Soulful, and sublimely talented singer/songwriter Ann Vriend has used her prodigious and evocative gifts as an insightful storyteller to compose a piece of music that is as compelling, and powerful as it is melodically masterful and eminently memorable.
The single Hurt People Hurt People was inspired by the people of her neighbourhood, which is in a rough part of Edmonton known as McCauley. She is surrounded by many families of new Canadians, by the poor, the homeless, and indigent and people who suffer from various mental health issues, including addiction. There is crime, there is intimidation, violence, pain and sometimes death. But it is so much more than these headlines – it is her home. And especially during the self-isolation and social distancing required during the Covid-19 pandemic, Vriend has come to appreciate her neighbourhood and her neighbours in a more nuanced, more broad thinking and more compassionate light.
Through the song, she wants to highlight the plight of these people, broadcasting their pain, suffering and seeming helplessness and hopelessness to a broader world – to the people who don’t live in places like McCauley, to spur them to be more aware of these human ills and this societal crisis and do something productive and progressive about it. It is a song that essentially tells the stories of faultless victims of horrible crimes and scenarios, who, because of their pain and the lasting aftereffects of their trauma, slip into lives filled with depredation, degradation and a profound loss of hope.
“The first scenario [in the song] is about the last time my home was broken into, while I was home. It was an addict who was obviously looking to steal something he could exchange for money to buy drugs. I chased him out of the house and actually he ended up giving all the stuff back. I was really mad, but somehow, I got him to give back everything in his pockets before he ran away. Later I knew what I did was pretty dumb, but I guess the adrenaline made me do it. The second scenario is about an incest victim. Something that has always really bothered me is when all these really self-righteous people talk about being pro-life and the person is only talking about the life of some unborn entity and not the life of the mother, who is a person, who may or may not have had a choice about getting pregnant. I have always had a big problem with that,” Vriend said.
“I have a number of girlfriends who have been victims of family incest and it’s horrible. It’s absolutely horrible when it happens to a person as an adult, but so much more horrible when it happens as a child, because you think it’s normal and it isn’t until later that you realize that it’s not normal – not even close. It warps your whole sense of trust and your whole sense of sexual normalcy and a whole bunch of things. It’s a huge thing to overcome to have any sort of normal physical, sexually intimate relationship with anybody. I have another friend who is a First Nations woman who was given up for adoption by her birth parents and was adopted into a Caucasian family where the man was a pedophile. How heartbreaking and horrible was that? Not only didn’t she grow up with her own culture, but then had to grow up with this other traumatic thing. So, knowing these stories I wanted to say in the song that sometimes when violence and abuse is inflicted on someone, there is almost a logic that says you have to go an hurt another person.
“The last part is about a child soldier and what trauma they face in their life. And it’s just so sad. We have kids locked up in military prisons or even regular prison. There is not consistent sense of morality and criminality. Why are the makers of Oxycontin not behind bars? They kill a lot more people in my neighbourhood than a child soldier. But addicts and people who have mental health issues because of trauma or abuse are the low hanging fruit. It’s way easier to have some very voiceless, vulnerable person thrown in jail than people who are tax evaders and corporate mass murderers. The people in this neighbourhood are no more or no less horrible than a bunch of white collar criminals or corrupt politicians going to fancy fundraisers and all that.”
“I am not doing anything philanthropic. When I wrote the song, I wasn’t sure about releasing it. I sat on it for quite a few years before I really felt like it was something I could put out there. I am trying not to sound cavalier about it, and I am glad that you and other people are finding it powerful, and I hope other people do too. I live in a neighbourhood where people have had guns pointed at them and they’re not lauded for it. So, what I am saying is coming from a place of privilege and instead of saying, ‘oh that’s so bad that I am going to run away and never be around this again,’ I am staying because this is my home. The reality is for millions of people worldwide is they can’t run away, or even worse, there are something like 60 million refugees in the world right now because they come countries with far less stability and more corruption that we have in Canada. So, I can’t run away and be like, ‘oh this isn’t for people like me.’ What is that saying about me, and more importantly, what is it saying about these people,” she said.
Unlike many commentators, social welfare agencies and law enforcement officials, Vriend has a particularly unique, prescient and compelling perspective on the community she continues to call home. And it’s just that – it’s home. She has accepted and even embraced the seemingly dangerous, unpredictable yet colourful area of Edmonton, and has no plans to leave.
