By: Belinda Sacco, Contributor
For Ron Kipling Williams, 2015 has so far proved to be an exciting year. He performed Dreadlocks, Rock ‘n’ Roll, & Human Rights at Artscape, began a student fellowship with the Hoffberger Center for Professional Ethics, and embarked on his last semester of UB’s M.F.A. program. One gray Monday afternoon, this D.C. native sat down on the top floor of the law building to reflect with me on the future of Baltimore, activism, and rock ‘n’ roll.
What brought you to Baltimore?
Ron Kipling Williams: I felt like I was stagnating artistically and a good friend of mine, Jim Vose said, “Look, why don’t you come to Baltimore? It’s cheap to live. You can figure out what you want to do artistically” and I took him up on it. Honestly, at the time, I thought I would be here for a couple years and then move on to New York because that’s one of the meccas for an artist, and that was a couple decades ago. Baltimore really grew on me. I’ve met so many wonderful people here and [have] done so many wonderful things.
What makes Baltimore feel like more of a home to you than D.C.?
R.K.W.: Baltimore’s a much more friendlier [sic] town. When I started coming up here to visit, I’d walk down the street and I’d say hi to somebody and they’d say hi back, I was like “Wow. This is different.” Baltimore’s a city of neighborhoods. People don’t have the pretense they have in D.C. D.C. is a high-powered town. You’ve got all the government officials, diplomats, corporate heads… and it’s becoming even more gentrified now with more yuppies coming in and more development happening, so even the little cultural havens that existed are basically gone. This is happening nation-wide. Professionals, yuppies, and suburbanite folks are looking to downsize their commute and they’re looking to come back to the city for living and entertainment… It’s a shame. Artists come into an area and they create this cultural hub and then people will see this thriving thing happening and capitalize it and in doing so, they wreck it, because the property values shoot through the roof and then the hub gets destroyed and the artists have to move somewhere else. I hope that doesn’t happen to Baltimore. I know the Station North is starting to explode and we got some great venues, so we’re really amplifying our performing arts and theater arts. I hope it stays that way. I’ve really enjoyed my time in Baltimore. There’s so much talent and so much you can do for a relatively inexpensive price. You can really develop yourself, and I would hate to see a total gentrification of Baltimore.
Baltimore, for the most part, is a very blue collar town. Can you really foresee city-wide gentrification happening?
R.K.W.: There’s a possibility that it wouldn’t, because of the blue collar culture. It doesn’t lend itself to gentrification. You still have a lot of resilient, blue collar neighborhoods and since this city has experienced such a decline in population, it would take a tremendous amount of people coming back in as well as an influx of different industries coming in. Right now, our biggest industry is hospitality. That’s not necessarily a bad thing if you have sustainable jobs to go with it. The problem is, you have a lot of low-wage jobs and so people are not able to sustain themselves. They work two or three of these jobs in order to have a decent living… There’s still going to be a fair amount of gentrification…But Baltimore’s also a resilient city, so we fight. We fight like nobody I’ve ever seen before, even during the uprising. You had people telling the media, “get out of here. You’re not around here when we need you and now you’re just coming around for the big story.” Matter of fact, we told Al Sharpton, “Don’t come in here.” He had a brief meeting with [the] mayor and then left… And the media never focused on the fact that the morning after [the uprising], so many people came out to rebuild…We do rebuild after we suffer tragedy.
As someone who’s traveled to cities across the country, how do you think Baltimore compares in terms of poverty and racial inequality?
R.K.W.: Nationally, racism is a pandemic. Every city has their own set of problems, be it transportation or education or healthcare. We can only work to fix our own backyard and lend support to others when we can… I will say this though: activism is where you are. It’s not this overwhelming thing, it’s not something you have to study for. Just clean up your street. Read to the kids in your neighborhood. Fix the heating in your elderly neighbor’s apartment. [Activism] is where you are.
Where do you think your colossal desire to help people came from?
R.K.W.: As a child, I never felt like I had a voice, like I always had to fight to be heard. I was very fortunate to find writing as a medium by which I could have my voice heard. Then I began performing and as I developed my voice, cultivated my voice, and found the power in it, I discovered that I could help others find their voice. So that’s when began to mentor and workshop [with] others, and do the kinds of shows that would help people find their voice…In between then, it was rock ‘n’ roll and the activist movement. It’s all about breaking barriers, breaking the self-segregating nature of yourself and others and doing your own thing. I love the spirit of rebellion and I shouldn’t be ashamed to say it….
What brought you to the University of Baltimore?
R.K.W.: I was working a job and I got fired and I said, “You know what? I need to go back to school” because my art was stagnating and I needed to take it to the next level. Sometimes getting fired is the best thing that can happen to you. It disrupted everything and it forced me to refocus… It was, I think, the week after I got fired that I went to the admissions office and I enrolled. I wanted to finish my undergrad and get my grad degree in creative writing and publishing… This has become one big workshop process to totally recalibrate everything that I’m doing… I’ve loved the entire experience. I can’t sectionalize it. I’ve loved interacting with other students and becoming friends, mentoring, teaching, taking classes… I’ve been good to UB and UB’s been good to me.
Correction: Jim Vose was mistakenly spelled Boast in the original publication of this article.