CINCINNATI — This is a story about art and activism and the power of community.
But mostly it’s a story about the love between a mother and daughter.
Jennie Wright was 22 when she gave birth to her baby girl, Siri. As a single mom, Wright was keenly aware of her responsibility to provide for her daughter and always worked a full-time job to do just that.
As an artist and activist, though, she also felt a responsibility to herself and her community. Known by her stage name Black Buddafly, Wright has spent years writing plays and poetry, curating open-mic sessions and creating and producing interactive performances -- all while helping young artists find their voices as she continued to express her own.
“Sometimes things were very hectic,” Wright said. “It was like we’d go from one thing to the next thing to the next thing and then kind of fall in bed at the end of the day. But I thought it was important for Siri to get that same exposure that I did, and even on a different level, a deeper level more into the arts, which was where I was more acclimated. But also on the community service side.”
Wright’s little girl learned those lessons well and grew up to be Siri Imani, a self-described “artivist” whose art and activism blend to draw attention to community needs and create efforts to address them. Before Imani was 20, she and two fellow artivists formed the band Triiibe, a name that stands for True Representation of Intellectual Individuals Invoking Black Excellence.
The group makes music while making a difference. Triiibe’s best known programs include Potluck for the People in Piatt Park downtown, which provides food, clothing, toiletries and fellowship for people experiencing homelessness, and Raising the Barz, a free after-school arts program at the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County’s Main Library downtown that the pandemic put on hold.
“My mom is always number one, two and three on the list of my top inspirations,” said Imani, now 25. “She taught me everything.”
Now Wright and Imani are learning an uncomfortable lesson together: how to accept help from others.
‘The most fear I’ve ever felt’
Wright has sarcoidosis, an inflammatory disease that for years has been damaging her lungs. She has learned how to adjust when the condition gives her trouble but was feeling especially bad in March and went to the hospital for a test. Doctors admitted her the same day, saying her pulmonary artery systolic pressure -- the pressure in her heart -- was dangerously high.
She stayed in the hospital for a month before she finally got well enough to return home. She still must use oxygen to breathe. She also has a pump that delivers medicine through a catheter to her heart to keep her arteries open.
But none of that was the worst part, Wright said.
“The thought that I wouldn’t be there for Siri, that,” Wright said, choking back tears, “that’s the hardest part, you know.”
Imani has known that her mom’s condition could worsen over time and figured she would need to be ready to handle things when that occurred. But it all happened much faster than she expected – and she did not feel ready at all.
She felt helpless.
“This is the most important person in my life,” Imani said. “It’s probably the most fear I’ve ever felt, really.”
Wright was scared, too, she said. She has a full-time job with insurance and had been working throughout the pandemic to keep the family afloat. She wanted to be able to help Imani during such a tough time for artists while also helping her own mom, who is battling serious health problems, too.
Imani said her close friends have been offering for years to help her and Wright, whom young artists in town call “Budda” or “Triiibe mom.” But they always refused. Imani didn’t like the idea of asking her audience for help, she said, especially because she sees the suffering of others up close through her work with Triiibe.
The mother-daughter team had been able to manage their family’s needs and wanted to keep it that way.
But the COVID-19 pandemic has prevented Imani from increasing her performance schedule to earn more money. And Wright’s health struggles have kept her from working more to earn more, too.
“Me and my mom are prideful human beings. We are not the ones to ask for much. It, like, burns us inside,” Imani said. “But this year I feel like everything just kind of broke down in a way that it was too quick and too much for us to handle.”
True to their word, Imani’s friends were ready to help.
Preeti Shastri organized a GoFundMe campaign that has raised more than $14,000 toward a $15,000 goal.
“Rumi says that the wound is where the light enters into you, and Jennie has been that light in my life. She opened the doors to her heart and her home to me when nobody – not even my close family – would accept me for who I am,” Shastri said in a video that Imani shared with WCPO 9. “I couldn’t imagine my life without her, and I couldn’t imagine this community without her.”
Moving mountains for Mama
Friends and supporters have helped in other ways, too.
Imani is organizing monthly benefit concerts to raise more money for medical needs that insurance won’t cover, a future lung transplant for Wright and to help the family better care for Wright’s mother.
“My ultimate goal, to be safe, I’m gonna raise $100,000,” she said. “That’s what I’mma raise. Absolutely for my mama – period.”
“I don’t know how many mountains I gotta move,” Imani added. “I’m gonna do a GoFundMe, I’m going to do benefit concerts, I’m going to do merch lines. Pretty much anything that I can do, anything that anybody can help me with, I’m asking for it.”
Wright’s eyes grew wide when she heard Imani explain her goal during a Zoom video interview.
“One thing I do not do is put any caps or limits on Siri’s aspirations at all. I don’t,” Wright said. “And if that’s her goal, then that’s amazing. And I appreciate it. But as I always tell Siri, you know, I appreciate everything that she does for our family. But it’s not her job.”
Imani sees it differently.
She has watched her mom struggle for years, she said, and feels like Wright has never had a year where she can relax and let good things come to her. She always has worked so hard to make good things happen for others, Imani said, no matter how weary she has been.
“This is the year all of that changes. Her working, her stressing, her illness. All of that is getting turned around this year,” Imani said. “From now on, she’s gonna enjoy her life. She’s gonna have a great life from this point on. We’re going to go all around the world.”
Wright quietly interrupted to set the record straight: “It’s been pretty great.”
Imani nodded in agreement then continued like the force her fans know her to be: “It’s gonna get better. It’ll get even better from this point. And I know that’s gonna happen this year, and that’s starting with this Mother’s Day.”
As difficult as these weeks and months and years have been, Imani and Wright said they are feeling the love from the community they love so much.
“We got help now, and it’s out now. We’re not fighting this silent battle anymore. So I know things are going to get better just off of that. It already has. Because we got people with us this time,” Imani said. “We’re not alone.”
Imani said the next benefit concert will be 8-11 p.m. May 20 at Comfort Station in Walnut Hills.
Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. To reach Lucy, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.