‘I go to sleep to gunshots, it doesnt stop me’: the art collective backing young black artists

Its long past time to give credit to young black and brown artists says Amanda King, whose art collective Shooting Without Bullets is breaking down barriers

A black-and-white photograph shows two young men in the door frame of an abandoned storefront. PRIVATE CLUB is written on the boarded-up door. NO Weapons, Drugs, Purses it says.

The photograph, taken by Lai Lai Bonner, 19, spread quickly. It was featured in the local paper, The Plain Dealer, sold at a gallery in the Cleveland Print Room, a local art studio, and currently sits in an exhibition at the Grasselli Library at John Carroll University in University Heights, Ohio.

The exhibit is close to East Cleveland where the photo was taken, but it is a world apart. The university sits on the edge of wealthy neighborhoods such as Shaker Heights, which are teeming with mansions.

Meanwhile, East Cleveland has abandoned houses, empty lots, potholes and higher crime rates. The life expectancy is as much as 10 years lower compared with the life expectancy of their wealthier neighbors.

The photographs in the exhibition, like Bonners, provide a contrast to the world right outside the librarys walls. The pictures were all taken by members of Shooting Without Bullets, a not-for-profit organization that coordinated the exhibit and that gives young black and brown teens the artistic tools they need to express themselves.

Amber
Amber Ford adjust her camera and Amanda King talks to her students as they pose on the steps of the Cleveland Art Museum. Photograph: Shooting Without Bullets/The Guardian

Shooting Without Bullets is one of 25 inspirational people and organizations that the Guardian is highlighting as part of a week-long City Champions project in Cleveland. The project is designed to showcase the upsides in a city such as Cleveland, where grassroots activists faced with endemic problems like lead poisoning, infant mortality and gun violence and little or no state support, are taking the initiative and helping to change lives in some of the citys most marginalised communities.

Q&A

What is the City Champions series about?

Many cities across the US face significant challenges places like Baltimore, Detroit, Pittsburgh andCleveland are among them. And much has been written about how these former economic powerhouses have struggled over the last few decades.

But this week in the first installment of our City Champions series, we want to highlight the remarkable people and groups working on inspiring projects that show the resilience of those wanting to improve the lives of people in one of those cities: Cleveland, Ohio.

Cleveland has many challenges – inequality, structural racism, infant mortality, shamefully untreated lead poisoning – but it also has a network of people creating innovative projects that are addressing these challenges with significant success.

Collaborating with the local newspaper – The Plain Dealer – and the local PBS and NPR stations, run by ideastream, we canvassed residents for their suggestions for who to recognize and received hundreds of replies.

We then created an advisory panel of mostly local public figures who helped select the final 25 champions, whose stories we will be telling this week.

As part of this project we have also worked with the art collective For Freedoms to create a public art expression for this project. Working with For Freedoms and local artists, we commissioned artwork for six billboards that help tell the stories of the city and the challenges the champions are addressing.

John Mulholland, editor in chief, Guardian US

Amanda King, Shooting Without Bullets founder and creative director, is no stranger to the exclusive art world. She worked in New York City in fashion photography for big-name magazines right out of college but was quickly disillusioned by the industry. The killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in 2012 rocked King, who was 23 at the time, to her core

I just started to see that black lives were so devalued for this to have happened to this boy, King said. I was like, you know, I dont want to use my talent to sell rich girls on the Upper East Side clothes. I want to use my talent to get justice for Trayvon.

She quit the fashion industry and enrolled in Case Western Reserve University School of Law in 2014, originally to study intellectual property (her thing at the time was art and law), but then switched over to constitutional law after the shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown in 2015 to learn about civil rights.

King developed an interest in police reform and joined the Cleveland Police Commission, a community board created under an order from the US justice department that required Cleveland to address problems within its police department. As the appointed youth advocate on the commission, King was frustrated that young black and brown people were dismissed in conversations around police reform.