“One of the things that’s a sticking point with a lot of the NGOs [Non-governmental organizations] and the cops around here is that they work here, but they don’t live here. They go home at night to a way safer neighbourhood, with way less drug dealing and gun-carrying gang members, needles and all that. So, they can come here for a few hours and then separate themselves once their shift is over because they have an escape route, whereas the residents here don’t. Writing about this and the people in it from a more compassionate and informed point of few because I actually live here, is kind the role of an artist,” she said.
“Every basic writing class tells you to write what you know. I have lived here for 12 years and this is what I see every day and every day I am like, ‘oh my God, this makes me so sad,’ or ‘oh my God, this makes me so angry,’ or it makes me scared. I can’t think of a day where these social issues in my neighbourhood have not been on my mind at one point or another. So, it just gets into the writing subconsciously. It’s not like I sat down and said, ‘I know what I am going to write about.’ It wasn’t that linear or that conscious. These are things on my mind that make me feel different emotions very intensely. And because, definitely the neighbourhood has made me rethink a lot of my assumptions about things like addiction and poverty. I have learned a lot, and I have been taught by people who are not professional educators but by people that probably don’t even know that they taught me stuff, and it’s the people I have seen and interacted with and come to know to a certain degree here in McCauley.
“And one of the things I have learned is that the system, all this bureaucracy that has apparently been put in place to help these people, just isn’t working. I’ve been told there are 72 organizations working in this one neighbourhood, which has about 5,000 homed people. I don’t know if they mean the whole thing, or the real inner city in general which is about four or five neighbourhoods, but in any case, 72 is a lot. And a lot of them are getting charitable donations and public funding and they have CEOs and executive directors and people on staff, and they have buildings and offices and tax deductions and that whole infrastructure. And it’s all to supposedly alleviate the social ills of homelessness and addiction and post-colonial trauma. But you look at how useless they are and how little effect they are having, and you wonder whether they really do want to fix these issues. And then on the other side, there are 27 pharmacies in my neighbourhood of McCauley which is a huge number of pharmacies for the population. That sounds petty predatory to me, especially when you consider this part of the city is a magnet for people struggling with homelessness and addiction and just generally being shut out of society.”
Hurt People Hurt People is about the people that she has met in her community and contains real stories that she personally has witnessed or knows about. It is a song that is ultimately about compassion and understanding and cry for help to society to start to really take these issues seriously, more comprehensively and more holistically putting the individual’s health and healing at the forefront. To tell the story in the song and through her social media, means interacting with people across a broad spectrum of what many would term the ‘sordid underbelly’ of society. It has taken years of carefully building up trust, showing the people in her neighbourhood that she is non-judgemental, that she is kind, and that she is one of them, which has lessened, to a small degree any potential danger.
But hearing the stories still doesn’t alleviate much of the worry of those who care for Vriend, something she acknowledges.
“For the people who have come here, many are immigrants and new Canadians, many are poor, or struggling with mental health issues including addiction, getting out is next to impossible They might as well put an invisible wall around the inner city for people who are poor, who are mentally ill or who have addiction issues because all the so-called resources are here. I live about 150 metres from an injection site. And right between that and me is a very notorious, very busy drug house, which also has a pimp operation and where there was at least one fentanyl overdose last year. While it may seem a good thing to have an injection site, but once you leave, who is waiting just around the corner for you? The dealer. And that’s just one easy example of how people get sucked in and get stuck. You can go the injection site, but they don’t provide you with drugs, so where are you got to go and how are you going to get the money for the drugs?” she said.
“Especially if you are a woman, you can become a slave to this pimp, and that is just one little example of the way people come here for help and support, but then they can never leave. But I can leave, because I don’t come from a background where I need any kind of a pain reliever and where there was no abuse and I have been able to have a successful life and I also have an education. I am lower middle class and I am articulate in English. So, I have all these things; I have a credit card and a passport. But if I am not here using my voice, using my music and my observations to tell the rest of the world about this place and the people here, and I remove myself to somewhere safer, do these other people’s problems go away? No, they don’t: I just won’t see them, and neither will the people I talk to. Nobody wants to see or hear or know about places like McCauley. That’s why you have slums and that’s why you have ghettos is exactly because society wants to sweep it under the rug and be like, ‘yeah, well, some people fall through the cracks and it sucks.’ But that’s the extent of their knowledge and the extent of their interest.
