Cute, Exotic, and Threatening
Ricardo Lamour’s project, Bout du Monde, involved him accompanying five young Black boys to places where they were not expected: cultural institutions, green spaces, political events. His goal was to protect their genius, awaken their curiosity and broaden their real and imagined landscapes.
Text — Ricardo Lamour
This is part of the Dossier Black Lives, Green Spaces.
I’ve always been curious. Curious to the point where folks would tell me to mind my business.
In Creole, we use the word soumoun. Despite pejorative connotations, It also evokes, for me, a degree of curiosity that can push someone to eavesdrop on conversations through the walls.
From a very young age, it has been a survival mechanism.
My mother had the TV tuned constantly to the news. My father played the radio incessantly. Turns out, that I could hum the songs of french white Québec artists such as Roch Voisine, Marjo, Joe Bocan and Gerry Boulet to my parents home country’s artists like Ansy Dérose, Émeline Michel, Tabou Combo even if my musical tastes lay elsewhere.
On August 9th, 2008, a police intervention in Montréal North caused the death of Honduran-born Fredy Villanueva. Denis Meas and Jeffrey Sagor-Metellus, two other racialized youths—one, born from Cambodian parents, the other Black, with Haitian origins—were shot and injured. A whole host of undiagnosed trauma was inflicted on the witnesses and the rest of the community. From there, I developed an obsession for press briefings about tragedies. My first supportive action, without knowing Fredy’s family and friends, was to write an open letter putting forward the question: who will pay for Fredy Villanueva’s funeral? In this letter, I challenged the police force, the community, and politics. My curiosity and outrage had transformed into an energy that would push me to become involved with Fredy’s family for nearly a decade.
Let’s review a few facts: A group of racialized youth are hanging out in a parking lot in Montréal-North. A police car arrives. 57 seconds later, one of the youths is lying on the ground in a pool of his own blood. People are in a panic. The boy’s brother is taken into police custody — he’s in prison when he learns of his brother’s death. None of the youth were armed. A Montréal Police Service (SPVM) press release is issued, despite rules forbidding this in such circumstances and crystallizes the idea that 20 people attacked the police. A peaceful protest in the neighbourhood turns into an unprecedented riot. Police officers beat a retreat and journalists hide during newscasts. All of this takes place in one of the most underprivileged federal districts in the country.
In response to this tragedy, a newly formed citizens’ collective called Montréal-Nord Républik puts together a series of clear and direct demands, from the mayor’s resignation to the creation of a memorial in Fredy’s memory — as well as demanding recognition of the principle that social insecurity will continue as long as there is economic insecurity. This was long before Black Lives Matter.
I happened to meet Fredy’s family and their lawyers, months later, during support events. I took on the task of collecting signatures asking for the family’s legal fees to be paid by the State. Signatures, too, asking for a modification of the 1979 ministerial policy from the Public Security Ministry of Québec that allowed one police force to investigate another police force after an intervention by law enforcement leading to the death of citizens. At the time, many — including André Marin, ombudsman of the neighbouring province, Ontario — were calling for concrete structural action taking into account the ’’natural’’ solidarity between police officers and its impacts on the transparency of inquests..
I was occupying the battlegrounds I was aware of.
The more I learned about the tragedy, the more outraged I became. The truth is not afraid of scrutiny but I saw fear in the too-much effort put toward shutting up racialized and disenfranchised youths, with inconvenient testimony. I also learned more about Fredy, this 18-year-old boy; if there hadn’t been rain showers in the days before his visit to Montréal North, he would have been somewhere else that night, in a field in St-Rémi on the south-shore, working to pay for his braces and saving to one day open a garage with his father and his brother.
I realized that in an urban setting, grey spaces can become morgues when there’s fear around the presence of people judged to be in need of surveillance, relocation, and repression. Racialized bodies.
I spent years working to support the Villanueva family: years of petitions, protests, organizing interviews, being present at one of the longest and most expensive public inquest of the Quebec Office of Coroner (Bureau du Coroner) on the causes and consequences of the death of Fredy Villanueva, collecting support letters from organizations, to canvassing politicians, including Papineau MP (and later Prime Minister) Justin Trudeau. I was interrupted by parallel and personal tragedies and challenges; I created alliances; I confronted the multiple obstacles that rise up before the victories that we need to keep hope alive. And then I changed tactics. I started to become interested in the strength of the presence of youth in spaces where they are not expected.
A friend told me that if we wanted to change things, we’d have to get involved with young people before they reached a certain age. Then another friend introduced me to a Ted Talk titled: The Failure of Success. According to Dr. George Land, General Systems Scientist, children under five are geniuses. After that, their creativity drops radically when they start to let go of their imaginative thinking. Non-creative behaviour is learned.
