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‘Imagine that, disabled and black!’

The paralysed duo tackling gun violence and discrimination through Hip Hop

Namel and Rick, aka American rap-duo 4 Wheel City, were shot and paralysed as teenagers 20 years ago. Since then, their Hip Hop tracks about gun violence and disability discrimination have taken them all over the world, from the White House to the 2012 London Paralympics.

Now stuck at home due to coronavirus, the New Yorkers have turned their unique brand of protest to the Black Lives Matter movement, focusing on how it affects disabled people.

4 Wheel City spoke to Emma Tracey, on a slightly dodgy internet connection, about learning to rap again after a high level injury, pressure sores and how Stevie Wonder played a part in their success.

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29 minutes

Transcript: 'Imagine that, disabled and black!'

This is a transcript of the BBC Ouch Cabin Fever podcast 'Imagine that, disabled and black!' presented by Emma Tracey and released on 19 June 2020.[Music]EMMA - Hello and welcome to Cabin Fever from BBC Ouch. I'm Emma Tracey, and for this episode I have the absolute honour of speaking to Namel "Tapwaterz" Norris and Ricardo "Rickfire" Velasquez - otherwise known as New York based rap duo 4 Wheel City. Both men use wheelchairs due to gun violence and they have a lot to say about being black and disabled in the US right now. The sound on this pod is a little glitchy at times but we really wanted to bring you this conversation. So I hope you can stick with it. Take a listen.[Jingle: Ouch]NAMEL -  How you doing? How you doing? 4 Wheel City in the building. RICK - It's a pleasure to be here. EMMA - We spoke to you guys years ago when we actually set up, I don't know if you remember, but we set up a rap battle between you guys and a young disabled guy from the UK, and that was huge fun. RICK - Oh yes, I definitely remember that. What did he say to you? I quoted something that he said, he said. "My disability is my ability," something like that. EMMA - I'll just never forget that song, he was such a great guy. NAMEL - Yeah, it was very catchy. EMMA - Harpreet Gill was his name, if I remember rightly. RICK - Yeah.EMMA - So, both of you use wheelchairs due to gun violence, and you've dealt with issues around race and disability through your music for 20 years now, and coronavirus has not deflected away from that at all. The new album is 'Quarantine Music Volume 1' and from that a track called 'Crazy World' has been made into a music video which is, would I be right in saying is your response to the death of George Floyd in police custody and the protests which have followed? NAMEL - That's exactly what it was for us. Music has always been a form of protest. From the very first time we started doing songs as 4 Wheel City it's always been our way to protest. 'The Movement', our first song, was a protest against stores being not wheelchair accessible, and that's the song that really put us on the map.EMMA - Has your music effected any change in either disability rights or black rights? RICK - Most definitely, especially the 'Welcome to Reality' and 'The Movement' [Music: 'The Movement] RICK - Just in New York City alone. They're working on fixing a lot of places that weren't wheelchair accessible before, and now you go to those places you might see a ramp, you might see a kerb cut. NAMEL - Actually, if you look in the video I'm sitting outside a store and it has a step so somebody goes inside the store and gets something for me. And there's a corner, there's me and another guy in a wheelchair, we get over this ramp. Right now that store's wheelchair accessible and they have a kerb cut. It has a kerb cut.EMMA - Can we go back a little bit. I'm sure you've told these stories hundreds of times, but would you mind telling us how you guys started using wheelchairs to get around? Shall we start with Rick this time?RICK - I was at senior high school, I was walking home from school one day and I got hit by a stray bullet. I don't know who shot me, but that's how I ended up in a wheelchair.EMMA - When did it happen?RICK - '96, '97. At the time I had a girlfriend, she was pregnant with my son. He's a young man now, graduated college. And I went to rehab, it was a long journey, it took a while. But I survived.EMMA - And then a few years later, Namel, you got shot.NAMEL - Yeah. My situation was a little similar but a little different at the same time. I was shot accidentally, so mine wasn't intentional as well. It was my cousin playing around with a gun. We were growing up in the street so we were involved with guns and stuff and one day he was playing around with one and it went off and the bullet struck me in my neck and it left me paralysed. I was 17 years old. And then when I came home from the hospital my mom was seeing Rick outside and told him my story and he was nice enough to give her his number for me to call him and just reach out to like have a friend. And little did we know he was getting into producing, and I used to rhyme when I was younger, and when I met him we started talking about that and next thing you know we started making music together right off the bat so. EMMA - I read that you had to retrain yourself to rap, so maybe work on your breathing. Can you tell me a little bit more about that?NAMEL - Yes, because my injury, my lungs collapsed twice. I'm a T2 paraplegic, so my breath control automatically from that as well, because it affects your abdomen when your levels are high up and everything. So that, combined with my lungs collapsing, my breath control wasn't that good. I used to try to rap and I'd only get through like four bars and be out of breath, so I had to really learn how to retrain myself and hold my breath and be able to project my voice and everything. It took like it took me like a couple of years to really get back to like rapping full force of my aggressiveness and my cadence and