Jesse Williams’ Speech at the 2016 BET Awards

On June 26, actor Jesse Williams took the stage at the 2016 BET Awards to accept BET’s Humanitarian Award. What followed was a bold and powerful speech which condemned the black oppression and exploitation the United States has thrived on since its inception. It was a brave act of defiance against the system in which he called on the oppressed and their allies to force an end to the oppression in this society, or to rise up and create a new society.

This is a courageous moment that deserves to be celebrated in its own right, but it is also important to view this speech in the context of the continued brutality faced by black people on a daily basis in America, the supposed “land of the free.” Just this week there have been two more high profile police murders of black people, and just 3 days prior to Williams’ speech the second cop tried for the murder of Freddie Gray was acquitted of all charges.

What is so powerful about Williams’ impassioned plea is that he doesn’t speak of a “broken system.” Rather, he recognizes that the system is functioning exactly as it was intended – that it was designed to oppress people of color for the benefit of a white elite – and he articulates the need to rise up against it. “A system built to divide and impoverish and destroy us cannot stand if we do.”

Please take a moment to watch Jesse Williams’ powerful acceptance speech. The full transcript is below.

 

Full Transcript:

Peace peace. Thank you, Debra. Thank you, BET. Thank you Nate Parker, Harry and Debbie Allen for participating in that.

Before we get into it, I just want to say I brought my parents out tonight. I just want to thank them for being here, for teaching me to focus on comprehension over career, and that they make sure I learn what the schools were afraid to teach us. And also thank my amazing wife for changing my life.

Now, this award – this is not for me. This is for the real organizers all over the country – the activists, the civil rights attorneys, the struggling parents, the families, the teachers, the students that are realizing that a system built to divide and impoverish and destroy us cannot stand if we do.

It’s kind of basic mathematics – the more we learn about who we are and how we got here, the more we will mobilize.

Now, this is also in particular for the black women in particular who have spent their lifetimes dedicated to nurturing everyone before themselves. We can and will do better for you.

Now, what we’ve been doing is looking at the data and we know that police somehow manage to deescalate, disarm and not kill white people everyday. So what’s going to happen is we are going to have equal rights and justice in our own country or we will restructure their function in ours.

Now… I got more y’all – yesterday would have been young Tamir Rice’s 14th birthday so I don’t want to hear anymore about how far we’ve come when paid public servants can pull a drive-by on 12 year old playing alone in the park in broad daylight, killing him on television and then going home to make a sandwich. Tell Rekia Boyd how it’s so much better than it is to live in 2012 than it is to live in 1612 or 1712. Tell that to Eric Garner. Tell that to Sandra Bland. Tell that to Dorian Hunt.

Now the thing is, though, all of us in here getting money – that alone isn’t gonna stop this. Alright, now dedicating our lives, dedicating our lives to getting money just to give it right back for someone’s brand on our body when we spent centuries praying with brands on our bodies, and now we pray to get paid for brands on our bodies.

There has been no war that we have not fought and died on the front lines of. There has been no job we haven’t done. There is no tax they haven’t leveed against us – and we’ve paid all of them. But freedom is somehow always conditional here. “You’re free,” they keep telling us. But she would have been alive if she hadn’t acted so… free.

Now, freedom is always coming in the hereafter, but you know what, though, the hereafter is a hustle. We want it now.

And let’s get a couple things straight, just a little sidenote – the burden of the brutalized is not to comfort the bystander. That’s not our job, alright – stop with all that. If you have a critique for the resistance, for our resistance, then you better have an established record of critique of our oppression. If you have no interest, if you have no interest in equal rights for black people then do not make suggestions to those who do. Sit down.

We’ve been floating this country on credit for centuries, yo, and we’re done watching and waiting while this invention called whiteness uses and abuses us, burying black people out of sight and out of mind while extracting our culture, our dollars, our entertainment like oil – black gold, ghettoizing and demeaning our creations then stealing them, gentrifying our genius and then trying us on like costumes before discarding our bodies like rinds of strange fruit. The thing is though… the thing is that just because we’re magic doesn’t mean we’re not real.

