It’s not every day that you look at the person sitting across from you and say to yourself, “This woman might very well change the world.” But we couldn’t help but think that we were seeing history in the making as we sat down to pick the brain of one of New York City’s most impressive rising forces, Synead Nichols — a versatile singer, dancer, and actor; graduate of the world-renowned “Fame” School, LaGuardia High School of Music, Art, and Performing Arts. Despite her many talents, Synead is perhaps more widely known as the co-leader of the Millions March NYC, a strong voice in the #BlackLivesMatter Movement, organizing protests and actions against the brutal and sometimes lethal over-policing of people of color by law enforcement officers. Founded in direct response to the failure to indict the police officers responsible for the wrongful killings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, IL and Eric Garner in NYC last year, the Millions March and Nichols made waves last December as they led tens of thousands of New Yorkers into the street in an astounding display of public grief and protest against the systemic violence that terrorizes black communities, and undermines the legitimacy and efficacy of the nation’s law enforcement institutions.
We met Synead (or Cid, as friends call her) at her Harlem apartment on a sunny afternoon to discuss social responsibility, Black identity, art; growing up in NYC, the state of the union, and much more. Find out about this leading voice of our generation in our exclusive WildTalk.
For those who are not yet familiar with your work, tell us a little bit about yourself, what you do.
I do a lot of stuff. I create: I sing, I dance, I write, I act... I guess now I do activist organizing, too. Um, gosh I read? Speak to people? What do I do? I do a lot (laughs).
You’re from Washington Heights. What was it like growing up in New York City and how would you say that has affected your personal politics?
I always talk to my friends about this and I didn’t really experience racial disparities or discrimination growing up. I saw it around me, I saw it on the news—you know hearing about the Amadou Diallo case—I heard about it and I learned about it in class, but I never really saw it. My family’s from Trinidad: being from Trinidad, it’s not really about your racial differences, it’s about your socio-economic differences. Whether you’ve got money or you don’t. Whether you live in the country or you live in the city. You’re a bumpkin or you’re not. One of those kinda things… So, I didn’t really grow up like that, because I grew up seeing my white cousins, seeing my black cousins, seeing my Indian cousins—I just had all types of people in my family, in one space, at one time.
When did you begin to recognize being treated differently?
In high school I started hearing things. Going to LaGuardia for dance was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made in my entire life but I had some hard times in LaGuardia, just because of politics. I had the worst history teacher senior year. I said [to the Dean of Students], “Listen, I need you to please get me out of this class, please, remove me. I’ll do whatever work I need to do with whatever teacher, just please, please, please remove me.” And they didn’t. And that was when I really started lose my will to be involved in education. I stopped wanting to learn then, because it felt like, “You guys don’t even care. I’m actually trying to fight for my right to knowledge and you’re not even willing to help me. You’re going to leave me in this class to deal with some racist-ass lady.”
Also, I didn’t get to do my senior graduation dance concert. [That year] I started to do acting; and I had gotten a gig for this short film, and I did it. Although we had signed a contract, that we weren’t going to have any conflicting obligations, the film had already happened prior, and I [had spoken] to [the Chairperson of the Dance department, Michelle Mathesius] about it, and she said it was cool. I did [the film] and I learned all my choreography—and I had some lead roles, some lead parts—but when I came back I found out [Mathesius] took me out.
It was unfair because there were other people going on auditions, doing musicals—and they were still in the graduation concert—but I couldn't. My mom came, she tried to argue for me, and then [Mathesius] said I could be in one piece...but I was like, Are you fucking kidding me? I was so mad... I should’ve turned it up, but I wasn’t that individual yet, I wasn’t comfortable doing that. I just sat there in the audience and I fucking cried. After all those years of auditioning, and trying to get into LaGuardia, and working hard and doing all this shit—and I didn’t get to do what I was there for.... I left, and I hated school after that. I hate school. Anyway. That was senior year.
