Remember To Love In A Big Way (with Coby Kennedy) | Crooked Media
Jon, Jon & Tommy's first ever book is here - Order Democracy or Else NOW! Jon, Jon & Tommy's first ever book is here - Order Democracy or Else NOW!
August 17, 2021
Pod Save The People
Remember To Love In A Big Way (with Coby Kennedy)

In This Episode

DeRay, Kaya, Sam, and De’Ara cover the underreported news of the week, including Judge Eunice Lee, universal basic income, Simmont Thomas, and SNAP benefit increases. DeRay interviews artist Coby Kennedy to discuss his installation art piece “Kalief Browder: The Box” on display in Brooklyn’s Pioneer Works Garden.



Hey, this is DeRay and welcome to Pod Save The People in this episode, it’s me, Sam, Kaya, and De’Ara as usual talking about the news as you didn’t hear from the past week. And then let sit down with Coby Kennedy to talk about his installation piece, Kalief Browder, The Box on display in Brooklyn’s Pioneer Works garden. I love the– I love it, love it, love it. 

My advice for this week is to love on people. So this episode is dedicated to my dear friend Jason Jerome Hawkins, he passed away at 33. He was diagnosed with lung cancer in April and passed away in July. Jason I want you to know that I love you, I’m so thankful that we were friends. And my advice for this week is to remember to love on people, that you loved on people in such a big way. I’m happy that we got to play the Oculus VR in October of 2020 at your house in New Jersey, and I want you to know I love you. 

Let’s go. So my story is about a Baltimore City police officer who killed an unarmed black teenager in 1993. This officer was Edward Gorwell, the second of the Baltimore City Police Department. He killed 14-year-old Simmont Thomas who was allegedly fleeing from a stolen car in West Baltimore and this officer shot him in the back in 1993. Within weeks of Gorwell killing Thomas he said he heard a gunshot before he opened fire. But no gun other than his own was ever found at all. 

At the first trial in 1993 it was a mistrial, one of the jurors just failed to show up. The second trial was scheduled in 1999 and it was dropped after a police employee a lab tech using a forensic test that was unavailable reportedly found traces of gunshot residue magically, suddenly in the teenager’s left hand. Now do I believe that? Absolutely not. But OK. In January of 2002 he reached an agreement with the Baltimore Police Department that permanently revoked his police powers but kept him on the payroll, so he could make arrests, he essentially couldn’t do anything that he couldn’t carry a gun but he stayed on the Baltimore City Police Department’s payroll. And since then he’s been a call taker and the police communications division and he’s been helping out with 311 calls. 

But here’s the catch. The office of inspector general with the Baltimore City Police Department got a complaint about alleged overtime abuse, brought a whole report about it and this officer was finally fired that three months after the report. Now the wild thing is that he should not have been given full employment rights and union protection after he was permanently stripped of his police powers forever ago but he was. He got regular salary increases and substantial overtime through 2020. Between 2016 and 2020 he received $158,000 in overtime pay on top of his regular salary which pushed his total pay over five years to nearly $600,000. 

Now his duties would have been performed by a civilian employee with an annual salary of about $44,000. But they kept him on the roll. And this is just another example that even when there could be accountability you can’t let the police manage it themselves. They took his gun, he could not make arre– he really couldn’t do anything but the police protect their own, and he was just allowed to hang out in the police department. 

The police department in Baltimore is like 3,000 employees smooth maybe. I was the chief human capital in the Baltimore City Public school system. I had 10,000 employees and we regularly did audits of every workspace, everybody to make sure that people were coming to work, to make sure they were real employees, to make sure we weren’t paying people we shouldn’t pay. And if we could do it with 10,000 employees you can definitely do it with 3,000 in a police department. 

But I bring this here because this stuff is happening all across the country. It’s definitely happening all across the city, and I’ll tell you that as a result of that the city passed a new policy. Why is this a new policy? This should have been in place. That the Baltimore City Police can no longer earn overtime pay while they’re on vacation. Now if you’re on vacation how do you earn overtime pay from that job? How? Make it make sense. Thankfully the inspector general’s office in Baltimore they are giving the inspector general a hard time, they do not like her in city government, but it’s because she is up here uncovering this stuff. 

In a Baltimore City investigation show that officers use this policy to rack up tens of thousands dollars paid overtime with five officers each logging more than 2,000 hours of overtime in a single year. Because you just go on vacation and then you do it anyway, you just work, so you’re double dipping, and it’s like a brilliant way for you to get a paid vacation and to make money at the same time. Mind you, nobody else in the city can do this, you definitely can’t do this in your job. In the city the police departments excuse was like, the payroll system they use was complicated. And it’s like, come on, that’s not it. But I say this because the doubles in the details we can’t allow the police to continue to waste our money and double dip, do these things, and we can’t let the police manage themselves. 

