Above and beyond his usual list of duties as a striker and veteran leader for the Colorado Rapids, husband and father of three young children, avid humanitarian and activist, Kei Kamara has done plenty of interviews lately.
Local, national, overseas, outlets of all sizes, from niche podcasts to the BBC, Kamara has not hesitated to speak from the heart – even as it aches at the emotional weight of it all – during this tumultuous 2020, most often about his experiences as a Black man in America, though that’s only the start of who he is.
“Sorry, there’s so much title to myself: a Black Muslim immigrant from Africa, and a US citizen now,” he deadpanned to MLSsoccer.com over the phone this week, admitting that it was never his plan to become one of MLS’s clearest and most incisive voices amid the national conversation about institutional racism sparked by the murder of George Floyd last month.
“It’s just from personal experience, and from the way I just feel as a person, and I'm a father of three. So it hits me really hard, and that's why I'm really open. I'm an open person,” said Kamara, who like many other MLS players has hit the streets to take part in the marches and protest actions across the country over the past few weeks.
“Really it’s all about energy. I've always been a person to inject positive energy to my teammates, every team that I've been on,” he added. “Something like this, I feel like it hits me so much harder than being positive the whole time. That's why I just feel like I just have to clear my chest and just let it out.”
He’s also a prominent member of the group that just launched the Black Players Coalition of MLS, a new initiative aiming “to solve the racial inequities we’ve personally experienced within the league,” “to addressing systemic barriers in educational opportunity and political engagement” and “amplifying black players' voices, working in black communities, and committing to a lifestyle change of purchasing from black-owned businesses,” in the words of a post by former D.C. United striker and BPC board member Quincy Amarikwa.
Kamara, too, is serving on the organization’s board. And he’s ready to work on multiple fronts to make sure that the current situation is a watershed moment: inspiring and continuing the difficult conversations while also taking action towards concrete change in the United States, Canada and beyond.
“People feel it differently, and it's not just people listening now or people just hand-wringing and saying, ‘OK, this is just another black story, this is just another person feeling like I got discriminated against,’” he said. “But now it’s different, because people are actually feeling almost the same things that we've been feeling, to say ‘oh wow, this really is real. This has really been happening.’
“Actually, that most people that have taken a stance in these protests that's going around have been people of different ethnicity, it gives so much power to our voice now,” added Kamara. “To have more people [say] no, that's not right, that's not right, people feel your pain, and I’m going to be next to you to help you and stand together so that what we stand for is equality.”
The searing realities of prejudice, and police brutality in particular, now hit Kamara as a father, too, as he revealed in a striking account to The Tennessean earlier this month about his 3-year-old son Kendrick’s participation in a tribute to Floyd at a protest near the Colorado State Capitol. Yet despite all the pain and death that it’s taken for mainstream America to wake up to the full reality of Black suffering, he’s hopeful, carrying with him his own incredible story of triumph against the odds as a teenage refugee from war-wracked Sierra Leone.
“I moved to America, and I thought America was the greatest country in the world. And I still believe America is the greatest country in the world,” said Kamara, “because I believe what is about to happen here, it's going to change a lot of perspectives in a lot of different countries around the world that has discrimination and racism. Because what steps we take right now are going to impact so much.
“I really believe that it's not just black people that's fighting for this at the moment. That's why I believe the power of this is so much stronger.”
Kamara cites other lives lost in the past, from Trayvon Martin to Ahmaud Arbery to the most recent victim, Rayshard Brooks, shot in the back by police at a fast-food drive-through in Atlanta last week.
“It's just kind of pushed everything to the limit,” he said. “All these things happen and now it's not that black people are saying enough is enough, no. It's the whole world that’s saying enough is enough. And I believe, I really believe, this is a turning point.”
In light of the scope and significance of what's happening off the field, including a global pandemic, Kamara has mixed feelings about returning to league play when the MLS is Back tournament kicks off in July. But he challenges the league to make space for the wider dialogue to continue long after the matches get back underway.
“Soccer is my peace, soccer is where I found happiness and love since I left Sierra Leone, a war-torn country, and moved to America,” he said. “Soccer saved me, with playing in school and then playing professionally, so I can still feel the peace when I'm on the field and playing with my teammates and hanging out in the locker room. That's me. But yes, there's something bigger that's going on.
“Soccer is such an international sport, it doesn't matter the color your skin or the country that you come from, we all speak the same language. The sport is so international, people from so many different backgrounds, but when you get on the field, it's just like one language, and so we have the power to really help change these things that's going on.”