The boys during a workshop with rapper and historian Webster, Aly Ndiaye. PHOTO: DENIS WONG
My mother, meanwhile, was running a daycare, and one of the children in her care was the son of a woman named Blondine, who became her friend. The boy, Nicholas, was full of energy and imagination. Sometimes he would play by himself outside — I noticed him when I would stop by to visit. So I started to bring him with me to events I was organizing, for things like Black History Month. He met the historian Afua Cooper and DJ Dr. MaD. He was introduced to former Governor General Michaëlle Jean, as well as a whole host of creators from Black communities.
The years passed. I released my first music album while also working for an organization that funded initiatives that promoted the creation of favorable environments for the health of the youth. I continued to spend time, now and then, with Nicholas. Driven by my curiosity, I was also starting to discover new spaces within Montréal, including the wonderful René-Lévesque Park.
One day, while walking through this park with Evans, Melvin, and their mother, Julie — whom I’d met two years earlier while recording a children’s choir singing the message of youth stuck in displacement camps after the earthquake in Haïti — I had an idea. I was going to get involved in the lives of young Black boys and name the project after the nickname I’d given the peninsula in René-Lévesque Park: Bout du Monde, a French double entendre that suggests both the end of the world and depths of the world. The intention was to go into places where Black people weren’t expected, and in particular, Québec’s green spaces.
I introduced Nicholas to Evans, Melvin, and Max. Sasha joined us about a year and a half later. At the time, they were all around eight and nine years old.
I wanted to show them what I had learned and put them in environments where their energy would be stimulated in a positive way. I also imagined that these five boys could brighten the sky of our cultural and political ecosystem.
We saw each other whenever our schedules matched up. I invited them along to several events. We also did activities in parks, or at the edge of the highway. In green spaces as in grey ones. They came with me to Montréal North, where Fredy was killed. They saw the efforts to keep his memory alive — in a tree we kept decorated, year after year, under his mother’s direction.
The boys during a recording session in Radio-Canada’s Studio 12. Photo: Denis Wong
I was transformed by the energy and confidence of the guys from Bout du Monde. In time, I came to understand that this confident front hid its share of vulnerability. I used to have a kind of deep aversion to photos but my companions documented everything. I thought about the surveillance cameras in Henri-Bourassa Park, which hadn’t caught the police intervention. So I started to do the same. I told myself that their lives and the project were worth it.
When I created Bout du Monde, I wanted to preserve and highlight its “amphibian” nature — being able to lead a life that is aerial and aquatic at once. Being able to breathe on land and yet adapt underwater. Being at home in an urban setting, and also at home in nature. At ease in informal settings as in formal ones. At ease in tense situations, and in playful ones too.
And to go even further. To redefine the rules.
Will I have succeeded in all these things? I have my share of doubts..
Over a period of seven years more than 200 spaces of all sorts have been occupied — and tested — by five young Black and mixed-heritage boys. We challenged multiple environments that included institutions, places, key city players, and audiences, thus compelling the members of Bout du Monde to take a stance, to develop a posture within these spaces and vice versa. Five young boys in a pilot project against the clock, navigating a constant duality and fighting the idea of: be content with the spaces we are given, and seeing these very spaces be content with the mere shadows of ourselves.
In the film The Shawshank Redemption, the prisoner Red (Morgan Freeman) says to Andy (Tim Robbins):
“These walls are funny. First you hate ’em, then you get used to ’em. Enough time passes, you get so you depend on them. That’s institutionalized.”
In my view, accepting the walls in our imaginary landscapes chokes out potential genius. It’s a knee on our creative necks.
This is what happens when someone grows up in a place that doesn’t match their dreams or potential, but nevertheless develops a feeling of belonging to this place.
We witness it in certain cliches and ideas present in rap,hip hop, in pop references, in our culture, this idea of the hood. It’s the idea of a neighbourhood that forges character, defines it. But can also be detrimental by nurturing an inability to exist and navigate within other paradigms that nature gives access to. The poem ‘’The rose that grew from concrete’’ comes to mind. A piece by 2pac.
And now I’m laying out some observations.
From 2014 to 2016, the guys were seen as cute.
From 2016 to 2018, exotic.
From 2018 to 2020, threatening.
Two members of the collective have Nigerian roots, and three have Haitian roots. Drenched in love and curiosity of their African descent, these youth test their environment before it tests them, knowing and seeing that some tests are unforgiving.
There’s a presumption that they’re here to cause trouble. During our visit, Radio-Canada guards sent out an audible notice by walkie-talkie, worried that the boys were going to vandalize the place when all they were doing was walking down a hallway. At the Cinémathèque québécoise, a Black security guard threatened to throw them out. It seems clear that our spaces are not imagined for the energy of young Black boys. We want them present, but only if invited, docile, and smiling — or simply staring at a screen of illusion.
