To Sing Over the Silencing

“It is a vibrant, caring, and tight-knit community. This is the story of resilience told in 100 Block Rock.”

“Each of us has been given a voice, and another way we can act is to go to demonstrations, or directly to City Hall, to speak against the destruction of the neighbourhood.”


The Downtown Eastside often receives a bad rap from fellow Vancouverites. But do we ever take time to learn its stories, to hear from those who occupy the space? 


100 Block Rock is a compilation of music by artists from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. The album’s Bandcamp describes the community as “constantly on the verge of extinction from a drug war, colonial genocide, gentrification and the lack of political will to create substantial change.” Yet despite this trauma, it is a vibrant, caring, and tight-knit community. This is the story of resilience told in 100 Block Rock


Music literally gives people a voice, but it is up to the artist whether the sound that emerges is passionate or lifeless. 100 Block Rock is full of life –– I have never heard an album with such breadth and depth. You go from a track called “The Sickness” featuring Terry Robinson’s raspy voice and laugh over the mellow accompaniment of hand drums and electric guitar, to “Nostalgia,” a tune that sounds like something that would play during a movie montage of the sweet scenes in a family’s life.


Tracks on the album span from folk, to punk, to pop — there is something in it for everyone. The album showcases the diversity of culture within the Downtown Eastside, and in a world that increasingly celebrates difference, the Downtown Eastside deserves to come into the limelight for this contribution to music. 


100 Block Rock’s uniqueness transcends just its sound and multi-genre nature. The album goes one step further and gives us something to care about.


Despite the poverty and oppression they face, those in the Downtown Eastside have created a sound that refuses to be muffled. The very fact that these songs have emerged from the space demonstrates a resilience that we cannot ignore.


I had the privilege of speaking with Eris Nyx, one of the producers on the record. She has lived and worked in the Downtown Eastside since she was 19, and gave me a powerful inside perspective on what music means to the neighbourhood. 


There are always people playing music in the Downtown Eastside, and 100 Block Rock is all about capturing the sound of the neighbourhood. Eris says, “Your community conditions the kind of music you’re gonna make, and you make music representative of your community and your personhood.” The record is meant to represent the Downtown Eastside in the purest way possible; to tell the story of those who live in it, create in it, breathe life to it.  


Eris also points out, “I’ve never met a person who didn’t listen to any music,” and this is so true. Music is accessible. It allows us to let down our walls and preconceived biases to truly hear what the musician wants to say. 


Our various perceptions of the Downtown Eastside have been conditioned by the media and other intermediaries, not by those who live there and experience it. This album gives us an unsullied representation of the values in the Downtown Eastside. 


I believe this album asks us questions, and calls us towards action. But the first step, as with any piece of music, is to listen.


What does it mean to speak over the silencing? 

The Downtown Eastside has historically been a group whose voices are silenced. The album’s Bandcamp page describes the neighbourhood as “an area that every politician, property owner, social worker, and police officer has an opinion on, yet, rarely do you hear the voices that come from within.” Working against this, 100 Block Rock serves as a platform to showcase artists who might not otherwise have a voice.


Musicians in the Downtown Eastside don’t always have the funds to release their music, so 100 Block Rock was a project that bridged this financial gap. To fund the album, producers obtained a Creative BC Grant, partnered with the City of Vancouver, and also received support from the Coalition of Peers Dismantling the Drug War. In doing so, they provided a way for musicians to present their stories through high-quality recordings.


100 Block Rock is also about the preservation of culture. According to Eris, the Downtown Eastside is at a juncture where the City of Vancouver, and their public policy department, have predicted East Hastings will become “the most walkable street on earth” in the coming years. “At the end of the day […] they mean they’re gonna push all this poverty back under the rug instead of actually dealing with it […] In doing that, they’re decimating culture.”


Whatever happens to the neighbourhood, the vision is that 100 Block Rock will serve as a monument to the Downtown Eastside, a way of remembering it as it was. 


The Music


With his first words, “So glad you’re alive / So good that you’re here,” Mike Richter’s “All the Best” starts off the album by demonstrating a posture of openness. Despite the trauma the neighbourhood has faced, he welcomes us into their music. The acoustic instruments create a vibe that feels like a warm hug, and it makes you want to hear his story. Richter croons, “May you be the spinner of the story / The teller and the tale,” encouraging us to speak up, to refuse to be passive.


This is exactly what the artists do so well on this record. Rather than accepting a status of victim to big business and city policy, they have put their words into song and shared them with the world. 


What else does this album try to tell us? These are a few ways that it speaks to me.


It tells us to recognize the talent within the Downtown Eastside, and respect the neighbourhood.


In “The Miseducation of River,” Tesla Rainbowdancer tells us the story of a nine year old boy in a style that seems like a mix between spoken word and rap, to the backdrop of a repeating motif played on an electric guitar. The song’s narrator tells his father, “If you want the best for me let me follow my heart / Let me play when it calls me let my life be my art.” 


