Statues, Lives, and Things That Matter!

Greetings Good People.
I’ve been “off the road” now for 3 plus months and the view from here is almost as uncertain as when this crazy COVID-19 journey started. I mean, I’m well, healthy, and have most of the particulars sorted out… (how to shop, how to avoid the virus, how to clean the house, and how to get online concerts ONLINE!).

My last date in Buffalo, NY performing for students at Saint Mary’s School for the Deaf seems 5 lifetimes ago as we have all crossed that boundary into this brave new isolation-filled world full of virtual concerts, podcasts, Zoom sessions, and platforms each with their own benefits, quirks, and protocols, all designed to bring us closer together without getting TOO close for comfort or health. And then just as we were getting somewhat used to the distance and extended time online (with most of us hoping that it would soon be over!)… BOOM, the world exploded.

The sorrow, suffering, and unrest caused by COVID-19 was powerfully ramped up by the brutal murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd… three African Americans whose deaths have become catalysts for change.

In the aftermath of that explosion I have found myself more in demand and more engaged with calls for concerts, interviews, and requests for comment, conversation and activity than I have been in some time. That brief hiatus in March to gather my senses and bearings is clearly over. And now the world is on fire for change.

Part of that change took place last Monday night in Richmond, VA where, in the midst of protests, arrests and uprisings, the statue of my great, great, great grandfather General Williams Carter Wickham – slave-owner (257 persons), Confederate general, statesman, and VP of the C&O Railroad – was unceremoniously toppled from its pedestal and left lying on the ground in Monroe Park. For Richmond, it was one more radical rejection of racist intransigence represented by public symbols that have stood for decades. For my white Wickham cousins and me it opened a new opportunity to probe our common ground and move into a deeper relationship. We used a Zoom session to express our thoughts and feelings with each other, and began to fashion a familial response. We’re all on it and we’re moving forward.

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As always, I am finding deep inspiration and reserve in music. In week 3 of the COVID-19 crisis I wrote the song “On Solid Ground” as a call to a deeper sense of community and to point out a “Sankofa” moment… looking back to look forward. More song writing and creative expressions have helped me to center myself and others as rallies and gatherings continue to increase.

(You can watch and listen to me sing “On Solid Ground” here: https://vimeo.com/409236657

I know that many of you are also concerned that this shift for positive change becomes a real window for impacting our nation and are searching for ways to make this a part of your personal mission. In that spirit, I continue to offer concerts like my Every-Other-Friday Concert Series, as well as other online concert and performance opportunities as we gather to support each other in this window of change and growth.

As they sang at the mass meetings for the Modern Civil Rights Movement, “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ‘Round!” We are fast becoming the change we want to see in the world. And it’s gonna take us all working together to face down the forces of hate and a system that is dead set against making that change matter.

We got this!

In change, action, and song,

Reggie

Teachers Make A Difference

Greetings Good People!

In this time of challenge and change, with lots of time to think about a world that is now on the edge and wandering toward an uncertain future. I see, as others have stated, a great opportunity to think carefully and expansively about the choices that are before us and my place in this astounding time.

As we forge ahead, trying to find ways to engage each other in that changing paradigm, I can’t help but to be grateful for the fire and inspiration that the teachers in my past helped me to locate and ignite. Looking back, I can see very clearly how some of my teachers were able to spark the passion for questioning, learning and exploring that led me to use my curiosity and gifts to help me become the person I am now. It’s often the things that seem so small in the moment, that later, in hindsight, turn out to be monumental turning points that send your life in one direction or another, Such is certainly the case wth my journey to this present moment.

My thoughts range all the way back to 2nd grade at Grover Cleveland Elementary School where Miss Charlotte Churn, my 2nd great teacher, used Woody Guthrie’s song “This Land is Your Land” to open up a world of folk music and a wider world of discovery. It spoke of redwood trees, poverty and dust storms, storied rivers, states and people who were thousands of miles from my inner city home in Philadelphia. That song shifted my point of view in ways that would not take true shape until I would have the chance later in life, to travel and see them for myself. But Miss Churn did her job as a teacher, expanding my mind by using a musical and cultural touchstone that validates arts education practices now in use. And it happened on a day that she would not even remember when we met, by chance, almost 3o years later.  She, like millions of others, was trying to help her students find that space beyond the realms that our eyes could see and our locally focused brains could imagine.

