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Trayvon case has become pop culture phenomenon

In the weeks since Trayvon Martin's death, the impact on American culture has been passionate and broad, from musicians and poets who believe justice has been denied to a major Hollywood studio making changes to the advertising campaign of a movie in which the trailers are eerily parallel to the moments before the teen was killed.

Much like with other tragedies or natural disasters, the artistic world has drawn inspiration from the case despite its swirling controversy, producing a growing string of rap and gospel videos, a music tribute led by R&B singer Chaka Khan and several independent short films posted on YouTube. And Twentieth Century Fox executives, sensitive to the case, hastily pulled the posters and trailer from Florida theaters for Neighborhood Watch, a summer science-fiction comedy starring Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn and Johah Hill. The trailer, which first appeared days after Trayvon's February 26 shooting by a neighborhood watch volunteer, features Hill using his hand to imitate shooting at a group of teenagers. The poster featured a bullet-ridden neighborhood watch sign with a shadowy figure in the center.

"Since the beginning of time, when people are touched in some way, good or bad, they have expressed themselves through culture or art,'' said Kevin Thomas, an assistant professor of advertising and public relations at the University of Texas in Austin. "What makes this case stand out is the social media aspect of it, the instant creation of a community. All the poetry, the art, the music is an opportunity to express (oneself) but also to be part of something larger. What you are seeing is actually part of the larger collective effort.''

Trayvon's death, pushed onto the pop culture radar by the buzz of the Internet, has provoked a groundswell of support for the teen even as questions remain about the incident and about the shooter's claim of self defense. The shooter, George Zimmerman, has also found defenders among people who believe he was justified in his actions, supporting him online and on radio and television.

Trayvon's image has become a commercial brand, adorning bumper stickers, T-shirts, buttons and key chains, and wrapped around Arizona iced tea bottles and Skittle packages — the two items he was carrying when he was shot. Hoodies like the one he wore have become a rallying socio political statement symbolizing injustice, racial profiling and the burdens of being a young black male.

Now his case is being interpreted through a cultural lens, similar to the songs, movies, videos, even stage plays about 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina.

Two days after learning about the Florida case, Toni Sterrett was behind her tripod in Harlem shooting a short film about Trayvon. Hours later, she was on a subway headed to the Million Hoodie March at Union Square to capture more footage. By Wednesday, Presumed was posted on YouTube, a three-minute, 24-second cinematic statement about Trayvon and "America's most dangerous fashion choice.''

"I was just frustrated and felt powerless. I had been crying and couldn't sleep and then this idea came to me to do the short film,'' says Sterrett, a writer and director. "I felt like my art was my only weapon.''

In another repercussion of the tragedy, Neighborhood Watch moviemakers issued a statement about the unfortunate timing of their promotional campaign.

"We are very sensitive to the Trayvon Martin case," Fox said in a statement, "but our film is a broad alien-invasion comedy and bears absolutely no relation to the tragic events in Florida."

The plot for the film, scheduled for release July 27, is about a group of friends hunting space aliens in their neighborhood. The teasers were made well before Trayvon's death.

"The teaser materials were part of an early phase of our marketing and were never planned for long-term use,'' the Fox statement reads. "Above all else, our thoughts go out to the families touched by this terrible event."

This is not the first time a studio has tweaked its advertising or outright shelved a project in response to tragedy. The trailers for the first Spider-Man movie were removed from theaters after the 9/11 attacks because they included footage of a helicopter caught in a web between the Twin Towers. Arnold Schwarzenegger's Collateral Damage and Bad Company, among other films, were delayed for months after the attacks.

Last week, Chaka Khan — who is attending a rally for Trayvon in Miami on Sunday — re-recorded her song Super Life as a tribute to the slain teen.

Joined by a group of singers and actors including Eric Benet, Angela Bassett and Kelly Price, all donning black hooded sweatshirts, Khan recorded the song Sunday in a Los Angeles studio, the same one where the charity single We are the World was made. Khan's track opens with the lyrics: "A mama's crying, 'cause another young man has gone and died. He's not some statistic. He's another awesome destiny denied." The song is supported by a Twitter campaign linked to the hashtag #fearkillsloveheals.

"As I watched the case unfold, on a personal level I was outraged. I couldn't believe that nothing was being done about it. My reaction to this case was probably the same as everyone else's. Why? Why was he gunned down and why is nothing being done to give justice to Trayvon Martin?'' Khan wrote in an email to the Miami Herald. "I think everybody is as upset as I was, and, as someone with a voice, I wanted to speak out in some way. I kept hearing my song Super Life playing in the back of my mind. I recorded it in 2007 but the lyrics spoke to what's happening today with this case.… It's my personal statement that Trayvon Martin's life mattered.''

Trayvon's parents say they are humbled by such a far-reaching response.

"I didn't expect this," said Tracy Martin, the teenager's father. "It's a good feeling to know that people still care."

Long before Trayvon's case made national news, Pittsburgh rapper Jasiri X, was taking on cases and subjects as varied as the Troy Davis execution to the Jena Six to the tea party. He was on his way to South by Southwest, the popular annual music festival in Austin, when he found out online about the teen's death.

"I couldn't shake the case. It was bothering me so much that I ended up writing a song about it and recording it in Austin,'' said Jasiri X, who is also a community activist. "I shot the video and posted it up on the morning of March 19. Last Sunday, I did a live version for''

Jasiri X's single — one of at least a half-dozen rap tributes, including one by Florida rapper Plies — features a montage of photos of Trayvon, the crime scene and the townhouse complex where he was killed. It caught the attention of Sierra Jordan, a 15-year-old freshman at Booker T. Washington Senior High School who helped organize a school-wide assembly to pay tribute to the teen.

"The first I heard it, to me it actually did speak the truth,'' she said. "When I heard more, they talked about him only having the Skittle and the iced tea, that pretty much made me cry.''

Miami Herald staff writers Laura Isensee and Frances Robles contributed to this story.

Trayvon case has become pop culture phenomenon 03/30/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 4, 2012 3:23pm]
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