Updated June 2, 2020 - 3:40 pm
Tyler Merritt had been on a two-year break from social media.
Not long after the Las Vegas Academy graduate released a powerful video in which he recites some of his contrasting opinions, the kind that challenge the perception of him as a 6-foot-2-inch dreadlocked African American, it all just became too much.
Spending hours each day engaging and reacting to every comment was taking its toll on his health.
So, at the beginning of last week, he wasn’t immediately aware that that video, “Before You Call the Cops,” was going viral again after two sadly familiar confrontations.
Inspired to create
“It’s a little bit of an interesting thing when you make socially conscious content,” Merritt says. “Because there’s a part of you that is always excited when people want to see what it is that you create, but then there’s another part of you that hopes your content no longer has a reason to exist.”
The actor, who’ll turn 44 on Friday, is calling from his daily 5-mile walk in Nashville, Tennessee. He hadn’t felt the passion or the drive to create in those ensuing years. Then, over Memorial Day weekend, he was on one of those walks when inspiration struck.
“This is the thought that I have when I’m out here all the time: People see me walking out here, the same walk every single day, and a lot of these folks would crack up if they knew what I was listening to.”
The next day, Merritt donned a black hoodie and his headphones and filmed one of those walks. The diversity of the artists — including Eazy-E, Hillsong Worship, Bon Jovi and the cast of “Dear Evan Hansen” — and the internal monologue they generate form the basis of “The Playlist.”
— NowThis (@nowthisnews) May 28, 2020
Merritt sat on the project for a couple of days, unsure of whether to release it. One friend he shared it with said it was great, with a caveat: “To be honest with you, people aren’t really focusing on racial issues at the moment. They’re all concerned about COVID.”
As that great sage Ferris Bueller once noted, “Life moves pretty fast.”
‘Does any of this really matter?’
“Before You Call the Cops” started making the rounds again May 25. That’s the day a video of a white dog owner named Amy Cooper threatening to call the police, after a seemingly innocent encounter with an unarmed black birdwatcher in New York’s Central Park, exploded across the internet.
Within hours, George Floyd stopped breathing under the knee of then Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin after he responded to a call about a man reportedly passing a counterfeit $20 bill.
Friends and family members urged the world to see Floyd as something more than just an imposing 6-foot-6 black man. It’s a plea Merritt tapped into back in 2018.
“I can tell you every single word off the NWA ‘Straight Outta Compton’ album,” Merritt says in the stark video, shot against a black background, his dreadlocks falling over his bare shoulders. “I can also sing you every single word from ‘Oklahoma.’ ”
He admits to being a vegetarian and having practiced goat yoga. He says he’s never been to jail, never owned a gun.
“Does any of this really matter?” he asks at the end. “No. I just wanted you to get to know me better before you call the cops.”
Those moments of humor, the ones Merritt deploys to draw viewers in before smacking them upside the head with a message, were learned in Las Vegas.
The family relocated here when he was 5, settling just outside Nellis Air Force Base, where his father, Milton, was stationed.
Merritt attended Bridger Middle School and Rancho High when the Donna Street Crips were a major presence. He learned how to rap to impress his gang member friends, but that life had no appeal. “I was more afraid of my mother than I was of the gangs,” he recalls.
For his senior year, Merritt transferred to the Las Vegas Academy, with its large population of white students from Green Valley. Future “True Blood” and “Queen Sugar” actress Rutina Wesley was his rare black classmate. Merritt’s sense of humor got him through.
“No matter what the scenario or situation was — didn’t matter who you were, if you were in a gang, if you were poor, if you were affluent — I knew that I could connect with you if I could make you laugh.”
It’s the silly admissions in Merritt’s videos — “Can these folks tell I’m listening to Taylor Swift?” he asks in “The Playlist” — that help bridge the gap with viewers.
“At the end of the day, this is still a big black dude walking down the street,” Merritt admits. “If I can get you there, no matter what the means is, and it causes a conversation, then I’ve done something hopefully special, significant. And in the long run, it can help connect people. But you can’t just do it screaming into a camera, which is what I’ve wanted to do for the last two years at our president.”
‘I’m a part of this moment!’
Last Friday, a call from Las Vegas arrived far earlier than it should have.
“When my phone rings, the first thing I say to her is, ‘Mom, is everything OK? Who’s dead?’ ”
Someone from Jimmy Kimmel’s office had contacted his mother, Jerrie, looking for Merritt and his permission to broadcast “Before You Call the Cops” on that night’s show. The actor obliged, but he wasn’t expecting much.
Then, instead of the usual jokes, the Clark High grad opened the episode with an impassioned plea for change.
“When you stand in front of the flag, you put your hand on your heart, you pledge allegiance with liberty and justice for all,” Kimmel said. “We don’t have that, ‘for all.’ I mean, I have it. A lot of you have it. But it’s not ‘for all.’ ”
Merritt’s eyes lit up.
“I’m right here in this moment, and you’re speaking on behalf of black people and saying all this stuff,” he recalls of watching the episode. “And in that moment, I went, ‘Oh God! I know how this ends! I’m at the end of this! I’m a part of this moment!’ ”
Seeing his video in that context, Merritt says, finally helped him realize the effect it’s had on people who haven’t made any of those walks in his shoes.
Starting the conversation
When he made “Before You Call the Cops,” Merritt says, he was exhausted.
“We’re tired, as people of color, because we have to attempt to convince people that are watching something with their own eyes that that thing is actually happening,” he says of his mindset then. “We will watch people watch someone get killed, in front of them on tape, and then they’ll come back and go, ‘But I dunno. Maybe he already had a disease or something. Or maybe the cop …’ Do you realize how much energy it takes me to convince you that what you’re seeing is the truth?”
Now, he says, that challenge is different.
“In 2020, it feels much more like, we’re not making a statement here. We’re not trying to fight for you to believe that this is our reality. We are just simply saying, for the love of God, a simple phone call can kill us.”
Merritt is grateful for the eyes he’s opened. But — and he means this in the nicest way possible — he isn’t here for apologies or appeasement. There’s so much more you can do to help, if you’re so inclined.
“I don’t need your white guilt right now. I don’t want you to feel white guilt,” he says. “Take that guilt, shove it away and replace it with bravery. Replace it with bravery to say some stuff that’s going to be hard. … Your words are going to have stronger impact than mine.
“If I can at least be part of starting a conversation, then I’m accomplishing a whole lot more than burning down a building because I’m really mad about it.”
Tyler’s take on shootings
Tyler Merritt spoke with the Review-Journal before the two officer-involved shootings Monday night. On Tuesday, he had this to add:
“Not a single one of us, when we walk out of the house in the morning, look at our kids, look at our friends, look at our wives, our husbands, and say to them, ‘This is the last time I’m going to see you.’ Every time we leave and walk out the door, we psychologically have one intention and thought that goes unspoken: That we will be home that night.
“I don’t care who you are — white, black — I don’t care who you are, we value life. …
“Right now, there’s a problem, and we’re just trying to get home, but we don’t know how to get home safe. And in my hometown, I’m watching police officers who walk out the door, young kids who walk out the door, thinking that they’re going to constitute change. …They’re trying to make it home, and they feel like there’s things that are in their way. When that happens, things like (Monday) night happen. And then somebody doesn’t end up making it home. …
When there’s no de-escalation, we’re just all out there. It’s a crapshoot on if we’re going to make it home that night. And (Monday) night, we (expletive) failed.”