An activist to the core, Khris Royal has been writing music about the struggle of Black people in America for many years. His convictions lie at the heart of his art; his beliefs inform his creativity and performances. A New Orleans-based multi-instrumentalist and producer, Royal is best known as a talented saxophonist; he’s worked extensively with local icon George Porter Jr. and his Runnin’ Pardners, piloted his own squad, Khris Royal & Dark Matter, and globe-trotted with bold-font reggae stars Rebelution. But during the hot, dark, angry Covid-summer of 2020, Royal was hard at work on the stirring new single “I Can’t Breathe”, a collaboration that is rooted in the realities of the Black American experience.

As May turned to June, the racial/cultural/political climate in the U.S. once again pushed Royal to his emotional limits. In Minneapolis, MN, George Floyd’s murder at the hands of police re-lit the fuse; before that, the homicide-by-cop of Rochester’s Daniel Prude, the no-knock raid killing of Breonna Taylor in Louisville, KY—tragically, the list goes on and on. The seemingly endless stream of deaths include the 2012 murder of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin, whom Royal memorialized in song some years ago. Yet in 2020, the outspoken musician found himself writing another protest tune, sitting at the piano inspired by the pain of his people.

Soon, Royal got with some local NOLA homies he knew would be down with the cause, and this new track came together. Beginning with Leon “Kid Chocolate” Brown, who wrote the lyrics swiftly and contributed trumpet, Royal went on to recruit vocalist Nigel Hall and trombonist “Big Sam” Williams as well as John Michael Bradford (trumpet), Danny Abel (guitar) and Alvin Ford, Jr. (drums).

Related: Patrice Rushen, Nigel Hall Talk Speaking Up & Doing “A Little Homework” At Justice Comes Alive [Video]

In addition to writing the music, Khris Royal handled production, keyboards, bass, sax, and talkbox. Last week, he dropped “I Can’t Breathe” as a single and video. Proceeds from the sale of the single will be donated to the fight for justice against police brutality. Those interested in lending support can make a donation directly to the ACLU.

We tracked Khris Royal down in New Orleans by phone to get the scoop and backstory on this important work of art. Watch the video for “I Can’t Breathe” below and scroll down to read our conversation with the man behind the project (edited for length and clarity).

Khris Royal & Dark Matter ft. Nigel Hall – “I Can’t Breathe” (Official Video)

Live For Live Music: Hey Khris. Thanks for taking a moment to chat about “I Can’t Breathe”. I read in Offbeat that you wrote the song in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death—at least the original, the demo version. What was your process, from the emotions to the music?

Khris Royal: When I feel things, I just go sit at the keyboard and play. And a lot of times I just hit record on my voice memo, and I just let it roll. I sat there and played. I think the voice memo is about 15 to 20 minutes long. You can hear me just playing through my feelings, basically. Playing what I was feeling after seeing the video. And then I hit stop, and I went and did something else.

A few days later, I sat down in the studio as I normally do. And I’m like, “Okay, let’s see what we’re going to work on today.” And I pulled up my voice memos. I was like, “Oh yeah, I forgot about this from the other day.” And man, the song just flowed, man. I just thought about how I felt after seeing that [George Floyd] video. And it just came out of me.

Live For Live Music: What about the lyrics? That was Kid Chocolate, right?

Khris Royal: The same thing happened for Leon. Leon hit me back within two hours with a demo of the vocal verse written. That’s unheard of for a whole song to be written in one day. It doesn’t really work out that way too often. That’s when you know you have something special, you know?

Live For Live Music Definitely. He knew what you needed and he was able to give it to you like that. How did that relationship start with Leon (Kid Chocolate)? How did you two come together originally, before this project?

Khris Royal: Man, I’ve been knowing Leon since I was in high school. I remember he came to visit NOCCA while I was still there with Mr. Clyde Kerr. Leon is actually the reason I moved back to New Orleans from L.A. I was in town for Jazz Fest, but I was living in L.A. He was in the Hookah and he ran out, and was like, “Yo, what are you doing in town? What’s up, what’s happening?” I was like, “Yeah, I’m just in town for Jazz Fest.” He was like, “Well, you want a gig next week?” And I was like, “Yeah.” We played at Donna’s that Friday, and I had so much fun. I was like, “Man, this is what I need to be doing. L.A. is cool, but this is home. I need to be here.” Me and Leon are like brothers. I moved back after playing that gig with him and we hang all the time. We talk all the time and we create music.

Live For Live Music:  I’ve been following you since I first saw you at Jazz Fest and Bear Creek back in the day. Your voice on social media, as a human being… you speak your truth to power, and you wear your emotions, feelings, and beliefs proudly, unabashedly. You’ve been talking about racism, race relations, police brutality, and more for a long time, well before you wrote this song or we started living through this again Summer 2020. How does that manifest in the music?

Khris Royal: On the last Dark Matter record there was “Song for Trayvon” that I wrote years ago. It was so long ago, man. It’s like, “Yo, here we are, telling the same story, being angry about the same things all over again.” But hopefully with this song we could try to… I was talking to Nigel [Hall] about this. “Yeah, this is cool, but are we changing anything? What can we do to really, really impact the world and use this song to bring about some change?” That’s the hard part.

