Like many Americans last summer, Ettore Ewen felt helpless. In the days and weeks that followed the death of George Floyd, Ewen struggled to make sense of the incident which sparked protests across the United States and again brought race and police brutality to the forefront of the national discourse.
“It was the first time that I experienced the death of someone that I didn’t know, but it felt very real and very personal,” Ewen told Yahoo Sports. “I remember for days and days, I could barely think of anything else. I remember having this feeling of helplessness. I was asking myself ‘How can I change anything? How can I dismantle systemic racism?’ I felt the way many people did, like there was very little that I had that I could do.”
Unlike most Americans however, Ewen has the ability to reach millions of Americans each week thanks to his profession. Working as “Big E” in WWE, Ewen is one of the most popular professional wrestlers in the company and a member of the New Day trio, one of the most successful and influential stables in the industry’s history.
Ewen and his tag-team partner Kofi Kingston opened the June 12 edition of Smackdown by entering the ring, dropping to one knee and raising a fist in the air. It was a small, but powerful gesture by the two Black men. In the weeks that followed, Ewen donned black armbands with the names of men and women victimized by police brutality and racial injustice.
“I kept thinking that even doing something small is better than doing nothing,” Ewen said. “I have a bit of a platform, I have a modicum of celebrity or fame, whatever you want to call it. I’m on TV. One of the things that I have really enjoyed with the New Day and with WWE is the ability to express myself and our interests as a group through our wrestling gear.”
As the global coronavirus pandemic continued, Ewen’s once-full WWE calendar was suddenly freed up. Without traveling and house shows, Ewen went from performing 4-5 times a week to just Fridays on “SmackDown” and once a month for pay-per-view events.
It was then that the wheels started turning and he eventually enlisted the help of his friend and longtime ring gear designer Jonathan Davenport to take another small step toward opening the eyes of Americans.
“I remember going on a walk in the pandemic because I had all of this time,” Ewen said. “One of the things I like about working with Jonathan is I’ll have these hair-brained ideas and he’ll make them work. It was going to be a visual medium with the wrestling gear, but if we got people curious about Nina Simone on my gear or Ida B. Wells, maybe their interest will be piqued. Maybe they’ll say that’s a name I haven’t heard in a long time or ever, let me do some more research.”
‘Schoolhouse Rock’ for a new generation
The response to Ewen’s ring gear was positive, with Davenport receiving inquiries about wanting to see more and educators believing something akin to his designs should be in schools nationwide.
From Ewen’s “one small thing,” the idea for “Our Heroes Rock” was born.
Ewen and Davenport linked up with Andreas Hale, a journalist and author, to formulate the idea for an animated series that shines a light on some of the greatest Black Americans in our country’s history. The trio describes the concept as a “hip-hop odyssey through Black history,” and launched a Kickstarter campaign to get the series off the ground.
“I wondered, what if we did something akin to ‘Schoolhouse Rock’ but for important Black figures, activists, politicians and artists,” Ewen said. “One of the things that resonated with me is that ‘Schoolhouse Rock’ started in the 1970s, but there are so many people, regardless of age, who can still recite the jingles and know things about bills and laws because of that show.”
Aimed at a younger generation of Americans, Ewen envisions “Our Heroes Rock” as a tool to augment what children have traditionally learned in school. As an African-American literature minor in college, it wasn’t until Ewen was studying at Iowa that he learned more about iconic Black figures.
“I went to a really, really vigorous prep school and got a great education but wasn’t exposed to these things,” Ewen said. “It felt like something that would be great to have kids know these names, know these stories. I also think it makes you a more empathetic person, when you see people of color, when you see Black people who have done incredible things for so long. You realize how much we have been through, how much we have overcome as a people.”
Although the focus is obviously on Black Americans, a conscious decision was made to use words like “Our” and “Americans” as not to qualify or pigeonhole the project. The first episode and focus of the Kickstarter campaign is about Ruby Bridges, who in the 1960s desegregated an all-white school in New Orleans.
“The reason why we decided to call it ‘Our Heroes Rock’ is because these shouldn’t just be the heroes for Black people, they should be the heroes for people of all ethnicities, races, sexual orientation,” Ewen said. “Anyone can look to someone like Ruby Bridges and be inspired. We wanted to emphasize that this really is all of our history and that Black history shouldn’t just be segmented into one month and we just move on. This is a huge part of the fabric of our country.”
Aside from birthing the idea, Ewen will also voice one of the main characters on the show, E-TOUR, a robot that guides kids through the futuristic “Hall of Heroes.” According to the campaign, each episode will also feature an immersive, music video narrative performed by hip-hop artists. The Bridges episode will feature Rapsody, a Grammy-nominated artist. Artists Wale, Flatbush Zombies and 9th Wonder have also expressed interest in being a part of the project.
“When education feels arduous or like a task, a lot of times you don’t get people to open the door to interact with it,” Ewen said. “The metaphor I have been using is that it’s like when you’re a kid and your parents take vitamins or medicine and crush it up in applesauce. This is the applesauce, it’s supposed to be fun and great-tasting but you get the nutrients as well. If kids can get these lyrics rattling around in their head, that’s incredible to me and that’s what we want.”
‘This education needs to continue’
Ewen also has received support from within his WWE family. Kingston and Xavier Woods have both been supportive of the idea as well as Bianca Belair, one of the fastest-rising stars in WWE today. Despite the backing of his colleagues, working on “Our Heroes Rock” has given Ewen a new creative outlet and has become a passion project.
“In a lot of ways, this isn’t a pro wrestling project, this isn’t a work project,” Ewen said. “That’s something that excites me too. Getting outside of that mode, as much as I love being a professional wrestler, this is something that I have found creatively fulfilling.”
Should the Kickstarter be successful, Ewen, Davenport and Hale have discussed expanding the “Our Heroes Rock” brand. Couching it as being “cautious” the trio have poured themselves into the initial launch but are also thinking about the possibilities of children’s books and an interactive component.
In many ways, there’s hope that “Our Heroes Rock” truly becomes a movement, not a moment, and mirrors the steps the country has taken in the wake of Floyd’s death to confront racism and social injustice.
“I think for the people who have done the work with helping to teach about anti-racism and dismantling these systems, this is life-long work,” Ewen said. “It’s going to extend well beyond 2020, well beyond this year. These conversations need to continue, this education needs to continue. I am glad now that people seem more receptive to these stories, but I hope this window does not close.”
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