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Photo illustration by Kaushik Kalidindi for Okayplayer, photo by Lanisha Cole, @lanisha.jpg.

Richie Reseda.

Photo illustration by Kaushik Kalidindi for Okayplayer, photo by Lanisha Cole, @lanisha.jpg.

Richie Reseda Wants to Disrupt the Culture — Not Kill the Vibe

Meet the formerly incarcerated abolitionist who found freedom in feminism and purpose in questioning misogynistic norms.

It’s a sunny September morning in California, according to clear skies and palm trees peaking through the 9 by 16 video frame when Richard Edmond-Vargas, who goes by "Richie Reseda,” joins the video call.

Richie’s taking a walk after a morning of meetings and a much-needed nap, which he describes as an act of self-care. “I need to take care of myself and do less sometimes; it’s something that I really just started learning very recently,” he says, opening the floodgates to our conversation. Reseda wears many hats as a producer, abolitionist, cultural organizer, and commentator. He is also a formerly incarcerated person who served 7 out of a 10-year sentence in a California prison, where he discussed feminism with his fellow inmates before his 2018 release.

Richie Reseda poses for a photo with his hand on his chin and leaning against a piano at a music studio. Richie ResedaPhoto by Lanisha Cole, @lanisha.jpg.

It took Reseda the larger part of his adolescence to unlearn and relearn the importance of attending to his wellness and mental health, a lesson aided by an arrest record that started at age 14. Each experience refined his understanding of a “need” versus a “want.”

“That's the thing about needs, is that you need them. You could try to will yourself out of needing water, or needing food, or needing rest. It will not work. Something will snap, you know?...

We are just a member of the team. To act like we're anything more is like some ego fucking martyr– it's kind of low-key saying like, you're better than everybody. Like the birds and the trees, everybody needs water and rest, but not me. Because — what?”

The latter half of his stage name, Reseda, is his neighborhood in Los Angeles and the backdrop of many of society’s ills — poverty, the school-to-prison pipelines, and mass incarceration, much of which is rooted in patriarchy and fertilized by toxic masculinity — all of which contributed to Reseda’s run-ins with police which began at the age of 11.

According to the Urban Institute, in the U.S., one in five people in prison serving 10 years or more is a Black man who was incarcerated before the age of 25. While slightly more than one in eight of the general prison population is a Black man, who was incarcerated as a youth. Facing these disproportionate odds, Reseda praises womanism as the school of thought that rerouted his path. “bell hooks is the writer whose work has influenced me the most and brought about the most healing in my own life,” he noted.

hooks’ teachings as an author, educator and social critic in works such as The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love invites men to examine and envision their role in society, removed from the harmful confines of patriarchy, which often centers domination and control.

Richie Reseda poses for a photo with his hand on his chin and leaning against a piano at a music studio. Richie ResedaPhoto by Lanisha Cole, @lanisha.jpg.

Departing From Dogma and Embracing Abolition

Reseda recalls the moment he was politicized and moved to organize at 14. “At that time, I had already been arrested, like, three or four times. I was failing out of school, I was put in classes with all the kids who were failing. And these young organizers came in and started talking to us about the prison industrial complex, the school-to-prison pipeline, and it just made sense to me.”

Reseda was raised by his Christian father, originally from Alabama and a product of the southern Black church, and his white Jewish mother, who hailed from New York.

“Religion teaches you that the problem with the world is that people are not Christian enough.” Once he realized that all religions repeated some version of Christianity's elitism, Reseda went on a quest for something deeper.

Even at a young age, the curious blooming Richie knew that one’s religion or lack thereof, was determined by external factors like location or the family of origin. And yet, religion has an enormous influence over the ability to thrive. Even as an adolescent, Richie’s desire to build community and lean into transformative justice and abolition was solidified. “Social justice as a framework of understanding the world was the first one that actually applied to everybody.”

“I just knew that wasn't true within me, this idea that, like human beings, could only be driven or pushed by shame and by fear of shame and violence. I was keenly aware of my ability to move through the world based on empathy rather than fear of shame and violence,” he said. Reseda believes, at its core, abolition considers that each living organism needs another to survive. This communal framework also highlights that men need each other to chip away at toxic masculinity and eventually dismantle the patriarchy.

Understanding the broken judicial system wasn’t a far cry from understanding the world Richie came from. “The system was doing the same thing that the streets were doing. Abolition was the only option that recognized the life force of all human beings and said, ‘This person's doing something harmful. Why?' Because if a person is moving, it's to suit a need. And we all have the same needs, to be healthy, to be safe, to be fulfilled.”

In his final encounter with the criminal justice system, Reseda faced a double life sentence — 150 years. At the age of 19, Reseda was charged with 7 robberies, 2 kidnappings and assault with a deadly weapon. After taking a plea deal and agreeing to serve 10 years at the Correctional Training Facility in Soledad, California, he was released 3 years early on good behavior in 2018.

Richie’s sentencing experience heightened his call for dismantling all forms of domination by means of control. “For me, it is absolutely about abolishing prison. Abolishing all forms of organized violence. All institutions that rely on organized violence to exist. That also changes the way we do business because all these companies rely on violence to exist.”

A CNN documentary, The Feminist on Cellblock Y, directed by Contessa Gayles and co-produced with Emma Lacey-Bordeaux, aired the same year Reseda was released from prison and showcases the work he did while there. The then 22-year-old Reseda co-created Success Stories, workshops that centered on feminism and toxic masculinity with his fellow inmates.

