Scenes from violent riots, stories of police attacking people of all ages and races, videos of wrongful arrests – they’ve been dominating every facet of social media for weeks. They cannot be suppressed, as it should be; Americans should be forced to take into account the disturbing realities of our country’s racing relationships. But these images and news reports are also daunting, even dystopian. At the moment, life in America feels lifeless. And that’s true, even if you don’t account for the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.
Among the many who pour their hearts out at how deeply affected by the violence that befalls black and brown Americans is Run the Jewels, the rap duo of “Killer” Mike Render and Jaime “El-P” Meline, whose work is always political loaded. The pair has won several album-of-the-year awards and was announced as “role models” for listeners and other musicians, “a leading light in a new hip-hop rebellion.“When Run the Jewels’ fourth album, RTJ4, announced as an early June release, music fans eagerly anticipated what they expected to be yet another slam-dunk collection of darkly funny, blistering poetic songs.
When the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor in March infuriated people across the country, a new release of the pair was especially necessary. That sentiment only intensified when protests broke out nationwide in May in response to the murder of Minneapolis’ black resident, George Floyd.
A week before the album’s premiere on June 5, America seemed to collapse under the weight of racial inequality. Public statements of support for Floyd’s family, community, and all black Americans turned from mighty to horrific as police engaged protesters in unnecessary attempts to subdue the crowd. Run the Jewels, enraged and deeply hurt by what they saw, spoke out.
First, Killer gave Mike a sneak peek at some of the album’s most resonant lyrics on Instagram. “I will continue to push for a better society, but I refuse to acknowledge the person I’m stuck with,” he wrote in the caption to an excerpt from the new song “Walking in the Snow.” It’s a forward-looking verse: “And every day on the evening news they feed you with fear for free / And you are so numb that you see the police choking a man like me / And until my voice goes from a scream to whisper,” i don’t breathe. ”
That post came on May 26. On May 30, Mike delivered a powerful speech in his native Atlanta, home to mounting police brutality. The son of a police chief himself, Killer Mike, spoke from a vulnerable location.
“I’m crazy as hell,” he said at a news conference from Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms in Atlanta. “I woke up because I wanted to see the world burn up yesterday because I’m tired of seeing black men die. [Minnesota police officer Derek Chauvin] casually put his knee on a human’s neck for nine minutes as he died as a zebra in the claw of a lion’s jaw. “
RTJ4 was then released two days earlier. On June 3 Do the Jewels tweeted a download link to the album and a note next to it:
Fuck it, why wait. The world is full of nonsense, so here’s something raw to listen to while you handle it all. We hope it brings you some joy. Stay safe and hopeful there and thank you for giving 2 friends the chance to be heard and do what they love.
With genuine love and gratitude, Jaime and Mike.
RTJ4 has indeed brought joy when it is urgently needed. It is danceable, screamable, rap-ready and packed with great seasonal bops. But it is also hugely relevant; although all songwriting pre-dates George Floyd’s death, it could have been easily imagined in honor of Floyd’s memory.
RTJ4 places words in the darkness of America’s systemic racism
“Walking in the Snow,” the song Killer Mike previewed a week earlier RTJ4“Release, is a standout that is most notable in how it captures this moment even before it came. “I can’t breathe,” Mike gasps, hoarse as if resisting a stranglehold. According to El-P, the song was written last fall in reference to Eric Garner, a black man from Staten Island who was murdered in 2014 by a police officer who curtailed him with an illegal chokehold. Garner’s death was an early inflection point in the Black Lives Matter movement, and the reference here is a shocking reminder of how far we’ve come in the six years since.
The song continues with what feels like another headline ripped straight out of 2020: “And you sit there on your couch at home and watch it on TV / Most of what you give is a Twitter rant and call it tragedy / But really the cross-dressing, you have been robbed of your empathy. “Much of the dialogue surrounding Floyd’s outrage over death has focused on the importance of demonstrable action: by protesting, donating, and staying informed. Twitter and Instagram are powerful ways to convey a lot of anti-racist sentiments, but like Killer Mike so eloquently raps, they are also easy crutches for performative alliance that make no progress towards racial equality.