Lai
Lai Lai Bonner, 19, poses for a selfie in front of a Shooting Without Bullets exhibit. Photograph: Shooting Without Bullets/The Guardian

Wanting to give young people the tools to express themselves about social issues, King came up with the idea of an exhibit that displayed the work of black and brown teenagers photography and other visual art. She recruited a group of young teens and taught them to shoot a camera in the summer of 2016. When the exhibit was up in September 2016, more than 300 people came to see it.

City Champions

Since then, Shooting Without Bullets has grown into a network of young creatives who act, sing, rap and dance, along with shooting pictures as a form of activism. Run by King and Kelsi Carter, Shooting Without Bullets impact director, the organization has hosted exhibits, performances and art classes for local communities.

Black youth have historically shaped culture and art, they just havent gotten the credit for it. Theyre just not a part of the institutions that own it, but they are the ones who are influencing it, King said.

For King, Shooting Without Bullets is all about being able to teach black and brown youth that you are influences, you are shaping culture. Thats something that can boost their self esteem. It can root them in their history.

This desire to boost black and brown teens through art has manifested into Shooting Without Bullets artist collective, a group of five artists ages 18 to 21 who work closely with King and Carter with the goal of turning their dreams into careers, even in industries that have systemic barriers that make it difficult for young people, especially black youth, to navigate.

Before
Before Shooting Wthout Bullets, Amanda King, left, worked in fashion, but the killing of Trayvon Martin made her change path. Photograph: Shooting Without Bullets/The Guardian

For Bonner, a member of the collective, the exhibit at John Carroll is another showcase in her growing career as a professional photographer. She credits Shooting Without Bullets for helping her turn a love of photography into a business. Her schedule is booked with gigs, and she runs her own photo booth rental company, Melting Magnets, all while working toward a degree at the local community college.

Bonner was raised in East Cleveland, known to be a tough area outside the city, and her parents did not graduate from high school.

I go to sleep to gunshots But that doesnt stop me from being successful. There are cycles of poverty, cycles of abuse and drugs and all of that that goes around, but you have to break the cycle.

King and Carter spend a bulk of their time running Shooting Without Bullets providing wrap-around services to their artists, making sure their young artists have everything they need to pursue their goals. Most come from low-income backgrounds. Few own cars. If someone needs a last-minute ride to get to an audition, Carter will pick them up in her gray Jeep. They try to provide food whenever possible and, most importantly, they pay their artists.

Theres a real wealth barrier that institutions arent really thinking about because its run by people who are of the upper echelon, Carter said. The role of not-for-profit is to adjust to the needs of the communities it serves, Carter added, rather than the other way around.

Los
Hip-hop artist Los P said that Shooting Without Bullets has taught him to address the social issues he cares about in his music. Photograph: Shooting Without Bullets/The Guardian

Los P, 19, a hip-hop artist, said that Shooting Without Bullets has taught him to address the social issues that he cares the most about in his music. Poverty and police brutality are two of the themes that he often comes back to.

He lost two of his best friends when he was 17. One killed herself, a second died unexpectedly in his sleep (his death was traced to respiratory problems, a common ailment in neighborhoods with run-down houses). Shooting Without Bullets helped him hone his music to address the grief and anger while also giving him a platform to share his message.

After joining the collective, Everything was different because it made me realize I had a bigger purpose; that I was fighting for a bigger purpose that was bigger than me, Los said.

For Shatara Jordan, 18, the organization has given her opportunities to pursue her music as a hip-hop artist while getting to show off her dancing skills all of which has fed into her desire to act on-screen. She joined the collective in 2017 when her music production class at a local community center was abruptly cut.

Jordan has big dreams to pursue acting as a career and is building her rsum: She has been casted in local productions and was recently an extra for a major studio movie filming in Cleveland.

Youre just surrounded by so much awfulness, its hard to really stay motivated at what youre doing sometimes, she said, adding that she tries not to let the negativity get to her. You gotta create your own magic, you know?

These photographs were made by McKinley Wiley, Amanda D King and Shooting Without Bullets.

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