By Zoë Fisher
A trickle of orange leaves were scattered on the spiral staircase that led to Ryan Sorrell’s basement-level apartment, a few blocks from Loyola University Chicago’s main campus. Sorrell and I sat on two worn and cluttered couches in his living room.
The smell of hookah clung to the walls. On the table sat half-filled, open-capped Sprite jugs and empty liquor bottles. (He later noted his roommates are of legal drinking age.) Sorrell shuffled around his book bags and clothes and quickly apologized for the mess, in a slightly embarrassed tone.
This three-bedroom Chicago apartment was the antithesis of his childhood homes in the suburbs of Kansas City and East Lansing. Sorrell describes his neighborhood as “an upper-middle-class, white area.”
His mother, a CFO for Kansas City Union Station and father, an attorney for the federal government, afforded him opportunities like private basketball camps and classical viola lessons.
His cousin often teased him about his privilege. His earliest experience with race occurred when she taunted him and his two brothers for not being black enough. In response, Sorrell diligently researched topics like the civil rights movement and the Black Panthers.
“I love black people,” Sorrell says as his long, russet-colored fingers pause from fiddling with a stress ball, “I love being black.”
The organizations he participates in, such as Student Justice for Palestine (SJP) or Chicago Coalition for Minority Advancement (CCMA) reflect his appreciation for advocacy and culture.
But Sorrell’s most recent activism manifests itself in the online news source he helped found and now edits, The Black Tribune. The Tribune, unique in its field, is a student-run newspaper that focuses on people of color but is not associated with or sponsored by a university. Few other publications in the nation do this — Blavity is the most notable.
The new publication launched at a heightened time of race relations in our country. Stories such as the institutional racial injustice at the University of Missouri and the police-shooting deaths of Laquan McDonald and Rekia Boyd allow for the paper to cover police brutality and racism, especially in Chicago.
In high school, Sorrell was confident in his basketball skills but his highest achievements only included making it to districts before losing and being awarded Player of the Week.
Standing a little under 6 feet, Sorrell is lean and still athletic. In addition to varsity basketball, orchestra, the debate team and academics, another passion surfaced for Sorrell in high school: rap music.
His newfound interest was so strong that his academics suffered because of it. The balance between music and school came to a head again in college after he released a video called LUC Trap.
In the video, Sorrell rapped, “Got some Kush, try some of mine. Got some head outside of Mundelein,” on the scenic balcony of Loyola’s historic building. On YouTube, the edited and unedited versions together have reached over 22,000 views.
But the video received backlash from administrators and others because of its references to sexual acts on campus that they said undermined the college’s Jesuit values.
“People make assumptions about rappers,” Sorrell said during our interview as he adjusted the black-brimmed glasses on his face. “They think rappers aren’t smart and do bad things.”
“They don’t know you, bro,” chimed in Dominic Hall, the Black Tribune’s chief operations officer and Sorrell’s childhood friend.
Sorrell made the song two years ago, as a freshman, but he still fights to dispel rapper stereotypes after the video started to elicit judgments about his personality and intelligence.
Ironically, while he sat in Loyola’s student conduct department — an office he’s become familiar with — Sorrell discovered his favorite quote on a poster in the waiting room: “Never doubt that a small group of dedicated people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” (Sorrell declined to comment on his other visits to the department, citing the possible suspension he’s facing.)
Loyola moved to suspend Sorrell following a noise complaint filed during a Black Tribune meeting at his apartment. Petitions are now circulating on social media to repeal that decision.
Sorrell’s deep, groggy voice recalled the origins of The Black Tribune. “I was sleeping and I had a dream that I talked to Fredrick Douglas,” he says about a summer night in July. “He told me that this was something that we needed.”
To Sorrell, the mainstream media is controlled by the oppressor — borrowing language from political theory — and the oppressor will never have the interest of the oppressed in mind.
The Black Tribune launched earlier this year with the tagline, “the blacker the paper the sweeter the news.” Hall says the paper is a product of Sorrell’s determination: once he decides to do something, he does it.
The Black Tribune aims to provide a diverse and “holistic perspective of society.” It covers news, politics, solidarity and lifestyle. Articles range from the representation of women of color in media to the colonial nature of the Blackhawks Logo. As editor-in-chief, Sorrell tries to ensure that the articles are free from any misogyny or homophobia.
Sorrell intentionally allows only people of color to write for the paper, with the exception of “white revolutionaries”— allies, who fight for Black liberation.
Since its start in October, the website has received just under 102,000 views. The site’s reach on Facebook quadrupled recently and engagement jumped more than 11 times. Sorrell attributes this to their coverage on the Missouri protests and the protest Loyola held on Nov. 12. Their close sources at Mizzou allowed them to break the story three hours before large media outlets, such as Al Jazeera, The Huffington Post and the New York Times, according to Sorrell.
The Black Tribune’s relationship with organizers allowed them into the safe space –an area blocking media — during the protest on Loyola’s campus but it also put them at odds with other media. Sorrell specifically told reporters from The Chicago Reporter, a news outlet focusing on race and poverty, that they could not enter the enclosed chanting circle. Later on, the Black Tribune contacted the Reporter to ask permission to use the photos they took, but the Reporter denied the request.
When asked why other news outlets weren’t allowed in, Sorrell said the organizers gave the Black Tribune special permission beforehand and even though the Reporter does good work, it was easier to say no to all media than to make exceptions.
The day of the protest, a continuously growing crowd of students chanted in a circle on Loyola’s campus to show their solidarity with the protests happening at Mizzou. Sorrell was in the middle, camera in hand, shivering.
Dressed only in a vest, his arms were exposed to the frigid wind near the same buildings shown in his LUC Trap video. Sorrell, usually in the front leading protests, was now in front documenting them.
The gray, unmoving sky mirrored the resolved faces in the crowd. In 10 years, Sorrell hopes to turn The Black Tribune into a multi-million-dollar media outlet.
But for now, he’s still an activist. While recording, Sorrell put his fist up in unity with the other students. Their chant, “Ashe! Power!” reverberated off Loyola’s buildings until it landed in the ears of the protesters and a hum of silence filled the circle.