Activist and Artist Jamil Davis on Fighting Against Racist Policy in Florida, New Fatherhood and Combining Music with Message

The Florida-based activist and hip hop artist talks about the impact freedom fighting has on his biggest role as a father

Pensacola-based activist and hip hop artist, Jamil Davis is super busy these days. He is a lead organizer with Black Voters Matter, a touring hip hop artist and a father to an infant daughter. Davis’s balancing act between Jamil Davis, the community activist, and organizer, and Jamal Steele, the conscious emcee has created a shift in priorities amid the pandemic and bigoted policies of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. And although Davis has been consistent on the frontlines in the fight for equality and communal equity in the Panhandle for years, fatherhood has increased his strategic approach in fighting for a better world for himself, his daughter and his community.

I recently sat down with the multi-hyphenate change agent to talk about all of the moving parts in his life right now, most notably the role of his advocacy in fighting against a measure intended to criminalize protests in the state of Florida. The following is an abridged version of our conversation

Donney Rose:

If you could describe your work with Black Voters Matter and what the impact of the initiative has or has had on Black voters in Florida?

Jamil Davis:

Initially, when I came on with Black Voters Matter in May of last year, it was as the North Florida regional organizer. And my coverage was from where I live here in Pensacola, all the way to Duval County, Jacksonville and everything in between. And so they wanted me to have a strong emphasis on the panhandle area because as many people within the political spirit know the panhandle gets largely overlooked as far as the work that we do here. Whether it be organizing or just electoral work cause most people think that, “Oh, the panhandle that's an easy grab for conservatives and individuals running on their conservative platform.” So my work initially started grabbing partner grassroots organizations that have already built space here. And just trying to make sure that we get them the proper resources that they need with the phone bank, texts, banks any type of maybe financial resources that they may need through grants or otherwise, and just helping them coordinate proper events throughout the election season.

And also beyond, because the key thing for us here at Black Voters Matter is one of our models is Black Voters Matter 365. And so we want people to know that we don't just focus on just election season. We will focus on everything in between as that is basically what my work surrounds and the impact that the work had was phenomenal. 

DR:

Can you talk about your recent advocacy around protest and Florida's House 1 bill and its efforts to criminalize the protest movement? 

JD:

So House Bill 1 is House Bill 1 and Senate Bill 484, same bill just for different sides is what's known as the “Combating Public Disorder”  bill or what's known among activists and organizers around the state as the “DeSantis Censorship and Repression Bill.” Basically, this bill seeks to criminalize protests and seeks to criminalize activity that BLM protesters and BLM organizers do around the type of work that we would do when we organize. Basically, last year, as we all know with the murders of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd, there were many, many protests and many marches that happened across the country. And a lot of those did happen within the state. However, the ones that happened within the state happened with little to no incident at all. And so DeSantis and other individuals within the Florida legislature will tell you that this bill is a preventative measure that they're using to ensure that things like what happened in Minnesota or what happened in Washington doesn’t happen here in the state.

 And they're also using what happened at the Capitol on the 6th of January, as a reason as to why they feel that this bill should be passed. When in actuality Governor DeSantis presented this bill as a proposal on the 21st of September last year at the height of BLM protests across the country. And so what we're looking to do and what we’ve been doing, whether we've been having virtual town halls, or we've been having actual rallies and marches in key cities across the state. 

The way that bills work here in Florida, they go through the committees first, before they actually hit the House and Senate floor. So the house criminal justice subcommittee saw the bill first, myself, and a lot of other activists and organizers from across the state and went to testify in opposition of the bill. And it was 17 members of that particular committee and the bill was voted 11 to six in favor of it, moving to the next committee and it was voted down party lines. And so it's now supposed to move to the Justice Appropriations Committee on the House side and on the state Senate side, supposed to have its first hearing in the Senate criminal justice committee. But neither one of those committees since the first meeting where the deal was [first] heard, has added that bill to any of its agendas.

DR: What type of response have you gotten from the community through the virtual townhalls? What's the tone of folks as you are presenting this information?

