Through Song and Cycling, Shawnee Dez Finds Communal Release

Published December 10, 2020

Notre Interviews Adrian Octavius Walker 01

For Shawnee Dez, music and community advocacy are inseparable, and her latest song and video for “Let It Be” is a testament to the pair’s relationship.

The track acts as spiritual stimulation: “Usually when I write stuff, I be yelling at myself. I’m like, ‘Bitch, lean towards the sun, put your hands out to the sky,’” she says. But she also realizes that her music can serve the same purpose for her listeners. “As a human, I know that there's somebody else who may have or maybe is experiencing the same thing that I'm experiencing, maybe in a different way.”

The video for “Let It Be,” directed by Dez and Addison Wright, stars hiplet dancer Camryn Taylor who performs a dance she choreographed the day of the shoot. Dez also makes a cameo in the video, and though brief, it ultimately becomes the focus, a meditative moment where we see the singer sitting in front of a mirror in a pitch black room, trying to come up for air out of an overwhelming darkness.

Like the sliver of light seen in the video, Dez’s new community project, Black Joy Ride, has become a luminous beacon. The impetus for her advocacy-oriented work began during her childhood when her school required her to fulfill community service hours in local food pantries and youth centers. It extended into her adult life, where she co-hosted Young Chicago Author’s open mic series Word Play and worked as an instructor with West Town Bikes through After School Matters and Chicago Public Schools.  “I think somewhere along the line, I was like, ‘Wow, I'm doing work that is necessary,’” she says.

As protests swept the nation this summer, following the police killing of George Floyd, she felt driven to celebrate Black joy, particularly with Juneteenth approaching. A bicycling enthusiast, she thought a massive group ride would be a perfect fit—a chance for her Black and Brown comrades to feel free amid the pandemic and racial unrest. She called on her artist friends—Eddie Burns, Jameel Bridgewater, Jacob King, Iz Burns, Reno Cruz, Ariella Granados, and others—to help her assemble the event in mere days. 

Music is the throughline for Dez. She was always singing and cut her teeth in church choir and school chorus—so transitioning from secular music to her own was an easy task. She went to her first official studio session her senior year in high school with Chicago rappers Femdot and Ohana Bam; and by the time she graduated, she was performing in shows. The entire time, she’s instilled her own music with the same fervor in which she sang church music.

Now, Dez is looking forward to releasing more music in late January, planning next year’s Black Joy Ride Juneteenth event, continuing her open mic series—which she previously hosted at FDC Studios—and finding ways to keep uplifting her community.

Tara Mahadevan
Shawnee Dez

How did singing secular music impact making music for yourself? How are you able to differentiate the two?

Because I was already going to a Catholic school and I grew up Baptist, I already knew that there was a difference between religion and spiritual practice. I don't think I had the language for that when I was younger, but I already was able to tear myself apart from this bigger thing.

Notre Interviews Shawnee Dez

The things that I took from choir and I took from chorus were just the passion that comes with singing for such a big entity, about such a big entity, about God. You are so unapologetically passionate—like I am untouchable when I'm singing about God. It's some shit that nobody can take away from me or even give me; it’s just something that's me. God has given you the gift.

I never sing about God in my personal music anymore. I listen to gospel music still because I love that shit, it’s just so good—and not even the content, like what people are actually singing about, but how that passion transfers from being to being. You could just hear the love and the power in people's voices. So that's what I take. I sing about myself, I sing about dark shit. I've always been really into the shadow self and trying to figure out all the parts of me—even the parts that I don't always wear everyday out in public.

Notre Interviews Shawnee Dez

What inspired the video for “Let It Be”?

This song feels very cinematic to me. I think the biggest part was my cameo and the mirror in the scene. It was a song that I wrote talking to myself and that's why I did that scene of me having that mirror shining back on me, being in this dark room with this little-ass bit of light.

But that's how I felt. It's like all these abstract ideas where you're in a dark room or in a dark space internally and it's just a little ass beacon of light that will help you to see yourself. It will drown out the darkness a little bit and give you the opportunity to be like, “This is why you're going through this. This is what is going to come from going through this—this is what you learn.” That's how I felt. That little bit of light was very subliminal.

That scene was what the whole video was really more so about. It was just movement and fucking darkness and that's really how depression feels. Depression really is like the inability to see past what is causing you stagnance or pain. When you have everything you wanted or everything you can imagine, but something inside me is like, “Oh my God, I still feel so dark.” My emotions are so hidden that when things are going wrong, that's all I could pay attention to.

You consider yourself a youth advocate and community builder. How did you get into that?

