“When the Waters Get Deep” begins with a close-up of hands flipping through the pages of an old photo album. Karega Bailey smiles at the memories. Looking at pictures of him and his friends as young children in Sacramento during the ’90s — Christmas mornings in front of the tree and scenes from the playground — he calls out a few names. His energy shifts as he explains that three of the nine young men in the friend group are dead. Moments later, the scene cuts to a tight shot of Bailey’s face as he begins to recite the following:
This is for Black males who have considered homicide when they lost someone they love.
This is for those of us who know firsthand that we are all just one bullet away from being a hashtag.
As the poem continues, Bailey, one-fourth of the Bay Area music group SOL Development, talks about sleepless nights, questioning God and lacking support groups.
The documentary, directed by Kelly Whalen, is slated to make its big-screen debut as part of Fort Mason Flix’s sold-out Black History Month program on Tuesday, Feb. 23 (it can also be live-streamed for free that same evening on KQED Arts’ YouTube channel). The opening scenes hit hard and set audiences up for a heavy journey through pain, loss and healing. But it’s the unexpected, captured while the cameras are rolling, that sets it apart.
Initially, the film was supposed to be a five-minute piece about a group of Oakland musicians and educators and their impact on the community. But conversations between the musicians and filmmakers revealed a story that would take more time.
In 2014, Bailey’s brother, Kareem Johnson, a coordinator at Sacramento’s Center for Fathers and Families, was killed. As we meet Bailey in the film’s opening scenes, we see how he navigates his grief. He talks about making the conscious decision not to allow the pain to eat away at him and how he had to fight the urge to seek revenge. Instead, Bailey channeled the negative energy into teaching and making music. In 2015, he collaborated with his wife, Felicia Gangloff-Bailey, along with friends Lauren Adams and Brittany Tanner, to create SOL Development.
On their debut album, “The SOL of Black Folk,” released in February 2019, their songs addressed police violence, the pain of losing family members to gun violence, a sister’s plea for her brother to abandon street life, and finding peace through faith.
But their desire to facilitate healing and build community went beyond their work in the studio. In 2017, they got involved with Be-Imaginative, a collective of artists, activists and healers who provide healing space for families who have lost loved ones to gun violence — both in the community and at the hands of police. Using storytelling as a tool to help process trauma, the collective hosts art exhibitions, healing circles, community events and retreats, and creates music to lift up the memories of the people who have died and listen to the experiences of the people who have survived them.
SOL Development’s work with Be-Imaginative takes center stage in the film. Intimate footage from the healing circles spotlights mothers who share their stories of loss and how, no matter the time that has passed, they still feel pain and sorrow. One of them is Sharon Bailey, mother to Karega Bailey and Kareem Johnson.
“It’s hard because of the way we have criminalized and made context of the young people who lose their life to gun violence,” Karega Bailey explains. “There’s always this question of whether or not they could have done something differently. A question of whether or not they were at any in part responsible for their deaths.”
In addition to questions of the circumstances, families are often left without support once the social media hashtags are no longer viral and “the news cycle changes,” says Benjamin “BJ” McBride, “When the Water Gets Deep” producer and co-founder of Be-Imaginative.
“But life takes a different form for the people who were in that particular moment, the people who are stuck with that loss — they’re still grappling with it,” adds McBride. “How can we create community and a safe space for them to learn from each other? That is really what it’s about. These moms, they’re at different points in their grief, teaching each other how to process and how to navigate these very challenging circumstances.”
The circles, like those in the film, are family members’ opportunity to share their grief and loss without fear of judgment or interrogation. As SOL Development plays, the families are encouraged to speak the names of the loved ones they have lost.
“The work we do with our mothers and families is extremely important to us. We also do it for ourselves. We are the people that we serve,” says another Be-Imaginative co-founder, Ayesha Walker, who got involved in grief work after she miscarried twins.
Going far deeper than a typical behind-the-scenes music doc, the film explores both the universality of grief and how the Black community is weighted by the unequal share on its shoulders. But despite the presence of so much heavy loss, an undercurrent of beauty, love and even joy runs throughout the film. As Karega Bailey moves through grieving his brother, his self-awareness blossoms, and he is intent on sharing the lessons he learns about radical vulnerability and healing with others.
The feeling of expansion and growth is emphasized with the revelation, about halfway through the film, that Karega and Felicia are expecting their first child. The excitement of family and friends is palpable. Adams sings a special song she wrote for the gender reveal party. Gangloff-Bailey expresses what a joy their daughter is to carry.
Then on Sept. 30, 2019, the couple’s daughter, Kamaiu Sol Bailey, was born — and lived only a few minutes. Their decision to share such an intimate and heartbreaking experience (which they and their healing community refer to as the double transition of their child) with the film crew then, and with the world since, is another example of the power of supportive communities. Through the fog of their own grief, the Baileys swiftly become public advocates for others experiencing infant loss.
“I hope that there is a radical gentleness that people will feel towards mothers who have lost children,” Gangloff-Bailey says, reflecting on the community response to Kamaiu’s death. “I hope that those mothers who have lost children to gun violence are held the same way that I was held, regarded the same way that I was regarded. That they’re comforted the same way that I’m comforted and that they’re loved the same way I am loved, because they are deserving of all of those things just as I was.”
Audiences get a glimpse of that care in the film during a celebration for Kamaiu. As Gangloff-Bailey recounts the difficulty of their experience, Bailey notes how much they have gained from the mothers they worked with.
The sentiment is one that Tanner shares. She, too, was processing multiple levels of grief toward the end of filming. The rawness we hear in her voice as she sings at Kamaiu’s homegoing, an African American Christian funeral tradition marking the going home of the deceased to heaven, is the grief of a friend who was part of the birth team. But it is also the grief of a woman who had lost her brother, Demetrius, to gun violence on Oct. 17, 2019 — not even a month after the loss of Kamaiu.
“Had I not been in those healing circles, I don’t know where I would be mentally,” says Tanner. “It prepared me to be able to grieve and to be able to hold all of that pain.”
“A Love Supreme” featuring “When the Waters Get Deep”: Black History Month Drive-in presented by KQED. 8-10 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 23. Register to view the free live stream on KQED Arts’ YouTube channel at bit.ly/BHMdocfilm.