And in 8th grade, it happened again. My home room and history teacher, Mr Nicholas, asked my mother if he could make a recommendation for me to go to a school that was not in my neighborhood because, as he said “Reginald is a very eclectic boy.” (My mother would later mis-interpret his use of that word by remarking “He says that you talk too much!) He continued, “I think Reginald would do much better at the school that most of these other students will attend after finishing here.” My mom warily asked the coded question, “So it’s a better school?” (meaning “So white kids go there?) He said “Yes!” And that conversation and his subsequent efforts connected me to a school where wider perspectives and a more diverse education would be my ticket to creating dream options and accomplishments that my neighborhood school would likely not have afforded.

It was there that I would encounter a number of teachers, Ms Hausler, (home room in 9th grade) Mrs Baker (english in 8th grade) Mr Gerson (who saved me from the indignity of failing 12th grade physics) and the person who might be the single most important teacher in my finding a career in music, my choral director, Mr Theodore Nitsche.

The signature event happened in my 3rd week of 9th grade at Olney High School in Philly. I was sitting with hundreds of other students in the auditorium awaiting an address from the principal when the Olney High School accapella choir walked in, gathered in two groups, (front and rear) and sang ONE SONG. Just one! But in that crystal clear moment, I thought to myself, “I need to be in that choir!” The song was magical and it spoke to something in me that would not be denied.

Later that very day, I went up to the 5th floor to see Mr Theodore Nitsche, the music teacher who had been teaching there since the day the school opened in 1936. Mr Nitsche had taught every student at the school for at least one year in his music appreciation duties but the choir was his pride and joy. I began by informing him that he needed me in his choir. The news was not good. He told me that I had missed the choir auditions by one week and that the choir roster was set. In an unusually bold move for me, I informed him that he NEEDED me because I was a tenor and he didn’t have enough?  (I had somehow counted 9 tenors in a 100 voice choir.) He stared at me, and said “Really?”  After a brief conversation he took me in a rehearsal room and gave me a quick vocal test. In minutes, I became #10. That moment and my subsequent four years as part of the choir family changed my life in so many ways. That experience  extended both to my time as a student at that school and even more to my journey as a person, an educator and a musician to this day.

Mr Nitsche was an usual man. He was serious about music, personal and community responsibility and about getting the music right while being expressive and precise. He thought of all of us as “his rousters!” (a term already way out of use even by that time!) He was a Quaker, though I wouldn’t learn that until the memorial service at time of his death in 1979.) He was a firm believer in the worth of all individuals though he could be opinionated and sharp when talking about “evil doers” and bad behavior. But his talks always centered on compassion as he constantly lectured us about the need to be good role models in the world. For a kid who was dealing with many issues both at home and at school (facing situations where race, religion and class issues made me feel inferior) he proved on any number of occasions that he “saw” and appreciated me for who I was. And that even carried over to the times when I got on his LAST nerve. It was in his choir that I made the friends who would eventually connect me to future people and places that helped me to discover my voice in new ways, learn the guitar (in a much longer story) and become the musician I am today.

As a teacher, Mr Nitsche and those others made me feel smart,  safe, challenged and more confident as they lit a fire in me for striving, observing carefully, listening with purpose,  sharing my opinions and for singing Bach choral preludes and the counterpoint that exists in my head every time I harmonize. Teachers can make a world wider than the oceans are deep. And in my case, thanks to their efforts, I have been swimming with joy and abandon for years!

In the spirit of joy,

Reggie

Woke Up in the COVID Boat! (Still singing’!!)

Dear Music Family,

I hope you are all well and paying attention to keeping yourself safe in this ongoing COVID-19 crisis. My heart is very sad in this moment as cancellations, mis-information, and fears continue to mount. We all find ourselves in a state of uncertainty as we try to adjust to the need for individual, community, and global safety.

Two weeks ago, in my role as co-president of the Living Legacy Project, I led a conference call where our board decided to cancel two Civil Rights Pilgrimages that were scheduled for this month. At that time, we had two bus-loads of excited participants who were looking forward to exploring over 20 sites related to our extraordinary Civil Rights heritage. At that time, it felt like a hard and bold decision to make. Now, in hindsight, it was clearly the reasonable thing to do.