KAYA HENDERSON: My news this week is about the federal SNAP program, the Federal Food Stamp Program. And big news the Biden administration has improved the largest single increase in their history of the Federal Food Stamp Program. All 42 million SNAP participants which is actually one in eight Americans will see an increase of more than 25% over pre-pandemic levels of SNAP benefits. In fact, the average monthly benefit will go from $121 to $157 per person starting in October. This is huge, this is actually the first time that the SNAP benefit has been adjusted since the beginning of the program. And this is part of the Biden administration’s effort to strengthen the country’s social safety net. Not just to address what’s gone on in a pandemic but in an attempt to make generational changes that will last far beyond. 

Many people have criticized a SNAP program for not providing enough money to supply an adequate diet. In fact, they say it forces families to go for sugary foods and high sodium foods and processed foods that are cheap. And in fact, more than 75% of households on SNAP run out of money in the first half of the month. So this increase is actually huge, it’s expected to reduce hunger, it’s expected to improve nutrition, and it’s expected to lead to better health outcomes for our neediest families. Kudos to the Biden administration for taking this on and trying to deal with some of the issues of food insecurity in our country. 


DeRAY McKESSON: Don’t go anywhere, more Pod Save the People is coming. Pod Save the People is brought to you by BetterHelp. Now this is trying times to transition out of deep quarantine, now it feels like we’re going back into it because people not doing what they need to do. We all need support to get through this and the good thing is a support is out there. 

KAYA HENDERSON: BetterHelp will assess your needs and match you with your own licensed professional therapist, connect in a safe and private online environment which is so convenient. And you can start communicating in under 24 hours. It’s not self-help it’s professional counseling. 

DeRAY McKESSON: You can send a message to your counselor any time and you’ll get timely and thoughtful responses plus you can schedule a weekly video phone sessions all without ever having to sit-in uncomfortable waiting room because BetterHelp is committed to facilitating great therapeutic matches so they make it easy and free for you to change counselors whenever you need. It’s affordable and it’s more affordable traditional offline counseling and there’s financial aid available. 

KAYA HENDERSON: The service is available for clients worldwide, which is really important because there’s a broad range of expertise that isn’t always available locally. There are licensed professional counselors specialize in depression and stress, and anxiety in relationships, and sleeping, trauma, anger family conflicts, LGBTQ matters, grief, self-esteem, and more. 

DeRAY McKESSON: Anything you share is confidential. It’s a convenient service, it’s professional, it’s affordable. You can check out the testimonials that are posted on the site every single day. There’s not a crisis line it’s a support line. In fact, so many people have been using BetterHelp that they’re recruiting additional counselors in all 50 states. 

KAYA HENDERSON: We want you to start living a happier life to day. As a listener, you’ll get 10% off your first month by visiting betterhelp. Com/people. Join over one million people who’ve taken charge of their mental health. Again that’s 

DeRAY McKESSON: Pod Save the People is brought to you by Bombas 

KAYA HENDERSON: Lots of things can make your workouts hard, extra resistance, double-speed, one more mile. Your socks shouldn’t though. That’s why Bombas Performance Socks are built to be nothing but comfortable and supportive. 

DeRAY McKESSON: Now you know that I didn’t know there was a difference about the quality of socks but for Bombas sock was a sock to me. But the cool thing is Bombas has a special type of sock called the Bombas Performance Socks, and they’ve taken all the amazing innovations that makes Bombas the most comfortable socks when they are worn and they’ve added their special Hex Tec performance technology. 

KAYA HENDERSON: Bombas Performance Socks are stitched with special moisture-wicking yarn and temperature regulating vents that allow cool air flow in and prevent overheating. And they come with a pillow-like tab to save you from blisters. Stay up technology a special arch hugging system and an extra layer of cushiony comfort on the bottom for the perfect amount of support. 

DeRAY McKESSON: They come in different styles for every sport with specific design features to help you optimize performance and keep you comfortable no matter what you’re doing. And like all their socks for every pair of Bombas Performance Socks you buy they donate a pair to someone they need. They’ve donated over 45 million pair so far. 