everything.EMMA - Yeah, so how did you guys go from sort of recently paralysed young guys, grew up on the street, laying down tracks together, to 4 Wheel City where you're rapping about accessibility and going round schools and universities and everything? How do go from one to the other?NAMEL - When I came home I went back hanging out with my friends that I used to hang out with before my injury, and as much as I enjoyed it and it was cool to be back with my friends, I felt a little different. And then one of my friends I used to rap with a lot, he wasn't hanging out with me as much so I wasn't rapping with him as much and then Rick just gave me a place to feel comfortable and feel like I had somewhere where I could be understood, be heard, and just feel like I had somebody who knew what I was going through. So I felt comfortable going to Rick's as a friend, but then he had his own passion for doing beats, like he had his own passion for doing beats. So him giving me beats was able to allow me through all that process to be able to start developing my style again. And then I started dealing with these emotions of like my first songs that I wrote, that was like expressing my frustration or whatever I was feeling about being in a wheelchair was called 'No'. And that song, it was kind of rebellious at the time because everybody was asking me questions like, "Are you going to walk again?" and, "Does this work?" and everything. And so my rebuttal was like, "No." And I was like, "If you ask me if I think I'm going to walk I'm like no. If you ask me if I think…" Everything was like no, so I was like I'm tired of people asking me questions. So that was like the first song, and it felt good to be able to like express myself like what I was really going through. And then what I also felt was like a lot of artists who were around me at that time, they weren't doing that, they were just rapping about the same street stuff. Like I was doing that as well but I was like I think this was something that's different, and if I can just tap into this a little more and really start expressing my real story I will stand out more from the people that was around me. So that's what I started doing, I started to like try and express myself. I did another song called 'In My Shoes', dealing with the frustration of not being able to go to stores, that's what led to the song 'The Movement', talking about you know better healthcare and it was just like a rebellious thing. And we just thought if well, we just had the name 4 Wheel City and threw that in there, and then it became like a voice for 'The Movement' starting out.  EMMA - Wow! There have been two aspects of what you do over the years, there's 'Welcome to Reality' and rap therapy. I mean, I kind of want to start with rap therapy because I've never heard before or since two young black dudes rapping about how to manage a pressure sore. NAMEL - Yeah, Mount Sinai here in New York City, the spinal cord injury rehab department, we were pretty close with them because actually we were out patients to the programme. I was doing like a summer job there were I was like a coordinator for there Do It programme which is the outreach group where they do trips and lunches and like support groups. So during that time they'd seen like our talent, and I guess because it was something new, like you just said you never heard someone rap about pressure sores, they'd never heard someone rap about not being able to get in a store. So they was like wow, let's see if these guys can use their talent to make a song to educate people about the causes of pressures sores, because you know, that's a very important thing for people who are in wheelchairs sitting down all day, that we don't get pressure sores while we're sitting down on certain parts of our body like underneath our butt or whatever, our ankles or certain pressure points. And they actually gave us like a list of things to mention and everything. And it was like our first project that was like okay, this is who we can be and what we could bring to the table and we could actually be like, not superheroes, but this could be our thing, like our talent could be used to make a difference. And then I was into it because I had a pressure sore myself when I was in the hospital, so I told that story. That was the way I started writing the song, and Rick did the beat. One of the therapists I had at the time told me about the song by Billy Joel, 'Pressure', and I went to listen to it and the beat is like dun-dun-dun-dun-dun, and right off the back I was like this is the energy right here. So shout out to Billy Joel for sending this energy for us. And Rick went and listened to the instrumental, and he made a beat based on the energy of that beat and it turned out to be the 'Pressure' beat and we put the lyrics together and it turned out to be the 'Pressure' song and it's still one of my favourite songs to this day that we ever did, because the subject matter and the energy just I think really showcases our talent just like from raw material and so had given us the idea, being able to take the idea and make it sound like the way we wanted it to sound and give it our sound. [Music: 'Pressure']EMMA - So Rick, what is 'Welcome to Reality'?RICK - We try to go to schools and talk to kids about gun violence and we try to bring them to our world, our reality. I didn't ask to be in a wheelchair, somebody put me in this wheelchair. We try to come from a different perspective. Namel, he tells his story, to how he got in a chair, and maybe somebody in the audience, a little kid that listens to our story might learn something next time he's angry and instead of thinking about grabbing a gun and going to shoot somebody he's going to think about me, that he might shoot the wrong person like what happened to me. I didn't have anything to do with whatever was going on that day. NAMEL - The idea originally came from working with an organisation called Being First and they would take a spinal