Thank you.

The Political Battleground of the 2015 Academy Awards

In 1978, Vanessa Redgrave won the Oscar for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for the film Julia, about a woman who is murdered by the Nazis for her anti-fascist activism. That same year, Redgrave also produced and narrated a documentary called The Palestinian about the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO). In protest of her nomination, the Jewish Defense League picketed the Academy Awards and burned effigies of the actress. When Redgrave took the stage to accept her Oscar, she used the opportunity to take a political stand.

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She thanked her co-star Jane Fonda and Julia‘s director Fred Zinnemann, and then went on to express gratitude to the millions who sacrificed in the struggle against fascism and the Nazis. Redgrave then thanked the Academy for resisting intimidation from “Zionist hoodlums whose behavior is an insult to the stature of Jews all over the world and their great and heroic record of struggle against fascism and oppression.” But she didn’t stop there. She continued, “I salute all of you for having stood firm and dealt a final blow against that period when [Richard] Nixon and [Joseph] McCarthy launched a worldwide witch-hunt against those who tried to express in their lives and their work the truth that they believe in. I salute you and I thank you and I pledge to you that I will continue to fight against antisemitism and fascism.”

Two hours later during that Academy Awards ceremony in 1978, Paddy Chayefsky took the stage to present the awards for Best Writing, and he fired back at Redgrave, “I would like to say, personal opinion, of course, that I’m sick and tired of people exploiting the occasion of the Academy Awards for the propagation of their own personal political propaganda. I would like to suggest to Miss Redgrave that her winning an Academy Award is not a pivotal moment in history, does not require a proclamation, and a simple ‘thank you’ would have sufficed.”

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The Oscars in 1978 provided a clear example of how conflicting political attitudes and ideologies compete on stage in front of millions. Under the surface, the Academy Awards always reflect the prevailing politics of Hollywood at a given moment in time, but sometimes these ideological struggles bubble over for all to see when participants in the ceremony seize the opportunity to speak out, or to condemn those who do.

Like the Oscars in 1978, last night’s 87th Academy Awards were also defined by politics, starting long before the ceremony even took place. Immediately following the announcement of the nominees on January 15th, a Twitter hashtag was created (#OscarsSoWhite) to mock and protest the Academy for failing to consider a single non-white actor or actress in any of the four acting categories. All 20 nominees were white for the first time since 1995. Many were also outraged that Ava DuVernay, the black, female director of Selma was also not nominated in the Best Director category. After the diverse Oscar ceremony from the previous year, it was clear the Academy was taking a step backwards, and controversy swirled leading up to the Awards, amplified by the context of recent events in Ferguson, MO and the social awakening in the wake of a rash of cases of police brutality.

When the Academy Awards broadcast began last night, race was an obvious elephant in the room. In an apparent attempt to compensate for the lack of black nominees, host Neil Patrick Harris conspicuously incorporated black people into the show, as if to say, “See, we’re not racist!” He enlisted Oscar winner Octavia Spencer to participate in a gag that ran throughout the broadcast, and she was also an award presenter. Harris also interviewed David Oyelowo from his seat in the crowd, and later on, when Oyelowo and Jennifer Aniston appeared on stage to present an award, Harris announced them as people “who absolutely deserve to be here,” in a not so subtle reference to their snubs by Oscar.

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But despite a drastically less diverse field of nominees this year, several of the winners rose to the occasion and spoke out on relevant and important progressive political issues, just like Vanessa Redgrave did in 1978. Patricia Arquette made the first bold statement of the night. On the issue of women’s equality she said, “It’s our time to have wage equality once and for all, and equal rights for women in the United States of America,” she demanded from the stage, which got the audience fired up. Most notably, Meryl Streep jumped out of her seat, cheering and pointing at the stage in approval. Arquette won Best Supporting Actress for the film Boyhood, which depicts a single-mother struggling to raise two children over the course of 12 years, while suffering from a pattern of domestic abuse and financial difficulties.