KAYA HENDERSON: Now everybody who knows me knows that I hate socks, I’m a flip-flop girl I want my feet to be free except of my Bombas. They are cushiony and pillowy, it’s like having a massage on your feet, and the Bombas Performance Socks are even better. Don’t really love working out but they feel different when– my feet feel different when they’re in my Bombas Performance Socks. And so you should go to today because you get 20% off your first order. That’s for 20% off, 

SAMUEL SINYANGWE: Hey, it’s Sam. And for my news this week I want to talk about universal basic income or UBI. Now this approach has gained steam over the past few years as we’ve seen more and more cities begin to adopt universal basic income programs and even we’ve seen some action taken at the state level and in Congress that embodies that spirit. So let’s rewind all the way back to 2019 Stockton, California, the pilot program that really sparked so much of this conversation that was implemented by Mayor Mike Tubbs. That program provided 125 residents with $500 checks a month over a two year period. The initial findings from the study of that program found that contrary to Republican talking points getting that money not only improved the lives of those families it led to overall higher levels of stability and reported well-being. But also it didn’t disincentives them from obtaining employment contrary to those Republican talking points. The folks who actually received the checks were more likely to get employment than the control group was in Stockton. 

So that was Stockton. Since then city after city have begun to implement universal basic income pilots within the broader banner of mayors for a guaranteed income, a network of over 40 cities implementing these programs that was founded by Mayor Mike Tubbs. Now what’s interesting is as cities are implementing these programs at the local level we’ve also seen some uptake at the state level. So in the past month California has passed legislation to create a statewide universal basic income program that initially focuses on two populations, foster care youth who are aging out of the foster care system and pregnant women. 

What’s also interesting is that in New Mexico following California’s lead they’re currently right now in New Mexico debating legislation that would also create a universal basic income program at that state. That program would be modeled after a program that’s already being implemented in Santa Fe where individuals in poverty receive $400 checks a month. So all of that’s to say that we’ve gone from an initial case study to a network of dozens and dozens of some of the largest cities across the country all implementing universal basic income programs in different ways with different target populations, different levels of investment, different size populations. And now we’re even seeing at the state level and even in Congress with the stimulus checks and the expansion of the child tax credit a similar approach that is already delivering results in terms of drastically cutting the poverty rate according to the latest analysis from the urban institute. 

So if you are wanting to see a program like that in your city call your mayor, call your state legislator, call your member of Congress, and get them to follow the lead of mayors across the country, state legislators in places like California and New Mexico and even some members of Congress in providing direct support, direct financial support cash to the families who need it most. Because the data shows that not only does it make a huge difference in the lives of families who receive these resources but nationwide we actually could use this approach to drastically cut the poverty rate even to abolish poverty entirely. Now let’s get it done. 

De’ARA BALENGER: Yeah, I promise to keep you informed about Black women who are being appointed to the federal bench. It’s something, of course that’s extremely personal to me as a Black woman who was a member of the bar, who is a proud graduate of an HBCU law school, Thurgood Marshall School of Law in Houston, Texas. So obviously beyond my personal beliefs it’s critical that we have a judiciary that reflects the diversity of this country. And it seems– it appears here we are the Biden administration believes that too and are also making good on it. 

A couple of weeks ago remember we covered an organization called She Will Rise, it is an organization committed to getting a Black woman on the Supreme Court. So it’s also important and obviously covering this because of it, it is important also that we have Black women on the federal bench. And so it’s really much about creating this ecosystem where we will have someone who is super strong and has a career on the federal bench to be able to go to the Supreme Court. 

So here we are, Judge Eunice Lee was confirmed by the senate last Saturday morning to be on the Second US Circuit Court of Appeals. She was confirmed in the senate again by a 50 or 47 vote. Judge Lee is the second Black woman to serve on that particular court. She is also the first former federal public defender to join that roster of judges, which is also major. White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain tweeted about Eunice Lee and he said that President Joe Biden had advanced more Black women to the US Court of Appeals than any other president entire term with Lee’s confirmation. 

Now yes, I think that we should acknowledge this progress. Really I think the barometer for past presidents appointing Black women to the federal bench or otherwise probably isn’t the best barometer for measuring impact. Nonetheless, I very much admire Ron Klain, and if you all don’t follow him you should. I have a great deal of respect for him and his competencies and also just like his thoughtfulness that I’ve seen up-close and sometimes it’s rare obviously in politics. 

And so this I think is exciting. From the list of Biden nominated judges Lee is the fourth Black woman to be confirmed to the US Court of Appeals and the fifth to a federal judgeship overall. So we are making progress so I hope this continues. Again, I think it’s super historic that she was a federal public defender, she’s from New York. She’s going to bring an incredible perspective to the bench. And so excited to see this and excited to continue to follow along and to keep you all informed about what appointments are being made. 

DeRAY McKESSON: Hey, you’re listening to Pod Save The People. Don’t go anywhere there’s more to come. Pod Save The People is brought to you by Faherty. Now it’s summer and it’s been particularly hot recently. And we’ve been in the house for so long that trying to think about what to wear is like a whole process now, whether it’s cookouts or just going to hang out with some friends, we can barbecues, going on a date. You actually have to look nicer than you looked in the sweat pants in front of Zoom all day. And the cool thing is that Faherty is it help. 

