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Arizona forward Ira Lee using songwriting, Twitter to fight racial injustice

Stanford v Arizona Photo by Chris Coduto/Getty Images

Ira Lee grew up in a household where everybody could sing, himself included. He figured that was normal until he was in high school and some friends spotted his talent and asked him if he likes to write poetry.

He does, so they suggested he try songwriting.

“Since then I’ve used it as a method to cope with personal issues and just to express myself,” Lee said. “I have trouble expressing my emotions... so when I sing, I feel it comes out smoothly. It just flows.”

On June 2, Lee was feeling particularly enraged after attending a George Floyd protest in Hollywood, which he says was peaceful until the police showed up.

He channeled those emotions by writing these lyrics and singing them passionately in a video he posted on Twitter:

I see the pain, I see the tears

I see a group of people full of hate and fear.

I don’t know why

They gotta die

For you to get the message, we just wanna fly.

My people dying, these mommas crying.

They don’t know if they baby gonna be back alive.

We fight a war, we don’t have to fight.

So maybe you can take my hand and we unite

We are just tired of the games

400 years of shame.

The video was only 45 seconds, but Lee said it’s the condensed version of a three-minute song.

“To go out to the protests and see some of my young peers getting shot by those rubber bullets, how could that not make anyone mad?” Lee said. “So I just wanted to put it down on paper and I wanted to show the world like, ‘hey this is how I’m feeling, this is how a lot of us feel and you guys need to understand.’”

But that’s not enough, so Lee also mashes the retweet button to spread awareness of issues that may otherwise get swept under the rug.

“I’m posting everything,” Lee said. “Not just Black Lives Matter stuff. Stuff that there’s kids starving in Yemen, the issues with Latinos.”

Politics are polarizing, so Lee’s tweets have cost him some followers. He doesn’t care, tweeting on June 14 that “if you’re uncomfortable with my retweets then keep unfollowing me. Actually just go ahead and block me.”

“Everything that I retweet, everything that I post, I stand strongly by,” Lee said Friday. “One, I’m not a racist. If you know me, I love everyone, I’m cool with everybody, I’m the nicest person in the world. But the pinpoint issue right now is black lives do matter, because there’s a lot of things going on. There’s young black men getting hung still. There’s people getting shot. In that song I said 400 years of shame because this has been happening for over 400 years. And we always try to say, ‘oh it’s better, it’s better’ but I’m trying to highlight the issue that it’s not as good as everyone makes it seem. So I’ma keep going strong for it. If people don’t agree with me, people don’t agree, but it is what it is.”

Lee’s outlook has been shaped through experience. Growing up in a Latino neighborhood of Los Angeles with a Korean mother and black father, Lee said he didn’t know what race was until he was profiled by police when he was 12.

“I’m walking to a friend’s house, I have a red polo shirt on and some pants, and they’re asking me about gang activity, where am I going,” Lee said. “At the time I didn’t realize, ‘oh that’s not right.’ But being 22, looking back at that, that wasn’t right at all because I wasn’t doing anything. I was minding my business walking to where I needed to be.”

Lee said he had a similar encounter in Tucson. He was driving a new car to Jack In The Box around midnight, made a right turn and was pulled over by an officer who was in the far left lane.

“He asked me for my registration and he asked if it was my car,” Lee said. “Yeah, it’s my car, so I give them my registration, the temporary registration because I just got the car like two days before, and I’m sitting there for 30, 40 minutes. And he comes back and he says, ‘this is not a registration’, so he gave me a ticket. And my dad came down the next day and raised hell in downtown Tucson. And they ended up dropping the case because I didn’t do anything.”

Lee got pulled over in Tucson again in August 2018 when he was arrested for drunk driving, but he takes full responsibility for that and has learned from it.

In the past, Lee wouldn’t have been so outspoken, but he’s 22 now, the only four-year senior on Arizona’s roster, and on the verge of becoming an uncle.

Silence is no longer an option.

“It’s my turn to be a leader, not just to the Arizona basketball team but to everyone that’s seen me come up,” Lee said. “Like, I have a bunch of young guys in high school who don’t really know about what’s going on, so I feel it’s my duty to educate them. And then also I’m about to have a niece, so I’m thinking in those terms. ... She’s gonna be a young mixed black girl growing up in America, so whatever I can do right now to help make it better for the future generation, I’ll do it.”