The ceremony was also marked by a pointed political conflict in the style of Redgrave and Chayefsky, with a progressive speaking out on an issue, followed by the voice of the establishment responding. Laura Poitras’ Citizenfour won for Best Documentary Feature, a film about how she and Glenn Greenwald worked with Edward Snowden when he came forward to leak classified documents about the NSA spying program. During her acceptance speech she said, “The disclosures that Edward Snowden reveals don’t only expose a threat to our privacy, but to our democracy itself. When the most important decisions being made that affect all of us are being made in secrecy, we lose our ability to check the powers in control. Thank you to Edward Snowden for his courage, and for the many other whistle-blowers. I share this with Glenn Greenwald and the other journalists who are exposing truth. Thank you.”

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Immediately following Poitras’ speech, cameras cut back to host Neil Patrick Harris, who right before a commercial break said, “The subject of Citizenfour couldn’t be here for some treason.” The pun was not funny and the crowd did not laugh. There was an uncomfortable silence in the room, perceptible even on TV, for a few moments before ABC faded out for commercials. The “joke” was reprehensible, especially after the meaningful speech by Poitras to raise awareness about the crimes of the government and the vital importance of both whistle-blowers and independent journalists. Even if Harris’ rebuttal was simply a poor attempt to improvise a joke while under the enormous pressure of live TV being watched by millions (which is giving him a tremendous benefit of the doubt), there can be no doubt that what he did, in a single sentence, was defend the establishment and mock the bravery of people like Edward Snowden while endangering future whistle-blowers by publicly floating the idea that what they’re doing amounts to treason, which is one of the most serious charges that one can have leveled against them.

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Later on, Graham Moore took the stage to accept the Best Adapted Screenplay award for The Imitation Game, about Alan Turing, a gay man who helped develop methods to crack Nazi codes during World War 2. Turing was later prosecuted for “Homosexual Acts” which were illegal in the UK at the time. He was chemically castrated, and not long afterward in what was a possible suicide Turing died from cyanide poisoning. Graham Moore used his moment in the spotlight as an opportunity to speak about those who are made to feel different in society being driven to suicide. “I tried to commit suicide at 16 and now I’m standing here. I would like for this moment to be for that kid out there who feels like she doesn’t fit in anywhere. You do. Stay weird. Stay different, and then when it’s your turn and you are standing on this stage please pass the same message along.”

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However, given the controversy surrounding the all white slate of acting nominees, perhaps the most cathartic moment of the night came during the performance of “Glory” by John Legend and Common, the nominated song from Selma. The crowd was flooded by an emotional release in which many in attendance were reduced to tears, culminating in a standing ovation. Shortly following the performance, “Glory” won the award for Best Original Song. During his acceptance speech Legend said, “We wrote this song for a film that was based on events that were 50 years ago, but we say that Selma is now! Because the struggle for justice is right now. We know that the voting rights that they fought for 50 years ago is being compromised in this country today.” He continued, “We live in the most incarcerated country in the world. There are more black men under correctional control today than were in slavery in 1850.”

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Of course the ceremony also had its negative moments, such as when Sean Penn yelled “Who gave this SOB his green card?” before announcing Alejandro G. Iñárritu the winner of the Best Director award, but at least in that instance Iñárritu had the opportunity to get the last word, using his time on stage to shine a light on immigration policy. First, in direct response to Penn’s “joke”, Iñárritu said, “Maybe next year the government will inflict some immigration rules to the Academy. Two Mexicans in a row, that’s suspicious, I guess.” He was referring to Alfonso Cuarón winning Best Director the year before for Gravity. He then concluded by saying, “Finally, I just want to, I want to take one second, I just want to take the opportunity, I want to dedicate this award for my fellow Mexicans, the ones who live in Mexico. I pray that we can find and build government that we deserve. And the ones that live in this country who are part of the latest generation of immigrants in this country, I just pray that they can be treated with the same dignity and respect of the ones who came before and build this incredible immigrant nation. Thank you very much.”

