During a recent interview, Colorado Rapids striker Kei Kamara stated the importance of players using their platforms as athletes to speak out, especially Black players. “As Black players around the league, we’re starting to communicate and see what we are going to do to really represent the Black people and the Black athletes and the Black kids across the country because they look up to us. It’s not just about sports, it’s about the well-being of everyone and that’s why this one is bigger than sports at the moment.”
With the murder of George Floyd and ensuing protests in this nation and abroad, Kamara has once again stepped up on his platform. Topics of civil unrest, racism, social injustice, positive parenting, and role modeling bring out a serious side of the often charismatic 35-year-old.
As a teen, Kamara fled his home town of Kemena in then civil war-torn Sierra Leone, the West Africa nation that has been the subject of colonialism, the abolition of the Transatlantic slave trade, and decades of civil unrest. Kamara was 7 years old when his country went into the throes of a civil war rooted in an unethical diamond industry and a government steeped in corruption and abuse. A rebel army attempted to overthrow the government and take control of the nation. A blood bath ensued.
In a 2016 interview with the Rolling Stone, Kamara described what he experienced. ”We heard rumors that the rebels were going to attack [Kemena]– ‘They’re coming to the biggest cities.’ Because the whole time they were in villages. As kids, you don’t take that seriously until we had to vacate the school. We were just running home and that was just it. Ten, twelve years kind of went by really quick.” Kamara continued, “It was really vivid, it’s nothing I would ever wish on any kid. You’re just in these places and seeing things that normal kids don’t see, whether it was assassinations or brutal beatings or lootings or breaking in and burning down stores or people’s houses, we saw all those things as kids.”
Kamara, along with his siblings, cousins, and aunt, started their two-year journey to America when he was 14 years old. From Sierra Leone’s capital of Freetown they then fled by boat to The Gambia, where they entered into a refugee lottery program and got the opportunity to emigrate to Maryland. He ultimately rejoined his mother in metropolitan Los Angeles. She had set off early for the United States, in hopes of finding opportunities to make a better life for her family.
The resilient Kamara leveraged his positive spirit, intelligence, and football skills. He went on to completed his high school education in two years and earned a scholarship to play college soccer at California State University, Dominguez Hills. Four years later, the Columbus Crew made him the 9th overall selection in the first round of the 2006 MLS SuperDraft. That same year, Kamara became a citizen of the United States.
After playing stints in MLS Columbus, San Jose, Houston, and Kansas City, Kamara was signed on loan by Norwich City in the English Premier League. Later, he was permanently transferred to Middlesbrough FC in 2013.
While a player for The Boro, Kamara became an ambassador for the UK’s largest anti-racism educational organization: Show Racism the Red Card (SRtRC). The charity’s mission includes combating racism by have professional soccer players present an anti-racist message to young people and others. Throughout the season, Kamara visited school groups with fellow player-panelists during SRtRC-sponsored workshops. Kamara spoke about his experiences with racism, the pitfalls of judging others, and also helped provide a framework of what constitutes racism, so youngsters could learn to identify the behavior.
At one of the events, Kamara was quoted as saying: “My favorite of Mr. [Nelson] Mandela’s ideas was the one which states that no one is born racist. Events like this one help to highlight that and prove that education is the key.”
Kamara has both witnessed racial slurs and been the target of many—more so in Europe, much less in North America.
How does he cope with it?
“I think it really has to do with the way I had to grow up, and the thing I went through during the civil war in Sierra Leone. I have always had this positive mentality of, if I got out of that, nothing else can put me down. So I have always had that in me and on the field, off the field, the racial slurs that you do get, you [the fans] are just trying to get into my head, and I am not going to let you get in my head.”
He continued, “no one says stuff like that if it doesn’t come from the heart, most times. So it has to originate from somewhere. So yes, you can be saying words to get me off my game, but there is something in you that has to pursue you to be able to say that to someone else. I think we [Black people] are all different. Me growing in [Black] Africa and not knowing much of the Black history in America, is able to make me handle my situations that I have been in, then someone that grew up America, who has gone through and seen a lot and heard about from their parents on what racism really is. It is hard for me to tell someone to be strong... they are just trying to get into your head, while that person may be feeling it deeper because of how they grew up in America. They will handle differently.”
As fans, we have a responsibility to call out fans who might be using these slurs.
“If you see something, say something,” Kamara suggests. “If you sit and say nothing, that [behavior] will keep going on. Make that person feel uncomfortable. Their statements may raise tension between everyone there.”
“I would probably stand up and say that it is not right. Maybe, hopefully, there are 2-3 others around me that heard it too. I stand up and the other people say you are right, do not say that. There is little time in a game to educate,” he added. “But at the same time, fans display emotions, and a fan says a slur, and no one says something, and they repeat it over and over, the environment becomes cold because someone doesn’t say something. It makes that person feel powerful to say whatever they want. Someone has to say no.”
A Role Model Nation
“Whatever we do here right now is going to make an effect on the world,” Kamara said. “Look at how many countries are standing up and doing the same thing. So whatever does happen—and hopefully it is change—that change will affect the world.”
And he’s right—there have been protests all around the world in solidarity against police brutality and in support of Black Lives Matter. There has never been more of an opportunity for change than there is now.
“Imagine... whatever change we can make right now, how much that will affect the rest of the world because we are the greatest nation,” he believes. “A lot of us Black players get interest from teams or interested countries. This is one of the first things you think about: Am I welcomed in that area? Do they allow ‘my kind’ on that team? You look at their history, you just don’t pack up your bags and go. So it does change the views of those players: What the cities have been known for, how they welcome Black players into those cities, and onto the teams.”
Fatherhood and Peaceful Protesting
In the same interview mentioned earlier, Kamara said Black players plan to bring the issues of police brutality and racism to the forefront when play resumes in Orlando. He explained that the issue is not only important to him but also for his kids.
“I’m somebody that’s married to a white woman and we have three little kids,” he said. “These kids, everybody that’s ever going to see them, the first thing they see is Black kids. We want to see them reach the highest they can ever reach without being judged. And so for me, again, it’s the respect to the people before us, the people that fought for bringing some kind of equality that is in America at the moment, that gave me a chance to be an immigrant, an African immigrant to move to America—people had to fight for that before.”
I pray as u laugh & play during these times that one day when u have the knowledge to look back at this u could say “Wow so this was when everything changed & everyone was treated EQUAL.” I pray that u never have to lay in this position wether by your doing or someone else’s pic.twitter.com/TZiinRY8sX— KEI KAMARA (@keikamara) June 4, 2020
Whether Kei Kamara is protesting with his family and fellow citizens, finding commonality jump-roping with a new acquaintance, or mentoring youth or his peers, he always leads with his heart and uses his voice to make a positive change in America and around the globe.
Editor’s Note: Kei and several other Black MLS players have come together to create the Black Players Coalition of MLS. The goal of the organization is to “bring more inclusion across all of MLS. Here to elevate and amplify our Black voices and Black communities. There will be change.” You can follow them on Twitter or Instagram. More information to come.