“Listen, I try not to be reckless about my personal safety and especially for my loved ones’ safety. And there is actually a real example as to where that line is. The same drug house that I just told you about, the guy that kind of runs the house is this really charismatic guy who is a great singer. I found out he was a singer because he’s always singing, and then he found out that I was a professional musician and singer. I mean, here is this person who is trafficking women and doling out lethal drugs to vulnerable people. How more despicable a human being can you be. But it’s kind of like Tony Soprano where he’s oddly likeable. How is this possible? He is singing all the time and comes across like this fun , happy go lucky guy. I started talking to him about music and kind of forgot that he was this bad person doing all these horrible things. I don’t know the answer, Jim. It’s such a fine line. I did have to tell him, no I can’t help you with your music. I guess, what I am saying is that I don’t want to paint myself as some sort of hero, going into the trenches to get the real war story, like journalists or filmmakers or even some other musicians. But I am here. I love it here, and economically it would be very bad for me to try to sell this house right now. It’s such a diverse neighbourhood and I am really not sure how they take me. People around here are really careful. It’s not a place where you can safely just wear your heart on your sleeve and let everybody know everything about you. I think people have got to know me a bit, and since I started doing some balcony shows during Covid, they have a face to the house and a house to the name. I think a key element is that I respect these people.”
The question arises, why not call the police on the obvious nefarious activities going on at the house operated by the singing drug dealer and pimp? Vriend kind of answered that question a bit earlier talking about the ineffectiveness of law enforcement and NGOs but elaborated on the point.
“Last year I was away on tour for about seven months after I released Hurt People Hurt People in Germany, and it went really well [making the top 10 on a number of big radio stations and garnering lots of positive press]. We’d had various house sitters at our place, because we at least aren’t stupid enough to leave the house vacant for that long. But there was mayhem in the neighbourhood. The alley behind my place was literally teeming with people that were like apocalyptic zombie addicts. At night you couldn’t even drive back there because there were so many people. In the back yard there was garbage everywhere and needles everywhere and people yelling and shouting. It was nuts,” she said.
“When we got home, we had to try and reclaim our yard. And there’s the drug house I was talking about. So, we started calling the police about it, as you do as a responsible citizen. What’s happening is illegal so I should call the police. And this isn’t the only drug house by any stretch of the imagination. There are four on the blocks around my house. But this is the one that has the most action and the most disturbing things about it, as far as I can tell. To make a long story short, the police did almost next to nothing about it. They did very token things about it to appease me. At the same time, they were probably rolling their eyes and wishing I would go away because then there wouldn’t be this one non-poor person living in this neighbourhood calling the cops about things when no-one else does. So, I got nowhere from them.
“The only thing the cops said was if they arrest the guy, that they didn’t have a proper warrant to do it anyway. But if they got one and went in there, they said he would be out in a day. And this is how the process works, you have to put your name and address down as the person who called it in. You can’t be anonymous, or you can call Crime Stoppers, but that’ doesn’t hold in court the same way. Basically, I become the snitch that got heat put on this guy’s house. And these people can see into my dining room from their house. This is literally my neighbour. I guess what I am saying is, that I am not just here as some sort of martyr. I have come to really like the neighbourhood. Like I said, it has taught me a lot. I love the diversity of it. I think it has made me a wiser person, someone who is more in touch with reality than living somewhere safe, where everybody has their perfectly cut lawn and their pumpkin spice lattes. I guess what I am saying is that this year, I didn’t bother calling the cops at all because it is a huge bureaucratic waste of my time and energy, and ultimately when there was an arrest, he was released almost immediately and then I was more scared than ever.”
Amazingly, Vriend’s place has been broken into four times, the last time when she was home.
“We didn’t have an alarm, which was stupid. I used to have a lot of roommates going in and out and it was a lot less secure. A big thing that I have learned, especially over the last two months of being here 24/7 is that if you’re talking to people, and you’re engaged and they kind of know what you’re up to, they see me out gardening and stuff, and now they all know what my job is, it has made a difference. I don’t want to be naïve about this. I used to never even dare to leave my tools in my yard. I would take them into the house of lock them up somewhere because that’s how the person who did the last break in did it, they used one of my garden shovels and just smashed their way through the window to get in,” she said, almost matter of factly.