The 87th Academy Awards will be remembered for the way winner after winner used the stage to bravely take a progressive stand on one of many important political issues. There will likely be detractors who come forward to denounce this type of acceptance speech activism. They’ll say things like Paddy Chayefsky said in 1978, the essence of which is that people shouldn’t “abuse the platform” to drag whatever their “pet political cause” may be into the spotlight; that they shouldn’t “bring politics into it.” But when detractors make arguments like this, what they’re really saying is that they don’t want progressive politics brought up, because of course the dominant ideology in this society is the reactionary default of the ruling elite class, and that default isn’t considered “political” by the same standard. So, given this, that’s actually all the more reason why it’s important for progressive people to step forward and make their voices heard, both through their art, as well as on stage at the Academy Awards.

Weekend of Culture Part 3: “Frida & Diego” at The High Museum of Art

I had a fantastic weekend filled with several cultural events. Friday night I saw The Smashing Pumpkins at Chastain Park Amphitheater, on Saturday night I saw an improv performance of “Theater Sports” at Dad’s Garage, and on Sunday afternoon I caught the final day of the “Frida & Diego” exhibit at The High Museum of Art. This article is Part 3 of a trilogy about those events.

I waited until the last minute to see the “Frida & Diego: Passion, Politics, and Painting” exhibit at The High, but it was definitely worth the wait. Going in, I knew very little about both Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, other than that both had reputations as great artists. I am very thankful for the education I received.

Now, I won’t pretend to be an expert in the fine arts. I’m not, and I don’t possess the vocabulary or the knowledge to describe and evaluate painting in detail at a high level. I did take a few art classes in high school and college and I dabbled in painting recreationally many years ago, so I know it’s very difficult to be a great artist. After seeing the exhibit at the High, I know for a fact that both Frida and Diego were great artists.

As an amateur art critic, I found a couple things to be extremely impressive about the exhibit. One, the sheer number of pieces from each artist the museum was able to acquire. I’m sure that many of these pieces were on loan from a number of private collections and other museums, so the fact that The High was able to immerse us in a definitive, chronological collection sprawled throughout several rooms was most impressive.

I also loved the thoughtful way the art was arranged throughout the exhibit. It began by introducing us to the two artists with a small collection of portraits, and then proceeded mostly chronologically through the lives of the artists to allow the viewers to experience the various periods of their careers in a natural progression.

Also, the concept of putting the works of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera together in one exhibit was innovative. Even though they were both Mexican artists who were married and spent 25 years together their work is rarely shown together, and it was great to see that The High summoned the imagination and the will to display such a complete and definitive exhibit.

Last and most importantly, I thought the way the strong political views of the artists were presented was perfectly handled. Both Kahlo and Rivera were communists, and The High didn’t shy away from that fact in the slightest. And, perhaps even more importantly, the exhibit didn’t attack their political views in any way. It simply displayed the work in a thoughtful light and the written descriptions were very direct and factual without any hint of judgement. On one wall there was a quote from Frida that read, “I was a member of the party before I met Diego and I think I am a better communist than he is or ever will be.” Given the ugly anti-communist sentiment often generated and encouraged by the establishment in America, I thought this presentation of communist art was truly remarkable and a much needed breath of fresh air.

I was particularly taken by the huge print of Diego’s Man, Controller of the Universe mural which is a recreation of the original Man at the Crossroads mural commissioned and then destroyed by Nelson Rockefeller when Diego refused to remove a portrait of Lenin. The mural was tucked away in a side room, and once you enter it overwhelms you with it’s scope, color, and emotion.

Though much smaller in scale I was also struck by Frida’s My Dress Hangs There, which was created by combining oil paint with collage. Painted in New York while Diego was working for Rockefeller it expresses Frida’s frustration with capitalism and her homesickness.

Another point that needs to be made is how popular this event has been. The exhibit had been going strong for several months, and it was sent off with a 30 hour party. The High opened on Saturday morning, stayed open all Saturday night, and didn’t close until 5pm on Sunday, just to make sure everyone had a chance to see the exhibit. When I was there on Sunday morning, before the museum would normally open, the building was packed.

I think it makes quite a big statement that such a politically radical exhibit can be so popular. It speaks to the disconnect between the powers that be who rule over society and the masses. The people are much more progressive and willing to embrace radical thoughts and ideas than the elite would like to admit, and it’s fantastic exhibits like “Frida & Diego” that help to prove that point.

