The murder of George Floyd

Honoring and remembering George Floyd with music

Courteney Ross holds a leather jacket
Courteney Ross, photographed in Minneapolis on Monday.
Bump Opera for MPR

By Marla Khan-Schwartz and Bump Opera | The Current

For George Floyd’s former partner Courteney Ross, healing from the trauma, anguish, and grief of his death can be a daily challenge.

Thursday, May 25, marks three years since Floyd was murdered by former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. After losing him, Ross says remembering their strong bond over music has become an essential part of her healing.

“When he came [to Minnesota] and I first met him, we loved to go back and forth with rap songs together,” she says. “I didn't know he was an actual rapper, and he had music out there.”

Before moving to Minnesota, George Floyd lived in Houston, TX. There, he was immersed in the rap and hip-hop music scene and was known as “Big Floyd.”

As a member of the Screwed Up Click collective, Floyd rapped over the late DJ Screw’s unique, slowed-down beats on mixtapes often referred to as the “Screw Tapes.” He also collaborated with another Houston-based rap group, Presidential Playas.

Music was so important to Floyd that Ross says he kept what meant most to him within arm’s reach. “Floyd had two books by his bedside,” she says. “One of them was the Bible and another one was a book about hip-hop.”

Ross says she still listens to his music and has fond memories of music Floyd recommended to her during their relationship. Although Floyd was most known for performing rap and hip-hop, she says his taste in music spanned from a variety of decades and genres. When it was time to part, she would usually ask Floyd, “What should I listen to on the way home?”

One of his last recommendations to Ross before he died: “What a Fool Believes” by the Doobie Brothers. Listening to the song now evokes different emotions and feelings for Ross because of experiences with the media following Floyd’s death. “The [negative] image that even [media] had of Floyd — there's Floyd for me, and then there's George Floyd for the world,” Ross says.

The song, one of many Floyd introduced her to, is part of Ross’s ongoing playlist. “It's one of those things that I play to heal, especially if I'm getting hurt by something that's out there [in the media],” Ross explains. “If I am feeling bad, I'll put that on [thinking] we don't need to worry about what other people think because they didn't know [Floyd] and they don't know me.”

Ross says her love for music began at age three when she started tap dancing. “For me, music is my life,” she says. “It's been [in] my whole life.”

Connection is also important to Ross, who is a known part of the community in northeast Minneapolis where she was born, raised, and still resides today. At the time of Floyd’s death, she was managing the Coffee Shop Northeast where she and her son Gavin, who also worked there, would showcase their collection of music-inspired T-shirts, and listen to local artists like Brother Ali.

Ross calls herself Brother Ali’s number one fan, and says the rapper reached out to her after Floyd died. The connection to Ali’s music and what Ross considers “mentorship,” was an important component of her healing. 

“He’s a person I really put my heart into so much of his music for over two decades,” she says. “I really idolized him. But then at the time, he was just this sweet person that was reaching out to me. I just poured my heart out to him in our conversation.”

Nearly every day, she listens to “Goin’ Through It,” a song she says continues to help process her emotions. When Ali released the song in 2020, Ross says it was really healing. “It made me not feel so alone,” she says. “In a time where I was feeling pretty isolated and alone, even though it seems like the world's looking at you, it's really lonely. That [song] was really huge for me.”

Feeling music through listening, performing, or even moving is therapeutic for Ross. She has her playlist of songs she holds close when she needs to lose herself in music, but at times, she also revisits tap dancing.

“In my solitude, I dance a lot,” Ross says. “I still create routines that I do for myself just to express myself.”

At the height of the social unrest in 2020 after Floyd’s murder, music was an important form of healing for many others. The trauma after the world witnessed Floyd’s murder ran deep for many — especially those who have personal experiences with racism, discrimination or police brutality. 

Courteney Ross with son Gavin
Courteney ross attended Brother Ali's 2022 performance at Icehouse in Minneapolis with her son Gavin.
Bump Opera for MPR

Lindsay Markworth, founder and director of Twin Cities Music Therapy, believes that at the time of Floyd’s death, music was a powerful way for communities to not only heal, but come together.

“The power of music really holds and conveys even some of the most challenging emotions,” Markworth says. “Sometimes words are hard to find in times of grief or times when extremely traumatic things happen. But music has a way of meeting, validating, and holding space for those really complex experiences.

“That can be very healing just to share that space with someone and [play] music without having to even use words. Music is a voice for calling, for change and amplifying voices and messages. It can carry forward messages in a way that cuts through a little bit more than just saying something out loud.”

For Twin Cities musician Raycurt Johnson, healing has included performances. Johnson, like many others, anxiously awaited the verdict during the Chauvin trial on June 25, 2021. As he waited with community members in George Floyd Square for the verdict to be read, he pulled out his violin during the somber silence of the crowd and began playing.

His experience that day led to the formation of Brass Solidarity, a group formed by musicians who began showing up to play with him weekly at the square. The group meets every Monday at 4:30 p.m. to play at George Floyd Square, providing a therapeutic backdrop as community members pay homage and honor Floyd three years later.

A group of musicians play brass instruments next to a gas station
Brass Solidarity performed at the "two-year Angelversary moment" at George Floyd Square in south Minneapolis.
Provided by Raycurt Johnson

“Music was a release of tension for people and [a chance for them] to relate [to each other], " Johnson explains. “We developed a repertoire of connection and healing. It has been going on for a year and a half, maybe two years now. We're very amazed by everything that has transpired. We've become a part of the total movement for injustice and reconciliations and using music as that healing tool.”

Ross, Johnson, and Markworth all have embraced music’s healing and therapeutic properties. Though everyone experiences music differently, it still has the power to connect communities. 

“It's so unique and individualized,” Markworth says. “I think that's important for people to remember too that there is no wrong way to grieve through music or process trauma. It's a very individualized path. Trust what feels right.”

For Johnson, being raised attending a very musical Baptist church helped him understand how music impacts healing and forgiveness and creates common connections between people. “Purpose and universal language,” Johnson says. “You don't have to use words in order to convey a feeling. It [music] readily connects people.”

Ross believes that music is an important way for those struggling with trauma and grief to find their own path. Music helps her honor Floyd, but also reflect on their relationship and time together. “I want everyone to heal the way they feel comfortable,” she says. “But at the same time, I would say lean into it, feel it, and don't deny it. Find that song that makes you cry, makes you laugh, and songs that make you move. Without music, I don't know how to heal.”

The third annual Rise and Remember, George Floyd Global Memorial Celebration takes place May 25-27. Brass Solidarity will perform at the candlelight vigil on May 25.