“I also did that because I didn’t want a lot of my tools to go missing and then have to go buy new ones. Now that I am always around and am offering the music on my balcony every week and stuff like that, I will leave the tools out and not be as worried. I have left them out a number of times and not a single one has disappeared. One day I woke up and realized that my back gate, which backs onto the alley, which then backs onto this drug dealer’s house and then backs onto the injection site, had blown open because we didn’t have a lock, just a brick that we place against the door. It was windy and blew open and I had left my bike in the yard and none of the tools were taken and the bike was still there.”
So, what does she do?
“I honestly feel that even talking about music and seeing the drug dealer as more than a one dimensional bas person and seeing him as a more complex person, as we all are, makes a difference. I feel that I can walk down the street and the drug addicts are respectful of me because they know I am not this snitch who thinks of them as lowlifes. Whenever people are shooting up in the alleyway, I tell them they can’t do it there because there’s kids around. I say it nicely and I give them respect. You can do things respectfully or you can do things in a way where you seem like you think they are the scum of the earth. I don’t do that, and it’s amazing the difference that means simply by treating them like human beings. I really, honestly feel that addicts get a bad rap for the things that they do like vandalism and robberies and stuff like that, to get drug money. I leave my bottles out for them, rather than taking them to the depot, so they can do it and get a couple bucks. I feel like little things like that, as well as by being nice to people, helps. They want to be good people. They don’t like the fact that they have to be in this position at all. You know what I mean? Imagine what you to do get rid of a migraine, or what you will do with the flu to feel better. And that’s what ‘jonesing’ for a drug is like, only ramped up, like 100 times. As long as there is a demand for whatever reason people are using drugs, there will be a supply and there will be a street capitalist, or even a real suit wearing capitalist, somewhere who will fill that void,” Vriend explained.
“I don’t think our society really does that because I get lots of people asking me why I post stuff about the stuff going on in the neighbourhood because it makes people very uncomfortable to bring up these topics because it’s the part that we haven’t worked out about how awesome our society supposedly is. People don’t like to find out that the way of life that they have, the good things that they believe in, are built on the backs of people like the ones in my neighbourhood. There’s a lot more losers than winners in our world. People don’t like to see the slums, and they don’t like to see junkies, unless they are being demonized or you have sensationalized shows about them like Breaking Bad or The Sopranos, or even Narcos, where it’s sort of a fantasy thing that doesn’t touch people living in the nicer neighbourhoods.
“And I don’t make all my posts about that. It’s not all this depraved, negative sad stiff. I have to say I have grown to like my neighbourhood. I like that without it being forced, without it being policy. It’s a super naturally diverse neighbourhood with people from all over the world and coming from different experiences than I will ever have. Listen, I don’t have answers and I don’t have an agenda. I am not digging a well in Haiti or anything like that. I am using the skills that I have, and the things that I bring to the table to try to create something good out of it. I always say to the kids that I sometimes teach to rock what you got. Don’t focus on the things you don’t have. And I also have to keep reminding myself that I am kind of stuck here if I want to survive, economically, as an artist, even more so during Covid, and keep being able to do my art full time. This is where I am, and in the meantime, I am learning all these things. And I am learning that I come from a place of privilege and I come from a place of sheltered experience. I also know that there is still this mentality, which is largely shaped by our colonial history, that if everybody becomes like us, then all of this will go away. People just need to be like us. Like, don’t do drugs and you’ll be fine. And just don’t live a life of crime to make money and you’ll be fine. But try to say that to somebody who experienced terrible abuse as a child, who is self medicating.”
For more information on Vriend, and Hurt People Hurt People, visit www.annvriend.com, www.facebook.com/AnnVriend, www.instagram.com/AnnVriend, www.youtube.com/AnnVriend and www.spotify.com/artist/annvriend.
- Jim Barber is a veteran award-winning journalist and author based in Napanee, ON, who has been writing about music and musicians for 30 years. Besides his journalistic endeavours, he now works as a communications and marketing specialist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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