It seems like you were rather disenfranchised by the disconnect between the discrimination you experienced at school compared with your progressive upbringing. What was the turning point where you really began to advocate for yourself?
During my junior year of college, I was coming to terms with a lot of stuff, like me being black, being comfortable with not being hush-hush about it—not even being hush-hush, just being courteous about my blackness. I was always courteous with it. I felt like, Oh, I’m not gonna unleash all of it on you, because I don’t think you’d be able to handle it. I learned that eventually I really just had to be okay with [my blackness]—and I am okay with it. It’s great.
But the discomfort came really when I was dating this [white] guy. We were having our battles, because we started to conflict in things we wanted for long-term. I wanted tattoos, he didn’t want to be with someone who had tattoos. I wanted my nose pierced, he didn’t want to be with someone who had their nose pierced...and we would just argue about stuff like that. Then one day I said, “What are you compromising? Because I feel like I’m compromising a lot in order to be with you; and if I’m going to compromise all this stuff, I just want to know something you’re compromising—so I know I’m not alone in this.” And he said, “I’m compromising with the fact that you’re black”.
I got mad immediately, but then I thought maybe I wasn’t right for being mad—and I almost felt like that was my courteousness, giving this guy the benefit of the doubt for what he’s saying. And that’s when I started to really realize, No, I shouldn’t do that...I’ve been with this guy almost five years...I was gonna have this guy’s babies...and deep down he’s racist.
But you learn from that. I definitely learned that I was pretty much fetishized. It fucking sucked, but I started to pull myself away. (And when I started dating this guy, people would look at me differently, too.) That definitely spurred me on to [further] appreciation for myself, too—because, going to a school where it’s predominantly white and you’re one of the very few black kids there, having to deal with just sheer ignorance is really annoying. And when you’re evolving as a person, as well, you just have less and less tolerance for the stupidity and the ignorance.
I’m a very emotional person—I have so much empathy towards everything and everybody—so, I watch the news, and I’m crying, because I'm seeing these images of people literally dying every day. One guy is getting lynched. Another lady’s getting taken to a mental hospital because she’s saying that [Obama follows her on Twitter]...I can’t live in a world that’s like that. So, I feel inclined to do something about it... because why not? If other people are making efforts to make the world a better place, why can’t I do this? Why can’t I make the people around me do it if they’re motivated enough?
When did you decide to step up and take action against police brutality toward Black people in America?
Mike Brown had been killed. And that was really crazy, the whole ordeal. A young man just dead in the street: he’s gone, body left there for hours; and obviously the way it happened was very shady. There were a lot of emotions behind that, because that made me feel like, Shit, that could be my little brother. That could be me. And that’s very scary. So, I started protesting out in the city, doing demonstrations, because I felt moved to be a part of and say something with all these other people who feel strongly enough to say something.
It was the night of the verdict, waiting to hear if Darren Wilson was going to be indicted or not. I left work, went home and I turned on CNN immediately. I sat there in front of my computer, and I started talking to people about this. People said they were going to meet up at Union square, to kind of all be together. I got there really fast, and went out to the square and just started looking for people just to see what’s going on. We’re all just waiting. Nine o'clock came and the verdict wasn’t ready. Then it just kept getting later and later and later; and finally someone said, “He’s not indicted!” I said, ‘Where—who? Facts! I need sources...’ no one knew. Finally, it starts getting confirmed that he wasn’t indicted: I literally just felt so defeated, like, What the fuck? Why is the justice system not serving me right now?
People started getting riled up. We started marching from Union Square to Times Square, and people just kept coming together and just kept going and going. It stopped traffic and everything: cops were trying to stop us but we just kept going, all the way to Harlem, to the Triboro Bridge. We ended up getting stopped there. Then we all kind of dispersed in our own directions.