KAYA HENDERSON: Faherty is a familiar brand making high quality, timeless clothing with modern design and functionality. You know when you’re searching for that ideal summer outfit that set, that shirt, that dress, that feels like you’ve had them for years. Maybe isn’t a gorgeous print and it fits so perfectly that it feels almost too good to be vintage but still looks like it might be, well that’s Faherty. In fact I got a beautiful, linen, shift, sleeveless dress from Faherty that I have been wearing all summer long, rocking it out at Cookhouse with a pair of sneakers, put it on with a cute pair of flats and wearing out to dinner. Is versatile, is comfortable, it is everything. 

DeRAY McKESSON: And the cool thing is that they’re so confident in the quality of their stuff they have a lifetime guarantee of quality. They replace a fixture clothes forever no matter what. And to top it all off Faherty is giving our listeners 20% off. That’s right, 20% off. 

KAYA HENDERSON: So stock up on all your clothes for summer now. Head to and use code “people” at checkout to snag 20% off all your summer gear. That’s People at Faherty, F-A-H-E-R-T-Y for 20% off. Pod Save The People is brought to you by Dropbox. The files you save tell a story, your story, who you are, what you care about, and what’s worth sharing. Dropbox is designed for the things that matter most. You can use Dropbox to save and share things like important keepsakes, precious family photos and irreplaceable recipes. 

DeRAY McKESSON: Now I love Dropbox. I’ve been using Dropbox for a long time and the best thing is that syncs across all the devices, I don’t have to email a million things to myself anymore I can just upload in Dropbox. And you can use it for personal things I use it with my sister when we want to share photos, I use it at work when we share files and a collection of files and version control. Shout out to Dropbox for version control. It really is the one-stop shop for whatever you need to put in the box on internet. 

KAYA HENDERSON: For every dream worth chasing there’s a file worth saving. Learn more at 

DeRAY McKESSON: In 2010 a 17-year-old boy named Kalief Browder was arrested for robbery he didn’t commit. Kalief was held on Rikers Island without trial for over three years with torturously long stretches in solitary confinement. The toll of this trauma resulted in Kalief Browder dying by suicide. Artist Coby Kennedy created a representation of Kalief Browder’s solitary confinement cell, which is a work of installation are currently on display in Brooklyn’s Pioneer Works garden. I went to see it and I wish everybody could go see this important work so that people could understand the terror of solitary confinement. 

Here we go with my conversation with Coby. Coby thanks so much for joining us Pod Save The People. 

COBY KENNEDY: Hey, great to be here. 

DeRAY McKESSON: I am so excited to talk to you because I came across your work, I didn’t even know, it was definitely on Instagram. I saw somebody post the latest piece that is in Brooklyn and I was like, oh my God, I got to go see it, I got to go and see it myself. And I saw it about Kalief Browder and I was blown away. The only– my only criticism of it is it’s not in all 50 states, not in every city, everybody needs to see this. But before we talk about that can you talk about your journey in art, when did you start identifying as an artist? How would you describe your art? And then we’ll talk about the Kalief Browder piece. 

COBY KENNEDY: It’s only recently that I realize that I grew up in a bubble, I grew up in an artists bubble. Most of my families are artists, my mom was a practicing artist, my dad practicing artist. My dad was the dean of the art department at Howard University so I grew up in the art department on campus at Howard University, we lived right across the street. And that was my first six or seven years and from then on it was just art tracked in elementary school and middle school. I went to Duke Ellington school of the arts, visual arts performing arts, everything, dance, the whole thing was there so I was in visual arts over there, that was high school. 

And then I got to high school, I went to Pratt Institute in New York for design– art and design. After that I went straight to Japan for about a decade, Japan and Italy doing car design and then I got back to the States. And it was the first time that I was ever around non-artists or at least not artists that weren’t like me. So it was a culture shock in 2010, it was the first time I had met actual people really. 

So I had always thought that art was just something that you live, eat, sleep the way you get in the elevator, the way you eat rice, the way you put on a shirt. Growing up around my parents and growing up around that kind of community life, the universe, and everything was art. And it was only then about 10 years ago that I realized that it’s a whole separate thing for other people. When I went into grad school I was stunned because there were people in there that just did one thing, they did collage or they did paintings, they were a sculptor. That was the first time I’d ever heard of that. Everybody that I’ve ever known in my life was multidisciplinary with their creativity. 