The boy’s boldness in these words is striking. For someone’s life to be their art means to be unashamed, to do what one thinks is right despite the opinions of others. The artists on this album share their art with the world in a bold act that ought to command our respect.


Rainbowdancer continues on, “Because life is too short to not chase your passions / Ignore your desires and your dreams will go crashing / Trust that my spirit’s not meant to die / My spirit knows what’s up and it wants to thrive.”


These artists show us that they can thrive when they pursue their passions. As Eris says, we can view this record as feedback from a neighbourhood that, despite being crushed, refuses to crumble. Instead, it emits a light of resiliency through its music, as a testament to what people are capable of when they have the resources. 


It tells us to have a humble mindset of wanting to understand the neighbourhood better.


When I asked her about common misconceptions of the Downtown Eastside, Eris spoke against the perception of the neighbourhood as some stronghold of criminality and violence. “If you go down there and you meet people, it’s probably one of the safest, most caring neighbourhoods in the city[…] Maybe it’s too rough around the edges for people […] [but] historically, and to this day, it has been a bastion and safe place for a lot of people.”


It’s hard to move around the city with the COVID-19 restrictions, but this album can be a first step in learning more about the neighbourhood. It helps us to understand the Downtown Eastside because through their music, the artists share ordinary life experiences that can help us relate with those who live there.


Elvis Nelson comes at us with a spunky tune in “That Girl.” An electric guitar solo kicks in after the intro, accompanied by his declaration of “Baby, baby, baby, baby!” The song follows a simple narrative. He sings of love at first sight, of how he’d “like to get to know her better.” By presenting us with unfiltered utterances of angst and eagerness, Nelson shows listeners that love is a common experience shared across communities and cultures.


The next song on the album introduces us to a vastly contrasting emotion. Instead of skirting around expressions of pain, Erica and Grant’s recording of “Go Rest High on That Mountain” reflects an openness and vulnerability about loss.


Everything about this folk performance from the two Indigenous artists is real and raw. I hear it in the lyrics, “Oh, how we cried the day you left us / We gathered round your grave to grieve.” In the soulfulness as Erica’s voice strives towards the highest notes and holds them. In the solid persistence of her hand drum and tambourine; in the determined strums of the acoustic guitar.


Yet I don’t just hear pain, I also hear hope. Erica sings “Son, your work on earth is done.” She tells him to rest, and to “Go to heaven a-shoutin’ / Love for the Father and the Son.” Even in the face of death, the artists have found the strength to sing, play, and share their stories of persistence in the face of heartbreak.


It tells us to consider becoming involved in preserving the neighbourhood on a political level. 


L’Chronic zeroes right in on systemic issues in “Fentanyl Poisoning” as he proclaims that Vancouver’s fentanyl crisis is a genocide. The cinematic nature of the track with its driving beat, strings, and synth lend an extra weight to his words.


Drugs are the centre of this song, and L’Chronic uses his music to address the stigma that users face. The number of Fentanyl-related deaths has increased throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, and he reminds us that, “It’s not OD’ing, it’s fentanyl poisoning.” The song is an accusation of the system, as he says, “They say they’ll save you, but they won’t,” and refuses to leave anything up to interpretation.


Yet I don’t hear this song, or anything on this record, as a call for pity. These stories of courage refute any assumption that these artists are crying out for help from within the bowels of a broken place. Rather, I believe this record is a call to action.


L’Chronic tells listeners that there is something to be done. “We need to take care of each other / A lot of people use for pain / Because the system is driving them insane.”


What does it mean to be a victim to the system? This question cannot be answered within this piece, but it can be the beginning of a conversation about the history and future of the Downtown Eastside. 


Eris says she hopes that, “Maybe if people hear this and like what they’re hearing, they’d consider getting more involved in preservation of the neighbourhood on a political level.” This neighbourhood is a part of our city, and it may soon be demolished. But we can do something about it.


Azul Salvaje’s “Running Free” is the final inspiration I will draw on. He encourages us to “Just keep on keepin’ on / Doin’ the best you can do.” 

Illustrations by Luke Johnson

We can each do our best to preserve the space of the Downtown Eastside. Eris says that the best way to get involved is to go to the people and ask what they need help with. Organizations such as VANDU, CCAP and CPDDW are always looking for volunteers.


Each of us has been given a voice, and another way we can act is to go to demonstrations, or directly to City Hall, to speak against the destruction of the neighbourhood. 


Salvaje sings, “The golden calves worshipped by society / They sing no siren songs to me.” What would it mean to be unencumbered by desires for power and possessions? As 2021 is still fresh, let’s decide on the things that really matter: to ourselves, and to society as a whole.