cord injury patient to like a school where the therapists are having us speak and just speak, and I went and did it one time and when I spoke I told the kids I was a rapper and all they wanted me to do was rap. And at the time we didn't have any music catering to that audience, and immediately I came back to the studio and told Rick like, we need a song for the kids, and that's what we did, we made 'Welcome to Reality' and it was like "Stop, think, welcome to reality, you think you're rough, you think you're tough, you think you're bad as me, you think you're hard, you think you're god, you live a fantasy. Keep it up and you're going to end up sitting down like me." And I go into like, "Hey, I'm talking to you mister, mister knucklehead, messing up with school mister." And then the second verse is like, "Yeah, now let me talk to you miss. Miss thinks you're all that. Think you're cute miss." So like addressing the youth, because you know, I used to be a kid and I know somebody just coming into school and being like you stay in school, don't do this, is kind of corny. I wanted to like address it in a way that when they hear it they listen automatically because it's like it's coming directly at them in a way that mister and miss, so when they hear it it's like, oh that's me and it's kind of aggressive. And I think kids respond to that kind of thing because it comes at them at a different angle because people are always trying to talk down to them, but not talk directly at them. And that's what I wanted to do. [Music: Welcome to Reality]EMMA - We're hearing lots of black people talk about racism right now and about being a black person in England or in the US, but we don't hear so much about black disabled people or a black person with a disability. Can I ask you guys to tell me what it's like being a black disabled man in the US at the moment and whether you think that's any way different to simply being a black man in the US at the moment?RICK - That's a good question. Imagine that, being black and disabled. That's like a double drama.NAMEL - For real. You know, being black and disabled is a very, very, very dire situation, because just being black you've already got so many strikes against you, then when you add a disability component to it it's like your voice is not heard in a double way. The whole disability structure here, being black is pretty much, most of the structure at the forefront of it is white. Like most of the people that we've been dealing with throughout this time have been white people that run most of the organisations. So just being 4 Wheel City we dealt with that as a company. Now, as men, like being black and disabled is like, that's an automatic, like somebody will see us and be like, you know, I might not give them that opportunity because we're black, just like somebody else gets discriminated against. And if you come to the black community a lot of us are in wheelchairs due to, when it comes to injury, like gunshots. So then we're talking about the gun violence component. Just like with the, let's say like the coronavirus situation where you see how it's affected the black community due to like the causes that they say it affects, how that's higher in the black community, it's the same thing with people in wheelchairs. It's like a lot of us are there through the gun violence, so the thing about that, you've got gun violence and you've got Covid, you've got poverty, and that's what it's like being black and disabled, you've got all these barriers and then when people talk about it they don't even mention that most of the time on a mainstream level.EMMA - And is there a black disabled community? So is there a community there that you can call on?NAMEL - Here in New York City we're actually about to start working on that. We just had a conversation with the Mayor's office, People with Disabilities, under Commissioner Victor Calise, yesterday and we want to start building that infrastructure even better. But right now, you know, there's little groups and everything, but I don't know if it's anything that's so particular, like the way people are going at things now. And that's what we actually want to start working on and really we want to do something here in New York that's going to really stand out and be like at the forefront of this movement going on with the Black Lives Matter. Because we're black, we can go and protest just being black but then there's also issues we deal with as disabilities, because, you know, people say all lives matter and people don't like that. And I'm with that because I know Black Lives Matter is the thing we need to focus on but if someone is saying disabilities matter in that same breath it's like it's also discrimination of things we don't get access to just because we're disabled, let alone being black. It's two fights we're going through now.RICK - Now, just to add to what Namel is saying, being disabled alone, there's a stigma behind it, right? And we have another disability which is being black. So it's like having a double disability and we're doing hip hop. A lot of people don't understand hip hop to this day, because we do these shows where we have a white man come up to us and say, "You know what? I don't really get the hip hop thing but I like what you guys are doing." You see?EMMA - When you guys play a concert or a gig or an event who are your audience? Who comes?NAMEL - Last year we did the South by Southwest conference, that was pretty cool, and there were a lot of people who were interested in different gun violence things and different ways to approach solutions and that was a great audience. Like the youth in the schools and on disabilities. We're very universal, our platforms change a lot.RICK - Just to add on to what Namel just said, we cater to people with disabilities, but 99% of the people that see us perform are regular people, that don't have disabilities. We did shows in colleges and there was nobody in there with a disability, I mean