I kept thinking to myself,
Damn this fucking sucks. This kid is dead. The man who killed him wasn’t even indicted. They just keep killing everybody…. What can I do? There has to be something else. We cannot stop here. We cannot stop here at all, because if you stop here, the momentum’s going to go down, and then no one’s going to want to do anything. What can we do?
I start creating this event—I called it “Million Man March,” and I asked a friend if she could do a graphic for it.
Coordinating an event of the magnitude of the Millions March—especially as rapidly as you did—requires very skillful and complex organizing. How did you mobilize so swiftly? Did you have any previous experience organizing?
I started reaching out, saying, “Anyone who knows organizing and activist work, grassroots movements, please contact me, because we need to make this happen in light of all these murders going on in the country right now. We need to do something.” And people just started reaching out to me like, ‘Hey I’m familiar with activist organizing,’ doing it here, or wherever they’re from. People started sharing the event. I shared it on everything I had—Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, everything; and I reached out to my friend Umaara [Iynaas Elliott]. I said, “Umaara, I see you out protesting and stuff... I don’t know if you’d be down to help me with this, but please contact me, I would love for you to help me out.” My text to her went to green, so I thought either her phone’s dead or she curved me completely. I made her a host on the event page anyway and she was like, ‘Yeah I'm down,’ and I said, “Perfect, because you probably have a shitload of messages in your inbox right now.”
The next person to hit me up, his name was Che. He was from Amsterdam. He helped us organize a lot at the very, very beginning. Che had organized protests and demonstrations in Amsterdam for about 10,000-20,000 people. He had just landed in New York from Amsterdam that week. I hadn't even moved into this apartment yet, just settled my paperwork— and I had this guy meet me here, with Umaara, before everyone had even moved their shit out.
We started working out kinks, trying to figure out what we had to do— who do we need to speak to? Who do we have to reach out to? Who do we have to write to?—and we just got busy, because we had about two and a half weeks. When I tell you that was the craziest two and a half weeks I’ve ever experienced in my life…. Not having money, not having a phone, going through personal issues, then not being familiar with organizing anything whatsoever... I was just awake at all times, I was always attached to my computer.
It was really crazy, but we made it happen because [we] had the dream team! The best people who could ever [come] together possible—it was like magic: from people who handled press, to media, to marshal training, to paramedics, everything. Lawyers, people were literally offering their help free of charge. People were giving us money to get posters and print stuff—and I didn’t even know where it was coming from, people were just handling money. We had finance people distributing this money, and they were like “Bring the receipts back, and I’ll reimburse you”. The turnover was happening in like an hour. And I was like,
And that was the first time—that was when I stood up and said something, essentially.
What do you think, if at all, the biggest impact has been from the Millions March?
The biggest impact has been that people see that two (pretty much), ordinary girls were able to do something that big. People didn’t even know Umaara and I started that. I wasn’t planning on even saying anything about it, everything was happening so fast. But my friend put it out, said, “Just so you guys know, it’s two women—two young black women—who are doing this.” And when she put it up, and I saw it getting spread around, I thought,
Shit, that is really important and it didn’t even cross my mind. I feel so silly for not thinking about it.
There are so many movements happening where women are pretty much creating and cultivating it, and you don't even know. Some people probably still don't even know what the hell we did... but people know that two young women did. Two young women of color. I feel like it sort of motivates you to think that you don’t have to be this humongous person, with all the riches and glory, to make something happen, or do anything. And that was real, prime evidence that if you really want to do something, you can fucking do it.
In many places around the country, police relations with Black communities and communities of color appear to have not improved at all—and in some cases have worsened, even though these incidents are receiving increased media attention. Where do you think we need to go from here?
It’s really hard, because we can’t do anything... nothing’s going to change unless people change their mindsets.
Racists aren’t going to think that people who are “inferior” to them are anything less than inferior, because that’s what they literally believe. That’s their truth and they live that truth to the ultimate extent. It’s important that we instill thoughts that, “I'm NOT [inferior]” to our generation and young minds; and I feel like a good majority of people see that that is crazy. They see that that thought process is really insane and wrong.
