The first time I performed “DWB” in public, there was a smattering of applause, an uncomfortable silence, and a guy in the audience who said, “That’s not funny.” I agreed with him.
This was already the song’s fourth rewrite. I wrote it in 2014 after the death of Eric Garner. (Office Daniel Pantaleo had stopped Garner on suspicion of selling single cigarettes. Multiple officers pinned Garner to the Staten Island sidewalk while Pantaleo applied a chokehold and Garner repeated the phrase “I can’t breathe” 11 times before slipping into unconsciousness.)
I had labored over how to approach the subject -- too “funny” and it’s flippant, too “serious” and it’s preachy. Another rewrite or two and I’d arrived at the “DWB” I’ve been performing since. Often the song brings tears, and time and again it’s mentioned after a show as a “thanks-for-doing-that-one.”
At a show in Silver Spring, MD, a guy in the third row who’d been having a great time, stopped having a great time at “DWB” and sat with his arms crossed for the rest of the show. Afterward, he rushed to where I was standing. He was bordering on rage: “You don’t know what the hell you’re talking about! You don’t know the first thing about it. You don’t have the faintest idea what cops are up against!”
And he’s right: I don’t understand the cops’ side of the story. Nor can I comprehend what it would be like for Melanie and me to send our sons out into a world where they might be pulled over, hassled, arrested, murdered just for the color of their skin. But I do understand that while the vast majority of police officers are not racist, racism riddles our entire system of “justice”: the penal code, zoning, institutionalized poverty, policing, charging, sentencing, prison privatization, the denial of voting rights/citizenship to ex-felons. This moment demands not the mere weeding out of “bad cops.” This moment demands an entire overhauling of our system of justice to ensure everyone truly is equal under the law.
Making this video in the wake of the murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks and the worldwide movement their deaths have inspired, Melanie and I knew we wanted to present “DWB” as a dialog - to balance the voice of white authority with the pain of black suffering.
Our dear friend Clovice Lewis graciously supplied the second voice by way of his gorgeous cello playing. Click here to read our blog about Clovice.
I may or may not have written the song right, but “DWB” is my way of testifying to my wrenching disbelief that our institutions are still riddled with racism. It is my way of declaring my dismay and anger that so many Black lives continue to be taken. When I perform the song now, it is to say, “Don’t you feel the same?”
Clovice Lewis is one of the gentlest people you will meet. An intellectual by nature and by profession. Clovice is a renowned cellist and composer (he wrote his first symphony at 17), a university professor, a software engineer, and entrepreneur. Currently he’s studying for the Unitarian Universalist ministry with an emphasis on breaking down racial, ethnic and class barriers.
Clovice is also a friend of ours and he generously agreed to add a cello part to Roy’s song “DWB (Driving While Black).” Here are the beautiful and haunting results:
Clovice has not one but many “DWB” stories to tell. He’s been pulled over any number of times, detained by police, provoked, interrogated for no reason other than the color of his skin. He’s been discriminated against in the workplace, and he’s been denied housing.
“If you don’t believe me,” Clovice says, “go find some other random Black man and ask him to verify what I’m saying. If he’s honest, he’ll tell you of his experiences that most likely surpass my own.”
Clovice has a lot to say about what he calls “the illusion of race.” His is a stark, clear, and somehow optimistic message about the way forward which he detailed in a recent sermon for the UU Church of Lake County, CA.
Watch his sermon, “The Arc of Justice - Up Close and Personal” here:
“We can’t get through this without some really, really radical changes,” Clovice says. “Here’s how we’re going to do this thing from now on. We are going to love the hell out of each other.”
Amen, my friend. Amen.
-- Roy and Melanie