Let’s keep in mind that before calling up the greatness of ancestors of African descent, there’s a very dark chapter in history that must be addressed, since it still leaves a scattering of soot over our politics, our heritage, and our processes. A chapter that must be recognized within a logic of reparation and redistribution, since it reveals the fact that Black people — with the approbation of church, government, and science — were treated like goods, furniture, and soulless structures, non-beings to be put to the service of a colonial agenda, deprived of any territorial belonging and legal personhood, including in francophone Montréal of the 18th century.
“As a person whose legal rights are denied, individual Black slaves can never appear as the injured party in a civil case or as the victim of a criminal act, but may appear as the perpetrator of an infraction. The slave appears in the eyes of the law as a criminal, or not at all. […] These two dispossessions [legal personhood and territorial belonging] were part and parcel of the socio-spatial order of the New World, including the French colonial city of Montréal, where at least 518 Black people were kept in captivity between 1642 and 1834 (Mackey, 2010, p. 96).” —Samiha Khalil and Ted Rutland, “La ville anti-Noir: la sécurité urbaine et les ’après-vies’ de l’esclavage à Montréal” [“The Anti-Black City: urban security and the ’after-lives’ of slaves in Montréal”], in Perspectives critiques et analyse territoriale: Applications urbaines et régionales, PUQ, 2019.
What happens when we allow Black youth to be in contact with nature, to redefine it, to become redefined by it, without the weight of clichés, taboos, prejudices, and stereotypes? What happens when we facilitate their contact with the impetuous nature of the Universe?
Access to beauty and wide open spaces should be a fundamental right. Some grow up with fresh air, at the edges of Montréal and large urban centres; others grow up with overexposure to ads, making their mental sky look like a shopping mall.
The first time the boys went to Pain de sucre, a viewpoint from the Réserve Naturelle Gault of Mont Saint-Hilaire, one of them wanted to give up halfway. I told him there was no shortcut to paradise — that we could take a break, that we’d get used to it, and above all that the view was worth the effort. When we got back to his neighbourhood, he said that trip was better than Disney World.
At Mont Orford National Park, the guys looked to me for direction, almost asking permission and direction to move in the space. I told them it was their job to find the way. That in the forest, there were other codes, and that it was up to them to decipher the signs and figure out the path. I had the feeling they were as stunned to find themselves in this setting as other people were to see them there. They went home exhausted, and often reminded me after that trip to plan other activities that would nurture their curiosity.
Whether it’s a matter of tossing a ball in a university parking lot, eating braised goat in Laurier Park, trying oysters for the first time in a office in Villeray, performing at the Montreal Science Centre, or reciting a poem amongst a diverse crowd of militants, academics, artists, and public servants: each time, they felt that those around them had respect for their fire, rather than asking them to put it out.
As they got older, I started to focus more directly on the way of addressing head-on the volatility of the world around them, and how they might be treated. Ignorance and innocence couldn’t be confused for one another. The contradictory messages and actions of this society were showing up clearer and clearer.
We were already in the habit of freestyling (i.e., improvising musically) during our long car trips. One time we chanted “caribou, deer, caribou,” for the simple pleasure of the sound, beyond the meaning of the words, and the call of nature.
And then last year the boys and I saw the movie Queen & Slim. A film where two people meet on Tinder and become inseparable because of an event of police brutality that makes them accomplices to murder. I knew the movie would disturb them: I took note of the jokes they made beforehand. One scene in particular shows the couple trapped in a house surrounded by police. Queen has a leg injury resulting from a fall, so her mobility is limited. They manage to hide in the garage, but a Black police officer hears a sound and decides to search the place. His (white) partner dismisses the sound as nature.
When he opens the garage door, the Black officer finds himself face to face with Queen and Slim. He freezes and then closes the door again, seeming to weigh the symbolic significance of this couple’s escape. When his colleague asks what it was, he answers, “A couple deer got caught in some branches. I set ’em free.” Instead of lying, the Black police officer draws a parallel between the escape of the two Black suspects and the deer that frolic in a natural world that is rightfully theirs.
And that’s how the song “Caribou” was born — at the crossroads of a freestyle, a hard-hitting movie, and 10 000 caribous drowned in the Ungava Bay 35 years ago. “Caribou” is an ode to this sovereign right not to be tracked anymore. It also includes an allusion to Ariel Kouakou — a young Black boy who still hasn’t been found.
