Culture

Artist And Activist Aryeh-Or Speaks About The Protest Movement And The Fight For Systemic Change

Over the phone, actor/musician/filmmaker Aryeh-Or exudes calm. His tone is mellow and his cadence is measured. He’s mastered the sort of serene charisma that seems rare at the present, when just about everyone is feeling frantic. But Aryeh-Or’s deliberate manner belies a burning sense of urgency as he navigates his lane as an artist in our collective sociopolitical moment. Make no mistake, this is a man who is enraged about the state of things — his fury simmering just below the surface, ready to bubble up whether he’s out marching in the streets or breaking down how the system has failed Black Americans in the video for his recent song “Stand + Deliver.”

The self-directed video, released on Juneteenth, reflects something of Aryeh-Or’s mindset after weeks of joining with protesters in Los Angeles and Palmdale, California. It’s righteous anger tempered by hope. A balance of undistilled emotion and thoroughly considered action.

This dual attention to the head and the heart is, at least in part, responsible for Aryeh-Or’s wide-ranging success. Whether acting across from Leonardo DiCaprio in 2011’s J.Edgar, embodying the role of ridiculously good looking merman in Siren on FreeForm, or releasing music via his personal social media platforms, the multi-hyphenate brings a certain depth to everything he does. This was evident when we spoke over the phone last week about his commitment to the protest movement, his deep desire to help create systemic change, and his focus on never overstating his role (and therefore taking space from day-in-and-day-out organizers).

Check our conversation below.

Aryeh-Or

First of all, let’s talk about the genesis for this track — where did that come out of? Because it seems “of the moment” but obviously police violence and systemic oppression are as old as the nation itself.

I first wrote this song in 2016 in the days following the election. I was experiencing a really difficult storm of emotions ranging from disillusionment and sadness to actual fear and raw anger. I spent days trying to process it all with clenched fist tears in my eyes. So, I expressed myself the only way that I possibly could — I made art about it. That’s was my way of being productive rather than totally shutting down. I wrote this song, jumped into the studio within the week, started recording it.

Ty Taylor from Vintage Trouble happened to just drop by the studio that week. We just got to talking as two black men, unpacking our emotions and he heard what I had written and just said, “Let me in the booth,” and jumped on the hook. We got almost everything done in that first session. And then I actually ran off to protest at Standing Rock. I have always been as much an activist as I am an artist — constantly seeking means to make a tangible, immediate change. I saw the atrocities happening at Standing Rock and raised several thousand dollars to buy and donate supplies and shot up there to stand on the front lines with the Water Protectors. This was a particularly important fight for me as I am also of Indigenous blood.

Now, as everything has flared up in our country, I decided to just radically retool the entire thing — knowing that it’s only become more relevant with time. We remixed the audio to make it hit harder and I radically changed the edit on the video. Basically we took the gloves off in all aspects of the project and swung for the K.O.

Your history, and I don’t know a ton about it, but you’ve mentioned a couple of references in previous conversations to being Indigenous, Black, and Jewish. That’s distinctly American. Do you feel like, to whatever degree, the embodiment of kind of our idealized American identity and that melting pot notion?

I do. I absolutely do. I don’t think that I could have come into existence anywhere else. In addition to my bloodline as an African American-Indigenous American-Jewish man, my parents are LGBTQ. My biological mother is a white, Jewish, bisexual woman; my biological father is a black trans woman and made her gender transition in my early life. So I actually don’t have any memories of my biological father living in the masculine. So on top of all the racial and religious identities, there’s that other layer. I definitely feel like a melting pot on the personal level, because I either am or am directly influenced by almost every minority demographic you can imagine.

I don’t think that there’s another country in the world, another culture in the world, where I could have come into existence with this amazing multifaceted lineage and history. And with that, I do feel deeply a part of the American experience, and I can’t extricate myself from it as an outsider. In fact, I want to fight for the idea of our country more than ever, because this is my home. This is the land that’s allowed me to learn and grow and become the powerful creator that I am. And all of the culture here, all of the experiences, the good, the bad, and the ugly have made me the man I am, and I wouldn’t trade that for anything.

In your song and on Instagram, I see this deep underpinning of hope that you have for America. I find myself very optimistic about the pathway forward to a better America that you sing about — with much reconciliation, healing, and both literal and metaphorical reparations needed along the way. And I think that’s what the song does really effectively.