in a chair. People have different types of disability, they have a hearing disability and the obvious one which is a person in a chair, but for the most part when we perform there'll be regular people in the audience and they still get the message. EMMA - I know it's a long time since you guys began using wheelchairs, but do you remember…? You know, were you treated differently before? Is there a difference in how you were treated before using wheelchairs to get around and how you're treated now? I suppose by the black community and then by everybody. RICK - Oh, definitely. Oh, you get different treatment. Because a lot of people can't relate and they don't know how to connect to you anymore. It happens with family members, it happens with old friends, they feel like that connection is not there anymore, they don't know how to deal with certain things. They don't know how to come up to you and have a conversation. They're thinking that all you're going to talk about is the wheelchair. And even family members stay away from you because of that. They don't know how to connect with you anymore. EMMA - Yeah. So one black disabled performer that, Namel, you've related with is Stevie Wonder, and you actually are part of a new Apple docuseries called 'Dear…' where people write letters to celebrities who've had a big impact on their lives. Can you tell me a bit about what impact Stevie Wonder's had on your life and why you wrote your letter to him?NAMEL - That's the biggest blessing right now that's going on in my life and for 4 Wheel City because I feel so honoured for it to come out during this time when they're showing like Stevie Wonder's life and mentioning how he dealt with the civil rights struggle and like police brutality during his up and coming, during his career, how he made music to speak about things like how we did in 'Crazy World'. And how he's speaking about the emotions that inspired him and writing songs that's true. And that's exactly what we did, so just hearing that in the show just really made me… And we had no idea the show was going to come out during this time, it just came out June 5th, the same week at the height of this stuff and it also came out on National Gun Violence Awareness Day. So I just wanted to say that this is such a blessing for it to happen during this time and for our voice to be included in such a package. Going back to when I first got injured and finding my voice and my breath control, another thing I had to find was, I guess motivation, and like a faith to believe that, even if I had my voice and I was making good music that it was even worth it, because at the time I thought my life was over, I thought my music career was over. It was coming from internally, it was also coming externally, wondering if people would understand my music, or understand or even bother listening to me because I was in a wheelchair. And I was about to start making excuses for myself and it'd be like well, I'm going to start rapping because nobody wants to hear nobody in a wheelchair, I've never seen that before, but then I remember the day I was sitting in a park and then Stevie Wonder just came to mind and I was like, wait. And I really thought about how much people really loved this guy's music and how much I liked his music and how much Stevie Wonder has meant to the culture of music. And I'm like while he was doing all that he's blind, so I was like I don't have no excuse, because if Stevie Wonder can do it and people can love him unconditionally. That's what I felt, I felt like he got unconditional love based on his music and himself and I was like, that's going to be my challenge to myself so I can't make an excuse. So it gave me encouragement to know that if my music is good I can be accepted, and music is the common denominator of being able to be respected as an artist and being accepted as an artist and people just saying, "Oh, your music is good," and not even thinking about me being in a wheelchair. And also I just want to say that Stevie Wonder, as far as like, because we're talking like the Black Lives Matter thing and everything right now, watching a documentary, like he's always been about that, and I just want to say that for Rick and I, going back to being black and disabled, like that's such a powerful thing right now, because we have always represented blackness throughout our whole journey. And if you follow a lot of our videos, like if you go to 'The Movement' video which they talk about in that documentary, in that video I'm wearing the African American flag. We didn't speak about it at the time, but it's just like just to let people know we're black and when we performed at the United Nations wearing an Africa hat, just to let people know we're black. When we went to the White House I wore an Obama shirt, just to let people know we're black. We don't always speak about it but it's just things that we've always done to let people know that we're disabled but we're black. So that's why this is such a special time for us to be part of all this. EMMA - 'Crip Camp', a recent documentary that the Obamas executive produced about a summer camp for disabled people in the '60s, '70s, then it went on to talk about the disability rights movement and part of the documentary is about a sit-in in a government building and it turns out that the Black Panthers, a political party, massively helped the disability rights movement. Was that a surprise to you or did you guys know there was such a big crossover between both movements?NAMEL - That was a big surprise when I seen it and it made me feel so proud too because I was like wow, like when I'd seen it I thought about the plight of both sides, the Black Panthers movement and then the disability movement. Because like I said earlier, we've been champions of our blackness from the beginning, so to see that like wow, like the Black Panthers helped us so we've been united for a long time and I really didn't know. The disability voice is hidden