-For Part 1 of my Weekend of Culture series click here.

-For Part 2 of my Weekend of Culture series click here.

Weekend of Culture Part 2: Dad’s Garage

I had a fantastic weekend filled with several cultural events. Friday night I saw The Smashing Pumpkins at Chastain Park Amphitheater, on Saturday night I saw an improv performance of “Theater Sports” at Dad’s Garage, and on Sunday afternoon I caught the final day of the “Frida & Diego” exhibit at The High Museum of Art. This article is Part 2 of a trilogy about those events.

Dad’s Garage is one of those local spots that every Atlanta resident should visit at least once. It’s an improv comedy theater, and it operates at a very high level. All the performers are talented, quick witted, and exceptionally hilarious.

My first visit to Main Stage of the Garage was approximately five years ago. I went to see a show called Samarai Davis Jr. and Dim Sum’s Super Mega Happy Fun Time Improv Show. It was a competitive improv show where two teams battle each other with improvised sketches, and the losing team is forced to face an outrageous punishment that usually involves something embarrassing or something wet.

Now, just about everyone has seen an episode of Whose Line is it Anyway? with Drew Carey and Co., and truthfully, the performers at Dad’s Garage are nearly as talented and just as entertaining. And even though there was a five year gap between my visits I recognized a couple of actors from my first visit. It was comforting to realize how dedicated to their craft this troupe is even though they probably aren’t getting paid all that much.

The show I saw this weekend was simply called Theater Sports, and like the parody of a Japanese game show I witnessed years ago this show also involved two teams competing against each other in a battle of improvised wit. This time, however, there weren’t any crazy punishments, other than the “Scum Box” which is placed over the head of a performer who says something vulgar for the sake of vulgarity.

The action takes place on a sparse stage with hardly any props, other than a chair which at one point doubled as an evil tree stump that sucks people into an abyss. The actors wear their street clothes, and the atmosphere is very laid back. Most of the audience seemed to be made up of regulars who already knew the format of the show, joined in on the countdown before every new scene, and shouted out scenarios to the actors to improvise.

At the end of the show the host announced that the building Dad’s Garage is located in has been sold and that the theater is looking for a new permanent home. Starting at the end of July performances will temporarily be held at a nearby location. After learning about this change of venue, I was very glad that I was able to see one last performance at the original location before it closes, and I hope that where ever Dad’s Garage ends up will have the same effortless charm and stripped down atmosphere. Given the level of talent and dedication the performers have for their craft, I’m confident that it will.

-For Part 1 of my Weekend of Culture series click here.

-For Part 3 of my Weekend of Culture series click here.

Weekend of Culture Part 1: The Smashing Pumpkins

I had a fantastic weekend filled with several cultural events. Friday night I saw The Smashing Pumpkins at Chastain Park Amphitheater, on Saturday night I saw an improv performance of “Theater Sports” at Dad’s Garage, and on Sunday afternoon I caught the final day of the “Frida & Diego” exhibit at The High Museum of Art. This article is Part 1 of a trilogy about those events.

For people of a certain age, The Smashing Pumpkins are among a select few essential rock bands which define their generation. Billy Corgan has one of the most unique voices in Rock history, but putting that aside, they also created an instantly recognizable musical style, and they were one of the bands most responsible for bringing the “Alternative” genre into the mainstream. When Kurt Cobain died in 1994 and the Grunge wave started to recede, The Smashing Pumpkins emerged, blending the Grunge sensibility with a greater emphasis on composition and melody.

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But, sadly, that band no longer exists. Yes, a band led by Billy Corgan continues to use that name, but the list of former band members is now longer than the list of current ones, and Corgan is the only remaining original member. Actually, at this point, I prefer to refer to the band as “The Billy Corgans” because at this point the band is so far removed from its past glory, and that fact was obvious during the show on Friday night.

When they played their past hits it simply didn’t have the same chemistry, the same timing, and the same emotional impact. It actually seemed as though the band was playing the songs under protest, simply to appease the fans. Their collective heart just wasn’t in it, and the sound was flat and uninspired.

