A portrait of OnRaé LaTeal.
OnRaé LaTeal. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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One Sunday in late June, activist, music producer, and educator OnRaé LaTeal assembled some friends and community organizers at the newly established Black Lives Matter Plaza. She also brought in a videographer to capture their afternoon, which was filled with purpose. They posed for the camera, standing still with fists raised. They chanted, “Middle finger to the law/Say no, no to the po-po.” And they danced: A lithe ballerina executed some neat changements en pointe, and two street dancers, Kidflxsh and Loso, glided through the Citi Rock. Behind them at her beatpad and mixing board was LaTeal, wearing one of her signature wide-brimmed hats. The words “a person was lynched yesterday” were printed across the back collar of her crisp white jumpsuit, echoing the flag once flown outside the NAACP’s New York City headquarters. 

The result of that afternoon was the song and video “Middle Finger to the Law” by LaTeal featuring Fresco Steez and the Black Youth Project 100 Choir. It is one of 11 tracks on the visual album We Keep Us Safe, released last month by LaTeal’s Freedom Futures Collective and available on all streaming platforms.

LaTeal created the collective, which she usually refers to by its FFC acronym, in October. Her goal was to mentor young adults as they use film, music, and education to support the Movement for Black Lives. FFC members range in age from 16 to 36 and are Black, Latinx, and White. As their teacher, producer, and all-around fairy godmother, LaTeal is mentoring what she likes to call a “new generation of liberation music makers.” 

An adept multitasker, LaTeal currently works as the senior manager of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden’s ARTLAB, a digital arts studio that hosts afterschool programming for teens. As an artist and producer, she has recorded several collaborative albums with multiple artists; she also co-founded the Black Girls Handgames Project, presenting interactive community events that fuse traditional children’s hand games with hip-hop culture. Throughout nearly all her work, a common theme can be found: a deliberate celebration of Black joy. 

“While we are out demonstrating, Black joy is essential to sustaining our organizing work. Combating systemic oppression is taxing. In the midst of our fight for liberation, we as Black people have to always make time to rest in our joy,” LaTeal says.  

“For so long, we have watched our people being murdered by police unjustifiably and without facing accountability. Considering centuries of Black pain and trauma caused by white supremacy, some would think it’s impossible for Black people to experience joy. Our joy is something that should have been taken away from us, but we are reclaiming it,” she continues. “Joy is a form of resistance.”

A powerful sense of conviction guides all her endeavors. ARTLAB, for example, offers teens access to brand new digital art technology, which LaTeal believes translates to academic and professional success. “It’s about offering our youth the necessary mentorship to transform them from consumers to producers of 21st century technology to increase their success in the classroom and their chances to receive quality employment when transitioning into adulthood,” she says. 

ARTLAB is where LaTeal met many of the fledgling artists who would become FFC members and collaborate with her on We Keep Us Safe. While “Middle Finger to the Law” and other tracks on the album are unlikely contenders for commercial radio, they are reaching audiences on social media. “Middle Finger” has accumulated more than 168,000 views across platforms, and “Freedomside” has over 93,000. 

FFC’s Liv Grace, 19, met LaTeal two years ago at the ARTLAB, which was closed when she arrived at the museum with her family. They knocked on the door anyway, and LaTeal invited them in. Currently attending college in Alabama, Liv Grace recorded two tracks on We Keep Us Safe. “Melanin” is a self-love anthem, but “Liberated (Hands up to the Sky)” has a different goal: “I wanted to explain defunding the police in a way that would be easily received and help people understand how it would positively affect our community,” she says. 

For Liv Grace, LaTeal’s mentorship has been invaluable. “She’s like the program’s eternal hype man,” she says. “She’s very uplifting and always quick to tell us, ‘You’re stuff is amazing. You’re super dope.’” 

Fabiola Castro, 20, a producer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist who grew up in Alexandria, is one of FFC’s non-Black members. “This program wasn’t just about us creating music for fun as a hobby. It was also about becoming professionals,” she says. “OnRaé showed us how to register for [Broadcast Music, Inc.] so we can get paid for our music … and all those nitty-gritty things that are important for functioning in the industry as an artist.”

Castro carefully considered what she wanted to communicate on her track, “We Keep Each Other Safe,” on the FFC album. “Since I don’t have the Black experience as a Mexican who is White-passing, I wanted to instead focus on the experience of watching all of these different catastrophes going on,” she says. “With my song, I want to convey the feeling of helplessness when you’re trying to combat all these things alone, but also the feeling of community and power when you work together with others towards one goal, especially when that goal is equality for all.”

FFC rapper, producer, multi-instrumentalist, and self-described “mythical or mystical intentional creativity personality” Trélogy, 20, grew up in Northeast Washington. He, too, met LaTeal in the ARTLAB. His powerful song “Black in Peace,” written after the murder of George Floyd, is one of the most haunting tracks on the album. “OnRaé has helped me develop as an artist by shaping my writing perspective and also encouraging me to finally step out and release something,” he says. “She is almost like a second mother to me. I personally know that OnRaé will push you to the best of your abilities when she sees something in you.”

Growing up, OnRaé LaTeal Watkins was a military brat whose family lived in Portugal, the Philippines, Arizona, Colorado, and Florida before settling in suburban Maryland during her early teens. Her father is a former track star who gave her his competitive streak. “I’ve lost friendships due to bowling matches,” she says with an easy laugh. That intensity also drives her creative work, she adds. “I always want whatever I’m working on to be even more dynamic than my last piece,” she says. 

