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Rap’s Civility Game

What we can do as artists is inspire people to give a fuck

-Vic Mensa, from “16 Shots,” a song about the killing of Laquan McDonald by Chicago police.

I should start this letter with a disclaimer. I am not a student of music, rap, or Black activism.  All that I have learned about rap came from being drawn to the music and all that I have learned about its relationship to activism has come out of my (adult) lifelong interest in art as a kind of activism or political intervention that can often be further-reaching and have a greater impact than any form of conventional political statement or action.

Instead of talking about the politics of rap music, I am moving out of my comfort zone to talk about the activism and the politics proper of the Black Lives Matter movement. The movement seems stuck, or at an impasse, and it is a dangerous time to be stuck because as Chuck D said, we are at a “tipping point.” Asking people to keep their cool in the wake of two back-to-back murders of innocent Black men by police is a tall order.

The recent controversy between one of the movement’s leading activists, Jasmine Abdullah (see this article in Rolling Stone, July 28, 2016), and the rappers Snoop Dogg and The Game pinpoints the state of the movement and implicitly asks where it should go from here.  Abdullah sees Snoop and The Game’s public conference with the mayor and leading political officials of Los Angeles as a sell-out to the forces that repress and divide Black communities. I think something else: Snoop and The Game are moving away from the standards of truth and moral outrage and into what Jeffrey Goldfarb describes as a politics of civility and subversion.  Snoop and The Game are appearing with and speaking to law enforcement, and anyone who watches TV, as a political gesture aimed at civilizing differences so as to make a point — and that point is “Black lives matter.”

The Black Lives Matter movement was galvanized by the fatal police shooting of the eighteen-year-old and unarmed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. The protests have remained faithful to the issue of the loss of Black lives at the hands of police. This can remain the focus of the movement without minimizing the broader cultural reality of systemic exclusion and degradation of Black communities and individuals that the movement continues to expose.

A few more examples, selected to drive the point home. Baltimore. Freddy Gray was beaten and dragged like a rag doll by two police officers to their police van. Within 45 minutes, the cops beat him into a coma. He died about a week later, his neck broken and his spine cracked in twelve places. He was 27. In response came protests, some peaceful and others more reminiscent of the rages of 1968.It is no surprise that this kind of desperation would come out of Baltimore. As has been amply noted, judges there have been repeatedly bribed to let officers who killed Black folks off of the hook. The corruption, in Baltimore and elsewhere, goes all the way to the top.

And we cannot forget the police recording of George Zimmerman, who was nothing more than a frustrated and paranoid vigilante, as he stalked Trayvon Martin while being told, explicitly and repeatedly, not to shoot him. We know Zimmerman shot him anyway. (The event is effectively retold in this dramatization.) Martin died and regardless of the endless attempts to spotlight Zimmerman’s racism and derangement and the obvious problem of open carry laws, Martin’s past of petty crimes was highlighted as a justification for his murder.

Jumpcut to the two most recent murders, which were captured on iPhones: Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. We saw, all over social media, the unambiguous assassination of two Black men.   Again, the story became about blaming the victims and the public conversation was derailed and re-polarized by the murder of five Dallas police officers at an otherwise peaceful police protest a few days later.

This is one of the ways in which the movement keeps getting stuck. Or cornered. Instead of discussing and dealing with a mostly peaceful protest movement and the bleak reality it exposes and addresses, the discussion is adeptly reframed again and again in terms of white and blue lives versus Black lives. The Black men who were killed before us in back-to-back succession were assumed guilty in advance, by the police and also by a large portion of the American public.

The rejoinder to Black Lives Matter is often Blue Lives Matter, as though it is one or the other or a zero sum game. If we cannot get out of the one-or-the-other or the me-at-the-expense-of-you logic, I worry that we will have more violence.

Truth is on the side of the movement.  Outrage is on the side of the movement. And the movement has to be understood not just in the context of recent police brutality but also within the larger history of race and law enforcement in the United States. Blacks were property; they had no law, no protection. The KKK was made up of local law enforcement. Black neighborhoods are policed at a disproportionate rate to white neighborhoods and the term “felony lynching” was only recently removed from California’s penal code. It once referred to a racist mob removing an arrested man from police custody in order to hang him or otherwise carry out extrajudicial justice. To use it in the reverse, as has recently been applied in the case of Jasmine Abdullah, to describe a Black activist aiming to take out of custody a fellow activist neuters it and obliterates its history. The list goes on.

Race is felt like a wound. Black pain is real and people want their pain recognized. But we have to be careful to let the wound begin to heal. Not to deny the pain and not to deny the wound but whenever possible to stop poking and reopening it. Even if the wound heals, we have scars as evidence of pain and struggle.

The trouble here is that we need more than pain and more than truth to push past the impasse. We need a more inclusive and savvied politics — a politics wherein police (blue lives) and Blacks (Black lives) are civilized in their differences. It is almost always the sad and distressing case that it falls upon the degraded or the ghettoized to make this civilizing move.

In the controversial press conference, Snoop and The Game stood with law enforcement and each man spoke movingly. Snoop and The Game are performers. To talk about one of their performances as sincere or disingenuous doesn’t make much sense. They are practiced artists, so their music and movement has sincerity or genuine emotion as much as it is art, or an articulation that appears sincere or unpracticed. They control how they appear.

Both rappers talked about their relatedness to the victims because they are Black and they spoke about all people, blue and Black, wanting to go home to their families. They made the gesture of civility that civilized the differences between themselves and law enforcement and this gesture was subversive. They were somber, soft-hearted, and proud, but they did not remove their sunglasses. They left out the swagger but not the strength.

I don’t agree with Abdullah’s observations on the press conference but I get where she is coming from and she is not alone. Others in the movement share her reaction to Snoop. If I had to take a crack at the rappers’ motives, I would say that they are reaching out so as to start a conversation or a healing process and it does not much matter if they actually see cops and the mayor as decent so much as they appear to. In other words, I don’t know if it was real, but they kept it real.

And I suspect that they initiated or agreed to this public conference as an attempt — as something they could do by virtue of being famous with whites and Blacks — to stop violence and to start talking.

If we don’t want to feed Abdullah’s call to separatism, which only reinforces a gridlock between communities, we have to be careful on the left to respect the differences between Black and white experience and expression.  In the Sunday New York Times, Chuck D was interviewed and though again we don’t know whether all of his answers were sincere, he was eloquent and smart.

He said enough that I felt a kind of luxury of engagement.  I could simply disagree with some of his observations on the relationship between culture and government control. But the editor (or the interviewer, I do not know) did something that I found disquieting. He removed an expletive from the last sentence, and noted its removal. Chuck D spoke the language of The New York Times for the entire interview and was deprived of one curse word — are we really so delicate and so distanced from the anger of a curse that we cannot read it? Is this not also part of the problem on the left, or the establishment left? We want Black anger, or Black speech, to be less angry, and this moralizing move is not only condescending but is a kind of subtle, or not-so-subtle, suppression of identity. Chuck D chose his words carefully. One curse word can pack a punch. Chuck D appears to know this and to be able to negotiate more than one audience so let’s not be so prim as to erase the bit of ghetto, or rage, or sincerity offered up for our understanding.

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Lisa Aslanian

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