Con Brio’s Ziek McCarter and His Family Create a Healing Garden for Grief
[dropcap]I[/dropcap]f you ask Ziek McCarter, lead singer of San Francisco soul band Con Brio, heâll say that it wasnât any one personâs idea to start the Long Live Love Foundation. It was Godâs.
He tells me so while his mother, Gabrielle Dickey Chanel El, searches for the response to my question about the origins of their new nonprofit. She agrees.
âI take no credit for it,â she says. Gabrielle was sitting in the church after her other sonâs funeral in 2019 when it came to her. âI just closed my eyes and went on a journey. I feel like I saw it all.â She saw horses, water and people on some wide open land somewhere.
The expanses of land and the horses never transpired, but on a small plot in Oaklandâs Ghost Town neighborhood now resides the Healing Serenity Garden, the first physical project of the Long Live Love Foundation. Named after the album her son, Immanuel McCarter, released in 2013, the foundation is aimed at providing healing resources to families affected by violence, particularly the kind inflicted by guns or law enforcement.
Ziek McCarter places cut flowers into a water fountain at the Long Live Love Foundation garden in Oakland on July 16, 2021. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)
Police violence is something that has haunted the McCarter family for quite some time: In 2011, Ziek and Immanuelâs dad, Reverend David McCarter, was killed by a sheriffâs deputy in front of his childhood church. The ensuing fallout took its toll on the family, particularly on Immanuel, who developed depression after a violent encounter with police in Los Angeles, where he was attending Cal State University. He died by suicide on June 13, 2019.
[dropcap]O[/dropcap]n a recent sunny morning, Ziek is sitting on the edge of the small stage at the back of the garden, looking off towards the front gate. Heâs thinking about how nurturing these sunflowers, lavender blossoms and poppiesâand his music with Con Brioâhas helped him find a sense of healing after these tragedies.Â
âMusic has always been very much medicine and therapy for me as well, but … to be able to balance some of the inconsistencies of the music industry, gardening really provided that balance or therapy,â he says.Â
Ziekâs everyday demeanor stands in sharp contrast to his stage presence, where he punctuates performances with athletic dance moves to match the exuberant soul band, a seven-piece containing horns and keys in addition to the usual guitar-bass-drums makeup. Today, heâs soft spoken and a little wistful, ruminating on the to-everything-there-is-a-season, turn-turn-turn of the universe. âWe just keep one foot in front of the other, and move on faith and trust,â he says. His mom, in a proud-mom move, plays some Con Brio on the other side of the garden.
Ziek McCarter sits with his mother Gabrielle Dickey Chanel El at the Long Live Love Garden in Oakland on July 16, 2021. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)
Heâs been balancing gardening with music since high school. For a senior English project, he wrote a song addressing global warming and filmed an accompanying music video. It went unexpectedly viral, eventually exceeding 10,000 views. His mother showed the video to the founder of CommunityGrows, a nonprofit that establishes gardens in low-income communities. âAnd she was like, âOh, we have to have him,ââ Ziek says with a small laugh. After an internship, he was offered a position teaching a gardening glass at Rosa Parks Elementary in San Francisco. âSome Con Brio songs I wrote in the garden at Rosa Parks,â he recalls.
Around 2014, his music career picked up. Unlike many independent musicians, music became a way to supplement his day job as a teacherânot the other way around. âTouring started increasing and demand for us to travel, go to Canada, go to Europe, play more [increased,too],â he says. He taught his last class in 2016, but his passion for gardening never went away.Â
âTheyâre both cathartic,â he says of his two pursuits. But his love of performing started much earlier than his interest in plants. âIâve always had music since I could walk,â Ziek reflects. David played piano and taught Immanuel guitar. Ziek showed a sense of showmanship from an early age: âI was that kid at two years old, flipping off the couch,â he says.Â
Ziekâs love of connecting with audiences fits with Con Brioâs tendency to call for unity in the face of tragedy, exemplified in songs like âNonsenseâ and âFree and Brave.â The aim, says Ziek, isnât to invalidate the ways others might react to injusticeâthis is just the way he and the band feel most comfortable processing grief. âItâs a journey of transmuting and transforming. âCause there is anger, we do feel anger. … [But] we try not to let that eat us up and internalize it and implode.â
Flowers and fruit trees grow at the Long Live Love Foundation garden in Oakland on July 16, 2021. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)
As Ziekâs career with Con Brio started taking off, Immanuel was writing songs solo. His Long Live Love album, recorded under the name Apollo Carter at age 17, explores his personal feelings on his loss and the life he had left to live without David. âHe was a treasure,â says Ziek of his younger brother. âHe was a treasure chest that [he was] slowly kinda wiping the dust off of.â
[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he legacy of the McCarter family continues to grow in the beds of the Healing Garden. The plot rests in the backyard of Ziekâs great-grandmotherâs house, which still stands to his right. Ziek grew up playing baseball in the backyard. In that way, the garden keeps familial memories alive, for both him and others that may drop by.
âWe all deal with life and death in different ways, but … that relationship thrives so beautifully in the garden,â he says. âTo be able to see the relationship of plants going to compost, and have that compost enrich the soil that it just came from, and the full circle of life. Itâs truly peaceful, it helps you understand the rhythm of things.â
Ziek McCarter poses for a portrait at the Long Live Love Garden in Oakland on July 16, 2021. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)
Lead to Life, a nonprofit that melts guns and transforms the metal into tools like shovels, has begun leading cooking classes at the garden, where they share recipes that can help offset health risks associated with grief. Quiet spaces like the garden, and the sustenance it produces, can help those processing the loss of a loved one due to violence, says Lead to Lifeâs Stormy Saint-Val. âTo be able to transmute that [grief] … is to have a safe space where you can relax,â she explains.Â
Though she presses that everyoneâs experience is different, trauma can manifest not just in psychological issues like PTSD, but as physical health issues like stroke and heart problems. Gabrielle says long-term goals are to offer services like yoga and acupuncture, and theyâve already got the ball rolling on a scholarship in Immanuelâs name with the San Francisco Unified School District.
In the past, Gabrielle would explicitly ask her husband not to bring her flowers as a gift. âI donât want no flowers,â she would say. âTheyâre so beautiful, and theyâre gonna just die.â But now she appreciates how plants can carry memories. Some peace lilies given to her by an attendee of Immanuelâs funeral are currently in the living room and the bedroom of the house. Theyâre still alive.
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