So the last 10 years has definitely been a culture shock a reverse culture shock. And me myself I describe myself as an artist and that’s where it is because that’s how I grew up with not just multidisciplinary in the arts but multidisciplinary and your perspective on the world and how you see things. One morning my mom took care of all of that. Out front of our house when I was six she told me this story about horses that we can go into later but basically she dropped the theory of relativity on me in a way that a six-year-old can understand, and from that point on it just destroyed any semblance of common sense that I would ever have. It definitely very much showed me that everything’s relative and labels are almost meaningless. And so that influence literally every second of every minute of the rest of my life. 

So yeah, I always define myself as an artist or a maker of pretty things. My motto ever since I was a kid was, make cool shit. And that’s driven me forever, that’s through line to my whole practice, especially after I became a practicing professional artist because I just made art since I was born. And it wasn’t until 2008 that my brother, double dog dared me to be a full time fine artist and I jumped in with both feet. Dealing with galleries, dealing with collectors, dealing with it as a profession and not just something that you are live, breathe, eat and do. 

DeRAY McKESSON: What made him dare you? It was like Thanksgiving, and he was like, you need to finally do this or was it something else. 

COBY KENNEDY: Oh, he just dare me. Because we were best friends in high school and then our parents both divorced their spouses, my parents broke up and his parents broke up. And half of our parents got together, and so they married each other so then we became– 

DeRAY McKESSON: That’s a best friend TV show. 

COBY KENNEDY: Yeah it was like a Sitcom. Then we became MWB might as well be brothers. That lasted for about 10 years and then the two parents that married each other split up, they divorced and remarried and got back with our original parent. So it was wow, it’s been wow. 

DeRAY McKESSON: That is a TV show. Now that you need to– that’ll be your next art. Is like turning your life into a TV show. How did you first learn about Kalief story, and why did that resonate with you? And can you talk to us about the piece that I’ve been fortunate enough to see? And then I want everybody to see. And what made you do this? 

COBY KENNEDY: It was many years ago that first caught wind of the Kalief story. It was right when it became well known in New York and started becoming known around the country and then spread out, it was right around that time. And the thing that hit me so hard about it is that what happened to him embodies so much of what my deepest fears have been ever since I was a kid. And then how he fought back against that for a long time tried to surmount all these things that were being thrown at him. Embodied the strength that I hoped at the time that I had in case something like that happen to me. And realizing that it’s something that I didn’t have at that time, I wouldn’t have had when I was his age, I developed this massive deep admiration for his fortitude in fighting against and pushing back on all these forces that were trying to break him down, destroy him and break him as a human being. 

A deep empathy for what he went through and a deep respect for how he dealt with it. From his words, from his family’s words, from his friends words, how he dealt with it all the way up until the end where it just became too much for him. According to people there firsthand, and according to his words he was fighting against all the way up to the end, he was pushing back against all these things that were coming at him, and I know that I couldn’t do that. And so it blows me away, it blew me away his entire story, everything. 

For a long time I wanted to incorporate that feeling into my work that very, very core human struggle for your own freedom in Kalief’s case as well as the way that I’ve thought of my life this struggle for universal truth or human truth. Because one of the big things about Kalief was that at certain points he wasn’t even just fighting for him he wanted to expose what was happening in Rikers, in jails like that. His experience he wanted to expose it because it needed to be exposed, it wasn’t just a self mission. 

It was just incredible to me, his selflessness. Even hearing his brother talk on the documentary, and talking to his brother a few days ago, I was lucky to, just talking about how he was constantly looking out for other people he cared about, looking out for friends, looking out for family, and a lot of times putting friends and family above himself. And for a kid to do that– so many people forget that he was a kid, for a kid to have that much selflessness and self awareness to the point that knowing who you are and asserting how you’re going to be treated as a valued human at that age, most grown people can’t even do that. 

It was that thing– that thing that really resonated with me that made me really want to do something that I could to branch the story out to people that were not picking up on the story or people that dismissed the story or people that dismiss this whole everything, people that had such a subjective reality that they can’t even comprehend that this could happen in the world in any way, shape or form. I noticed that a lot of people like that and talking to folks know they just completely were missing not just the point of what he was pushing for but they were missing that this could even happen. A lot of people were denying that this could happen. 

I can’t show up at people’s houses and scream at them and show them what’s going on with the world. I’m not an activist I don’t have those skills. I can’t get out there and motivate hordes of people to politically and socially change the world we live in, but what I can do is touch on the emotional side of things, the emotional side of issues, the emotional side of events, the emotional sides of states of being, and portray that in a way that can emotionally and similarly connect with the viewer, somebody that sees my art, sees my work. And if I can inject certain realities into my work and open people to alternative perspectives that they hadn’t considered before then that’s great, and that’s what I’m trying to do. That’s what I try to do with my work and that’s what I’m really trying to do with this piece, The Box, the sculpture, the public sculpture. 

