Like anyone who saw it, the graphic video of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of four former Minneapolis police officers shocked and horrified Canby singer/songwriter Aly Whelchel.
“It was strange to watch it all go down in front of me,” she said of the video, which depicts an officer kneeling on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes — even after he became non-responsive. “It broke my heart. There was a huge uproar, and I didn’t want to ignore it.”
As a white person in a predominantly white community, Whelchel wasn’t sure what she could do to support the cause. But, as she has countless times in the past, she took her emotions to the guitar. The result was a song, “America,” a powerful reflection on racial violence and injustice.
She was actually at work at the Canby Music Store at the time, tuning guitars.
“I started playing a chord progression and the chorus just flew out of me,” she recalled. “It was strange! I feel like Jesus had put this on my heart.”
The song includes lyrics written by Whelchel and, poignantly, quotes from the victims of alleged police brutality and other acts of racially motivated violence, including Floyd (“Mama, mama”), Eric Garner (“I can’t breathe”), Michael Brown (“I don’t have a gun, stop shooting”) and Kimani Gray (“Please don’t let me die”).
Her final mix includes sounds of sirens and protests, along with audio from the George Floyd video. The YouTube video was produced by Whelchel’s sister, Reegan.
Though white, Whelchel comes from a biracial family, which has led to some uncomfortable episodes.
“When we go to the store, a lot of people stare and some have followed us around the store,” she said. “One time, we were at a restaurant at the beach, and a person sitting next to us said, ‘I don’t want to sit next to black people.’ My little sister heard, and she was really sad about that.”
Her younger siblings have had racial slurs directed at them online and at school, she said.
“It is so sad that I can’t change that for them that’s why I am standing up now,” she said. “Their time is up! Racism needs to stop.”
Protests against systemic racism are nothing new in America. The Black Lives Matter movement has existed for years. But what is unusual about the current national moment is how far it has spread beyond the country’s larger and more ethnically diverse cities.
Demonstrations against racial injustice and conversations about police reform and systemic racism are happening even in America’s small, majority white and conservative-leaning towns like Canby.
Asked by the Canby Now Podcast what she hopes whites and people of color take away from the song, she replied, “I want white people to start paying attention.”
“A lot of people are trying so hard to avoid this problem and say it doesn’t affect them,” she said. “That’s white privilege. I want people to understand that black lives are in danger every day and we can’t stand by and watch our brothers and sisters get murdered. I want us to educate ourselves.”
Though a white person can never truly understand or relate to the experience of a person of color, she said, “we can try our best.”
For people of color, she hopes the song brings them strength, power and encouragement, as well as an outlet.
“It is crazy how separated America and this world have become,” she said. “As a Christian, I am called to love everyone above all else. We are expected to submit ourselves to one another — not try to prove how we are better. It is ripping this country apart.
“Yes: All lives matter,” she continued. “But right now, black lives are in danger and need to matter to everyone. If you say, ‘All lives matter,’ but turn your cheek when it comes to racism, do you really believe all lives matter?”
For more of her work, see linktr.ee/alywhelchel.