As you know, one of my great joys is leading music on these powerful journeys that connect people not only to the past, but to the critical issues that still plague our nation. Singing with people on the bus is always one of the highlights that sets the tone for the narratives that we must consider, past and present. These songs have stood the test of time, and still inspire activism and action to drive us forward.

Last month I had the chance to celebrate some of these very songs with one of my musical heroes, my brother Josh White, Jr. We sat together on stage in East Lansing and traded songs and stories, and watched our audience “come alive” with the passion and fervor of a mass meeting. There were moments when we could have been in one of those churches in Selma, Birmingham, Montgomery, AL, or Jackson, Mississippi, waiting for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. or C.T. Vivian to stand and deliver a stirring sermon aimed at firing us up to register to vote. And here in this election cycle, faced with some of the most important challenges our nation has ever faced, we need all the inspiration we can get.

Check out this video: https://vimeo.com/397802933

Like Josh, I come from a long line of committed song leaders who knew the power of song. When they sang “Woke Up This Morning with My Mind (stayed on Freedom)” they were committing themselves to personal action in hopes of changing the world.

Our cancelled journeys will be rescheduled, and as most of us feel trapped in our homes for periods of time, I encourage you to use this opportunity to read, watch, and learn so that when we again have the opportunity to gather, organize, and vote, we will be ready. Two favorite books include The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson and Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson. You might also watch that movie, or watch the documentary “13th,” a very thought-provoking documentary on our system of justice. An additional reading list is available at https://deeperthantheskin.com/about/bibliography/

In peace, health, and song,
Reggie

Are You History Makers?

Dear Music Family,

I send my best wishes to you all as we make our way in 2020.

It’s so hard to believe that we are already three weeks into this new decade. I find myself caught between the energy of the new year and the need to take some time to review what I’m leaving behind. With a year as trauma-driven and stressful as 2019, it’s tempting just to “let it all go!!” Since I’ve long since given up on the exercise of making New Year’s resolutions from year to year, I now choose to focus on a few moments of discovery that I wanna remember and add some new goals in the effort to build forward with purpose. Fortunately, my first week provided the perfect backdrop to do that with joy.

Like last year, the invitation was to passionately open ourselves to considerations of what that pivotal movement has to offer as inspiration as we face this charged national racial and political climate. We looked back to look forward. (Sankofa!)

In Selma I stood next to Joanne Bland, who was a child on the Edmond Pettus Bridge on “Bloody Sunday,” as she challenged our students. “Are you history makers?” she shouted. “Yes!!” they replied, in voices loud and strong! “Then you make sure you VOTE to honor those who died so that you can!”

I can say with assurance that none of us departed from our final stop in Memphis the same people as when we began. Of course, along the way, we sang together and let the music create a new sense of hope and community as it did with those amazing pioneers so long ago.

Now, in this moment, I invite you to join us on this new journey of discovery. As I said to the students in our closing circle: “Let the music you bring into your life in 2020 support and challenge you to be the best you can be, as we continue to work for justice, peace, and a more sane and thoughtful world.” The opportunity requires us to be family to each other in a different way. I believe we are up to it.

And those folks who sang “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Round!” did too. They were reminding us to let our light shine!

In peace, justice, and song,
Reggie

From No Chair to Co- Chair!

Dear Music Family,

 

Really? Has it really been 9 years?  I still remember the conversation that brought me to the Living Legacy Pilgrimage bus (LLP) that first time in 2010.

My friend Rev. Hope Johnson and her sister Janice Marie Johnson had just returned from having an incredible experience on a civil rights journey through Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee. Hope said the only thing missing in the experience was that it did not include any of the music that fueled that movement. She asked if I would be willing to come on the next journey as a musician who could provide a spark and some historical background. The answer was easy! Yes!!

In my mind, it would just be “another gig where I had to sing some freedom songs as we visited those hallowed sites.” And as they say, “little did I know!”

