Tre’lan Michael is someone we’ve been keeping an eye on lately. We caught up with him for a lesson in escapism gone right and what building Black community in surf means to him. Head to our journal for more.
1. Tre’lan, tell us about your surf journey.
Growing up as a kid in Oklahoma, I was perpetually landlocked, occasionally seeing the ocean in Galveston, TX with my grandparents but never bearing witness to the amazing and majestic power it held... but I was always in or on the water. The tub, pools, lakes, rivers, puddles, anything deep enough to dip my toes in.
But in adulthood, I became deeply invested in surfing as a means to find community, honestly. I moved to Kaua’i, Hawaii in 2014 alone, knowing no one or anything about the island (think a Black Rick Kane) and through a couple blessed chance encounters with some life changing individuals, I inherited my first foam board and was instructed on how to repair my first longboard by an old head around 2015. Once I found my own set of wheels to get me to and from the ocean daily, it was a wrap. Surfing gave me an entirely new life so to speak. I spent the next six years traveling the globe to get better at this dream but always coming back home to Hawaii, putting in the hours and efforts like my life depended on it. 5-7 days a week, 3+ hours a day. Morning. Noon. Night. Epic to abysmal. If there were waves, I was more than likely in them. Skin, blood, bone, consciousness I've lost or broken a bit of it all in the pursuit of my love of this art we call surfing. But when I found my way into big waves, I knew I had discovered what I was supposed to be doing with my life.
2. Why Hawaii?
Long story short, I was fucking up and needed to reset and get it together man. I wasn’t paving a path to success or anything near the life I wanted to create. My environment, my peers, my work… I wasn’t in love with anything or life itself and had signed up to teach English In Sri Lanka. I just wanted out. So Hawaii was one of the few cases of escapism working out in life. So when my work visa was denied and I had already committed to selling everything I owned and moving out of my place at the time, the world was completely open to me.
I knew I wanted to connect with nature more and just kind of see what it meant to be a human, not a worker, a student, a former this or that, just a human and I figured Kaua’i was removed enough from the world I knew but not too far removed from modernity that I could still survive. So I pulled the trigger and made it happen. I didn’t know how long I could afford to stay or how it would work out. I just moved with a “we’ll see” attitude and it prevailed. I lived out there for 6 years.
3. What has been the greatest lesson for you about moving forward after a challenging time?
Once we’re out of the shit part of things we can easily reflect and most of my reflections have condensed down to: Challenges are typically just strength building exercises (conditioning and training) and setbacks are just the pullback of a slingshot (prep for notable forward motion). For every set there’s a lull. It's all ups and downs out there, so you’ll get through it.
4. What does community look like to you these days?
From my perspective, community building is key to innovation, sustainability, and growth just like orcas and dolphins that move in pods. Humans tend to find strength and innovation in numbers. Naturally this goes hand in hand with visibility+accessibility. Few people knowing a lot about a subject leads to fewer participants and interest levels and we’re not even talking about the why, (i.e. slavery and systemic exclusion and laws that have created these circumstances in America).
To me, a Black man living in America, community and visibility are a recent and rapidly changing subject when it comes to representation concerning Black people within surf and water culture. Definitely not in its infancy stage globally (see Africa, Caribbean, Brazil), but here in America, the recent explosion and exposition of both are hopefully creating lasting positive change in the lives of many, many people. This is not a fad. Many of us really love this thing we didn’t know was available to us. It means more Black people in the water, new expressions, new friends, cultural bridges being built, history to be uncovered, and legends to take form. It doesn’t mean ANYONE is taking ANYTHING from you.
We’re surfers, naturally many of us are somewhat selfish creatures and waves/opportunities are seemingly limited resources. But let’s be real, if you’re reading this, you’re probably not Black and if you’re in a 7TILL8 suit you’re probably intelligent and care about the details of things. So I'm talking directly to you. The creation of community and various organizations doesn’t mean opposition. It’s a response to a need. A need for safety, a need for connection, for resources, for protection, for exploration.
Surfing hasn’t been the most welcoming community for myself or many people who look like me, so when you stand out for simply existing and add to that a steep learning curve and a selfish culture, it's a recipe for less than positive interactions. The lineup and the ocean itself can be pretty intimidating spaces. So when people create communities in which we can flourish, learn, and grow amongst ourselves and create environments where the same language is spoken and a level of patience that isn't exhibited elsewhere can be felt, it makes the lineup a more fun place for everyone.
So when we are included in the representation for the culture and the conversation worldwide, beyond being style gods like Buttons or Mikey Feb, who may be only relevant to our core cultural understanding and are more simply represented in an IG ad for wetsuits or in an ad for sunscreen or boat tours, we are being ingrained as a natural fixture in water culture en masse. That leads to naturalization and creation of a new cultural shape. So I guess one of my goals is to become a beacon or inspiration for the next wave of Black cats, as a charger, model, writer, artist, homie, whatever, or just that other Black dude you met, or saw surfing, or saw at the beach that one time.
5. What gets you excited about surfing these days?
Growing. Going bigger.
6. What piece of advice would you give someone who hasn’t been out in the water lately?
So long as it isn't a medical reason… GET OUT THERE. And if it is a medical reason, GET OUT THERE as soon as you can. And if you don’t want to get out there? I hope you’re finding peace in life elsewhere.