I actually feel like I'm just very passionate about people treating people with respect, straight up, in the most simple way. If I see something or if I feel like somebody's not being respectful to another human life—I feel very passionate about stepping in.

As I've grown older, I do like to call myself a youth and community advocate because I feel like there's nothing, nothing, nothing that I can do that won't center those things. I think a lot of it is so tied into me learning how to advocate for myself. It's like, “Damn, all I want to do is just work with young people and be like, ‘Actually, you have these skills, you have these tools, these gifts. You can liberate and help so many people by sharing them.’”

I listen to gospel music still because I love that shit, it’s just so good—and not even the content, like what people are actually singing about, but how that passion transfers from being to being. You could just hear the love and the power in people's voices.

I can see a tangible return on this work that I'm doing, just in terms of making somebody smile—something as small as that. It feels really cool when you can connect with people and bring light to them. But then obviously with the opportunities that I've gotten through Young Chicago Authors just to lead workshops or public speaking occasions—I feel like those things have given me a lot more. It's like, “Okay, I actually do have this skill. I actually didn't have to have 15 years of experience to call myself a youth and community advocate.” That’s what I center in every job, every piece of work that I feel like I affiliate myself with. It's about that.

Notre Interviews Shawnee Dez

How and where do your music and community work intersect?

A song like “Let It Be” is a song that's encouraging not just for myself. I would say just like I write for myself, to encourage myself, to uplift myself, to also just see myself—I know that I don't have that unique of an experience. As a human, I know that there's somebody else who may have or maybe is experiencing the same thing that I'm experiencing, maybe in a different way. But I think the community aspect intersects when I know that I'm not just like taking a space solely for myself.

I know that my music is going to be put out, somebody's going to receive it. It's going to make somebody feel a certain way. So why not center that—why not center being like, “I know that this shit is not just for me.” It actually really don't be for me most of the time. It's for somebody else. So, in thinking about that other person, that's me centering community to some extent.

Notre Interviews Shawnee Dez

That song was written for me, but it was almost written for a younger version of myself, which could also be community, right? Like there are people who might be going through what I was going through in 2015, which is really why I was like, “Girl, put this fucking song out and stop playing.”

What gave you the idea to start the Black Joy Ride this past summer?

I’ve been working with West Town Bikes. I worked with them last summer, working at Richard Yates Elementary School. I think I've always been really passionate about biking and I always wanted to be this super cool rager cyclist who delivers people shit, but I still have yet to do that.

This summer came—all this shit hit us. March was crazy. And then after that it was just like a downhill spiral in terms of racial unrest. I feel like all these things have always existed, but I think when we all had time to just sit at home and sink so much more into ourselves, that shit came out. I looked at Eddie Burns. I was like, “Damn, I want to do something. I don't know, like, maybe we should just have a bike ride. But that might not be safe because everybody might not wear masks, all these different things.” He was like, “Fuck it. Let's do this shit.”

Six people planned it, and in four days. We got food and shirts donated. And we’re like, “We're about to just do this—whoever show up, show up.” But this is really an act of resistance. This is an act of liberating us, giving us the freedom to move.

I think mobility has always been a huge theme in my life. Coming up as a young black girl from the Southside of Chicago—most people I grew up with don't operate or maneuver in spaces like downtown or up north or out west, even. So, I was like, “Okay, we're doing this ride for mobility—for the free movement of Black and Brown people to just stretch out and be who the fuck they are, wherever the fuck they are, and to feel completely comfortable in that.” So that was really why I did it. I also thought most people have never been on a big group ride, and some people have never ridden the streets before.

It was like 300-plus people there, and if you're doing that with such a large group of people, you feel prioritized on the road. Cars, which are prioritized typically, they're going to get the fuck out your way because it's all of us. You can't hit all of us. You can't kill all of us. You can’t lock all of us up. So, y'all got to figure out some more shit because we taking up space. That's what the Juneteenth Black Joyride was about and that's what it is gonna continue to be about as we do it every year. I pray that it gets bigger and bigger.

Notre Interviews Shawnee Dez

How did you feel during the ride?

I was shaking. We got there first and then I want to say, like, 15 people got there, and then 20 more people got there, and then 40 more people got there. And then I look and the line is going down Michigan—and also 12 is across the street.

There were a lot of protests going on during that time and I was so nervous because I was hoping they wouldn’t try to stop us. We don't have a permit, but, also, fuck a permit. Basically, we just going on a big ass bike ride, and I was extremely nervous at first, but then I was like, “Oh my God, the support and camaraderie and community that is happening right now—we’re never going to forget this moment.” To this day, I still can't believe it happened. It was top-tier feelings—supreme.

Notre Interviews Shawnee Dez