Ashton Vaughn Charles grew up feeling like a disappointment to his mother.
When he was young, she instilled in him the drive to be a world leader. The saxophonist for The Color 8 believed that meant entering politics, so when he was focusing on playing music instead of leadership while growing up, he felt like he was failing her in some way. This wasn't the case, and it wasn't until a few weeks ago that she reminded him that politics isn't the only way to lead and bring about change.
"She said, 'Everyone who is using their voice to make a difference is leading the world,'" he recalls.
Charles is certainly speaking up with his first single, bringing together over 20 local artists, poets, and rappers (all listed below) to raise their voices. The ambitious musical project, inspired by the death of George Floyd, is named SKU (Stop Killing Us), and it may be one of the most honest pieces of music you'll hear this year. The first video in the three-part series came out last month. The second chapter came out August 4; the final video will debut in the next several weeks.
Charles told Phoenix New Times that the energy he felt attending the marches in downtown Phoenix with his sister inspired him to put his feelings to music.
"I couldn't open up my phone without feeling the weight of the world," he recalls. "When we went there, [that feeling] was heavier, but it felt lighter because there were more people to carry that weight with us. When there are people standing in solidarity with you, it's life-changing. You really feel that energy at those protests."
He went to work on SKU the next day, calling up vocalist KNova to tell him about the concept. As they began laying down the track, they could hear the emotion they were putting into it. Charles widened his focus and decided to use the song to allow fellow artists to express the pain and anguish that the Black community has been feeling for over 400 years.
"It is not easy to handle this," he said. "I wanted to give artists the space to document what is really happening and the pain that we really feel. We really go through this."
The first SKU video is a call to action to "keep the fire lit" and to "finish what we started." It begins with Charles going from calm to righteous anger. As the video continues, his collaborators join him. PK the Poet declares, "Time to change some policies, 'cause we done made enough music."
The next chapter picks up where Part One left off, and it's much more somber. It begins with Fransisco Phoenics stating that it's a new day, but "the revolution is well past the due date." But it's the image of rapper Ronnie Dijon with his face under a boot pleading "Stop killing us" that drives home the reality that oppression is far from over.
"I didn't want to just tell my story," says Charles. "All I had to do was compose and arrange it. But these artists put their all into this, and it would be nothing without them."
Charles notes that he didn't put this together to stand for any organization, though he emphasizes he is grateful for causes such as Black Lives Matter. He hopes that this collective work inspires the next leader, but also that its message will be heard by those who need to hear it.
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"I say [in the first video], 'If all lives matter, you should stand here with us,'" says Charles. "This is not just a Black people problem ... I want people to understand that this is bigger than just some movement that you want to be against because you think it excludes you."
Complete list of artists
Album art concept created by Ashton Vaughn Charles, Duha'ra Muhammad, and Melissa Zieske
Ashton Vaughn Charles
Sahar The Star
Pk Tha POET
Stone On Sax
Update 8/12/20: Charles has taken down both parts of SKU, stating that revised versions of the videos will be up at some point in the future. The musician explains why in this video.