Two days into the journey, my passion came alive and my heart knew that I had found a new mission. Like so many before and after, I was ready to join forces with those who have committed themselves to sharing the lessons and the hope that these pilgrimages bring alive. Quickly I went from being a hired musician… to serving as Director of Music for LLP… to being a member on the board as a resource for planning and co-leading these extraordinary journeys. On average, I’m on the bus twice per year, and I’ve helped plan even more.

Now, some nine years later, I find myself as one half of the new LLP leadership team. With my dear friend Jan Sneegas, I have accepted the position of Co-Chairperson of LLP for the next year. Jan and I are now charged, along with our new energized board, with leading this amazing organization into its next phase of new collaborations, more pilgrimages, and developing new ways to expand the mission. Traveling from Birmingham, to Selma, Marion, Montgomery, Jackson, Philadelphia, Memphis, and more, we continue to use the sites, songs, and stories to drive home important messages of resolve and hope.

Here is a two minute video example of such a moment on our Oct. 2017 LLP pilgrimage . We were blessed to have some time with the family of civl rights martyr Vernon Dahmer Sr, where his son Vernon Dahmer Jr, still a vibrant force, shared thoughts about their critical involvement in legacy of Mississippi civil rights history. https://youtu.be/7HuK0dvEROg

The work of crafting a vision with LLP has me singing with renewed inspiration. My other connections in music, education, history, and faith are also blossoming to make this challenging and often perplexing time in history feel like the best opportunity possible to bring about social change.

9 years!! One step and one bus ride at a time. We are all doing small things to keep the fabric of justice growing. We’ve had everyone from 9th grade to into their 90’s, and people from every kind of racial and faith (or not) background imaginable. If you haven’t yet joined us on a pilgrimage, put us on your list. http://www.uulivinglegacy.org

In peace, justice, and song,
Reggie

 

Keep the Faith

Dear Music Family,

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but my last few newsletters have all followed a theme. The stories and pictures that I’ve shared with you have been framing the various aspects of the work that I do as musician, storyteller, and cultural ambassador. I started by telling you about the beginnings of my folk music career and how that journey has connected me to people throughout history in the building of community. Next I wrote about my work in schools as an educator, teaching students and staff about the Underground Railroad, the Modern Civil Right Movement, and how music informs and inspires our lives in the present day. The most recent newsletter highlighted the work I’m doing with Greg Greenway helping audiences face the challenges of race and diversity with Deeper Than the Skin.

I thank you for taking this journey with me, and I’m so grateful for your support both in your comments when we meet and for inviting me into your communities as we all work to make our world more as we believe it should be. Looking back at these posts, one word seems to rise that connects and encompasses them all, and that word is FAITH.

Not faith in the sense that drove my mother to take us to church on every possible opportunity in my childhood years (over the protests and whining of my sister and I), but faith in the sense of HOPE. It comes as no surprise to those of you who know me that the work I do is deeply rooted in the history and the spirit of the songs I write and the songs that I choose to sing.

One of my great joys is to be invited into churches, synagogues, and faith gatherings across religious lines. I love doing concerts, delivering sermons, leading workshops, and seeking connections through music that encourage dialogue and hope.

After so many of these gatherings, people come up and say, “I feel inspired, I feel some hope. But what can I do?” I often share the words of theologian Howard Thurman, who said, “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

For me, music is the source of life and hope. It is my gift and it brings me alive day after day. It’s the gift that I’m blessed to share with you.

In peace, love, and hope,

Reggie

“Are These Stories True?

May/June News 2019

“Are these stories true?” The question came from a fourth grader who was seated at a desk at the back of the classroom. It was inspired by an age-appropriate but honest description of life in slavery. It’s a question that I’ve heard many many times, and as always, I smiled, and then in as calm a voice as I could muster, I said, “Yes, these stories are all true. I know it’s hard to believe. But you don’t have to believe me. You can look them up.”
This is work I love to do. I get great joy performing for thousands in groups small and large, and traveling the world singing at house concerts, in concert halls, festivals, and in famous art centers. There is nothing, however, like the magic of being in a local school somewhere in America talking about issues that many adults think we should hide from kids. My programs on the Underground Railroad, slavery, and Civil Rights are moments when I feel the most hope for the future of our world.