DeRAY McKESSON: Can you tell us about The Box like– was The Box the first– like did you have three options you were like, OK, there are couple of things I might do and in The Box you were like, OK, this is definitely the thing. But can you explain to people who have not been able to see it like what is The Box? Why did you build it the way you built it? Why Brooklyn? 

COBY KENNEDY: I had a few designs. Because what happened at first I was approached by an activism agency, art and activism agency about three years ago to do a Kalief Browder sculpture. And it’s something I wanted to do for so long, it felt like a perfect fit and a perfect opportunity to make it happen. A few of the original designs a couple of them were classical, honorary sculpture, ideations, aesthetic. I had one where it was shaped in the form of an 8 foot, 10 foot tall flower that blooms on it with different figures that were coming out and they were different points in Kalief’s life, celebrating these different points in Kalief’s life. 

And I think I had another one that was a little more abstract. It really started hitting me that it was almost like I was making a design for a sculpture that was created and made by somebody else. It wasn’t my thing and it didn’t speak to the strong raw emotions that Kalief’s story gave to me. And it didn’t speak to the impetus of what really reached out and grabbed me in the chest by Kalief. And that wasn’t my connection to Kalief and his story. My connection was the fear and unbelievability of the amount and weight of hardship that was thrown down on it, and the weight that he had to carry, and the environment that he had to carry on, and on the flip side of that the perseverance and fortitude that he showed, and the strength that it took for him to fight for five years against things that would break most of us in less than five months. 

That was the real core of my connection with Kalief and his story and that was the idea emotion, that was the visceral thing that I wanted to get across to a viewer that wouldn’t otherwise understand that angle of the story. And it’s part of the story that I see looked over so much. Even talking now with people online that might dial into my IG or make a comment on posts so many of them know the story is there was this guy who got arrested, he was in solitary confinement for a long time at Rikers and then he killed himself. And they don’t understand the things that happened in between, and they don’t understand the self-assertion that Kalief was constantly making. The real core of the story, they just have no idea about. All they know headlines that they might have seen on New York 1 or the New York Post or something like that. 

And in terms of the western canon Kalief to me is like a saint. All these people that were doing sainthood I look back on a lot of those people in Western society, and a lot of them suffered less and fought back less than Kalief actually did, and for less noble reasons Kalief’s reasons were incredibly noble, and it just blows me away. So that’s what I wanted to get across with the sculpture. So I wanted to show the hardship. I was put on him and I wanted to highlight within the hardship how he was able to fight against it and for moment in time rise above it. And that’s why I wanted to recreate the solitary confinement so that– take one of the smallest solitary confinement cells that you’ll have on Rikers which would be 6 by 8 and recreate that and have the viewer viscerally start to try and comprehend what it would be like to be in that box for not just 700, 300, 100 days but how would feel to be in there for 100 minutes, 100 seconds. 

You come upon this transparent Plexiglas and steel box on the street, this piece of public art. And you’re looking into it and the human reifies can’t help but personalize it, visualize himself inside the space even before they know what it is. I know that people won’t take time to read a whole didactic write down of what a piece is about if it’s posted next to it someone had to put it on the piece itself in a way that doesn’t interrupt the piece but in a way that the viewer can’t miss it. And so I sandblasted the story of what happened to Kalief, how he was kidnapped and tortured. And I sandblasted that on the clear Plexiglas of the box itself so that it almost floats there like a cloud and you can’t miss it and you almost forced to read it. And then on the other side is the technical information of what the United Nation considers to be torture. Any time in solitary over 15 days and then the fact that Kalief is for an extended stay was over 300 days. 

And then the most important part of the piece is Kalief’s quote, which is in the boldest type, the biggest font. He said this in an interview where they were talking about, they’re trying to give them those plea deals where he would admit his guilt and he would get out that day. And each time they threw that at him he would knock it down and his quote was, “The way I see it, if I got to stay here just to prove my innocence then so be it.” That quote alone just even still floss because here’s this teenager that has the confidence, the self-clarity, and the strength to understand what he’s facing. And to go head on into it because he knows that that’s the only direction that he can go that will prove his innocence, to put his morals and his things that he holds dearest in life to be, this truth to be. His ability to define who he is, hands down and not have anybody pervert that. And to be willing to go through what he was looking at going through it’s still amazing to me. And that’s the core of the piece, that’s really the core themes that I want to come through in the piece. 

DeRAY McKESSON: Is it acrylic? Did I just make that up– do I think everything clear is acrylic or is that plastic? I don’t know. 

COBY KENNEDY: It’s acrylic, Plexiglas. 

DeRAY McKESSON: How has the reception been? 

