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A conversation with Willy Snypes
Willy Snypes is a musician, father, football coach and as of fall 2018, a proud City of Calgary firefighter. He was the cover story of our 2018 summer issue, which focused on his work as a rapper, DJ and owner of CornerBoy Music Enterprises.
He is in the process of re-doing his latest album project, since joining the fire department, as he says “more eyes are on him” and he takes it quite seriously. Re-recording songs, changing wording and language because he discovered he is gaining quite a youth following, Snypes is making his music more family friendly. He’s even blended his firefighter and rap personas with the song MayDay, last fall, followed by the Calgary Fire Department holiday safety music video that went viral this past winter.
He’s dropping a track this summer called Dear Momma – an ode to his mom. “She dealt with all the rough stuff we went through and took the time to build me and my brothers up to the men we are today.”
A second song, Political Soup recorded in 2018, seems even timelier in light of recent events in the U.S. “It’s a song about looking at the world with an outside view. People see what they want to see and build their own story based on that view.”
He promises a feel-good song late this summer as well, “Something everyone can enjoy after what we’ve all been through these past few months.”
Even with music and firefighting duties Snypes still plans to come back this fall when he can to coach the George Mac football team (assuming pandemic restrictions allow play).
Snypes was open to discuss anti-racism and police brutality issues when we caught up in early June.
Born in New York and growing up in Florida, Snypes and his family lived with racism all around them.
When he was four, living with his mom, older brother and grandparents in Tampa, Fla., they woke up in the night to a burning cross in the front yard of his grandparent’s home. Shortly after that his mom moved with her boys to Fort Lauderdale, but visits to Tampa to see the grandparents was always fraught with tension as Snypes found it less friendly to black people. “There was a white boy on my grandparent’s street we would always play with during the day when his parents were at work. But when they came home, he was told to get inside; they didn’t want him playing with us.”
Fort Lauderdale proved to be generally more accepting as they settled into a larger black community and Snypes attended a culturally diverse high school where he excelled in all sports. This was the area Snypes felt racism rear its ugly head. “Everybody played football, basketball, wrestling, but baseball – it was another story.” And Snypes loved baseball the most – envisioning playing at the college level, so every year he tried out as the only black kid. “I outran every guy on the field. I ran hard, I threw hard, played hard and I’d make it to the final cut only to be told “there’s no room for you.” This went on for three years. It got to the point where I understood why it was happening, but I wasn’t letting it stop me.”
Before Snypes moved to Canada in 2007 he says he would get pulled over at least once a month by police “for a random check.” He says he let a lot of the racist actions brush off. He was not letting it define who he was.
So is it better in Canada?
“There is racism everywhere no question, but Canada is more welcoming in general.” He says people do a good job of “masking their racism.” “It’s more subtle here; in the U.S. it’s more in your face. They will let you know. What I see here is nothing compared to what I experienced as a kid in the States.”
He gives another example that when playing football against the ‘rich’ (primarily white) schools, their players would always be triggering his team at the line of scrimmage with verbal abuse. “‘You fn N-word. You black monkey.’ We would have to block it out to play the game.”
The kids he coaches in Airdrie all get along, never having experienced the extreme traumas Snypes did. “At the end of the day we all bleed the same, sweat the same and go through the same thing once we get the field. If I look across the line at you, you’re my teammate, you’re my brother; that’s not going to change once we leave the field. Team sports build you up as a person for the future. And it begins on the field.”
Snypes and his family, wife Cheryl and daughter Jada (8) and son Adonis (2), enjoy their Prairie Springs neighbourhood and feel connected with their friends and neighbours. And he can say since moving to Airdrie he has not had racism directed at him. “Our street is very friendly – we all look out for each other, from shoveling snow to just sitting in the driveways and chatting. I feel lucky to be where I am at in life. I put a lot of time and effort into getting me and my family to where we are now.”
His children at their young age are sheltered from the current world events, but sadly he and Cheryl had to have the race talk with Jada when she was four. She came home visibly upset from an Airdrie daycare after being told by a classmate “only light-skinned kids” could come to her birthday party.”
“Why can’t I have blonde hair,” was Jada’s confused response. “We had to talk to her about how everyone is different and everyone is unique, and when people don’t like you, whether it is for your colour, (that) you’re a better athlete or student, not to let it hold you down. This is telling you that that person is jealous. If they don’t like you because of who you are or what you do, they are a jealous. Just embrace it and move on.
“With our daughter being of the age kids start to develop their own mindsets and ideals, Cheryl and I preach to Jada the importance of doing everything at 135 per cent because she is already at a disadvantage in this world because of her skin colour,” says Snypes.
“When I was eight there was a police car parked in front of the convenience store I was walking to after school. The handcuffs were dangling from the bike rack off the back and I was fascinated by them so went to check them out and touch them. Then I went into the store. When I came back out the police officer grabbed me and threw me against the wall telling me if I ever touch his stuff again he would “break my F-n arm.”
“That was my first taste of a bad experience with the cops.
“At 13 two white officers came to our door and asked for me. My mom and I were confused. What had I done? Turns out they were there to tell me they heard I was doing really good in school and to keep it up and then they went back to their car and came back with two boxes of food.”
It is a direct result of this experience that through his own record company, CBME, Snypes and his group get together to shop, pack and then deliver boxes of food and gifts to families in need before Christmas.
“Not all cops are bad cops. We can’t let the few rotten tomatoes ruin things. My best friend’s uncle is one of the best cops I know. At the end of the day the police force is taking a beating – you can’t just call police officers bad.
“I’ve never had a bad experience with law enforcement in Canada. The training is better, the system is better. Is it perfect? No. But the U.S. could take notes from Canada.”
Message to the community
“At the end of the day we are all we have. We are the people that build the community and keep it strong. And to continue building that legacy, get to know your neighbour. Before you pass judgement get to know them, who they are and why they do the things they do; generally be interested in learning what your neighbour is about.
I understand why people are protesting, the genuine protesters, not the looters or the groups that are there to agitate. I am all for people standing up for themselves, others, and for what they believe in.”