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Leon Bridges premieres Baltimore-centric video for 'River'

Earlier today, soul singer Leon Bridges premiered a new video for the song 'River,' off his major-label debut album "Coming Home." In a message posted on his Twitter, Bridges touched on the significance of rivers in gospel music and wrote that the song is about his "personal spiritual experience" when he was a struggling musician working multiple jobs to support himself and his mother.

Bridges is from Fort Worth, but the video is all Baltimore. He strums a guitar in a motel room with singer Brittni Jessie as grainy footage from the Baltimore Uprising plays on the room TV. Then there's a series of stories set here: a young girl who gets baptized as part of a church's fire-hose baptism; a man who leaves a grizzly police scene, his shirt bloodied, and returns home to comfort his crying baby; a mother and son who have lost a loved one and share an embrace.

Some of the people in the video are not actors, but actual residents, including a church congregation that help set up the baptism and protest leaders Tawanda Jones, the sister of Tyrone West who died in police custody in 2013, and Diane Butler, West's aunt. Jones and Butler gathered a group of people who have lost a family member or friend to take part in a vigil, where black balloons are released into the sky, for the video.

In his message, Bridges said, "This video showcases the unique struggle many black men and women face across this country. However, unlike the captured images which tend to represent only part of the story, I wanted to showcase that through all the injustice, there's real hope in the world."

Director Miles Jay agrees, saying in an interview he was inspired by traveling to Baltimore for another project and hearing the stories that weren't being told in the media. I got on the phone with Jay to discuss how the video ended up coming to Baltimore, the symbolism in it, and more. After our conversation ended and I realized my recorder hadn't worked, he very graciously answered all my questions a second time. His answers are below the video.

City Paper: You were talking in an email about how you met Tawanda Jones. How did that happen?

Miles Jay: Basically we're trying to make a visual scene for the story of a mother and her son and someone passing away, and we wanted to make that as real as possible and be authentic. So an Al-Jazeera reporter hooked me up with Tawanda. Obviously, she does West Wednesdays, but [I was] telling her I wanted to make something but not have it about West Wednesdays—make something where her and her friends would honor someone that they've lost. So we made a vigil for people. But I thought we needed to have that tangible authenticity of Tawanda and Diane being there, and all the people they brought, for it to feel authentic. And I felt like they can pay respect for what happened to them.

Basically, Tawanda brought out a series of mothers and fathers and people who have lost someone, so there was multiple people there. She kind of helped bring a crowd. It was a hard scene because I wanted to shoot more of that, put more of that in the video. There's just a lot of things, a lot of stories happening. It was one of the hardest things to kinda cut down later, because there's a lot of people there. But everyone's vibe and passion there was needed for that scene to feel real and read as authentic.

CP: How is it that you came to pick Baltimore?

MJ: Basically, I was researching a feature project there and met a whole bunch of people. I'm from Vancouver, Canada and Baltimore is a bit of a different world. I saw what was being portrayed in the news media but then hung out with people, went to their homes—and I just wanted to tell stories of what happens to people after you see them on the media and what's portrayed. What's it like to go home and be a mother or be a father?

CP: Tell me about that baptism scene. How did that come together?

MJ: I felt like that was the beautiful chaos of Baltimore that I wanted to kinda capture in some way, where you're walking around and you kind of happen upon these really beautiful moments. There's something just so chaotic about Baltimore that's really special, like not in a bad way [laughs]. And I basically saw these images of these fire-hose baptisms that I thought was such a beautiful thing, of taking something so mundane and making it special—as well as the fire hose as a classic symbol of racial repression in America. To flip it on its head and do something really beautiful I thought was a really cool idea, and so I got a real congregation from a church together, and they helped us perform the baptism, and then we filmed it.

CP: With the rain, like we sort of talked about before, you view it as a connection thing, is that right?

MJ: Yeah, I think there's an obvious correlation between baptism and redemption. The song's called 'River,' and I just wanted the feeling of unity between all the stories, and for them to be interconnected, and for Leon's story to affect their stories, and them to be affected by his. This kind of universal feeling that all the characters are going through I thought was important. I felt like the water and the rain was an element to tie it together. I think you can look at it in a spiritual context, you can look at it in a religious context, but I think you can get what you want out of it.

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