COBY KENNEDY: Is fairing great. I’ve had so many people telling me that it woke them up to things they didn’t know about Kalief and what he did. A lot of people had no idea that he got out of Rikers, and was out for two years. And during that time was still struggling with all the things that the legal institutions and the incarceration institutions in New York state institutions were still throwing at him for those two years after he was out. There have been a good number of people that when they first saw pictures or first heard about it they were adamantly against it, and they didn’t want it to happen. 

DeRAY McKESSON: Really? 

COBY KENNEDY: Oh, yeah, absolutely. When I first created I knew that there was going to be a lot of feelings in that direction because most people don’t want to see or experience a prison cell sitting in front of them. And I knew that in certain circles it would be a triggering piece of art. And so I knew that it was going to be very important to be aware of where this was shown, how this was shown, and the context that this piece was displayed in, and the context that it was spoken about too. It’s a very serious thematic material, and it’s very real and current thematic material. 

The people that are deeply involved in this story still walking among us. And even the stuff that it plugs into the incarceration system, in Rikers itself, and these injustices. There are people walking around right next to us that have gone through similar things and dealt with similar stuff. So I knew that there was a certain responsibility of awareness that was going to have to happen with even making the sculpture. 

And so it’s been good that I’ve met so many people that have come up to me and told me that they were really against it when they first heard about it or first saw it. But once they spent a little time with it, walked around it, and thought on it a little more, and really took in the entirety of the themes that are in this piece. That through line of Kalief’s struggle, which is really what the focus is on, with all of these things a lot of those people changed their minds and saw that there are whole swaths of society out there that need to see this, that need their subjective reality is interrupted and shown what goes on the other side of their hedges. Seeing it accomplish in people’s minds and in people’s perceptions what I wanted it to is that’s what I do it for. That’s the real payoff of the whole thing, to see it in action actually happening. 

DeRAY McKESSON: When I saw it I was like, why have we not duplicated this in every major American city and intersections? People should have to continue with it. Because I think I agree with you is that solitary confinement becomes an abstract principle. They’re like, wow that must be bad. And then when you see it you’re like, you wouldn’t last 25 minutes in this little box let alone 700 days. Will it travel or can you– so I know nothing about Plexiglas. Can we make 50 of them? More like, how does this– what happens after the exhibit it’s over? 

COBY KENNEDY: Well, with a proper budget we can make 50 of them. 


We’re talking right now about what happens to it after the exhibit it’s done. Looking at having it travel on tour to a few different cities and really spread its effect. If there was a way for me to mass produce these and have them appear like monoliths in certain parts of society around the states I would definitely do it. I mean putting it in the right place, interrupting the right people’s daily routine and having people viscerally connect with this sculpture or these sculptures, if there are multiple them. That’s the point of the whole piece. And for it to do that on a wide scale would be great. 

And for Kalief’s name and Kalief’s story and Kalief’s experience and the lessons learned from them to stay in people’s minds, mouths, and to stay in the public consciousness, I think is really important because human beings is we’re really good at forgetting things. We forget it in a heartbeat but stories like this that are pivotal to the core elements of human existence. I think they need to stay in the public consciousness, they need to stay in the public cycle or else all of the benefits that could come from it for society can be washed away with time and the weakness of memory. 

DeRAY McKESSON: What’s next for you or how long does it take to get to a piece like this? Do you– I don’t know, I don’t even know what the timeline looks like to produce this. And then do you– are you already working on the next thing or is it a secret or is it like– is there a next thing or is that not the right question to ask artists? 

COBY KENNEDY: That’s right question to ask some artists. But for me I’m pretty much constantly working on multiple things at once. So it’s not even like a next thing it’s what’s in the mix, I guess. It’s to give you an idea of timeline. It was about three years ago when this piece first started, I was working in conjunction with another arts and activism group. And for a lot of different reasons that part of the project just didn’t really work out and so the piece was in storage for a number of years. 

And then linking up with Pioneer Works– I’ve known a lot of people that have come through Pioneer Works and a lot of my circle is directly connected with Pioneer circle. And I have met people from pioneer works a few times and we got to talking and it seemed like a great place to showcase the piece and give it some legs. Because the venue would be great for getting people in front of the piece and having them experience it. And the main clientele that comes through Pioneer is truly one of the main groups of viewers that I’ve always felt needs to see something like this. And it’s really panned out, it’s come to fruition that it’s been a great combination not just Pioneer and the piece but the piece in that location with the viewers that have come through and the response and the impact that it’s had over there. 

As far as what’s coming out of the studio there’s a lot of three lines to all this stuff that I make, and one of them is my motto of make cool shit. But the other one is that I’m always looking at subjective realities that we all have of this one reality that we’re living in right now. And it has always stunned me that people can live on two sides of not just the country but two sides of a city, two sides of the neighborhood and think that reality is completely different from one another. 

