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Houston's Hip-Hop Scene Remembers George Floyd

Written by David Greene - George Floyd was buried in his hometown of Houston, Texas, this week. Floyd left his mark on the city through his friends and family, but also through the music he made under the name Big Floyd.

George Floyd grew up in Houston's Third Ward — the home of the city's hip-hop and rap scene. Floyd used to spend hours in producer DjD's home studio, making the kind of slow-the-music-down form of rap made famous by the late DJ Screw, who also knew and worked with Floyd.

Houston's chopped and screwed scene, as the genre is called, is a lesser-known but proud one. It seems like everyone who's part of it loves to rep their city, including Houston's most famous native.

"Beyonce is from the Third Ward. She shouts it out every chance she gets," music writer Kiana Fitzgerald says.

Fitzgerald is another Texas native. She knew Floyd's music and says that the news of his death was particularly devastating for people around the scene because of how much loss they have experienced already.

"When the connection was made about George Floyd being a member of the Screwed Up Click, even tangentially, I was just like, 'No, this cannot be happening,' " she says. "Because we've lost so many people already in the Houston scene, in S.U.C., leading with DJ Screw. It was just a gut punch."

Fitzgerald says after she made the connection, she immediately went to listen to some of Big Floyd's music.

"Me and my sister, the first thing we did was hop up, get in the car and listen to his tapes. And I was just like, 'I wish that I had been able to appreciate this when he was alive,' " she says. "Big Floyd was just a big, affable character. I think you can hear it in its freestyles: He just loved to have fun. He loved to joke around. And he was also pretty serious on the mic as well. He was someone that wasn't afraid to talk about what was going on in his life."

Music played a huge role in Floyd's life: There was the screw-top music, but also Christian hip-hop, which friends say Floyd listened to a lot. Ronnie Lillard, who records Christian hip-hop under the name Reconcile, got to know George Floyd through the presence of his church in the Third Ward. He says that though the genres are radically different in terms of content, there was a real connection between the two forms of hip-hop that Floyd loved.

"Christian hip-hop's DNA in Houston has a lot to do with the Houston rap culture and screw music. If you took it out to the streets and it didn't sound like screw music, nobody wanted to hear you," he says. "We had found a way to blend street culture with redemptive stories about change and the gospel of Jesus Christ. Just like you got guys who rap about doing the negative activity and they feel like they had to actually be what they're rapping about, we're actually being what we're rapping about, and that's advocates of change in the city."

A song Lillard says sums up that connection is "Never Would Have Made It." It's a Christian rap song, and they shot the music video in the Third Ward.

"We actually shot that in Cuney Homes Projects, right in the middle of the court. It sounds like the most Houston music you can make," he says. "You've got the organs, keys, because that was the sound of Texas rap. You've got that church influence."

When he's not recording, Lillard also works in ministry with youths in juvenile detention in Miami. He says that Floyd's attempts to rebuild his life after his own incarceration were exactly what he tries to help young people do.

"Floyd coming out of jail and changing his life and becoming somebody who was a beacon of light and hope and refuge and a mentor and everything that he became, that's what we pray to see happen to young men," he says. "So for him to be cut down as he's blossoming in that — it's very disheartening."

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Today in a hearing room on Capitol Hill, George Floyd's brother, Philonise, begged lawmakers - please, make sure George did not die in vain.


PHILONISE FLOYD: George called for help, and he was ignored. Please listen to the call I'm making to you now, to the calls of our family and the calls ringing out the streets across the world.

KELLY: Philonise Floyd was the first witness in today's House Judiciary Committee hearing, a hearing focused on how to improve policing in this country. In Minneapolis, where George Floyd was killed, the city council, with a veto-proof majority, has already pledged to defund the police department there. Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey opposes that. And Mayor Frey joins us now from Minneapolis.

Mayor, welcome.

JACOB FREY: Thanks so much for having me.

KELLY: Tell me why you're against defunding the police.

FREY: Well, let me be clear. I am for major structural reform in terms of how our police department operates. We need to entirely shift the culture that has, for years, failed black and brown people. But am I for abolishing the police department? No, I'm not. And I've heard members of the city council use several different notes of terminology from ending the police department to disbanding the police department to defunding the police department. And I don't want to put words in their mouth, and I don't want to prescribe definitions to those words. What I'm saying is we need a full structural revamp. But abolishing the police department - no, I think that's a bad idea.

