The members of SOL Development inside a classroom talking to students about love, grief, and healing. Credit: KQED Arts & Culture

Karega Bailey knows what grief is. In 2014, his brother Kareem Johnson, a coordinator at Sacramento’s Center for Fathers and Families, was shot and killed. Bailey wanted to make sure that his brother’s story, and those of other lives lost to gun violence, wouldn’t just turn into another hashtag or statistic. 

“These lives are characterized by the number and not the story,” Bailey said about how killings are often covered in the media. “There is a blurb about the homicide, but we never get into the person’s life, their lived experiences, who they were, and how they transformed the world around them.”

During this moment of profound loss, Bailey used the sorrow and anger he felt to write songs and poetry to deal with the loss. The experience led Bailey to team up with others to create spaces where people can process their grief. 

In collaboration with his childhood friend BJ McBride, and with his Oakland-based hip hop and R&B quartet Sol Development, Bailey and McBride have been hosting events where Black mothers who have lost children to gun violence have a safe space to gather and talk about the process of grief through multidimensional storytelling using spoken word, music, praise, and healing circles.

Together with the rest of the band: Brittany Tanner, Felicia Gangloff-Bailey, and Lauren Adams, Bailey and McBride began hosting these gatherings through the Be Imaginative Collective (co-founded by McBride and Ayesha Walker) in 2017. The collective of artists, healers and activists hosted healing circles, art exhibits, and community events across the country to help families of those who lost loved ones due to gun violence find solace through art, music and praise. Since the pandemic, the collective has not been able to host any events, but viewers will get a chance to see the collective’s last in-person event in the film.

Karega Bailey (left), and BJ McBride (right) help families who have lost loved ones through gun violence and police brutality with the work that they do with SOL Development and Be Imaginative Collective. Credit: Joe Keefe

Bailey and McBride are now sharing some of the stories they’ve helped tell in a new film, “When the Waters Get Deep.” Directed by KQED Arts and Culture’s Kelly Whalen, the half-hour documentary about Sol Development and Be Imaginative Collective follows the band as it works with Oakland families impacted by gun violence. 

McBride, who grew up with Bailey in Sacramento and helped produce the documentary, wanted the film to resonate with communities far beyond the Bay Area. “There are multiple cities across the country that can really use a framework to think of how we create safe spaces for folks to process grief, or even taking an invitation to begin their healing,” he said.

Filming for “When the Waters Get Deep” took place in 2019, but plans for the project first started taking shape back in 2015 after the killing of Mario Woods in San Francisco. The five SFPD officers who shot Woods faced no disciplinary action. At the time, McBride was working alongside his cousin, Oakland Pastor Ben McBride, to support Woods’ family and demand the officers be held accountable. McBride said this mobilization against police brutality provided the early framework for how they could utilize film to bring awareness to this social movement of power, grief, and healing.

In 2018, Sol Development was selected as one of KQED’s “Bay Brilliant,” a series that highlights local artists and creatives. McBride said this led to talks with KQED executives about how SOL Development could partner with KQED on larger projects. “We started to talk about how we can tell the larger story of Sol Development around social impact, gun violence, and that’s essentially kind of where the pitch started.”

Felicia and Karega Bailey overlook Downtown Oakland from the shores of Lake Merritt. Credit: KQED Arts & Culture

The film also explored unexpected sources of grief. While filming the “When the Waters Get Deep,” Bailey and Felicia Gangloff-Bailey, who are married, were awaiting the birth of their daughter, Kamaiu. Sadly, due to complications, Kamaiu passed away the same day that she was born. The Bailey’s decided to include the loss of their child as part of the documentary. They said they knew that discussing the loss of a child at birth would help couples who are navigating a similar story find solace in knowing that they are not alone. Bailey is grateful that the film crew and McBride allowed his family to decide how they wanted to tell this part of their story. 

“We kind of fell into this place of real vulnerability captured, that could have never been imaginable agreed to before we started filming,” Bailey said.

“We are invested in making sure that we are building this bridge of radical gentleness. Those mothers who experienced the loss of children by gun violence experienced the same type of tender love and concern with mothers who lose children and neonatal loss,” Bailey said. “Each life is deserving of the same dignity and respect.”

On Tuesday, Feb. 23, KQED is screening “When the Waters Get Deep” as part of its “A Love Supreme, Black History Month Drive-In at Fort Mason.” While the drive-in showing is already sold out, people can still purchase a donation-based livestream ticket and watch the film through KQED’s YouTube page on Tuesday, Feb. 23 at 8:00 p.m.

Along with the feature of “When the Waters Get Deep,” the event will also screen three other short films by Oakland filmmakers: “Mama’s Babies” by Oakland filmmaker and photographer Adrian L. Burrell, documenting his family’s life in West Oakland, starting with his 94-year-old grandmother. “Labor” by Oakland journalist and filmmaker Niema Jordan, pays homage to Breonna Taylor, motherhood, and Black women with spoken-word by Oakland rapper Ryan Nicole. “Blackness is Everything,” by Oakland-based director Alba Roland Mejia and poet Donté Clark is an experimental film celebrating Black lives and the Black experience.

Azucena Rasilla is a bilingual journalist from East Oakland reporting in Spanish and in English, and a longtime reporter on Oakland arts, culture and community. As an independent local journalist, she has reported for KQED Arts, The Bold Italic, Zora and The San Francisco Chronicle. She was a writer and social media editor for the East Bay Express, helping readers navigate Oakland’s rich artistic and creative landscapes through a wide range of innovative digital approaches.