Being more proactive is also important. Some people are like ‘All you do is Tweet about articles...what are you really doing? Are you out in the streets?’ I’m starting to be a little flexible where I stand on things, because some people are really good at tweeting articles and getting information out there; and if that’s the way they can get someone in Utah to understand that my Black life matters over here in NY, then let them tweet. You know, you do the work that you can do. If you make music, then make music that will propel thought. If you are an actor, create a piece and put it on display for people to think, to get their gears moving, to feel like this is a part of their life. Being genuine and caring towards people—that’s also very important. It’s very sad, because if people were actually more genuine and caring of and for each other, that would really, really change things.
It would bring a very different energy and bring very different situations about, instead of the ones we have now.
Those are very important steps to moving forward: mindset change, generosity and care for each other, and actively doing what you can do best. One hundred percent. Do it. Go for it.
July 17th marked one year since Eric Garner was killed by NYC police officer Daniel Pantaleo. Michael Brown was killed one year ago on August 9th. Where would you say we are, as a nation, on the road to equality in the eyes of the law for POC? What milestones have we yet to achieve, and what can we do to help realize them? What are you feelings regarding the multi-million dollar settlement offered to Garner's widow by the City of New York?
It's really hard to tell when most days look really bleak. We're literally watching bodies drop on the internet everyday. The United States of America is not willing to accept or acknowledge their responsibility in enforcing oppressive laws and policies especially when these laws and policies are causing the demise of a community. A community that has been systemically oppressed for the last several hundred years. The criminal justice system is influenced by racism in America—the real issue. It has become more overt and is causing detrimental and fatal outcomes. I do, however, think we're on a solid road. I see people and organizations like Million Hoodies, Black Lives Matter, Justice League, working diligently everyday thinking of new ways to help our communities not just in America, but around the globe. This road to equality is not going to be an easy one though. The only thing I can say for the settlement: in my opinion, no money is enough for the trauma and devastation that [Garner's] family has had to suffer through at the hands of the New York Police Department and the city of New York.
In light of the gross abuse of authority resulting in the "mysterious" death of Sandra Bland in police custody—concluded a suicide by the coroner—how would you describe relationships between police and the communities of color they "serve"?
What relationship? We don't have one and that is this country's problem. There was never a willingness to cultivate a dynamic relationship between the police and the communities of color that are being terrorized. I'm tired of people and society justifying police misconduct. There is nothing "mysterious" about Sandra Bland... or Tamir Rice, Mike Brown, Jordan Davis, India Clarke, or the countless amount of others who have died due to extreme police brutality. There are too many policies that make it easy for police officers to function the way they do. Let us not forget that the NYPD came out of gangs and nepotism, but that's a whole history lesson many of us do not get.
How has life changed for you since Millions March was first set in motion?
My mind is different. I told my parents [recently], “I’m not afraid to die.” and they freaked out. I used to be really afraid of death... I started experiencing death from a really young age. The first death I really experienced was my cousin, Tiara. She was like four or five years old, she died from meningitis. My cousin Samantha passed away when I was 17, junior year of high school—she had been fighting cancer for a long time, though; and my grandfather also passed away in 2007….
I had been afraid of experiencing death. I was really afraid of it. I didn't want to be around it. And with all this other death happening—with these young boys, these young women—it just made me feel like, shit, what do I really have to be afraid of? Besides dying...? That’s the least thing that can happen to me at this point.
Why limit myself and be afraid of that entity that is death? Why don't I just live and make shit happen in the meanwhile until it comes? I can’t avoid it. It’ll come how it’ll come—I just always hope that it’s not a painful, slow one.
You couldn’t have anticipated the kind of response you received, that night you decided to create a Facebook event, before it was the movement that it turned out to be. What was your intention behind choosing the name, Million Man March?
