Power to the People: How prison abolitionist Ric Wilson shares his work through music

By Thaddeus Tukes

Good luck trying to catch artivist Ric Wilson.

Traversing the city of Chicago with wide eyes and a feather earring, his flutters have already been making waves throughout the Chicago area.

A native of Alsip, a suburb southwest of the city, his soul has “bounced” from the North Coast Music Festival in early September to private shows at the SoHo House. At every performance, he proclaims:

“We love us.”

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He expands on it in his music. Soul Bounce, his new EP, calls on fans who may be “a brother of the sister who killed by police, cousin of the cousin in the jail gates” that it’s about time to love ourselves.

Wilson got his first performance opportunities at the Lyricists Loft, a weekly open mic event at the Harold Washington Library in Chicago, that was curated by hip-hop poet and entrepreneur Brother Mike who suddenly died at the age of 38.

“I was like the YouMedia kid, those nerdy people who like to write,” says Wilson. He recalls going to the city’s west side for this first time to meet with rapper Saba, but never left the train stations because “the west side just blew my mind.”

“We love us” evokes the city streets where “I see my bros getting locked in Chicago, 16 shots in Chicago, can’t walk 16 blocks in Chicago.”

Wilson came out of the Chicago Freedom School, an educational institution dedicated to the leadership development of forward-thinking students ages 14-23. There, he was exposed to the teaching and philosophies of some of history’s most influential revolutionaries.

“[There were] kids that were reading stuff that they weren’t supposed to read when they were 15, or into things like Marcus Garvey or Malcolm X when they were 15,” he says. During the summer, Wilson took identity workshops and developed community organizing skills. The school later hired Wilson as a youth coordinator.

“So I was teaching oppression, campaigns, and all this stuff when I was like 17, 18.”

He now calls himself a “prison abolitionist,” and has organized against the systematic oppression and capitalism that fosters a prison culture for Black people.

After a two-year stint in Atlanta, Wilson returned to Chicago and became involved in We Charge Genocide, a grassroots, inter-generational effort to center the voices and experiences of the young people most targeted by police violence in Chicago. There, he served as one of eight delegates who presented at the 53rd session of the United Nations Committee Against Torture in Geneva. He was introduced to We Charge Genocide by friend and fellow artivist Ethos, who informed Wilson of the story of Dominique Franklin Jr., a Black man who died two weeks after a Chicago police officer used a Taser on him during an attempted arrest on the city’s south side.

Wilson brings experiences like these to his creative music process.

“As the world turn, we know it’s our turn to live the life we choose to live,” he raps. “Fuckin’ round probably had to shoot back now, Nothin’ else will make a cop stop killing us. We gotta love us over all else. And stop expectin’ white kids to do it for us.”

As he reflects on this experiences, his music and his commitment to being a prison abolitionist, Wilson says, “Nonetheless, if we were in times where we weren’t so highly securitized, and [people] could just walk into jail with bangers and free people, I would be one of those people.”

Chicago is both his inspiration and his disturbance.

“This renaissance that’s going on in Chicago is due to the [interactions from] people who do dope arts and poetry, and people who organize. I think that’s really raw. And because of that emergence, it opened up the lane for me,” says Wilson.

He says he works daily to perfect his work as an artist and activist.

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“I think some people feel like what they’re doing doesn’t really have an impact, because they’re putting so much work into it, and nothing’s being done.” However, he reflects on the words of his mentor Mariame Kaba, founder of the Chicago Freedom School, who reminds him that change comes in waves.

“It took 15 years for them to get the reparations ordinance passed for [former Chicago police officer] John Burge,” says Wilson about Burge, who was convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice stemming from the torturing of over one hundred African-American men during his time as police commander .

“It’s frustrating though, because some of it is very illogical,” Wilson reflects. “There’s no reason (former Chicago Police Detective) Dante Servin should be seen as a hero by anyone. But like I said before, since time, there have been people on the bad side of history and people on the good side of history.”

Wilson hopes his music will be a source of hope during time of need.

“Since we’re in such heavy times – it feels like we’re taking so many L’s, – I want to be that thing that’s a celebration of Black life. In my music, in my art, in my personality, when I see people, I want people to feel just nothing but positive energy.”

“Everybody right side, left side, we love us,” he raps.

Photo at top: Ric Wilson (Courtesy of Ric Wilson)

Thaddeus Tukes is a journalist and musician from Chicago. His debut project, Thaddeus Tukes’ Vibes, is available on Apple MusicTidal, and Thaddeus Tukes’ Vibes: The EP is available on SoundCloud.