JD:

The response that I've gotten and that we've all gotten collectively as a coalition is that people are becoming aware of the bill, but once they become aware of the bill, they are becoming aware of the fact that this bill is not an answer to the Capitol insurrection on the 6th of January, but it is a direct attack at the work that Black Lives Matter and other organizations under the movement for black lives have been doing to silence our movement here in the state of Florida. There is specific language in the bill that targets either damage or destruction of monuments and historic symbols. So quick example with that, if Bree Newsome did the same thing that she did in South Carolina, climbing the flag pole and grabbing the state flag in South Carolina if she did that here in the state of Florida and that bill was law she'd be facing the second-degree felony and be facing a conviction of what the 15 years in prison because the Confederate flag is considered a historic symbol.

DR:

We have seen many nationally recognized hip hop artists, such as Mysonne and Trae the Truth, take a profound role in today's activism, in your opinion, what is the role of hip hop culture and hip hop artists in the modern movement for Black lives? And how does that role differ from the previous generation?

JD:

I think the current role is a role of working alongside those organizers and those activists that are on the ground actually doing their day-to-day work. I know it's a stretch for me to be saying that considering that I kind of fall in line in both areas, but even before I started doing a lot of the groundwork as an artist, I would sit with individuals who were already just doing the work. And that was just their main focus, just doing the work and understanding and realizing that a lot of the organizers and activists, do the work. Some of them fall within the culture as well. Whether they be spoken word artists, whether they be DJs, whether they be MCs, a lot of them fall and in both areas, it's just that they focus more on the groundwork aspect of organizing.

So I would say that first and foremost, just working alongside those organizers understanding the understanding that the movement is a lot different from, from what it was at the onset of when hip hop initially started both hip hop, as well as your Black Power or Civil Rights movement was more male-driven and had a very, very, very high patriarchal aspect. And so knowing that this new movement that was in the movement for Black lives is very inclusionary. Definitely does not tolerate homophobia, misogyny or patriarchy within the movement. And we'll call you out for it if it feels just the slightest tinge of that being entered. So a lot of the artists, I would say, now that's that's doing the work.

I would also say to them, just learn more about being inclusive within your movements. And if you have to take a step back and allow Black femmes or Black LGBTQ individuals to shine more than you do within the movement. A lot of the trans and non-binary voices that we have within the movement don't get a lot of credit and they don't get a lot of shine.  Individuals such as Mallory Luana who is an awesome, awesome trans activist and non-binary activist here in Pensacola through a movement that we have called the socialist trans initiative. And also Haley Morissette who is the North Florida Regional Organizer for Dream Defenders here in the state of Florida. 

DR:

Thank you. Thank you for specifically naming those individuals. What you just talked about is actually a pretty good segue into my next question. Balancing artistry and activism can be a tough act to juggle these days. Do you relate more to Jamil Davis, the activist, or Jamal Steele the MC, or do you make a huge distinction between those identities?

JD:

Especially with what I do now, I relate a whole lot more to Jamil Davis. I honestly do realize that Jamil Davis and Jamal Steele still are two different entities, but more so two different people. And so, especially with how things have been going with the pandemic and being very limited on how you can operate as an artist, I've given more attention to the activism work and the organizing work more so than I have the artistry just because I recognize the level of dedication and the level of work ethic that you have to have as an organizer, especially an organizer that's operating under, under an organization as, as big as Black Voters Matter. 

DR:

My last question is actually about fatherhood. You are the father of an infant daughter and what I want to know is what newfound inspiration has fatherhood had on both your activism and your music?

JD:

On the music, it’s just being very selective. And in my approach to how I write.  I've always honestly been a more spiritually driven and conscious-driven emcee [more] than anything. But now it's recognizing to not really be so...cause even with that particular type of music, you still can have a level of patriarchy within the music. So you have to be more aware of what it is that you should do as an artist and how it is that you should speak to where everybody feels included within the music. As far as the activism and the movement work, I'm very selective as to how much I go outside. I'm very selective as to how much I go outside because I could go outside and deal in a protest or deal in a rally or deal in a march and the next thing that happens is, you know, I'm locked up and it also puts me in a place of possibly being like, especially with this [House 1] bill. If this bill honestly does become law and they can't really fix it as well as they should, then the courts put us as organizers in a place where we wouldn't be having to have a march. We could just have a family fun day event or just an event that's not surrounded by political stigma and something could pop off. And because the organizers and activists were the ones who put this event together now facing 15 years and who wants to lose 15 years of their daughter's life for just doing the work that we do in the community. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Donney Rose is a Writer, Educator, Organizer and Chief Content Editor at The North Star