“I Should Have Been Dead By Now”

Antonio Ennis is an organizer with City Life/Vida Urbana (www.clvu.org) and a rap artist. Performing under the name “Twice Thou,” his music video “The Bank Attack” is available at www.youtube.com and his album, which just won the New England Urban Music Award “Best Conscious CD,” is available at www. cdbaby.com. A short documentary about his work with 4Peace is available at vimeo.com/3394399.


PETERS: Why do you fight to keep families in their homes?


ENNIS: If you look at where my life was going, I should have been dead by now or sitting in prison. I was well into the process of changing my life when my home went into foreclosure. A man that owned the house next door told me about this organization called City Life/Vida Urbana (CLVU) and how they fight banks to keep families in their homes. He invited me to their weekly meeting to check it out. I’ve been growing as a human being ever since. I look in the mirror and I look the same, but I can feel myself growing from within—my soul and mind, myself as a man and as a father. Being around social justice work has opened up a whole new culture to me. People at City Life/Vida Urbana listen to each other and trust each other. When I came here, I was used to being a leader. I was in the music recording business. I didn’t listen to other people. They listened to me. It’s not like that anymore, by choice. I fight to keep families in their homes because I’m doing God’s work. I feel like it’s what God has called upon me to do.


Did you ever envision yourself being an activist?


Absolutely not. I used to ride by people doing pickets or protests and I thought they were crazy. It looked comical to me. What were they doing wasting time? In my world, if I had a problem, say, with a record company producer or CEO, we went in and talked to them about it. If we couldn’t agree, we just walked away. We might have had a contract with them, but we didn’t care. We just went “cold turkey” on all agreements. So I thought, “Why didn’t these protesters just go talk to whoever was in charge? Or just walk away?” But I was being ignorant. At CLVU, I learned that sometimes when there’s a problem, there’s not one guy in charge. You can’t just walk away. There’s a problem with the way the whole system works. Protesting is a way we try to weaken a system that’s working against us. At CLVU, we protest the banks that are foreclosing on homeowners and tenants—people who are victims of the economic crisis. It’s not their fault that the banks created this recession, but we’re paying the price even after we bailed them out.


What made you decide to create the Bank Attack album?


I was at my first eviction blockade in Randolph, Massachusetts. It was at the home of one of our members, a Haitian woman named Ketley Barzola. Her family was devastated and displaced by the earthquake in Haiti and they lost everything, so they came up here seeking refuge. There was a tense standoff with the constable, the movers, and the police for over six hours. The standoff came to a climax when police invaded the house through the window and kicked in the door. All the commotion caused the grandmother to have a heart attack right in the driveway. All I could hear was babies and women crying, people shouting and screaming while the sound of handcuffs opened and closed. One of the cops grew up with a young man in the home and they even went to high school together. The family was saying to the cop, “Why are you doing this?” He seemed to be having mixed emotions because I saw his eyes well up, but he was like, “I’m just doin’ my job,” and he proceeded to handcuff people. It brought tears to my eyes to see this family getting evicted from their home so forcefully. It was an example of the system winning out over personal relationships.


It really hurt me. I questioned myself. After all the violence I’ve seen, I’m crying about this? “Okay,” I said to myself, “You’re angry. You’re hurt. What can you do?” I went from “What can I do to save my own home?” to “What can I do for Ketley?” to “What can I do for the movement?” The only thing I could think of to do was to spread the word about all the pain and agony the banks are causing so many families. I decided I could use my music for that. I drove home in silence, just thinking about what I was going to do next.


When I got home, I turned on my studio and I started laying down tracks (beats, rhymes, melodies and hooks/choruses). I come from gangsta rap so I went through the back and forth with myself about creating this sound but not sounding corny because, after all, I was jumping into a whole new lyrical arena and I was gonna be rapping about issues that the common person likes to ignore. Unfortunately, we won’t rid ourselves of this economic crisis by turning the other cheek, so I kept compiling information. For hooks and bridges, I started to play with the chants you hear on an eviction blockade. I incorporated different quotes, facts, and references from the analysis I was learning at the meetings. I wanted to take all that and bring it into my world of music and be unique about it.