Kids are honest, open, curious, and more than happy to entertain themselves if you don’t happen to be interesting or if you seem like you’re trying to hide something. Whether I’m telling a story to 200 kindergartener-to-third graders, or I’m teaching “Wade In The Water” to the most cool, disinterested-looking 9th-through-12thgraders on the planet, my 40 years of engaging with students from every region of the country in concert, classroom, or during a residency has taught me that there’s a way in. The goal is somehow to discover the way in together, and music and story help students discover, engage, and then demonstrate their learning in ways that are not only fun, but universally effective.

In pictures and letters that come through the mail weeks after a performance, students show that lessons on Harriet Tubman, Henry “Box” Brown, or the marching children of 1963 Birmingham have hit the mark. Teachers report, “The students are still singing those songs, and they’ve made connections to present-day students in Parkland, Florida and Columbine, Colorado.” The connections between past and present become more than words on a page. One of my favorite pictures was drawn by a second grade girl after an Underground Railroad program. She drew herself crying, with a thought bubble showing a girl in slavery. I love the drawing because it demonstrated the emotional impact of slavery, her understanding of injustice, and her ability to reflect on it.

Some days I’m arriving with the janitor at 7am, others I’m doing workshops for educators, and still others I’m leaving a college classroom at 10:00 at night, but it’s all work that makes me feel vibrant and alive and the positive effect on my life and work is deeper than I can say.

In learning, joy, and song,
Reggie

 

 

Are You Folk or What?

Dear Music Family,

In an interview last week, a reporter asked me a question that I am often called to answer. “How do you describe who you are? Do people know you as a folk musician? As singer-songwriter? An educator? Or what?” It’s a question that I’ve been forced to answer many times over these 40+ years, and as a close friend recently pointed out, “I’m not sure your fans really know all that you do.”

To that end, I thought that I would share in these next few email visits the range of my various passions that have come to define what I call a career.

Most of you know me as a folk performer and singer-songwriter, and that is the lens through which I entered this world of art and expression. I learned to play guitar when I was 20 years old when a girlfriend challenged me to learn two chords. I had already been singing since I was three years old in the living room with my mom and sister, at church, and at school choirs. The seeds of my love of folk songs began in 2ndgrade when Charlotte Churn, my teacher, introduced us to the music of Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and a young singer named Bob Dylan. How was I to know then that years later I would become friends with Pete and Toshi Seeger, Tom Paxton, and inspired by the work of Bernice Johnson Reagon, Harry Belafonte, and James TaylorI would be traveling the world over singing songs and telling stories in concert halls, at festivals, and to audiences of every background imaginable?

One of my favorite memories happened two years ago in Cologne, Germany. I stood on stage in a beautiful theater leading an audience of 1,000 Germans in singing Pete Seeger’s song Rainbow Race. If this journey has taught me anything, it is that music transcends barriers and unites people, and makes change and trust possible. Listening to their voices rise up, I knew that the choice of making music my life was important not only for me, but for the world.

It’s the same feeling that I had this week when I led 200 children in song at a school in Maryland. But that’s a story for the next installment. Until then, think about a special moment that music has created in your life and share that thought with a friend on your way to a music event in your area. Music will only heal the world if we share it with each other.

In peace, joy, and song,

Reggie

Collaboration

Dear Friends and Music Family!

It’s what I seem to love to do… so I looked it up!
Collaboration: the process of two or more people or organizations working together to complete a task or achieve a goal.  

I’ve spent most of my life working in collaboration. It started in childhood, living with my grandmother, my single-parent mom, and my sister, living in a house that my mom “Midge” and her sister “Sweetsie” helped my Nana and Grandpop to buy. They were the first Black family on the block, in a house bought in a collaboration with a White realtor and the first Black female judge in PA, The Honorable Juanita Kidd Stout. Through those years, we didn’t always have what we needed, but we had love. With the help of our church and neighborhood, we got by.

That effort continued in my adult life as I discovered that music was my inspiration and my way to express all that I love and hope to represent. As part of the duo Kim and Reggie Harris and many satisfying collaborations including with Pete Seeger, Matt Jones, Scott Ainslie, Pat Wictor, Magpie and many others, we raised our voices to stamp out hate and lift up hope.

