Ray Barbee Interview by Chris Nieratko
I'm not saying anything shocking when I tell you Ray Barbee is my skater of all time. Many people feel the same. His style is legendary, his positivity infectious, his charisma captivating, his music and his persona heart-warming, his no complies unparalleled and his photography is both accessible and relatable. All those things aside, like most skaters from my generation, there is an emotional attachment to Ray. At a time when most kids in America had no access to backyard ramps, street skating was still a relatively new concept and Ray danced on his skateboard in a way no one else did. He was fluid and graceful. His push, the essence of who a skateboarder is, was a thing of beauty. He seemed to glide across the Earth while others were forced to merely roll; a gift best exemplified in the timeless classic:
Fast forward 27 years to the launch of Ray's signature line for Element and I had the privilege to catch up with Ray at my NJ Skateshop on the Rutgers Campus in New Brunswick, NJ at his Go Skateboarding Day black and white photography show to discuss some not-so-black-and-white subjects and, in keeping with the theme of his collection, to get “a wider view” on the topic of race in America and why it plays no part in skateboarding. And most importantly, how he keeps on smiling.
NJ Skateshop Go
Skateboard Day with Ray:
“A Wider View”:
“A Wider View”:
CHRIS NIERATKO: You’ve been a professional skater for what seems like forever. What has been the secret to your longevity to staying power?
RAY BARBEE: Honestly, the community and the industry. I’m really super thankful and tremendously blessed having the community saying, “We got you. We want you to still be around,” for whatever reason. One thing I realized once I started being in the world of Instagram was that people don’t let go of things. If something has emotionally affected somebody in some powerful way sometime in their life, that doesn’t fade. If anything, social media kind of fans the flame of that and almost reestablishes that emotional connection. There’s a deep emotional connection to the time when I came out in skateboarding. Street skating was still in an infant stage. Having the opportunity at that time to be a part of what I perceive as being one of the biggest skateboard brands, Powell Peralta, plays a huge part in reaching out and connecting with people. But again you have to be doing something, right? You can’t just be doing nothing and still have opportunities for a brand to allocate a paycheck. You’ve got to give them reason. You’ve got to be doing things. It’s a reciprocal kind of thing, not just a hand-me-down.
You mentioned being a part of Stacy Peralta’s Bones Brigade. I just did a Vice piece on former Powell rider Jesse Martinez and in the new Made In Venice documentary Venice Original’s Block flat out says Stacy Peralta signed Jesse just to shelf him so that he wouldn’t go up against any of the Bones Brigade street style contest. What’s your opinion is on that?
Block would know way more of the behind the scenes stuff but from what I remember from that community was that those dudes were on the other end of the spectrum of Powell Peralta. The way they rolled, the whole feel, to the point of when I turned pro for Powell, it was in my contract that I would keep good hygiene and it had in there, “no dreadlocks.” So you don’t have to wonder who they’re referencing to not be like. My opinion is that Jesse was a little too much for them to handle. At the end of the day they’re like, “We’ve got this dude, and we can’t tame him!” He comes from a whole other background, different from any of the other guys on the team. Nobody on that team could relate to what Jesse grew up with or the environment that he learned to ride a skateboard in, and what he had to deal with on a daily basis. Just because he was put on Powell Peralta doesn’t mean that’s going to change him.
You talk about emotional connections. To me, and an entire generation, you stood out in the way that you danced on a skateboard even more so than Daniel Gesmer. It was poetry in motion to watch you skate, and as a young kid I latched on to and fell in love with that fluidity and style. Community?
You know that term, “All the planets have to be in alignment? “Those are one of those things that were in alignment. Being on one of the highest profile companies at the time, knowing that that video was going to go far; it was going to get into a lot of people’s lives that care about skateboarding. At the time of where skateboarding was and Stacy making a conscious decision to concentrate on street because it’s more accessible and there’s more sales. There’s no gatekeeper; you don’t have to know the dude who knows the dude who has the backyard ramp. You walk out the front door and you’re in business. So street is starting to happen, and then people see an approach that they haven’t really seen. Then seeing a skin complexion that they haven’t really seen tied to all of that… all of that is what makes the connection strong to people.
How does it make you feel to know that you were also a huge inspiration for generations of black skaters who have gone pro?
First of all I want to say, I get it. Because of what I experienced with my friend Izz Byrd in high school it helped me really comprehend in a deeper way what they got from me. We can be in agreement in that area. Sometimes people say stuff and it’s kind of hard to really feel it and know it. You can imagine it, but my buddy helped me to really understand and appreciate when people tell me that I did the same thing for them. I’m so thankful for all of this. At the end of the day, I got excited about riding a skateboard and learning some tricks. For that to give inspiration to someone else, to do their own thing, to tell their own story, to make their own pro broad, and then in turn do that for someone else… Yes. That’s a million times better than I ever thought riding a skateboard would do. I just thought it’d be this very selfish, personal thing. I had no idea that it could affect people in a positive way. I’m blown away, and the older I get the more blown away I am. It feels like I realized it a little more intensely what’s going on.
If we could turn the conversation in that direction…it seems like, thanks to everyone having video cameras in their smart phones, there’s a bigger spotlight on the topic of race in America right now. We’ve got one presidential candidate trying to actually spread a message of hate and instill it as, ‘cool to be racist.’ Couple that with a corrupt justice system that’s bucking down innocent civilians in the streets without fear of facing charges…it makes it impossible as a parent of any race to explain to your children the reasoning behind all the madness. What is your take on the racial climate in this country right now, Ray?