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The newer material sounded better, and the musicians seemed much more enthusiastic while playing these songs, but the problem is… the newer material simply isn’t as good as the classic songs written and arranged by the original line-up.

Which leads me to this… The Smashing Pumpkins should stop being a band. They should break up, or at the very least, they should stop using that name. It’s getting embarrassing. Actually, I would have no problem with Billy Corgan touring with this line-up under a different name, or as a solo artist with this band backing him up. But it’s just not The Smashing Pumpkins anymore and it seems like Corgan’s only real motivation to continue using that name is financial. I’m sure it’s a lot easier to attract a crowd under the Pumpkins banner than it would be as a solo act, but it would be much more admirable if he did that, rather than continuing to disrespect the legacy of a great band.

-For Part 2 of my Weekend of Culture series click here.

-For Part 3 of my Weekend of Culture series click here.

Concert: Takenobu at The Earl

Last weekend I went on a “blind concert.” I had no idea who I was seeing, what style of music it was, or even what the venue would be. All I knew was that I was going out with my fiance and some friends to see a show that they had chosen. And I’m glad I did, because the entire experience was really refreshing.

The show was at The Earl, located in East Atlanta. We got there an hour early to grab some food, but we had to sit outside to eat since there weren’t any tables available inside. We ate and had a couple drinks, and then went inside for the show. The stage is located in  a separate room off the back of the main bar, down a dark hallway littered with fliers from past concerts. After checking in at the door we entered the stage room just as the first warm up band, Iron Jayne, was going on.

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Iron Jayne, while clearly an amateur band, had an interesting sound. Playful and whimsical, almost psychedelic at times, while still maintaining a rock edge. The singer, Emily Kempf, was light on her feet and jumped freely around the stage, clearly enjoying performing and exhibiting a flare for showmanship, even though there were times I was afraid she was going to collide with the other members of the band. Her energy almost single-handedly kept the standing room only audience engaged.

Next up was Sealions, and they might have stolen the show. They put on a wonderfully tight performance while Kempf from Iron Jayne bopped through the crowd as they played, showing her support. With a strong ’80s vibe, they rocked the house. Their sound was reminiscent of INXS, but somehow didn’t feel dated. Their two singers took turns on lead vocals, and sometimes established a nice harmony over the cool groove of guitars and synthesizer. However, the best instrumentalist in the band was clearly the drummer. He kept time perfectly with the synth and kept the whole band in line with his commanding beats without overwhelming the rest of the sound, and he even filled in for the next band, too. Hopefully, these guys will be headlining in the near future.

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Then came the main attraction, Takenobu. I was totally unfamiliar with his music, and I had never seen a performance quite like this. Nick Takenobu Ogawa, who performs under his middle name, is an electric cellist and vocalist. He played along side a violinist, a female backup singer, and the drummer from Sealions. Since the show I’ve heard several of his studio tracks, most of which are very mellow and focus primarily on the instrumental with minimal percussion. The live act, however, was definitely a rock show.

Considering how low key his recorded work is, in hindsight I’m very impressed with how his songs translated to an edgier arrangement. The only downside to the rocked up format was that the percussion drowned out the backing vocals, which in this arrangement seemed unnecessary.

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All the performers wore red pants, and considering the classical roots of the sound they played in a stationary position, but despite this it was an extremely engaging show simply due to the intricacy of the musicianship. Takenobu’s voice was delicate, yet it soared out above the music with an eerie confidence, and though there were perhaps only 150 people in the crowd, the energy in the room was that of respect and attention. That’s certainly how I felt, and I’m hoping his career blossoms into wider mainstream appeal. The music industry could use more bands that make accessible music with instruments outside the rock standards of guitar, bass, and drums.

Takenobu closed out the show with the Radiohead cover “Idioteque,” which translated exceptionally well to string instruments, and his voice was perfect for Thom Yorke’s lyrics. After the show, we filed out the door after picking up a card for a free download of his new album, and I left very satisfied with my first blind concert. If you get a chance to see Takenobu perform, jump on the opportunity, and the same goes for Sealions.