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Topeka musician navigates society through lyrics, activism and joy

This article was written by Sam Bailey and originally published on the Kansas Reflector webpage under a Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.

Marty Hillard appears for a July 12, 2023, recording of the Kansas Reflector podcast in downtown Topeka. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA (USA)— Marty Hillard has seen firsthand the ways systemic racism can destroy and consume lives, but the Topeka musician, who writes about resilience and advocacy as he holds a lyrical mirror to the Midwest, is determined to experience joy and help others do the same.

Hillard, director of community engagement at Kansas Children’s Discovery Center in Topeka, has worked in the community to combat police brutality and is a member and lyricist of the hardcore hip-hop trio Ebony Tusks, whose music often speaks on resilience and advocacy.

“Freedom is very important to me; joy is very important to me,” he said during an interview for the Kansas Reflector podcast. “These are things that I’m actively seeking out, despite what I might have experienced in the past, or what I may continue to experience as a Black man in America. I am resolute in finding joy, in as many experiences as possible for all of the years that I was sort of lost in my indignation.”

Through his work at the discovery center, he helps provide children and families learning opportunities through play. One partnership is with the Kansas Department of Corrections: Every few weeks, women who are incarcerated can spend the day and play with their children. Additionally, sensory friendly Sundays allow children on the autism spectrum to experience the center if they are unable to attend during regular hours.

“While the primary goal is for there to be an environment of play where learning can occur, it’s just really exciting to see people engaged in joyful experiences … and ones that they see themselves reflected in,” Hillard said.

Activism against violence

On Sept. 28, 2017, two Topeka police officers shot and killed Dominique White, a Black man. The officers were responding to a report of a disturbance in a park when they confronted White and noticed he had a gun in the pocket of his shorts. The officers shot White in the back as he ran away from them, and the district attorney cleared them of any wrongdoing.

Hillard, who knew members of White’s family, said the community was frustrated with not only White’s death but the level of violence in the city. In 2017, Topeka recorded 29 homicides, breaking the previous record from 1994, according to a Topeka Capital-Journal article.

The list includes homicides that were considered to be justified — such as police shootings.

“A big personal concern is knowing that as much as violence occurs in our society, at the hands of one citizen to another, I think it’s of the same importance that we recognize the violence that’s enacted by our local police department,” he said. “And so I think that’s a big part of why I wanted to get involved.”

From December 2017 through April 2018, Hillard helped organize No Confidence, a series of workshops allowing for members of the community to share their experiences with local law enforcement and give honest feedback.

Growing up in central Topeka, Hillard said he has a personal history of negative interactions with past iterations of the Topeka Police Department. He said being a part of a marginalized group can be all-consuming, but a lot of that has changed for him as he focuses on joy.

“There’s a point where you get exhausted being on fire all the time, being angry and feeling like you have to carry the weight of how you’re being perceived in the world around you,” Hillard said.

Hillard said while he can’t withhold realities of being a Black man in America from his child, he is grateful to be able to raise an emotionally intelligent child who can draw their own conclusions based on observation.

“We are very determined that as much as it’s a priority to want to protect your child’s innocence,” he said, “we also have to equip our child in a way that they can navigate the world as it exists, and they can have a better understanding of not only the world around them, but the world that my wife and I were raised in and the experiences that we’ve had.”

Marty Hillard, director of community engagement at Kansas Children’s Discovery Center and member of Ebony Tusks, uses music to spread messages of activism and resilience. In 2017 and 2018, Hillard worked in the community to try to combat systemic racism after the death of Dominique White. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Reflecting society through music

Hillard and his sister grew up singing songs on the radio and worship songs in church. When he was 11, Hillard and his brother started a rap group, and soon after, Hillard learned how to play guitar and began writing folk music and poetry.

In 2010, Hillard, Daniel Smith and Geese Giesecke formed Ebony Tusks. The hardcore hip-hop group often writes about resilience and activism through the lens of Kansas and Missouri, Hillard said.

Hillard said as a poet and rap writer, what he says is more than just words, so sometimes lyrics take years to write.

“I recognize a deep sense of responsibility to the words that I say,” he said. “And so I just want to make sure that I’m saying things that are really meaningful.”

Hillard said the words in Ebony Tusks songs are not only a reflection of the world around them but themselves, and he hopes that if there’s a message to be found in his lyrics, it’s that “our music becomes a vehicle for people to do that same analysis on themselves.”

Their music is available on Apple, Spotify, YouTube and other streaming platforms.

In April, Hillard’s friend Jeff Ensley, 45, died by suicide. Ensley was an important factor in Hillard pursuing music and a huge positive force in Hillard’s life. Hillard is designing a tattoo for a lyric in the song “You are Invited” by The Dismemberment Plan, a band Ensley showed Hillard a few years before he died.

“The lyric is: ‘You are invited by anyone to do anything. You are invited for all time,’ ” Hillard said. “And as I reflect on his life and the permission that he gave me to be the person that I am today, that lyric has become really important.”

Local Musician Shares Her Story Of Activism

This article was originally published by Jersey Shore Online and written by Bob Vosseller.

JACKSON, USA – Kaleigh Brendle, 19, has headed back to Villanova University and either wants to be a disability rights attorney or a musician and with her energy, she could probably do both.

The teenager hasn’t let her visual limitations stop her love of performing music but it did inspire her to fight for proper accommodations for those who are visually impaired.

Brendle, a resident of Brick, and a high school graduate from Howell Township, worked to secure appropriate accommodations for those like herself from the College Board.

She also performed at the White House with a choir and also created a choir at the age of 14 for visually impaired singers. Brendle recently performed some of her own music as well as several cover songs during a Saturday afternoon program that was sponsored by the Jackson Friends of the Library.