And so a lot of my work centers around looking at these things that we take for granted, looking at these things that we don’t even realize are the way they are and pulling back the curtains, pulling back the veneer that shades the truth behind these things or one of the truths, one of the strong truths behind these things that so many of us ignore. And really showcasing that and taking that truth, and those truths of those perspectives and blowing them to the fantastical. Because when you make something more and more fantastic or more and more out of the ordinary it has a tendency to put a magnifying glass on the core principles that you’re looking at, and the core dynamics that you’re looking at. And it brings truths to the life that much easier. The further that you take it out of what we all see in everyday quotidian everyday life. I’m always making stuff like that. 

One of the things I’m working on right now it’s a long series that involves painting, sculpture, film video, digital work, it’s called In The Service Of A Villain. It’s essentially my recent violence series. It takes a look at interracial, colorism, things like that, and looks at all these dynamics that we take for granted. The last show that I did downtown in Soho was fully onto that, it was Jimmy Crow and The Imaginary Thug. This thing that I do with all my stuff I just– I take the reality that we live in now and then push them to the fantastical displaying them in the way that I see them every day. Because ever since I was a kid I see all parts of daily life in a series of panels, zones, dollis, jump cuts is always a soundtrack going. 

As I’ve learned that most people out there aren’t the same as me. As though we learned that it would be pretty crazy for a lot of people to spend a day in my head because evidently there’s a lot going on in comparison to a lot of folks out there. But constantly nonstop. So it’s the same in my studio, this constantly nonstop these things that are being made right now with In The Service Of A Villain, series that I’m working on I’m doing these machetes. And I make street-side machetes and machete mandalas out of multiple street signs. And it comes from the narrative that I’m working on where just like in Haiti, parts of the Caribbean, Jamaica where enslaved Black people were given tools to work the land like machetes and other farming tools. They would take those tools and use them as weapons of revolution and they would weaponize those tools and actually make them revolutionary weapons. 

And it’s transposing that thought, that idea to the contemporary time. Where the elements of slavery and the elements of colonial oppression are still very much here, not just the reverberations of them, but them themselves are still here and happening. And it’s transposing the whole idea to the current time with the idea of people taking street signs that were given to urban communities as a form of placation and turning those into weapons against the institutions themselves. The way that cities for decades have been crying out to take care of us the same way you take care of the cold in that country, the suburbs, the other parts of the city that are affluent. You give tons of city money and city effort to keeping those places up just civic duties that need to happen and then they’re denied for our neighborhoods. That’s why the streets are like hell, that’s why the trash pick-up is like, hell, that’s why it goes all into redlining and all of these things. 

And then the city’s response is, OK, sure how about we just name a street after MLK? And then they just don’t upkeep it. And so it’s no surprise that for such a long time Martin Luther King Jr. boulevard. Every city was one of the worst kept boulevards in the city. It wasn’t because the people there just denied the place is because it fell apart, because the civic institutions just threw that name out there and then just forgot about all these neighborhoods. And so it’s about that kind of thing and taking those symbols of placation and then shaming them down, turning them into machetes, and weaponized them against those same powers that laid that kind of situation on us in the first place. 

So I’m making a lot of those and a lot of things that branch out from there. And I’ve never seen myself as a quote unquote “activist-artist”. If anything I seen myself as somewhat of a fantastical realist. There’s a lot of crossover with different circles doing what I do and I’m happy for that. 

DeRAY McKESSON: Where can people go to stay in touch with what you’re doing? 

COBY KENNEDY: The best place is most likely my Instagram, my IG. All the artists are on IG and the rest of the world is on Twitter so I’m boosting up my Twitter as well. So just branch out as much as I can. But Coby Kennedy on IG. 

DeRAY McKESSON: We consider you a friend of the Podcast can’t wait to have you back. And everybody needs to go to Pioneer Works and see this piece of art. And hopefully, this will be all over the country and people can see it in their hometown if they can’t get to New York City. 

COBY KENNEDY: That’d be great. 

DeRAY McKESSON: Well, that’s it. Thanks so much for tuning in Pod Save the People this week. Tell your friends to check it out. Make sure to rate it wherever you get your podcasts whether it’s Apple Podcasts or somewhere else. And we’ll see you next week. 

Pod Save the People is a production of Crooked Media. It’s produced by Brock Wilbur and mixed by Bellins. Our executive producer is Jessica Cordova Kramer and myself. Special thanks to our weekly contributors Kaya Henderson, De’Ara Balenger, and Sam Sinyangwe. 


Transcript coming soon.