My kids are pretty young so we don’t talk too heavy. It’s a heavy, heavy topic. You manage your neighborhood. You manage what’s going on around where you live. You know things are happening around the world but we kind of filter it. We’re not trying to lay a really heavy load on them because it’s a lot. Even being a grown up, it’s so much. Both my wife and me put our faith in Jesus. You hear everybody say it’s all about love, loving one another, accepting one another. But that love is so heavy. There are a lot of different types of love when you think about the Hebrew and the Greek. We put it all into one thing. We say love like I love my children, my wife, but then we’ll say I love skateboarding or I love chocolate. You’re using different loves. The Hebrew and Greek have different terms for that. The love for a man for a woman is Eros. That’s where we get our word “erotic.” Phileo is another Greek word for love, that’s a brotherly love, hence Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love. Storge is a protective love, like for a dad for his family or a mom for her children or just protectiveness for your friends. There’s another love, Agape. That’s a spiritual love. It comes from God. The other love, the natural love, needs to be reciprocated to keep going. Agape love says, “I love no matter what.” It’s not an emotional feeling love, although emotions can be in it. It’s a commitment love. That’s the love that we teach our children at home. That supernatural agape love is what we need. We truly believe that if everybody was loving in that agape love things would be different. In our house it’s Jesus first, and we preach that agape love.
You hear people say they fell out of love… No, you fell out of Eros. Or you fell out of storge because they pissed you off to the point you can’t forgive them. That love fails, but agape love never fails. It’s because it doesn’t come from you. It’s not a human thing. It’s God’s supernatural thing that comes through His Holy Spirit. That’s the love that’s missing in a lot of things. Any religion, when you see the way they treat people that don’t believe… they’re not functioning in that agape love. They’re functioning in some other thing and it’s mixed with something funny. It’s something that everybody deals with. All the stuff we’re talking about with racism, I go back to my ancestors. It all can be boiled down to not functioning in that love. Obviously the human heart is on its own mission. It’s got it’s own weird politics and agendas that play a huge part of choices and why things are set up the way they’re set up. There are a lot of little nuances in all of it, but the older I get the more I want to just simplify. We try to present that to our kids. All the heaviness that’s happening, we’re not sheltering, we’re trying to simplify.
It seems like this country is doing the opposite of simplifying.
Human nature doesn’t want to simplify. Human nature thinks they’re simplifying with technology but it just gives more choices and clouds things even more. Human nature wants to set things up to be simple but in doing so makes things even more complex.
I know you’ve had experiences facing skinheads and run-ins with cops. You live in Long Beach. There’s parts of Long Beach that are still pretty trife. You’re nonviolent, father and husband, but how do you go skate out the front door knowing you run the risk of mistaken identity or some cop taking out his personal problems on you.
Thanks, Chris, you’re making me feel safe. Again, put faith in Jesus, man. I feel protected. I’ll die for that faith. That faith says, “You can shoot me. You can do whatever to this body but I’m going to be all right because my eye is on the prize.” This is just a cover page of a way bigger story. I’m talking about eternity. It says, “To be out of the body means to be in the present.” My hope is not here. My hope is one day being with Him and my loved ones being there too. It’s moment by moment, and I just trust that He’s in control. Basically my time is in His hands. So there isn’t this fear because there’s no fear of death. Don’t get me wrong, if a dude’s putting a gun to my head, I’m not saying I wont freak out but there’s peace in that if they do pull the trigger I’m going to be all right. That’s very empowering because that peace… I feel protected. This isn’t it. So I don’t have to live my life in fear. It says, “Perfect love casts out all fear.” Thankfully I don’t struggle with that. No one can control anything. As much as people think they may be controlling their circumstances, they’re not… they can’t… they don’t. So I don’t concern myself with things too heavy for me to fathom. Does that mean you don’t have wisdom or knowledge? No, it’s not a blind faith. It’s an assurance. It’s knowing whom I serve, and knowing who has my back, basically. My grandmother, my hero, her life showed me how real Jesus is. There’s heaviness out there but there’s someone bigger than any of that. That’s how I sleep at night and deal with those kinds of concerns. When I got chased by those skinheads the first thing that popped in my head was my grandma because all of a sudden I had to deal with all the hatred I never had before towards these dudes. Not white people; skinheads. So now any time a name came up or I’d see these dudes whether it be on TV… At that time, Jerry Springer was happening and those dudes were on there all the time. I felt like it was his favorite dudes to get on there for ratings. When I hear those dudes my blood would boil for sure. I hated the way that felt all of a sudden. I never felt like that before and I hated it. It eats you up. I couldn’t fathom my grandma growing up in that environment. She was so happy. That got me searching for the truth. These are matters that are so heavy that no one can help you. I tried to go to my friends but everyone speaks from their own experience and what they’ve conjured up and figured out from their own life stories. That did nothing for me because at the end of the day you’re just like me. You don’t have answers. So my grandma, she is the example for life. She passed away when I was seventeen. I had just turned pro. I’m so thankful she saw the skateboard thing come together because she was around for all of that.
Read the rest of Ray’s interview with Nieratko on Vice’s site.
For more skate content follow @Nieratko