Unlike the countless groups and organizations that spoke to inmates to compile archaic data for the root causes of incarceration, Reseda chose another approach. He created a space for men to engage in person-to-person, cultural work with feminist accountability. “I just know what that feels like to be shut down, criminalized and not have space for growth or nuance,” he said. While in prison, Reseda learned how to speak life into men who were not only physically confined but who had reached the brim of limitations in their minds.

Richie Reseda poses for a photo with his hand on his chin and leaning against a piano at a music studio. Richie ResedaPhoto by Lanisha Cole, @lanisha.jpg.

Reconciling Hip-hop's Misogynistic History

In the five years since his release, Richie has tapped into his creative roots. Reseda produces music and serves as the creative director for his media organization, Question Culture, which manages musical artists. Richie also launched the For Everyone Collective, which partners with formerly incarcerated people to create clothing featuring their art.

One of the pillars of Question Culture is to ask questions in order to create a space where curiosity can thrive to bring about healing. Richie says inquisition creates fluidity as opposed to fostering argumentative exchanges that feel like a tug-of-war, leaving participants on the defensive.

The “call to curiosity,” as Reseda puts it, is the only way to build thoughtful, consensual communities. As he recalls contending to address men in prison, who already felt exiled from society by way of living in and perpetuating the patriarchy, he understood offering a way out with the same rhetoric would not suffice. “Misogyny is usually not how people got in prison. [Prison] culture actually has a lot of space for misogyny. Misogyny is not illegal,” he said. Reseda understood rappers often also operate and are comfortable in their misogyny.

Reconciling his love of music, and specifically hip-hop, with the deeply misogynistic themes of the genre, Richie leans into the very curiosity that hip-hop culture, and rap music specifically, was born out of the need to challenge societal norms that marginalized communities and people. Yet, over time, rap music, a predominantly male-dominated space, has mirrored many of the toxic and misogynist behaviors the genre set out to dismantle.

To aid in disrupting these hypermasculine tropes, Reseda disputes the culture in real-time.

“In studios where niggas use the ‘B’ word every other word, I just ask them why. And genuinely asking why. Not in a shaming way where I'm going to shut [them] down, but genuinely trying, seeking to understand and then working from there,” Reseda clarifies.

“All I can truly do is be one male voice that you will walk away from this conversation knowing that that's not cool with me and we get to counteract the culture in that small way.”

Whether working as a producer with other artists, engaging with other men in daily life or discussing feminism with former fellow inmates, Reseda discovered that at the core of accountability work one truth, “You can't use domination to get rid of domination.”

Another aspect of countering the culture is ensuring that messaging is “culturally relevant” so as not to be isolated or dismissed by those receiving it. Reseda references conversations he’s had with Black men who come from similar backgrounds and have lived most of their lives surrounded by violence and hardship. Disenfranchised and marginalized people navigate life without access and often feel like they aren’t cared for. These factors create a propensity for sameness and overall resistance to introspection. Reseda says a key factor in shifting this paradigm is not to kill the vibe.

“If you can't interrupt the cultural narrative without killing the vibe, you're not actually doing cultural work. You're not really art-making, you’re preaching and shit. And we can feel that in the music. We've listened to songs that sound like education songs, like some Sesame Street rap head-ass shit. And that's not it,” Reseda explains. “Corniness means not culturally relevant, not culturally resonant. What you're saying is not resonating.”

Richie Reseda poses for a photo with his hand on his chin and leaning against a piano at a music studio. Richie ResedaPhoto by Lanisha Cole, @lanisha.jpg.

Centering Men in Wellness

If wellness results from healing and understanding, Black men can’t afford to feel unheard. But creating comfortable and honest environments for Black men begins with shifting the feminine narrative that currently tends to define self-care. “We have a culture that teaches us that masculinity is to not care. It teaches masculine people to not care, let alone self-care. Let alone community care. To not care is more masculine. To care about something is a feminine thing to do.”

The feminist creative director considers that when men feel the need to dominate, it’s rooted in fear, not of feeling emasculated but oftentimes, the fear of going against the grain. Reseda brings up Rho Bashe, the Houston-based Black woman who was allegedly hit in the face with a brick by a Black man for refusing his advances while other men stood and watched.

“It's easy to just do nothing, because I truly believe that we don't know what to do. It's hard to be against somebody. There's something that freezes us in that. It's not just the fear of, like, what if they do it to me. It's just like, how do I truly have this conversation in a way where you're not going to shut down, where you're not going to blame, shame and spiral,” said Reseda.

Not making excuses for bad behavior but hopeful for the future, Reseda believes in the goodness of people, an optimism he wishes he could afford in his younger years. “I'm committed to hope. It is for men too, not just the people who are the victims of the symptoms of our pain, but also to heal our pain.”

Prioritizing mental health, finding ways to partake in self-care and attending to one’s overall wellness is a non-negotiable in our collective relationship to a healthy future. “Everybody is just trying to get their needs met, so we're gonna do it however we can. Like, bell hooks talks about women using manipulation because it's one of the few forms of power that they have. Men will use that, toxic fucking I'll beat your ass head ass shit because it's one of the few forms of keeping themselves safe,” Reseda notes. Exercising empathy and choosing optimism are some of the ways he believes we’ll get to the desired future sooner and hopefully without anyone feeling the need to lean into toxicity, violence and control.