I definitely tried to infuse not only “Stand + Deliver,” but everything I do with that underpinning of hope. But we’ve also got to have safe spaces to put the anger and the pain on the table because if it’s not addressed, it’s suppressed. It’s all of our responsibility to let the feelings come to the surface so they can eventually be transmuted. I think about the truth and reconciliation chapter in post-apartheid South Africa. Mandela and his government created specific containers for people to come to the table and just get everything off their chests and air it out. That’s one of the logical next steps for how we have to move forward. And this piece for me is both getting it off my chest and articulating the deep pain, anger, and sadness, while also affirming that I do believe that we — as a collective people of all shades colors, shapes, and sizes — can come together to live the American dream that our country was founded upon.

I love that. I also think it’s particularly powerful that you shot a music video of people protesting the streets, because that’s very real for you — you’re very much in the streets. Can you, can you speak to that a little bit?

I’ve been in the streets since high school. I think the first protest I attended was when we decided to invade Iraq. I was laying down in the middle of Wilshire Boulevard, shutting down traffic in front of a Federal building in Westwood. One protest after the next up to Standing Rock and subsequent and subsequent and… here we are now. It’s been interesting in this time, having been on the front lines of the protest all my life, being specific with when and where I’m putting my energy in the street, and when I’m using my voice and my mind and my heart, because we’ve all got a different role to play. I haven’t been out there every day, but I will say the most powerful day, I actually went to Palmdale this past week or this past weekend actually. I was at the protest for Robert Fuller, the 24-year-old, young black man who was found hung in the city square. [Palmer’s case is currently being investigated.]

When I showed up, there were maybe a few hundred people. They didn’t have any kind of PA or amplification. And I brought a very powerful bullhorn with me. At first, I just walked straight to the center and handed the mic, so to speak, to a young man who was speaking. And then started amplifying other voices, stood up myself, and just used every gift that God has given me to speak and lead — calling cadences through the streets.

I think the most powerful moment or the two most powerful moments of that protest were — one, marching everyone up to the police in riot gear and then turning my back to hold peace. And two, after 20 minutes plus of everyone just yelling at the police and being angry, I waded to the back of the protest, stood up on a big rock, and asked everyone to turn their backs on the officers remind themselves why we were there. Because even though we’re nationally protesting police brutality, we showed up that day for Robert Fuller and our attention didn’t need to be on these officers. Our attention was on the young man who had just lost his life. I personally was done giving them my attention and we didn’t owe them any of our energy. I turned and walked away, I said, “I’m going to go back to the tree where Robert was hung and pay my respects.” We shifted the energy and everyone gathered around the tree and we knelt and prayed. I can’t tell you how emotionally powerful it is to have knelt and prayed and placed my hands on the tree where this young man lost his life.

Thank you for sharing those complex emotions. I think the song does that too. Navigating the wide range of feelings — agony and frustration and fury and sadness. How does your own philosophy, just your personal philosophy and the people who are in your orbit inform your approach to all of this?

I run in a lot of different circles and I’ve always been able to flow seamlessly from one to another. On one hand, I’ve got plenty of the new American Bohemian pseudo hippie in me and you will find me dancing out in the dust at Burning Man, but I’ve also still got friends on the block from way back. You will find me having completely different conversations with some real n*****, so to speak, but my message remains the same no matter who I’m talking to. One of the biggest growth lessons has been learning to hold my space and not have to play chameleon to fit my surroundings. That’s taken me a lifetime. But that larger ideology of hope and fundamental faith in humanity, I think comes deeply from my spiritual practice.

Even though I was raised Jewish, I’m no longer religious, but rather I’m deeply spiritual. I’ll just say it outright- Working extensively with ayahuasca and other shamanic medicines and indigenous rituals have deeply informed my spiritual path and helped me to see the fundamental truth that we are actually all part of the same God-consciousness. All of the separations that we perceive are illusions of this 3D reality, and they are inserted into our consciousness and affirmed by the world around us to keep us divided because in division we can be controlled. Basically, I have a deep knowledge that we really are all the same and that’s what I’m here to help us remember.

When people hear your song, when people see your philosophy, when people see you in the streets, when people understand a little sliver of Black pain through you — what do you hope they walk away with? What is your invocation to America right now? What is the wisdom that you’re holding after creating this music and after living your life as a revolutionary? What do you want to share with people?

No one is safe until everyone is safe. We have a fundamental responsibility to stand on a higher moral code and see ourselves in everybody and everybody in ourselves. And as much as we have to stand absolutely firm in Black Lives Matter right now, my hope and my dream and all my efforts are to get us to the point where one day we can truly say that all lives matter and actually mean it.

Aryeh-Or
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