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.”

𝗜𝗳 𝘆𝗼𝘂 𝗹𝗶𝗸𝗲 𝗼𝘂𝗿 𝗶𝗻𝘁𝗲𝗿𝘃𝗶𝗲𝘄𝘀 𝗮𝗻𝗱 𝗰𝗼𝗻𝘁𝗲𝗻𝘁 𝘄𝗲 𝘄𝗼𝘂𝗹𝗱 𝗹𝗼𝘃𝗲 𝗳𝗼𝗿 𝘆𝗼𝘂 𝘁𝗼 𝗽𝗮𝗿𝘁𝗶𝗰𝗶𝗽𝗮𝘁𝗲 𝗶𝗻 𝗴𝗿𝗼𝘄𝗶𝗻𝗴 𝘁𝗵𝗲 𝗦𝗵𝗼𝘂𝘁𝘀 𝗽𝗿𝗼𝗷𝗲𝗰𝘁 𝗯𝘆 𝘀𝘂𝗽𝗽𝗼𝗿𝘁𝗶𝗻𝗴 𝘂𝘀 𝗼𝗻 𝗣𝗮𝘁𝗿𝗲𝗼𝗻! 𝗪𝗲 𝗮𝗹𝘀𝗼 𝗲𝗻𝗰𝗼𝘂𝗿𝗮𝗴𝗲 𝘆𝗼𝘂 𝘁𝗼 𝘀𝗵𝗮𝗿𝗲 𝘁𝗵𝗲 𝗮𝗿𝘁𝗶𝗰𝗹𝗲𝘀 𝗼𝗻 𝘀𝗼𝗰𝗶𝗮𝗹 𝗺𝗲𝗱𝗶𝗮, 𝗯𝗲𝗰𝗮𝘂𝘀𝗲 𝗶𝗻 𝘁𝗵𝗮𝘁 𝘄𝗮𝘆 𝘆𝗼𝘂 𝗵𝗲𝗹𝗽 𝘀𝗽𝗿𝗲𝗮𝗱𝗶𝗻𝗴 𝘁𝗵𝗲 𝗺𝘂𝘀𝗶𝗰 𝗮𝗻𝗱 𝗺𝗲𝘀𝘀𝗮𝗴𝗲 𝗼𝗳 𝘁𝗵𝗲 𝗮𝗿𝘁𝗶𝘀𝘁𝘀. 𝗧𝗵𝗮𝗻𝗸 𝘆𝗼𝘂!
Become a patron at Patreon!

Leave a Reply