I have also come to love the joy and power of singing and performing as a solo act. Music speaks to hearts and minds in ways that transforms our lives and makes our planet more safe, more sane, healthy and just. But working in collaboration remains one of my great joys.

Most of you know of my collaboration with Greg Greenway, my friend of 30 years. Deeper Than the Skin is a story/concert/dialogue that takes on the subject of race. We’re at a new and exciting place and are happy to announce that we are recording a CD of the presentation that will be available later this year! This CD comes at a challenging time in our nation, and has allowed us to engage in critical conversations with audiences from Maine to Florida, Oklahoma to Virginia.

Born 3 days apart we have forged a friendship that merges our different beginnings, White and Black, North and South, a descendant of slaves and a descendant of slave owners, into a collaboration that invites people to recall their stories and hear the stories of others. This is the only way that we will heal the racial divide. We invite you to watch for ways to purchase the CD (not yet available). We welcome you to join us when we’re in your area (see dates below, Reggie’s website, or visit the Deeper Than the Skin website) or you can invite us into your community by visiting this link (https://deeperthantheskin.com).

Malcolm X said, “We need more light about each other.” You can help us in our efforts to open hearts and create more light.

Turtles of Gratitude

Greetings Good People!

Here we are in Thanksgiving mode” again! It’s that time of year we set aside to focus on gratitude, self-reflection, and how the blessings of the last year might have escaped our notice. And given the pace of our lives in this 24/7 reality based whirlwind, it can be a good thing to have an imposed saved space for considering our lives and the good that has come our way. Otherwise, we well might reach year’s end with nary a thought to that side of life’s complexity. Maybe that’s why we gorge ourselves to numb the pain!

I’m sure that many of you have noticed, in public or in photos, that I wear a turtle on a chain around my neck. I actually have several turtle “friends” that share neck and heart duty. But I suspect that most of you don’t know how the ritual wearing of a turtle came to be a thing with me. It’s not something that I talk about often and if people don’t ask, it pretty much never comes up. But it was triggered by one of the most powerful change moments of my life and remains a very present reminder of life and the need to be present, thankful and aware.

Ten years ago last month, I was blessed with the gift of a new liver. At the time, I was near death from a liver ailment and the donation of an organ was the gift that saved my life. I woke up from that 7 hour operation with a chance to live and chase my dreams anew. Post transplant recovery was long and hard and after about a year, even though I was doing well physically, I found myself dragging through days of sadness and depression. I was struggling to find a perspective and balance that could keep me feeling grateful for this life-saving gift and the opportunities it now presented.

One day, walking through an art gallery in town, I came upon a carved deer antler turtle (an icon of life, gratitude and patience) that seemed to call out to me from its case. I asked to see it and in an instant, I felt like I had been connected to a source of energy and comfort that began to shift my mental framework. I quickly bought that little icon and started the ritual of putting it on every day as a reminder to recommit myself to a new sense of mission that, to this day, informs my life and my daily activity. Each day, by placing my turtle around my neck, I get to reconnect in gratitude with the gift I was given by the family of a 43 year old man whose death made a new start possible for me. I resonate with the flow of joy and gratitude that so many of you tell me you can hear in my music.

My better angels were working for me back then. And now, “Turtle” and “New Turtle” remind me to try to walk in rhythm with the grace, compassion, and the generosity of spirit that exists in our love and care for each other. It’s an action that reminds me to share the blessings forward. It has made for a very enlightening 10 years. And no, it doesn’t make every day “magic” or keep me from feeling challenged and/or overwhelmed at times. But it does remind me that I have a choice in how I see the things that come across my lens and most often, it allows me some grace in deciding how to face them.

The song “Better Angels” also came to me as a gift. It’s a song that speaks of a need to rebuild our sense of trust and commitment to each other. It speaks of the mission that so many of you share with me: of being grateful for that infusion of support, love, and friendship that helps us all to be better people and more thoughtful members of our families and communities.

So here at Thanksgiving Central  I find myself being grateful to , as my brother Greg Greenway says,  “realize that I have a job to do and the tools to do it.” Blessings, peace, and grace to you all. And let’s keep our better angels singing!

In thankfulness, joy, and song,
Reggie

https://youtu.be/t8z8R0d-wIM