Damon Kwame Mason grew up, like most Canadians, loving hockey. His first faceoff at the age of two is memorialized along with other photos from his childhood. But as Kwame's world got a little bit bigger, he says he began to feel like hockey might not be the sport for him.
As a young adult, a critical period in history navigated Mason closer to the path of his choosing-and away from the path others chose for him. While in college with eyes on the law enforcement profession, the beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles flooded the 1991 news cycle. Mason pivoted from law enforcement to embark on a radio and television career.
His passion for storytelling eventually merged paths in form of the award-winning documentary "Soul on Ice: Past, Present, and Future." Mason now works with the NHL to elevate black hockey history.
NHL Seattle is proud to present a two-part Q&A with Kwame Mason about his love for hip hop, hockey and highlighting black voices.
Erica Ayala of NHL Seattle: Kwame, let's start with where did your hockey journey begin?
Kwame Mason: My hockey journey began when I was a kid growing up in Toronto playing the game. It's always been something that's been ingrained in myself and my family. You know, we're Canadian, that's what we do.
It's just one of those things that have always been ingrained. To this day it's just been one of my biggest passions. I fell off for a little while. I always "identity crisis," but I would say a crisis as far as being accepted in that world and going between that and new friends, and what people did or didn't do as Black people. I'm just really glad that it's come back full circle in the last 15 to 20 years has just been like hardcore hockey.
NHL Seattle: It's been fun to watch. You mentioned there was a period during which you weren't as locked in. What changed from that young boy in Canada doing what Canadians do to eventually growing out of that?
Kwame Mason: In public school most of my friends were white so our common interests were BMX biking, heavy metal music and hockey. Once I got to junior high school my core friends were mainly black and my interests changed-BMX became breakdancing, heavy metal became rap music and hockey became basketball and football.
With my black friends at the time if I mentioned playing hockey they would say "we don't play hockey, that's what the white boys do" If there was any discussion at the time with white friends about hockey they would say "black people don't play hockey because their ankles are too thin" or "you guys don't play because you are not used to the cold" even though a lot of us were born in Canada.
I didn't fall out of love for the game. I mainly just pushed it to the side and it became a guilty pleasure that I loved but didn't speak about for fear of being teased, same as listening to Boy George and Culture Club. I've always said one of the things that have set black people back was the idea of what we can and can't do or what we do and what we don't do. That invisible box is one of the main reasons I made the movie, so young kids wouldn't feel like the game wasn't for them.
When I got older I was always like, "I miss playing." And that was kind of the first time I ever regretted walking away from the game as an athlete. I eventually got back into watching it, unconditionally and not making any qualms about it.
NHL Seattle: We're talking the late '80s early '90s. A lot was going on. As someone who grew up in Canada and listening to N.W.A. and seeing Rodney King beaten on television, how much did those difficult events for black communities, in particular, impact how you saw the game of hockey?
Kwame Mason: I don't think it affected how I looked a hockey. I think it affected how I looked at life in general. At that point in my life, I was in college for law enforcement. I remember the white students making so many excuses for why they had to do that. "Oh, he was on cocaine."
It was me and a couple of other black guys in that class. We were like, "What are you talking about?" That was a turning point ... I said, "This appeasing my family by getting a job and be a police officer, that's out the window." My passion has always been film, television, acting, music ... the Rodney King point in my life made me realize [entertainment] was the world I want to be a part of.
During those times, I recognized there weren't many black athletes playing the game of hockey ... you just hear guys like, "The Toronto Maple Leafs have an enforcer named Val James and he's black. I said, "I want to check them out." Black has always brought me back to the game because I always wanted to see who these guys were that were playing this predominantly white game.
NHL Seattle: That led you to a career in radio as a hip hop music host as one role. What were some of the things you found most inspiring about that career change? What were some of the challenging things as you started to make your way up the ranks?
Kwame Mason: I had my own television show in 2016, which was a hip hop and R&B cultural show where we interview upcoming artists, review videos and stuff like that. My first interview was a young guy, his first album was called "Reasonable Doubt" and - for folks who don't know who that is, that's Jay-Z. That was my very first interview.
I worked that for 14 years and it's really interesting. Working in radio was my first taste of being one of the only, which is why I am so adamant about talking in the hockey space about inclusion -- more so than trying to be diverse.