Her mother, described by OnRaé as more spiritual, contributed to her confidence. “She helps me stay grounded in understanding where my gifts and talents come from,” says LaTeal. “She always affirmed us by putting us in front of the mirror before school to remind us how amazing we are, to believe in myself, my strengths, my talents.” 

Starting in third grade, LaTeal played saxophone and tenor sax before transitioning to piano. She attended a jazz band camp in College Park and sang in a gospel choir at Frostburg State University before transferring to Southern Maryland Community College. She eventually graduated from Howard University with a degree in radio, TV, and film. An internship for WHUR (96.3 FM) solidified her production skills, and later, her connections with the station paid off with airplay for her 2014 single “Infatuation,” recorded with a group she called Aflocentric. After that, she taught hip-hop and beatmaking at the Latin American Youth Center in Columbia Heights. Now she juggles multiple projects and lives in Alexandria with her fiancée Tashira Halyard, a child welfare attorney who blogs about style, self-care, and social justice. 

In 2018, as the protests for Black lives amped up in cities across the country, LaTeal recorded The Black Joy Experience, a compelling collection of well-known freedom songs and liberation chants she produced with BYP100, a national nonprofit activist group. Her first politically driven project, it featured more than 20 activists from around the U.S. “When it was released in 2018, I was a little disappointed and thought we should have gotten more traction,” she says. “It turned out that the time for that album to impact the world was during the summer of the George Floyd uprisings when we started to see tens of thousands of album streams and see and hear our chants being recited via social media at demonstrations all over the nation.” 

LaTeal also co-founded the Black Girls Handgames Project in 2018, using hip-hop beats to revitalize childhood clapping games. “Basically, we merge the cultural traditions of hand games and hip-hop to facilitate community-driven experiences,” she says. LaTeal considers the program particularly important for Black girls. “Oftentimes, Black girls are victims of adultification bias, which removes their innocence and ability to be seen as children,” she says. “The project is about helping our girls to experience play in a way that they deserve.” A secondary benefit of teaching teenage girls beatmaking skills is the possibility of improving women’s representation in the music production field. 

At Black Girls Handgames Project events, participants are taught Miss Mary Mack, Apple on a Stick, Gigolo, and other games. “It’s so cool because you see the 8-year-olds stepping up and leading the adults, and vice versa,” says LaTeal. “I make it contemporary by putting a hip-hop instrumental trap beat on it. So it’s Miss Mary Mack with beatboxing, and it’s super interactive but has some Black historical significance as well.”

In 2019, LaTeal brought the Black Girls Handgames Project to the Smithsonian Folklife Festival for one glorious afternoon, as crowds delighted in Miss Mary Mack, Slide, and Little Sally Walker. “It was such a diverse audience,” says LaTeal. “It was really a magical experience, all based on the childhood experiences of Black girls, which I think is really dope.”

With the advent of COVID-19, LaTeal pivoted to focus on FFC, obtaining a grant from Open Society Foundations, which funds independent groups working for democratic governance and social justice. Once she assembled the collective, it took the group three months to complete We Keep Us Safe.The collective’s efforts incorporate her own work documenting some of the artistic aspects of the local movement for Black lives. “After George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, I started to support D.C. activist organizations by remixing sounds from the movement into contemporary songs. I wanted to add video to capture the organizing work that is happening in D.C., so I started going out and capturing content,” LaTeal says. “We’re addressing some really painful toxicity, and yet there’s so much joy in this project.” 

Makia Green, lead organizer with Black Lives Matter DC and an organizer with the Working Families Party, considers LaTeal an essential part of the movement. “OnRaé is such a light. She captures the essence of protest culture and helps us tell the story of the uprising for Black liberation and defunding the police,” says Green. “OnRaé is in the Black Lives Matter community, and her work uplifts Black resistance, Black healing, and Black joy. 

“She’s providing opportunities to the artist community in the middle of the pandemic,” adds Green. “The fact that she built a whole collective in the middle of a pandemic and mass unemployment is an investment in the artist community.”

LaTeal recorded part of the track “Our Lives Matter,” credited to LaTeal featuring Afriye and Marley, last summer at a children’s protest along Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue in Southeast. As 5-year-old Afriye led the singsong chant—“we are Black, we are strong, our lives matter”—LaTeal walked in front of her, recording. “She was so passionate about it, and I had my phone directly in front of her mouth as she was marching down the street,” says LaTeal, who later mixed the chant for that track with snippets of an interview she conducted with Marley, a 9-year-old protester. 

“When I think of freedom, I think of a world where my students aren’t afraid to walk in the rain with a hoodie on, because [now] they think about Trayvon Martin walking in a hoodie and being murdered because he was racially profiled,” says LaTeal. “I think of a world where Black youth have access to the equitable education, resources, and technology they need to be successful. When I think of reimagining public safety—I think of a world that does not have police terror, state sanctioned-violence, state-sanctioned murder.”

For now, she will continue to prioritize art and activism. “I see the amazing impact of art and how beneficial it can be for our youth every day,” she says. “Music is universal, and I believe it has the power to bring people together in a way that other mediums can’t. And I do believe that art has the power to change the world.”