Khris Royal & Dark Matter – “Song For Trayvon”

Live For Live Music: Yeah. That’s always been the hard part and I’m sure will continue to be difficult. But it’s important. Leon really goes there with the lyrics! There’s no two ways about it. You address things in very frank terms, a language that everybody can easily understand.

Khris Royal: The lyrics, that was all Leon. That was all Leon, man. I just sent him the track and I told him what I was… We talked about what we were feeling. I told him how I felt. You can hear the anger in the track. Even without the words, you can still feel how I felt in that moment. All the words, that’s all him. That’s how he was feeling, and that’s how he worded it. And it was perfect. It was straight to the point.

Live For Live Music: It’s the truth and the truth hurts. You mentioned Nigel Hall. You’ve said that he was your first call. Nigel, like yourself, is outspoken about his beliefs and about his experiences with race in America and really around the world. Why did you choose him to lace this vocal?

Khris Royal: He was just the voice that I heard in my head. Once Leon sent me the words, I went and I did a vocal demo. I was singing it, I was like, “Man, nobody can really pull this off other than Nigel.” … It was fun to do it. It was kind of slick what I did with Nigel. I just sent it to him. I just sent him the lyrics and he was like, “Wow, that’s pretty powerful. Who’s singing it?” It was like, before I can even respond, he said, “Man, can I sing this song?”

Live For Live Music: You can feel his conviction in the delivery. And then watching the video, he’s really performing it with his trademark passion and gusto.

Khris Royal: When Nigel was recording, there was one point where he finished the line and he was like, “Bro.” And he’s talking to me, and I’m in the control room. He was like, “Who wrote this sh*t? This sh*t is f*cked up. These words are f*cked up!” I’m like, “Bro, that’s the point. Exactly the point.”

Live For Live Music: Indeed. In the video, I noticed you’re playing multiple instruments. What’s the breakdown on the instrumentalists on the track? Looks like a krewe of some of NOLA’s finest!

Khris Royal: I play keyboards, bass guitar, and program everything. That’s Alvin Ford on drums, Danny Abel on guitar, and then it’s just the horns. The horn section is John Michael Bradford on trumpet, Big Sam Williams on trombone. Of course, Leon “Kid Chocolate” Brown on trumpet, and then myself on sax.

Live For Live Music: How did that video come together? It’s real minimalist, and a masterful use of shadows, the dark and light. And everyone’s in black shirts. It’s a real vibe that works.

Khris Royal: The video thing, it was a bonus, because at Esplanade Studios at the time, they had all these cameras already set up. For the price of the studio that day, I could also get the cameras. It was like, “Okay, let me take advantage of that.” And I had someone else in there filming. Noe’ Cugny came in and he did all the editing. I had him bring in another camera, just a handheld, which most of the shots came from. I had him come in and film, and we focused on the song. We were going to work on a bunch of other songs that day, but I felt like this was more important. We took our time and got it right. It just felt like the song was special and needed to be documented, but with a video, not just audio.

As for the look, I told everyone to wear black.

Then, as we were editing and he started sending me stuff back, I was like, “Yo, I think it might look better and feel better in black and white.” Because I felt like that studio, the room was too pretty. It was kind of taking away from the words in the song. That studio is beautiful. It’s an old church with a huge pipe organ in the back. I didn’t want people to focus on that stuff so much. I wanted people to kind of zone out, especially with the end of the song, because the end of the song can be kind of overwhelming. And so, yeah, I just asked to see it in black and white and that was it. That was the vibe.

Live For Live Music: The black and white nails it. You’re right. It puts the focus on the music and the message. Obviously at the root of all this, is the race issue in America and it’s not something new. You aren’t raising money for Black Lives Matter, but instead directing the donations from this song to the ACLU, am I right?

Khris Royal: Yeah. Because there is no organized BLM organization and that’s what confuses a lot of people. That’s individual people. There’s no dues. There’s no central office. That’s not an organization, it’s a movement. It’s not a concrete thing that you can put your finger on. I wanted to direct money towards people that I know are going to go out and do the work and help get protesters out of jail, go out and sue the country when they put little kids in cages and stuff like that. The ACLU, Southern Poverty Law Center, and NAACP, they’ve been doing this work for a long time. You can see what they do. I wanted to go with something that was more transparent than just saying, “Oh, we donated the money to Black Lives Matter.”

Live For Live Music: Copy that. One last thing, kinda off topic but still current. You’ve been steady on the live streams during Covid. Except for a month you took off for your health, you’ve been pretty much on a weekly basis. What are you doin with the streaming, and where can people find you on the live stream?

Khris Royal: Yeah. I’ve been trying to stay consistent up, until the point where I ended up going into the hospital for a couple of weeks. I stream every Friday, where I do a solo set where I play music. A lot of the music is new music that I’ve worked on since this Covid lockdown thing. Then every Sunday, I DJ, and I do a laid back chill set. I call it “Sunday Vibes For You To Relax To.” Then on Wednesday nights I do mostly R&B and Hip Hop with a lot of New Orleans Hip Hop from when I was growing up. That’s a lot of fun. A lot of my friends from high school and middle school come hang out. Yeah, you can find me on Twitch, Sunday, Wednesday, Friday at 8:00 PM. central standard time.

As told to B.Getz.

To check out more from Khris Royal, go to his website.