Artist’s immigration arrest fuels activism in Minneapolis music scene

John Bing III aka Sota Smoov (left), Matt Jarvi aka MNtality (right), who are members of the group Los Pinche Gueys, perform at The What’s Up Lounge, Mankato, MN. (Photo Shawn D. Weigel)

Minneapolis’ music community continues to fight for the release of musician and artist John Lewis Bing III, known professionally as Sota or Sota Smoov. On June 6, Sota was detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers and now faces deportation to Liberia.

Known to the music community as a devoted husband, loving father, friend, as well as a man of both great faith and musical genius, Sota’s arrest and detention has touched various community members in the Twin Cities. His detention influenced many of his supporters to protest the possible expansion of immigrant detention at Sherburne County Jail, where he was initially detained.

According to the #FreeSota info page, Sota was born in Monrovia, Liberia in 1984, right before the start of the First Liberian Civil War. When rumors of war began to circulate in Liberia, his family was forced to make a choice: either stay and raise an infant amid a coming war or find sanctuary. So with limited options and Sota’s mother lying ill in a Liberian hospital bed, Sota’s grandmother packed their belongings and migrated to Washington D.C where they stayed for a period of time before eventually moving to Columbus, Ohio.

While living in Ohio, the family received word that Sota’s mother was living in Minneapolis, MN, so Sota was relocated to the Twin Cities when he was 15 years old, and he’s lived there ever since.

After spending several months at Sherburne County Jail, Sota was recently moved to Carver County Jail. His family still continues to advocate on his behalf and fight for the rights of detainees at Sherburne County, where county officials have raised the possibility of increasing the number of immigration detainees.

According to Minneapolis Public Radio, for the past 30 years Sherburne County jail has contracted with the U.S. government to house immigration detainees and other federal inmates. In May, Sherburne County board members met to discuss the possibility of an expansion of the jail to house up to 500 immigration detainees, an increase from the 300 beds it currently provides.

Sherburne County receives $11 million a year, before expenses, for housing immigration detainees, so the expansion of the jail is seen by county officials as a means to secure jobs and government funding.

But to residents who are aware of the devastating effects of ICE raids, the expansion of the jail comes at too great of a price.

Sota’s wife Maria Schulz, a local artist and DJ known to many as Mixie, has organized silent auctions, open mics and benefit concerts all across Minneapolis to demand for her husband’s release from ICE custody and provide local musicians a space to speak out about Sota’s impact in the Twin Cities.

“Expanding the jail to hold more immigrant detainees means they aim to tear more families apart and make more money off of keeping [people] in cages,” Mixie said. “They already have a lot of problems with medication, water, food, air, etc.,,..the money they use to expand would be better spent improving the conditions and problems they already have,” Mixie said.

Mixie is concerned that the addition of a courthouse on jail grounds would expedite mass deportations and limit detainees access to legal assistance. On Mondays, Mixie gathers with community members at Hope Community Center to discuss tactics and plan events.

Following her husband’s arrest, Mixie established a hashtag #FreeSota, which aims to raise money for Sota’s legal fees, combat the expansion of ICE facilities in Minnesota, and protect and affirm the rights of detainees who live in constant fear of deportation.

For Mixie, #FreeSota is bigger than her husband’s case.

“#FreeSota is forever, I got it tatted on my knuckles,” Mixie said. “It’s more than just his release now. It’s expanded to myself and our circle, freeing our minds, realizing the slavery that is happening in America now,” Mixie said.

Sota Smoov and his wife Mixie with their children at their wedding. (Family photo.)

To bring in donations, Mixie has created shirts and posters with the #FreeSota logo to sell at organized events. All proceeds pay for her husband’s legal fees and provide financial assistance for their family. Local artists like the Lioness, Chase Vibe, Tek, Queen Duin, Ozzy the Painter and Gp Jacob, have used their platforms to raise awareness, wearing #FreeSota shirts at local shows to encourage their fans to get involved.

Sota is a member of Los Pinche Gueys, a punk, rap, jazz fusion group, with Gonkama Johnson, Justin Johnson and Matt Jarvi.

Jarvi said after Sota’s arrest, local artists have used their music to inform their fans about both Sota’s case and other immigration issues in the Twin Cities’.

“Seeing [ICE Raids] in the media is one thing but to have it happen so close to home to someone like Sota … has ignited a fire in people, making us think twice about what we take for granted everyday,” Jarvi said.

Jarvi sees music within the #FreeSota campaign as a connecting force, one that has helped unify local artists to fight for a common goal.

“There is power in numbers.The more we share and put together as musicians the more awareness we raise… with music attached to it that seals the movement,”  Jarvi said. “The support from people… has brought us closer. For the whole month of July we’ve been putting together a lot of shows that have raised a lot of vibrations. They’ve been fun but serious, we’ve been trying to get people to the house to support something greater than themselves,” Jarvi said.

Sota and Mixie have three young children, between  six months and four years old. A GoFundMe page has been created in an effort to secure funds for both his family and legal expenses. The page has raised over $17,000 out of a goal of $25,000.

On Aug. 20th, Mixie, along with various community members and the faith-based immigrant rights organization Sanctuary & Resistance to Injustice, gathered at Sherburne County to advocate for better living conditions and medical services for detainees. Following this initial visit to Sherburne County, Mixie has continued to work with Sanctuary & Resistance to Injustice, demanding change from county commissioners.

Mixie said she hopes the #FreeSota movement inspires others to activism.

“I hope to inspire others to think outside of what society dictates for us. I hope to achieve a world where my children are more aware of society and their impact for change,” Mixie said.“We can do anything in community, love, and belief. I hope the awareness brings abolishment to ICE, the police…  and the end of capitalism as we know it.”

“Free Sota” is tattooed on the hands of Minnesota musician Sota Smoov’s wife, Mixie, an artist and DJ. Mixie and others in Minneapolis’ music and arts community are rallying in support of Sota, who has been detained by federal immigration authorities. (Photo by Mixie.)

Author Thea White would like to acknowledge the help of Northside Minneapolis artist Chase Vibe with helping us learn about this story.