sometimes and to see that, I know the Black Panthers get a lot of acclaim and they get a lot of support and people take a lot of pride in knowing the Black Panthers existed and what they did and what they're doing, so just to see like us to get a little bit of that confirmation from them that the disability fight is valid and needs to be supported from that kind of perspective. I was inspired by it but I thought it was good for other people to see.EMMA - Do you have any advice, Rick and Namel, for young disabled black people coming through today, and maybe who are recently disabled or maybe are just trying to find their place in the world? Have you got any advice for them or anything you want to say?RICK - You've just got to be strong. It's not going to be easy. Believe in God and taking one day at a time. And just find your purpose, whatever that is. For me it was music. Something that you love. You probably don't know what that is right now but as the days go by take it day by day and you're going to realise what that one thing is that you need. NAMEL - Yeah, I agree with that. And I want to say don't make any excuses because I know it can be discouraging and it's easy to say, well I'm black and they don't want to listen, they don't got no faith in this, they don't support this Black Lives Matter. It could be easy but like I have a disability, nobody wants to see nobody in a wheelchair doing this, that, like I felt when I first got injured, but what Rick and I did, we tried to remove that barrier. And we've been breaking barriers, and that's why a lot of times people see us doing stuff and we have done some of the biggest things that even rappers that are in the industry haven't done. It doesn't get a lot of light shined on it but when you go back and do the stats you will see that we're probably one of the most accomplished rap groups probably ever coming from where we're coming from. That's something that we hope to inspire and pay forward, like Stevie Wonder did for me, that somebody who's coming up behind us who might have been shot or might have been going through something might feel discouraged that they don't have that excuse no more to be inspired to tell their story and have their voice and accept the challenge to be heard. And don't be afraid to be different and go out there and put your voice out there and embrace the struggle. And maybe you could be the next 4 Wheel City, even bigger and better. EMMA - I actually didn't ask how you guys are managing, we're calling it lockdown, I don't know what you guys are calling it. Quarantine? RICK - Being locked up home like everybody else, taking it one day at a time. I mean, just being home and trying to stay safe, that's it.NAMEL - I feel like this moment for everybody is like their moment of becoming disabled, disabled in their own way. This is like a universal traumatic experience as if like us getting shot and becoming disabled, I feel like after this people are going to find a way to deal with something. I think that's why a lot of people out there are protesting right now because I feel like they had a wakeup call. Like when your life gets changed or flipped upside down it makes you think differently. And then actually seeing the traumatic experience George Floyd went through and Ahmaud Arbery and all these things transpiring, I feel like, I don't want to say it this way, but I feel like for a lot of disabled people we're automatically in quarantine just trying to deal with life and adjusting from whatever we're going through. I feel like we're kind of in quarantine in our own bodies most of the time and in our own space trying to figure things out differently and move forward with a different limitation on our life. EMMA - Oh guys, thank you so much. I'm so sorry I kept you so long. Honestly I could talk to you all night, but I think it's quite late for us now so I think we'd better call it a day.NAMEL - Before we got on the phone Rick and I were talking about the last time we were in the UK, because we performed at the London Paralympics.EMMA - Wow!NAMEL - Yeah, so that was like a few… When I was in London and I just was remembering like the time difference there and everything and how a good experience it was, it was great.EMMA - Yeah. Did you enjoy performing at the Paralympics?NAMEL - I enjoyed it so much and it kind of reminds me of what's going on now for us being American and the world coming together, because when I was there and we performed at the Olympic Park, it goes back to being black again, it was like being black and American and disabled. I felt that sense of pride being there because like our music was the only American music being performed on the stage that day and then it was hip hop, and then it was coming from America, so when you're there you feel that because there's people there from all over the world who are representing where they're from, so you feel that sense of pride of being American and being black and doing hip hop. You've got to really represent and just seeing the whole culture from a different perspective of being in the UK, on Piccadilly street and everything. I've got to say, it's something, it was a sense of pride for being an American black disabled, but also just knowing that our music matters on the world stage. [Jingle: Ouch]EMMA - Thank you again to Namel and Rick for such a brilliant chat. If you want to add to this conversation or to speak to us about anything else at all, you can contact us in the usual ways. We are on email at ouch@bbc.co.uk You can find us on Twitter @bbcouch and search for us on Facebook with BBC Ouch. You can also subscribe to the Ouch podcast on BBC Sounds. And don't forget to listen to our other strand Isolation Diary where Kate Monaghan, her wife Holly and their small daughter Scout are shielding from coronavirus, and recording everything that happens along the way. Thanks for listening.  [Music: 'God Bless America' by 4 Wheel City]

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