talk at people instead of to each other. For that very reason, music is one of the best tools to use to unite us. A melody and hook can stay in your spirit for days and sometimes weeks. It'll just pop in your head sporadically. throughout the day, you know?
If it's a good message you're hearing over and over, it'll eventually cause you to deal with it and figure out how you feel about it... even if it’s subconsciously. I believe I was given this song to be used as that tool. My hope is that it will spark the necessary dialog to start the nation on the road to healing.
What would you like the impact of "What Do You See" to be on the music community and on society?
I have already experienced the power of this song and video. I have had more conversations with people that don't look like me in the last two weeks than I've had in the last two years! Just reading the comments of those same people are super encouraging. It is doing what it was created to do!
I would like to see more artists, labels, and peripheral entities in the music community, that are not black, acknowledge, on their platforms, that bad things are happening to black people and use their influence to help facilitate change. I'm not saying they need to become activists, just advocates for social justice, no matter the level. "What Do You See" is the conversation starter. I was speaking with my pastor, who is white, about the song being a bridge and he agreed and shared with me that a lot of white people want to have conversations across racial lines but don't even know how to start it. It's such a touchy subject, you know?
"I would like to see more artists, labels, and peripheral entities in the music community, that are not black, acknowledge, on their platforms, that bad things are happening to black people and use their influence to help facilitate change. I'm not saying they need to become activists, just advocates for social justice, no matter the level." -Sean Ardoin
As artists, we have influence and the ability to create art that moves people to ponder, feel and act and we should use it sometimes for a greater cause. I would not have been able to live with myself, this time, if I wouldn't have released it into the atmosphere. I am a Kreole Rock and Soul artist and this song, while soulful, isn't necessarily what I play on a day to day basis, but it's just right for the times... so I released it as my contribution to the greater good. So, I guess my answer is the same for both the music community and society as a whole. Do whatever it is in your power to do to help right the wrongs. No matter how small the contribution, if we all make the effort, we will hit the mark. If you see injustice... do SOMETHING!
To all who read this, please understand that you have power. The civil rights struggle did not gain traction until white people saw the injustices inflicted on black people and realized that no HUMAN should be treated that way. They then got involved in whatever way they could and change happened. We are at those crossroads again... and the nation needs that same kind of unity. As you watch the video, answer the questions I pose in the song and answer them truthfully. Then find a black friend that you trust and send them the song. After they listen, ask if they're willing to have the conversation with you… I promise you they will. Then have the conversation and share it with other people that look like you and urge them to do the same. Authentic conversations that lead to connection will help us beat this thing called hate. As I say in the song, "...we are less different than we are alike." One LOVE!