How is your music being received by your old followers?


It’s mixed. But based on sales I can tell that a lot of my fans grew up with me musically on this one. I also tapped into millions of new fans that know exactly what I’m spittin’. A lot of rappers glorify a fictitious lifestyle that’s not theirs—one that’s full of fancy cars, drugs, guns, and women. It’s like people have tunnel vision, programmed and remote controlled by the corporate joystick while there’s over 19 million families in America that are struggling with predatory underwater mortgages. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not sayin’ all rap music should be about this, but I just felt like nobody else would have the balls to step up to the plate to swing at this. They don’t wanna take that chance. They wanna play it safe, ya know, the “cookie cutter” tendencies and “just add water” types. They’re livin’ “make-believe” reality through cable TV. They want you to believe they’re driving a Bentley, and here I am telling the whole world that my house is in foreclosure and communities of color are under attack by the big banks.


Was it hard to be that candid?


Yes, at first it was. But learning how to fight for my home and for the homes of lots of people in my community has been a re-birth for me. It’s not how I ever did anything before. I never accepted help from anyone. When I came to my first City Life meeting, I couldn’t bring myself to say anything. I sat in the back and watched all these other people stand up and talk about what was happening to their families. I was trying to gauge what they were all about. I wanted to know if this was an organization of people who just sit in a room every Tuesday and just talk about shit or was it an organization that actually gets out there and does something about all the things they’re frustrated about. I soon found out that they were an “action oriented” movement and this intrigued me. There was a vibrant family atmosphere and what they were teaching was making a lot of sense. I learned a lot that first night, so I came back and gradually I started talking about what I was going through. I also started to volunteer a lot of my spare time.


What did it feel like to speak up about your situation?


Refreshing. I found out it’s not just me. I found out that I didn’t do anything wrong. I found out the banks created the housing bubble and they knew it would burst. That they bet against our mortgages and that we would fail. They targeted communities of color with “Ghetto Loans” and they used robo-signers to approve those predatory sub-prime loans. Even though the foreclosure crisis had been in the news, I hadn’t been paying attention. But City Life opened my eyes. I thought, “There’s something going on in America, and these people know what it is.” I was eager to learn more. They had a different way of fighting, one that was empowering to me.


What’s different about it?


On the street, we talk about loyalty, but I never really experienced loyalty in the way that City Life supports you and makes sure you know your rights. When I started doing this work I began to appreciate characteristics of people that were holistic, humane, and caring. On the street, when I tried to have someone’s back, I ended up getting stabbed in the back—literally, three times. A few more inches and I’d be dead or paralyzed. There are people at City Life who I’ve only known for a couple of years, but I trust them more than some of the people from the ‘hood who I’ve known for decades. They have my back in a different way and it feels good.


Can you say more about what you mean by that?


Once, when I was at an auction protest, these investors started taunting me, calling me a thug, a drug dealer, basically agitating me. Sometimes auction protests get very heated between us and them. It was right after a major cover-story had come out about me in the Boston Phoenix. I’m sure they recognized me from that and were trying to pull strings on my past. It was too much for me. According to what I learned my whole life, if someone’s disrespecting you, one of the most common ways to deal with it is to send out an invitation for a “fair one”; that’s a straight up fist fight between two men—no referee, no timeouts. So I removed myself from the protest line and offered a “fair one” to that investor who had all the mouth. If I had gotten the chance to lay my hands on that dude, I would have hurt him bad, but I ultimately knew it was not a good idea. City Life has been around for 40 years. After doing what they’ve done for the community, who am I to come along and fuck that up just because I couldn’t channel my anger? Melonie Griffiths, another City Life organizer, helped me walk away from that incident and be the bigger person.


