Jay Z's Tidal Marks Five-Year Anniversary of Trayvon Martin Shooting with Powerful Social Justice Film

17 on Tidal
A young teenager is shot dead in "17," a social justice film from Tidal and Harry Belafonte's organization Sankofa. Tidal/Sankofa

Jay Z’s Tidal and Harry Belafonte’s social justice organization Sankofa have united to produce a new visual EP that serves as a sobering reminder of the value of black lives in America.

Released exclusively on Tidal last Friday, 17 features original songs by Raphael Saadiq and Ty Dolla $ign, and the release date coincides with both Black History Month and the fifth anniversary of Miami teenager Trayvon Martin's death. Martin was 17 when he was shot and killed in a gated community in Florida by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman.

The short film that accompanies the EP was conceptualized and directed by the filmmaking team of Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz, who previously made a short public service announcement about police brutality for Belafonte’s Sankofa.  This latest project is more ambitious in scope, merging narrative and original music. It follows a young black man, a beloved son and brother and on the cusp of a college scholarship, who has his life cut short when he is fatally wounded.

The victim in the video doesn’t only represent Martin, though. Michael Brown, Tamir Rice and many other African-American youths that never got to realize their potential are key to the message of the project. “We want to remind you that so many of these kids don’t see their 18th birthday,” Gerard Bush tells Newsweek.

“What happened to Trayvon was in a gated community in Florida,” the filmmaker says, noting that this isn’t just a problem affecting inner-city youths. That sentiment is reflected in 17, which was filmed in Florida and depicts a suburban neighborhood. “You’ve got these kids from middle-class backgrounds that are still seen through the prism of racial bias and often that costs them their lives.”

Bush draws from his own experience of profiling when he was younger. “I grew up in Texas, in a gated community. This was in the 1990s. I was standing in front of my house and the police had their guns drawn on me,” he says.

It is only in the last decade, and particularly the last five years since Martin’s death, that these issues have had wider scrutiny, thanks in part to social media. Zimmerman’s acquittal on murder charges in 2013 spawned the genesis of the Black Lives Matter movement—the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter trended in the U.S., and across the world, after the verdict was announced.

17 also features a nod to Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old youngster who was shot dead in Cleveland, Ohio, in November 2014 for brandishing a toy gun in a playground. Bush and Renz compare his plight to Dylann Roof, a white man, who shot dead nine parishioners during a church service in Charleston, South Carolina in 2015.

“That was the way we could really distill the racial bias that takes place [in the U.S.],” says Bush. “When people see that statistic at the end, it’s something that’s very real—this happened and this happens every day. We found someone who was the most murderous, cold-blooded, and armed with a semi-automatic weapon, that still was [arrested] without incident. Whereas Tamir Rice loses his life.”

Dylann Roof vs Tamir Rice The statistics are sobering: Dylann Roof and Tamir Rice Tidal/Sankofa

The relationship with Tidal, owned by Jay Z, was the “perfect fit” for 17, says Bush.

Both Jay Z and wife Beyoncé, whose Grammy Award-winning music video for “Formation” was a pointed artistic expression of police brutality, have shown support for the Black Lives Matter movement both publicly and privately. In 2015, the couple reportedly paid to bail out protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, after they were arrested while demonstrating against police brutality.

“I don’t want to call Jay Z out, in respect to he and Beyoncé, but Tidal has been incredibly supportive in this process since the day we got started,” says Bush. “They have put all their resources in making sure 17 gets in front of the people. Hopefully it is the beginning of a broader conversation so we can exact some meaningful change.”

The filmmaker adds: “Jay Z and Beyoncé are very serious about social justice work. They speak through action rather than talk—[releasing] 17 is a great illustration of that.”

So, what does Jay Z think of the film? Bush says: “All we can say is what we hear from the Tidal people, which is that the owners love it. The piece wouldn’t have made it to air if they didn’t love it.”

17 will be followed up by a full-length album released by Sankofa featuring the four tracks used in the film, as well as contributions from John Legend and Sting. Bush and Renz, meanwhile, are working on continuing their social justice work with a feature-length film next in the pipeline.