KELLY: I appreciate your being careful about the language and what it means. And just to make sure that I'm very clear on your position - because for a lot of people, defunding the police means redirect that money; take the money, but instead of handing it to police, redirect it into communities, into social services. Are you against that, if that's what we're talking?

FREY: Well, the devil's in the details. And to the extent we're talking about measures of safety beyond policing, I totally agree. And, in fact, we've had those in several budgets, everything from mental health co-responders to our group violence intervention initiative to our initiative that is a hospital-based intervention system for people who have been shot. So yes, absolutely, we are for measures in that realm. But we also do need police officers. And we have a chief, Arradondo, who I support full-heartedly. This is someone who is from community, by community. This is someone who sued the police department for racial discrimination and won. And now he's our chief. And he's been laying out a vision as to the culture shift that he wants to see, instilling every officer with compassion and dignity. And, yes, clearly, we have a long way to go. But I support him.

KELLY: I want to let you respond to a counterpoint. We had the city council president, Lisa Bender, on NPR earlier this week. Here's part of what she told my colleague, Rachel Martin.


LISA BENDER: We have done every reform in the book. I mean, there are more layers and more - and farther we can go with reform. But, you know, to see George Floyd killed in the way he was, I think, just shows to our community that these incremental steps we've been taking are not working.

KELLY: Not working - I mean, the point that she is making is she's calling these incremental steps. How do you persuade people that what you are proposing will be enough, will not be incremental, will not lead to more of the same?

FREY: Well, I agree with the council president entirely that we cannot have incremental steps right now. We do need a full-scale revamp. But in doing so, I think it's important to say specifically what you're talking about, what specifically the plan is. I don't think it's a plan to say, we're going to abolish the police department, and we're really not sure what to do next. That's not a plan.

KELLY: I want to ask about this moment that went viral on social media. This was last Saturday at a rally in Minneapolis. It was a huge crowd. And you were asked, yes or no, if you would commit on the spot to defunding the police. And you were handed the mic, and you said no. And they booed you out of there, people chanting, go home, Jacob; people chanting, shame. What went through your mind in that moment?

FREY: Well, I was home. The protest came to my wife and I's home. And they asked for me to come out and talk to the crowd, and I did. I came out. I joined in on the protest. And they asked me to come up towards the mic. And they asked me whether I would commit to defund the police. I asked for clarification as to what they meant. And they said that they wanted to get rid of all the police. And, you know, I was honest. I told them that I was for massive structural change, but I am not for abolishing the police department. And these are the kind of difficult situations where you just have to be honest and transparent and forthright. And was it hard to get booed in that situation? Was it hard to hear the jeers and that kind of walk of shame there? Absolutely it was, absolutely. But, you know, I stuck to what I believe in.

KELLY: Have you been able to reach out or connect in any way with some of those people who were there that day and continue this conversation? - because I'm - it was a really tough moment to watch from whatever perspective. I'm sure it was tough for you to live through. But you're going to need those people on your side if you want to actually get the changes and reforms done that you're talking about.

FREY: Well, I can't tell you how many people that even attended that protest that came up to me afterwards and said, we agree. We need that structural change. But we are not for abolition of the police department. So I do think there is a momentum behind seeing the necessary change now. And I think so many that were there and so many throughout our city are on board with that vision.

KELLY: So what gives you hope that your city will heal?

FREY: We, obviously, are in a tough place now. The murder of George Floyd - and let's be very clear. This began with a murder that was done by our white police officer, where he put his knee on the neck of a black man who was handcuffed and defenseless. We came out right away, said, you know what? This is wrong. I mean, there are protocols and procedures that are literally baked into the walls of City Hall that say not to act too quick, not to speak out or say something because there's got to be a process. And we say, you know what? This is just flat out wrong. So we terminated all four officers immediately. I called for charges. There, obviously, was protests, both peaceful and not. Since then, though, I do have this overarching belief in our city. I know that our city cannot just come out of this. But we can set this united tone where we look back years and decades from now, and we say, that was the moment where we rose up as a united unit. We said, we're going to make change.

KELLY: Mayor Frey, thank you very much for your time.

FREY: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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