Story and photos by Sara Lafkir, contributing writer
Syracuse artists and musicians, including Akuma Roots, Brownskin, Grupo Pagan, Blacklites, were brought together last October to “Make Lead History”.
Two things prompted them to be a part of this particular lead prevention fundraiser: they either knew that lead exposure is a crisis in the city or they closely know Joe Driscoll.
Driscoll is known for holding many titles in the community: beatboxing rapper, the city’s fifth district common councilor, and head of the Syracuse Lead Prevention Coalition.
Paul Ciavarri, community development organizer at Legal Services of Central New York, said that Driscoll is uniquely situated in the local community to bring different artistic voices into the room.
Childhood lead poisoning is one of the main reasons that compelled Driscoll to run for district councilor in 2017. The trigger was a 2016 study in the Journal of Pediatrics. It stated that Syracuse had the nation’s highest percentage of childhood lead poisoning between 2009 and 2015. Driscoll further explained that on average 11 percent of children in the city have elevated blood lead level of ≥5 mcg/dL or greater, while in some neighborhoods that average can go up to 20 percent or more.
“It doesn’t seem fair to me that children would have 10 points shaved off their IQ or have behavioral problems because they were born in this neighborhood rather than that neighborhood, it just seems unfair to me,” Joe Driscoll said.
Whether it’s through art, music, code enforcement or grassroots activism, Driscoll’s goal is to spread awareness about lead exposure and its negative impact on a child’s growth, language skills, and nervous system.
Music and politics go hand in hand for Driscoll. He relies on both to catch people’s attention, engage them, and use words and ideas to prompt them to take action.
He grew up in a household where both of his parents were immersed in politics. His father, Neil Driscoll, was a journalist and a priest before he worked with former Syracuse Mayor Tom Young. His mother, an elementary school teacher, was a politics major in college. In one of his song lyrics, Driscoll described his childhood as “a trinity, there was Christ, King, and Kennedy.”
His wife, Joyce, said that one of his strongest skills is being able to have a conversation with anyone.
“He’s able to find anybody in the street, know nothing about them and be able to find something to talk about,” she said, “I guess part of it probably came from music.”
In many instances, Driscoll used music to express his concerns about climate change, natural resources commodification, and environmental health. In his album “Mixtape Champs,” the fifth track “Water” is all about water quality and the scarcity of water resources.
Edgar Pagan, a local musician, has known Driscoll for seven years. When Driscoll was initially thinking of running for council member, he shared his motivation to run for office with him. “I remember having coffee with him,” Pagan recalled, “and he said, you know man, I got to get involved. I have given so much to my music but people need me to get involved.”
Joyce, who is also a biology teacher, said that environmental issues have always been a passion of hers. Still, when her husband mentioned the severity of lead exposure in Syracuse, she was shocked.
According to the Onondaga County Health Department, in 2017 the department recorded 678 cases of children with elevated blood lead levels.
Another aspect that draws Driscoll to lead poisoning is its intersection with other local issues such as poverty, education, race, and health. “Lead affects quality of life in every aspect in Syracuse,” he said, “so if we can make a difference in term of prevention the ripples will spread out.”
With other community members, the couple created the Syracuse Lead Prevention Coalition to increase awareness, raise money and draft legislation to end lead poisoning by 2025.
“Make Lead History” was Driscoll’s latest effort to raise money in order to help families living in lead hazardous environment find healthy housing in Syracuse.
With the help of Pagan, who co-organized the event with him, Driscoll brought together more than 14 bands and musicians. When he was not performing, Driscoll was either setting up the scene for other musicians, talking to people about lead, distributing water bottles, or coordinating with the theater crew. “He is really passionate and does want to help people,” Pagan said.
Still, drawing people’s attention to childhood lead poisoning has not been easy. Because lead paint was banned in the 1970s, many people think of it as an outdated issue, Joyce said.
Driscroll said that initially “Make Lead History” was meant to raise money for the environmental impact study of the legislation that the coalition is currently drafting but they had to change plans because of the unpopularity of lead poisoning activism in the city.
“It’s tough, it’s tough to engage people,” he said.
Compared to the Puerto Rico fundraiser he organized in 2017, Driscoll observed that the one on lead poisoning required more effort and was not as popular among the local community. “A lot of days, it feels like ‘what did I sign out for?’,” he said.
With the support of his wife, the couple holds monthly meetings and invite people to join the coalition through social media and word of mouth.
There are way more people interested in it than they were the entire time, Joyce said.
“We try to keep our spirits up because at the end of the day we are making progress, we are moving forward, and we are making a difference,” Driscoll said.