Prior to her library appearance she spoke to Jersey Shore Online.com about how she responded to an unfair issue and beat the odds. During her presentation she would integrate music with an appropriate song related to the chronology of her story.

Kaleigh Brendle, 19, sits at the piano, left, as her mother Heather Brendle looks on prior to a performance the teen made at the Jackson branch of the Ocean County Library. (Photo by Bob Vosseller)

“The songs supplement the story,” she said. The two stories she shared included one from 2020 which was an issue with the College Board regarding AP (advanced placement) exams. “They refused to provide blind and deaf test takers braille and other critical accommodations during the COVID-19 pandemic and other test takers and I stood up against that and ultimately won that struggle and secured the braille that we needed.”

She said Jackson Librarian Christine Mecca asked her to talk about another advocacy project she undertook a year later as part of her senior thesis. “I went to a specialized program at a high school and so they required a capstone project where you can’t just write the presentation you actually have to start to institute change about whatever you are discussing.

“I want to be a disability rights attorney and what I ultimately chose was representation of disability in children’s media.” This included situation comedies, cartoons and some Disney programs.

“I was curious because growing up I’d never seen a disabled character on any of those outside of an episode. A blind character was on a Sesame Street episode, actually, a fraction of one. Is there something to that?” Brendle pondered.

Brendle made some sad discoveries. “The visual impairment representation that is awarded has a rate of one percent right now for children’s media for disability. It doesn’t give disabled kids someone to look up to when they are watching that. One in five Americans have some kind of disability now.”

“It is a pretty large group and to see it, they are either tokenizing or vilifying,” she added. She gave an example of tokenizing as the Sesame Street episode she referenced. “Where the character was only there for a fraction of an episode as if to check off a box.”

As for as vilifying, “a lot of villains in cartoons have some sort of defect or disability and that is a really bad angle to take and a consistency that is really troubling as it casts in a kid’s mind that being different are the bad ones and the ones to look out for,” she added.

Brendle released a video on social media that explained some of her research in a basic manner. “I started a campaign called ‘Out of Sight Out of Mind’ and it definitely got some attention. Unfortunately, I couldn’t advocate for it as much as I wanted to because I had to go to college right after that but any chance I get to talk about it and bring the issue to light, I definitely do that.”

She intends to contact Nickelodeon and Disney in the future “to see what is possible because that still is an existing issue.” She noted that Sheldon in the Big Bang Theory and Young Sheldon shows representation in having “autism or asperger’s and I believe there was a character on Modern Family who has something. There is more adult oriented programming that does have representation.”

She was joined by her mother Heather Brendle for the program who provided her some tips. Her mother said she was very proud of her daughter and her bright spirit even as she fought unsurmountable odds to make positive change.

The story selections she made to punctuate her saga included the songs “Rise Up,” “That’s What Friends Are For,” “Smile,” the theme song from the animated film “Pocahontas” and “At Last.”

She was diagnosed with a condition commonly known as LCA. “It feels like I am extremely near sided when I have my very strong prescription glasses on. I don’t have any peripheral vision. I don’t have any depth perception. I can’t read print for long periods of time without getting substantial headaches.

“I have had it since birth and my brother who is totally blind has the same condition,” she added.

Her musical interest began at an early age as well. “My first memory of singing was my dad holding me up and me singing Sesame Street songs to passersby on the porch. I watched people stop and listen to me. It was one of those things that was always there. I don’t know quite how it began.

“When I watched my cartoons in the morning, I was addicted to PBS Kids which I think also fostered my love of reading too,” she said.

She noted how difficult the conditions of the COVID-19 shut down were during her senior year in high school. “I was completely remote for it and had very little contact with my peers and was exclusively in my house for 17 months and that can be really isolating for somebody. Music is how I really coped with it.”

“I am very much split on my two career interests of being an attorney and singer,” she said. She recently released an album, performed at the Algonquin Art Theater and won the Diane Turton Talent Show in 2018 where she performed a song off her album in front of 500 people.

Her first of several White House appearances with the Princeton Westminster Children’s Choir was quite memorable. “I had the honor of being the featured soloist and performing there is incredible. It is one of those things where you can’t believe it is actually happening. It is magical and we went during the Christmas holidays.

“We were performing for not only the diplomats but for their families and there were a lot of little kids and it was so, so cute,” the performer said.

Photo by Bob Vosseller

She formed the Sing for Serenity Choir “which is my pride and joy. It is an international online choir for the blind and visually impaired which I started five years ago. We have our own YouTube channel. We have members from over a dozen countries.”

“I’m creating a type of activism major at my college as there is an option to design your own major and what I am looking to create is using the legal system and using the media to advocate for positive change,” she added.

For further details about Brendle’s activism and musical journey visit her Choir for the Blind’s YouTube Channel.

Her link to the Twitter Video about her challenge with the College Board issue.

The link to the Twitter video about her Capstone Project (Disability Representation in Children’s Media).

Debt Neglector Honour Their Furry Friend With ‘Least I Could Do’ (Video)

Orlando punk rockers Debt Neglector have just released the 3rd single from their upcoming album ‘Dirty Water‘ which drops on November 5. ‘Least I Could Do’ is an ode to Janie, a beloved four legged friend and member of the family.

The song catches you from the beginning with its dramatic melody, yet upbeat and positive rhythm, and the music video gives a bit of joy, and hope, to the subject of losing a dear furry friend.

The soon to be released new album covers a lot of ground, including the division in the US political system, oppression through religion and the more specific water crisis in Flint.

All proceeds from sales of the album will be split evenly between Flint Kids Fund (flintkids.org) and Sylvester Broome Empowerment Village (www.sbev.org).

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