Killer Mike, as he often does, said it best. “Stop talking, and LOOK at these PEOPLE,” the Atlanta rapper and one-half of Run the Jewels wrote in a moving post yesterday on Instagram. He was calling for compassion and recognition of the fundamental, blood-sweat-tears humanity of the family devastated when Michael Brown, an 18-year-old incoming college freshman, was shot to death by a police officer at 2:15 on a sunny Saturday afternoon in Ferguson, Missouri.
Amid reports of violent protests — and another shooting by an officer — in the St. Louis suburban community following a tragedy that President Obama has called “heartbreaking,” there will be others with more eloquent words to say on all the serious sociopolitical issues involved. But let’s look at Brown, this unarmed teenager who is now dead. And let’s look at what was reportedly one of his great passions — rap — and how the medium’s artists have at once shown why they are so vital and yet at the same time this decades-old genre has continued to be cruelly misunderstood in at least one corner of the media.
As music critic Craig Jenkins pointed out, the first full business day after Brown’s killing hadn’t even ended before St. Louis’s Voice Media weekly, The Riverfront Times, had posted an article psychoanalyzing him based on his “gangster” rap lyrics. The Times later removed the word “gangster,” but as Jenkins suggested, the article’s use of the tag “Too Soon” was “deadly ironic,” at best.
The weekly wrote that the music of Brown, who rapped as Big Mike, was “filled with the usual guns-and-money bluster one might expect from a trap-rap artist,” with an apparent influence from “1017 Brick Squad Records, known for its releases by Waka Flocka Flame, Gucci Mane, Chief Keef and others.” As if this could tell us that Brown was, as the headline asserts, a “kid in conflict.” As if it could tell us anything at all other than that he likes music that many other people, including writers for this website, enjoy.
Here’s Jenkins again, on the weekly’s Twitter replies: “Tweeting through it but still not appearing to grasp the principal skeeviness of the whole endeavor.”
That’s not to say the Riverfront Times writers or editors were necessarily ill-intentioned or unfamiliar with the genre, either. And it was only one blog post. But, at best, it fans the flames for the idea that what type of music a person enjoys can tell you anything more about their behavior than liking a certain kind of movie or book. And that presumption can be toxic, because it isn’t applied equally. It’s where prejudice, conscious or not, can cloud vision.
It’s ironic, too, that this article came just days after the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that rap lyrics aren’t evidence. “One would not presume that Bob Marley, who wrote the well-known song ‘I Shot the Sheriff,’ actually shot a sheriff,” wrote Justice Jaynee LaVecchia in the August 4 opinion.
Likewise, one would not presume that Killer Mike is anything more than a seriously killer rapper. And the most egregious aspect of arguing about Brown based on his rap lyrics is that it fails to follow the simple wisdom that this rapper has delivered: “LOOK at these PEOPLE.”
If you haven’t already, it’s worth reading Killer Mike’s full letter, which he posted with an Associated Press photo of Brown’s mother, Lesley McSpadden, and her husband, Louis Head.
“We are human beings,” he began. “We deserve to be buried by our children not the other way around. No matter how u felt about black people look at this mother and look at this father and tell me as a human being how u cannot feel empathy for them. How can u not feel sympathy for their pain and loss. These are not ‘THOTS, niggas/niggers, hoes, Ballers, Divas.’ These two people are parents.”
Their son was a human being, too, not a collection of lyrics to be searched for clues. And other figures from rap music, in fact — though admittedly not (yet) Chief Keef or Waka Flocka Flame — have been advocating peacefully on this issue, further belying the idea that Brown’s words could show he was “in conflict.”
The Roots’ Questlove tweeted today: “remember: EVERY human being deserves civil treatment. (problem is, do you see everyone as a flesh and blood human being?)” As the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports, Wiz Khalifa and Young Jeezy paid tribute to Brown in an understated, classy way in their concert in the area last night.
“I wanna talk to you about dreams,” Jeezy is quoted as saying. “If your dreams don’t scare you, you aren’t dreaming big enough. Do I got any big dreamers in the house? I wanna dedicate this to a big dreamer. His dreams were taken away from him. We (are going to) dream for Michael Brown tonight.”
It echoes the nonviolent protest that emerged from some rappers and singers in response to the shooting death of another unarmed African-American student, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, two years ago. Frank Ocean, Diddy, Swizz Beatz, Nelly, Ludacris, Jamie Foxx and others posted photos of themselves wearing hooded sweatshirts in protest, as Vibe reported.
Martin’s example also recalls a more famous example of how many Americans continue to misunderstand rap in horrifying ways. A chain email at the time showing a picture of rapper the Game circulated, with the words, “Is This Little Trayvon Martin.”
The memory of that chain email is yet another reason to applaud the recent hashtag #IfTheyGunnedMeDown, as featured in The New York Times — the photos people will use to misrepresent young African-Americans based on stereotypes apparently don’t even need to be of the right person.
As of this post, police have been urging protesters not to rally at night. A witness to the shooting has finally spoken to the FBI and police, telling a reporter (via USA Today) that Brown’s back was turned to the police officer and his hands were in the air when he was shot “like an animal” in the chest and head. The gunman’s identity is not yet public.
And Brown’s father, Michael Brown Sr., another person experiencing unimaginable pain and loss, has said: “I need all of us to come together and do it right, the right way, so we can get something done about this. No violence.”