I picked Million Man March because I was thinking in terms of Martin Luther King. I thought, He did the Million Man March in D.C., and that was very moving, and people always remember that, (because the “I Have A Dream” speech came out of there). So, I said, “Let’s do the Million Man March.” Then, my friend Kat Lazo—good old Kat— said, “You should probably take out the “Man” because it’s not very inclusive. I said, “You are a hundred percent right”—I wasn't at the point where I was going to be stubborn about this. This is not about me. I changed it to Millions March right away: in a ten-minute span I put the event out, then I had to take it back down, and put it back up five minutes later. It’s a lot of work, I clicked everyone, invited everybody, and told ‘em to spread it. And they spread that shit. Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you!
It often appears that the national conversation regarding the treatment of black people and POC in the US by the authorities—and the presentation of the current Civil Rights Movement—concentrates chiefly on men and Black men that are killed; and women are frequently excluded from the discussion (although recently there has been more push-back). How do you feel about that? How do you feel about the focus of black oppression being primarily on men?
I feel like that’s with anything. It sucks because on top of racial, systemic oppression, you have to deal with the patriarchy. I live in a patriarchal society, where everything is run by men, a male-dominated society. If three people die in a car crash, the men will be named first, not the woman. If it makes the news, the men will be named first; and it’s unfortunate, because why is there superiority with anything? Why? Who taught you that you're better than someone else? Because of where you live? Because of how much money you have? Everybody deserves respect; and I feel like women are just not respected. And black women at that….We’re just the ultimate fetish, we’re the ultimate threat to everybody: to white women, to black men, to interracial couples...to everybody. We’re just a threat; and that comes from a history of long, long, long-term psychological and sexual abuse. There are so many factors that play out into all of this.
I think there needs to be equality for everybody— and again, people need to change their mentality and say, “I am YOU” or, “I am your brother,” or, “I am your sister”...”I am WITH you”; instead of saying, “I am above you.” I’m tired of people talking like that.
You have clearly taken direct action to combat the systemic violence against Black Americans and POC. What are your continuing actions? What’s going on right now?
Whether it’s doing teach-ins or hosting forums with speakers, Millions March, as a collective, we are continuously working on campaigns, trying to figure out how to further the movement, how to further get people to know [and] making sure the momentum is still happening. Personally, I’m trying to make this happen through more artistic endeavors. I want to be able to access all of this knowledge that I have, and give it to my peers, my elders, and—especially—those younger than me. I want them to be able to understand what’s happening in the world around them, and know that this is for them, and they have to stand up, too. This is about them, too…. And they know, it’s not like they don’t know. They’re not stupid. Our generation, we’re not stupid, you know, we’re a lot more conscious than I feel like people give us credit for.
What’s one thing that you would want to say specifically to young women and men who are discovering themselves and discovering their place in the world? What kind of advice would you give to them?
Really believe in yourself. And really know that your happiness counts, and that you fucking matter. That you—as an individual— and your care, and your self matters... You need to take care of yourself, too. And this is not the end-all, be-all...this country, this space...you don’t have to stay here. But also you don’t have to deal with any of this. You have a right to certain things as a human being—be adamant about it. Educate. Learn. Be able to learn, to listen.
Stop listening to the media, the news, and all these outlets that are constantly telling you to change who you are. Don’t let these systems tell you that you are less than anyone else, because you are literally top of the cream. And if you really believe in that, there is nothing else that will stand in your way, and there is nothing that will ever belittle you and make you feel like you are not shit—nah, that you aint shit.
If we really want this freedom—if we really want to live in this happy world, where we really all can be together—this system that we all live under has to burn. It’s got to be overhauled, and we literally have to create something else. Because we keep trying to cultivate a new era, of life and living...there’s no way we can create it with these [societal] structures still in place, because we’re still pulling our mentality from them. How can we start anew if we’re still pulling from the old?
What are you working on artistically right now? What do you want people to take away from it?