I couldn’t go back to any auction protests for a while after that. I needed to take a break to let myself learn from that situation. I wanted to be better than that. Meanwhile, Steve Meacham, from the City Life staff, asked me if I wanted the job of leading a major demonstration against Bank of America (BOA) in September 2011. My task would be to help mobilize 3,500 people nationwide using my case as the poster-child and descend on their headquarters here in Boston for what would turn out to be the biggest protest in history against BOA. That’s what I mean about having my back in a real way. They helped me avoid a fight that wouldn’t have mattered in the grand scheme of things, and that would have, in fact, hurt the movement’s reputation, and they directed me to a fight that did matter—the fight against Bank of America.


How does your perspective inform your work at City Life?


I was trying to leave one kind of violence—the violence in the streets—and I stepped into a different kind of violence. In this new fight, no one’s killing with guns, but their weapons are just as deadly. Their wealth and greed are weapons of mass destruction. When they try to take our homes, gentrify our communities, and shame us—those are powerful weapons. And these tactics do kill us—not as directly as a bullet, but they strategically, systematically alter our lives and livelihood. As I say in “Come to Fight,” “They’re killin’ us softly, Roberta Flack/but they’ll never be charged with a murder rap.”


We’re not just fighting, we’re building a movement. When you help keep a family in their home—and even when you try but end up failing to keep a family in their home—you’ve got a network of friendships and connections that will last a lifetime. It’s the most awesome feeling. Everyone needs help. None of us alone can defend ourselves against these bankers. I grew up knowing how to defend myself in a street fight and thinking that was all I needed to know. But this fight we’re in now, this fight is different. We need each other. We need to be together in solidarity.


I’ve heard people call your album “the soundtrack to the movement.”


Every movement needs theme music and this album is certainly the voice of the people. Music is what I do. I’m comfortable when I’m performing. I love writing lyrics. I love words. I go searching for new words. I’m fascinated by words that are not particularly easy to rhyme with. I love clever and witty wordplay and metaphors. I love creating melodies, and harmonizing is something I’ve done since I first started to MC back in the 1980s. I’m taking the information and analysis I’m learning about the economic crisis and from being in the anti-foreclosure movement and I’m jig-sawing it into my own expression. Coming into the movement has given me a whole new vocabulary to play with. I love a mystery. And this is a mystery all right: How can the banks continue to do what they do? How do they get away with this? How come the bankers aren’t in jail? How can one man named Edward DeMarco [who headed the government-controlled mortgage giants, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac] be allowed to have such a major chokehold on economic recovery in America? How come more of us aren’t out there holding these people and these institutions accountable?


Why do you think?


People feel like protesting doesn’t work. That’s what I used to think. Why bother going up against banks when “they’re too big to fail and too big to jail?” That’s why I perform and spread the word about the movement because building a united front does work. Let me give you some insight: City Life has conducted about 38 eviction blockades and we’ve succeeded in holding off the eviction about 75 percent of the time.


Even when we “lose” (and our people get arrested and the family gets evicted), the blockades and all our other protests send a powerful message to the banks that they can’t ignore. When we first started raising principal reduction back in 2007, it was seen as a left wing demand. But now it’s moved to the mainstream. A key servicer, Ocwen, came out with a principal reduction loan modification program. The five banks in the AG settlement pledged to do principal reduction loan modification—at an inadequate level, but still it was an important breakthrough. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are being criticized from a lot of directions for limiting economic recovery. Not only that, City Life joined together with allies across the nation to put public pressure on the Obama administration to fire Ed DeMarco, the Bush appointee who headed up Fannie and Freddie and who refused to offer principal reduction. On May 1, 2013, Obama announced plans to replace DeMarco. That’s a major victory.