The hunt is on
I’ve got my eyes open wide
now we’re out in the open
even when we hide from the light
three in the morning
no more Google Maps
the beat has to hit
it’s my genius they track
I move with the crew
my style blows you away
take that, I disappear
don’t look for me
The show is beautiful
The show is big
bigger than every crazy thing
you dare to think
condensed to the reason of the ancestors
the miracle on earth
the mirror of dreams
all these beautiful things
words can’t touch them
it’s the landscape
of a country we think is wise
but it’s hemorrhaging now
from all the extractive activies
You see the evidence, your eminence
we coming to set precedents on the set
me and the homies dropping oxygen
No headaches, so I guess, no aspirin
You keep on doubting
You’s a has-been
them silly questions
Academics be asking
we the flavour you keep questing
we ’bout to go major, caterpillar
(Evans et Sasha)
My style shows you that I hold the legacy
of my mother in my body
in my DNA
Bout du Monde has become the metaphor for a trip into our preconceived notions, a trip in space and time. A trip that also had to go beyond the Canadian border. The goal of it all was to awaken curiosity and nurture the mental hard drive of these guys, to lead them to reflect on what it means to be Black and engaged — “to be young, gifted, and Black,” as Nina Simone sang.
We took this trip in spite of all kinds of obstacles. A trip of more than 3,000 km. Five American states in 10 days, between December 26, 2019 and January 5th, 2020.
They crossed the bridge into Boston, Massachusetts. Took note of the reign of Dunkin’ Donuts in the city. Experienced an incident that looked much like profiling at the Harvard Art Museum, a few steps from the painting by Afro-American artist Kerry James Marshall. They saw the postcard New York City, and the city in its decline: its rat-infested-ports, its bridges and roads conveying the aggressive race toward social solvency, its light-polluting ads, and its hair salons, reliable suppliers of serotonin. They also got indigestion from the grayness of New York; saw the burnout of hotel personnel; had a quick visit to the upscale side of Baltimore, which we don’t hear that much about; and were surprised by the geometry of Washington D.C, the horror of Emmett Till’s fate kept in the National African-American Museum of History and Culture..
I wanted to take them beyond the skyscrapers.To plant them in the places where their peers had scraped the ground.
We had to pay to get into the Shirley Plantation Foundation in Virginia. Beyond the youth admission fee, there was no discount for people of African descent. Some people would say that being Haitian is different than being Afro-American. I would answer that not only do we likely have the same ancestors, but also that the process of delocalization of our bodies is much the same.
The place was quiet. Century houses. Workshops. No available guides. A white person at the welcome desk. A delicate smoothing over of the conditions of enslaved people who worked in the plantation. We took photos, wended our way, perused, as though we wanted to buy the place. We read descriptions about the vocation of the spaces. Nothing, or almost nothing, about the human beings in the space. We could have got the audio guide, if we’d downloaded the app, but we were busy with the task of downloading the simple fact of standing there, in that place.
The guys fell into a kind of sorrow after the trip. I had told them that Bout du Monde might be in its last year. They had a number of aspirations, requiring more distinct calendar space, more dedication, and more focus. I introduced them to many people as well as spaces, dynamics and tough contexts. They saw me in my vulnerability as the project leader, failing at times with my means and my ambitions. I told them that from now on, they might be the ones showing me different places. They were growing up dangerously fast, in a world where videos were depicting Black men screaming or pleading for mercy at the hands and guns and knees of police. Their way through the world demanded real effort and engagement, like caribou struggling against the current.
I wanted to take all this in, to respect their distinct and common hustle.
THE MARKET AT PLACE DES ARTS. MAY 23, 2017. PHOTO: MCKEAN PHONSAMRETH
I hope I’m able to do so, as they come closer to the age Fredy was when he left us, and as they have to navigate their energies in real air, not the conditioned air of a disconnected space. I hope this has helped prepare them to face some of the impetuous winds of our times with just calls for revolution on multiple dimensions. Just last June 24th, on Québec’s national holiday, we found ourselves surrounded by three police cars. All we were trying to do was rent bikes at the corner of Chateaubriand and Jarry.
Caribou, deer, caribou . . .
A graduate of the School of Social Work at the University of Montréal, Ricardo Lamour is an singer-songwriter and an actor. He was awarded the Pauline-Julien prize for his political writings, and the Artists’ Union prize for his stage presence — both in 2010. He participated in the creation of Hoodstock, an organization that confronts systemic inequalities, and is part of the support committee for the Villanueva family. He has also released two albums, Cheval de Trois (2014) and Momentum (2016). In 2014, Lamour founded the collective Bout du Monde, with the goal of creating environments that nurture the genius of Black youth. He has contributed to Montréal adopting a motion recognizing the United Nations’ 68/237 resolution for the International Decade for People of African Descent.
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