I'm working on finishing my latest music projects. Taking time to really explore my artistry, as well as myself—within and without my art. I'm touching on a lot of varying themes/topics on these projects: what it means to be young, what it means to be black, what it means to be a woman; what it means to be all three of those things in America and in the world. There's issues of the heart, my loins, men, friends, coasting on the fringes of society; my own personal questions, police brutality, spirituality, ignorance, just the ups and downs of my experiences and how they have challenged me to do better (or maybe worse). What do I want people to take away? That's up to them what they want to take away. I'm not just talking for myself, but I am also talking to a lot of people. There are a lot of people that need to start waking up and listening to what's happening around them. Hopefully, people just start paying attention. How do we make changes? We've got to be able to listen to what the problems are first...
Do you think it’s the artist’s responsibility to comment and critique what’s going on in their socio-political environment?
No, I don’t think it’s anyone’s responsibility to, but I think what’s really important, is to realize the platform that artists have, and the access to these minds of the people that artists, celebrities, etc. have. It's important for them to really acknowledge that, because you could be doing so much. It’s not your responsibility, but you can be doing really great things if you were to say—or even tweet—the right thing. I think there’s not enough of that. But I feel like it’s so hard to balance that, because it's your responsibility to take care of yourself. Your sole responsibility is to take care of yourself...but my sole responsibility, as a human being and how I was brought up, is to take care of myself and the world around me (laughs). So you know...I personally have to do that. Not everybody functions that way.
How do you balance being socially aware and active, performing and perfecting your craft, and finding time to unhook and recharge?
I mean, can you tell me how? I'm still trying to figure it out. I guess I've always been sort of a multi-tasker when it comes to handling multiple things. I think I'm just in a space in my life and within myself where I have to see the ideas and dreams I've wanted for myself to come to fruition. So being able to multitask is a huge part. Honestly speaking, people don't understand the everyday trauma I, as well as so many other youths of color, go through. It's even more difficult to deal with when people and the systems around us scramble to rationalize these injustices. That's why I aim to give myself a break or cope by structuring my days. The more I plan, the more I get into the habit of knowing what must be done and making sure I follow through. Even if it's just a moment, it keeps my mind occupied and focused on something other than the plights I face daily.
SELF CARE IS SUPER IMPERATIVE FOR ME. Gotta love yourself and take care of yourself before you can take care of others. I had to learn that over time, but I'm a lot better at it now. That's why I just try my best to enjoy life as much as possible. I love people watching because people are really interesting. Especially in New York City. I've seen the wonkiest people on the A train at 2AM. From the fiercest and most cunty drag queen to ever grace your presence on the 2nd Avenue stop in the LES to the B-Boys making their way through each car, flipping up and down hustling for the dollar on the uptown A line. I just experience life. I'm constantly writing thoughts, reading a lot of books, making music, choreographing with friends, curating living room dance sessions, think tanks, and breathing. Breathing is the most important thing for me these days. It brings me more of the clarity that I need in this chaotic environment--keeps me rooted;grounded in myself. If I can't breathe and stand strong with myself, how can I expect to stand strong for someone else.
Lastly, what does 'wild' mean to you?
Having the courage to be you. Going out there and doing you unapologetically. That, to a lot of people, is going against the grain and is to be looked down upon. Ya know? You're free to be. I'm free to be me. It's taken me a long time to get comfortable in my own skin, accept myself as I am, but I'm finally free to be wild.
You can catch Synead performing later this month in Brooklyn, or follow her on Twitter (@TheSynead) and Soundcloud for updates on her ongoing work.
Interview and photographs by Ricky Rose.
Ricky Rose is Editor & Marketing Fellow of Wildspice Magazine. Ricky is an actor, singer, musician, and photographer on the journey of self-realization. His multivalent approach to expressing his version of the human condition questions the collective consciousness of this generation. Ricky currently resides in his hometown of New York City, and eagerly anticipates reaching the bottom of the rabbit hole.