We also helped set up the Boston Community Capital buyback program. It gets folks the same thing as principal reduction, but through a different method. So, there’s definitely strength in numbers. My record company, The BuyBack Initiative, has the goal of purchasing foreclosed properties from banks or investors and selling them back to the former owner at the real market value. We plan to do this through The Bank Attack CD sales and apparel sold through my brand Antonio Ansaldi Clothing Company. We want to live and thrive in our community while they want to push us out. I want people to know that it’s possible to make change. When I first got involved in this movement, I did a lot of listening. My grandmother always told me, “Don’t come in talking.” Just shut up, listen, observe, and reflect. I live by that mantra.


Where did you get your love of words?


From my mother. She’s an artist. I’ve loved art ever since I could remember, but now I “paint and draw” with syllables. Words are colorful. You can create pictures with them. I used to read everything. I grew up in a bilingual home, so I had a lot of words. At a young age, I was listening to R&B, Parliament/Funkadelic, Slave, etc. We made drum sets out of Tupperware bowls and pot covers. We made our own guitars out of hockey sticks and fishing line. We built a band. We played records over and over again, and started doing our own routines. Those were the early years where I discovered my love for music. We performed on our porch, and people gave us coins and dollar bills. That’s the porch on the house I live in now—the house I’ve lived in my whole life—the house that I’m currently fighting Bank of America for.


How does your family feel about you being involved?


My mother thought I should back off. She’s afraid that because I have a high profile case, the banks might come after me. She still supports what I’m doing though. Everybody else is on board including my daughters. I have a good case, so any attention will help build the movement. And I’m proud that my six daughters can see their father doing this kind of work.


Several of your daughters are on the album.


Yes. They helped me write “Home Is.” Their favorite songs are “Frozen” and “The Bank Attack.” We’ve come a long way from where we were. I used to not let them listen to the stuff I wrote. While they’re young, I don’t want them to know me as the man I was 15 years ago. When they’re older, they can listen to that and make sense of it if they can. But, for now, I’m proud that they can be part of my music. There’s no profanity. And the message is about building up our community.


One of your daughters help you turn your life around.


My oldest daughter, Jhakia, was about 13 when I got stabbed. She was at the emergency room and they were telling her I was going to die. She was trying to get to me, and they were trying to hold her back because all the cops wanted was a statement from me before I supposedly died. Finally, she broke through all those arms and got to me. She was hysterical. I had been involved in so much bullshit at that point. At some point, though, you have to walk away from the bullshit if you truly love your children and your family. And, for me, this was the moment where I picked “my daughters” over “my boys.” I had to show her that I could walk away. Otherwise, how could I expect her to do the right thing and walk away from things in her life that are necessary to walk away from?


People say you can’t leave the street life, but you can. When I see some of my old friends from that time in my life, they might stop me and tell me about some beef they have with this person or that person and I’ll just say, “Oh really? Well, I’m on my way to work.” Honestly, I really don’t have time for that shit anymore.


What’s next for the anti-foreclosure movement?


We’ll keep building momentum. We’ll keep bringing in new leadership. We’ll keep up the pressure against the banks. We’ll keep being creative about how to go after our targets. Every day I ask God to forgive me for my sins and to give me the strength to be in this struggle and continue to do his work at a high level. We’re building a movement to effect systematic change.


Tell me what this movement looks like.


Well, it’s a diverse movement. It’s a big melting pot full of genuine people who support and fight for each other ’til the bitter end. The movement demands Homes for All. I was at a political event recently and someone said to me, “I never saw an activist wear a watch like that. Don’t you know activists aren’t supposed to wear so much jewelry?” And I said, “Really? Show me the manual.” She thought I looked like a thug, but I told her, “Nah, this is the look of the modern day organizer; get used to it.”


Cynthia Peters is a freelance writer, activist, and editor of The Change Agent (www.nelrc.org/changeagent), a social justice magazine for adult learners and adult educators. Photos 1: Vigil at Ketly Bargola house, photo by Joe Oliverio. Photo 2: Antonio Ennis organizing at City Life/Vida Urbana, photo by Zoe Peters. Photo 3: Celebrating a victory, photo by Zoe Peters.