Fast forward to where we are right now … whenever I talk to teams owners or staff, I say the problem with hockey, is not so much the diversity of it. The problem is the inclusivity of the game. Hockey has always been diverse, the problem is the industry of hockey hasn't always been inclusive.
NHL Seattle: Wow, that's powerful. The differences between, as you said, diversity and inclusion. That leads me to start asking you about your film "Soul on Ice: Past, Present, and Future." What through lines can you see between your personal story and your professional career in what you're doing now in the hockey space?
Kwame Mason: I always like to put a little piece of myself in everything I do, our voices. When I first started doing stuff with the league, my main focus was to be able to have those uncomfortable conversations or to tell stories that might be a little uncomfortable. The release of "Soul on Ice" opened up that conversation.
NHL Seattle: How many conversations? That was before 2015. How does it compare to where we are since that time related to black athletes and hockey?
Kwame Mason: It's a lot different now. It's not so much about talking about the trials and tribulations, but it's more about the normalization of black faces and black voices.
The NHL's mobile museum is teaching the average fan or the new fan. The mobile museum, which was the brainchild of Kim Davis, is one of the best ways to do that because it just brings people together … I want to bring hockey into our culture I want to bring our culture to hockey.
I traveled to about 95 percent of the locations. When I am there, I'm very interactive with the people so they can get the knowledge of our history. I'm looking at the players. I'm looking at the game of hockey … it helps me create my content. One of the things that I always felt was missing from the game of hockey was a little funk, a little flavor. So that's why you saw like in the movie, the music is just straight up, hip hop...
Video: NHL's Black Hockey History Tour visits Seattle
NHL Seattle: It's good, man.
Kwame Mason: It's unapologetic. It's there. It makes the audience go, "Wow! I've never really felt this way," because music is more of a feeling. This goes way back to my music career, I went on tour with Chuck D, of Public Enemy throughout Canada and have those kinds of conversations and talking about how music touches people.
What I do is special because I'm able to say "Hey let's go to a black barbershop and have a conversation. Anybody in the black community knows that's our water cooler moment. Black men, that's our rite of passage with our sons, we take to the barbershop, we sit down and talk about the game last night and we'll talk about politics and talk about life. I wanted to do that with Ryan Reeves [currently playing for the NHL's Vegas Golden Knights], talk about hockey. We had some brothers that were there, and it came out well, like one of the highest watched pieces two years ago ... I want to bring hockey into our culture and I want to bring our culture to hockey.
NHL Seattle: I didn't realize that you went on tour with Chuck D. Are we going to see a resurgence of your performing days?
Kwame Mason: Hell no! Those days are done, but they were fun. A lot of things I got to see and a lot of things I got to learn. I incorporate all that in what I do. There's always a little piece of that there.
We tried to acknowledge our ancestors, that was the biggest thing about doing the film. I saw P.K. Subban, Wayne Simmons and all these young guys coming up and the conversation was being focused on them. And I was like, "Let's celebrate these guys, but we cannot forget about the guys who had to survive death threats. That had to go through harassment, getting chicken bones thrown at them, and denied access.
We have to talk about them because a lot of those guys persevered just to play the game that they love. By doing that and not quitting, it paved the way for the players that we see today. That's why I called the film "Past, Present, and Future."
NHL Seattle: You and I were able to see Willie O'Ree inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. What can you share about, about amplifying the campaign to get Mr. O'Ree into the Hall of Fame?
Kwame Mason: I had nothing to do with the applications and all that stuff together, that was Bryant McBride and others. But what I will say is when I made the film, I highlighted two of the most prominent black athletes in the game of hockey. One is Willie O'Ree and the other is Herb Carnegie.
It's so long overdue but everything has its time. Being at the Hall of Fame ceremony and seeing him get his jacket, get a ring -- I did this thing where I sat down with Willie, Angela James and Grant Fuhr. The first black man to make it into the Hockey Hall of Fame, the first black woman inducted, and then Willie third.
Jarome Iginla, he's next. We're keeping the movement and I think it's such a great thing to see.
Part 2: Kwame Mason discusses NHL leader Kim Davis' impact on hockey culture and how the "Soul on Ice" podcast started.