On June 2, the day before RTJ4 came out, the #BlackoutTuesday social media campaign illustrated the complicated nature of broadcasting sympathy online. The hashtag encouraged Black Lives Matter allies to post a blank black square and nothing else, an effort that many have criticized as peak activity for diluting really useful BLM hashtags. “The showiness of people posting about how they don’t post has led to actual BLM content being derailed and obscured by careless use of the hashtags,” explains Vox’s Aja Romano. “Ostentatious booths of whites and other bystanders have eclipsed the conversations and stole the attention from actually informative reports regarding the Black Lives Matter movement and protests.”
But RTJ4 broadcast those conversations as loud as possible. Killer Mike and El-P are smart, snappy MCs, who exchange verses that are confrontational and gripping and funny with dishonest ease. It’s the kind of rappers that make you want to be not only as talented as you are musically, but linguistically; they make me want to be more insightful and thoughtful with my writing, and I’m not trying to compose songs here.
The undeniable relevance of the album is determined by the most current songs, namely ‘Walking in the Snow’, ‘A Few Words for the Firing Squad’ and ‘Goonies vs. E.T. ‘, but it is also present in songs that are separate from an event. ‘JU $ T,’ featuring Pharrell Williams and Rage Against the Machine singer (and repeat Run the Jewels guest) Zack de la Rocha, has a sizzling chorus that puts words to one of America’s oldest, most annoying truths: ‘Look to all these slave masters posing on your dollar. It’s an anthemic way of accusing the US of repeated racial failings. (Remember how Harriet Tubman should have replaced Andrew Jackson on the $ 20 bill this year?)
And it’s funny too, very Run the Jewels-esque; the idea of George Washington ‘posin’ everywhere evokes a picture of the lanky prez who is twisted with sunglasses or something farcical. Run the Jewels reveals that America’s ongoing racial indiscretions, while not exactly funny, a longstanding comedy of errors inspired by ludicrous action with deadly consequences. The album contains many of these moments of ironic frivolity, whether it is ingrained in songs on hard subjects or at the forefront of other lighter songs. ‘Yankee and the Brave (ep. 4)For example, the album opens with a crazy summary of a nonexistent TV episode in which Run the Jewels plays an unhindered crime-fighting duo.
El-P contextualized the pair’s parallel modes of silly and serious in it a mid-May interview with the Guardian“The best thing that could ever happen to the world is if Run the Jewels was just nonsense, if we are just two bastards who are totally out of touch with reality,” he said. “We don’t want this shit to be clear. It’s because of that truth that we allow ourselves to be completely stupid and surreal in our archives too. We need that too.”
Perhaps it’s worth noting that El-P is white and Killer Mike is black. Every photo of Run the Jewels reveals so much. And RTJ4 underlines the way these two best friends of different races are aligned with Black Lives Matter’s human rights message. El-P’s verses about songs of police brutality and racism and violence do not feel false or insincere; he gives the floor to Killer Mike when necessary. However, both voices are necessary and they are best when they are together and elevate each other. They support each other’s humor, anger and demands. Together they call for an end to it the thousands of murders committed by the police for senseless, shocking and unforgivable reasons.
When Run the Jewels’ first album came out in June 2013, George Zimmerman was on trial in Florida for murdering Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager. (Zimmerman was acquitted a few weeks later.) RTJ2 came out in October 2014, two months after police in Ferguson, Missouri killed Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager. (The officer who shot Brown was not charged.) When RTJ3 came out on Christmas Eve 2016, black people, indigenous people, and people of color across America still felt raw after the disastrous November presidential election and the murder of black man Philando Castile by Minnesota police in July. (The officer who murdered Castile was acquitted of manslaughter six months later.)
When RTJ5 is ready, whenever that is, let’s hope the corresponding story of our country evokes the trend.
A good case is the recommendation function of Vox. In every edition, look for something from the culture world that we highly recommend.