There is nothing that makes me feel more cynical than a music video that broaches the topic of police brutality...especially police brutality where the victims are black people. There is a conversation that has been happening well before Public Enemy's "Fight The Power" video. When framing the black experience in present day America, the artists that contribute to the bigger picture don't have to be your faves. And in 2015, Kendrick Lamar
and rap duo Run The Jewels
(Killer Mike and El-P) contribute to the vivid depiction (albeit an abstract one) of the modern black person existing in a world of police brutality.
Kendrick Lamar's "Alright" video (directed by Collin Tilley) is...something right off the bat. It needs to be watched. I may not be the biggest fan of Kendrick, but I do recognize undeniable talent. The goal of the video and song was to inspire positivity, in a rare depiction of a social dystopian present day Bay Area. But see, here's the thing, I've got this hang up about respectability politics
. Artists of color -- especially black artists, comedians, politicians -- are very heavy-handed about policing marginalized voices. "What about black on black violence?" Is something I hear at the end of Kendrick's "The Blacker The Berry" song which is on the same album as "Alright." [Ed. Note: An entire article could be written debating just what exactly Kendrick was talking about at the very end of that song. I have a lot of thoughts as do many others.]
The opening of the "Alright" video shows images of despair. We see a black man being arrested by an officer but struggling to get away, only to be shot. Or, I should say, "a cop choosing to shoot a black man." We see a group of black children, dressed in black, chasing a black child in white in a descending field. We see these conflicts just prior to our hero Kendrick driving a car with his TDE labelmates. The camera pans back revealing the car is being carried by four police officers. We see a system here. Our existence, wherever we are, is dependant on cops letting us live. "Letting us" live.
The beat drops and Kendrick's syllables and patterns paint a picture that "Alright"'s video does so well reimagining. We see smiles, partying, celebration...Kendrick floating, often times above a crowd of young black boys and men (but only a few visible black women?). In this fantasy world of "Alright," Kendrick is almost depicted as being Messiah-esque. It reflects his ever-present Christian beliefs but also gives a mixed message that he is enlightened in a land of lost souls.
We see Kendrick in a vintage Chevy throwing cash out of the window around familiar territory. We see dancers in front of boomboxes. The dancing element of hip hop culture is rarely pushed to the forefront within rap. I like this. I like this in combination with the religious "respectable black man" that Kendrick often embodies in his music (even if I think these are Kendrick's weakest attributes). These rowdy and gaudy aspects of Kendrick's persona may seem to clash, but these parts of Kendrick are needed. These parts I'm so critical of are necessary. Black men, and especially black women, are rarely given this grace, the grace of being more than one-dimensional -- especially in the eyes of the law and media. We need to be seen praying, dancing, drinking and more. We need this conversation to continue happening. We need our lives to matter beyond the strength of a hashtag.
Unfortunately, a thematically comparable video from Run the Jewels this year is less digestible than Kendrick's "Alright," particularly since I'm a "sometime-y" fan of the group. I'd been a fan of Killer Mike since hearing his young, booming voice on Outkast's Stankonia
in 2000. Even then he had the voice of a revolutionary; the eventual odd pairing with El-P really made sense to me (loved the first Run The Jewels album).
I'd been a fan of El-P longer than Killer Mike, and, yet, it's still a tad strange seeing El-Producto commenting on black issues with this song and video. I'd been a Company Flow fan since their first vinyl release of "Juvenile Technique" (though I didn't hear the 1994 track til '98). I remember asking El-P on a hiphop message board, why he -- as a white rapper -- thought it was okay to use the n-word. I remember him being very apologetic and catching heat from the community at-large. He was 19 when he recorded "Juvenile Technique." Years later, El-P amassed a following (myself included) that wanted to feel a part of a new social movement in hip hop. Company Flow didn't erase that ugly and hurtful moment for El-P, but it did a great job in making us forget El's youthful indiscretion (putting it mildly)*.
With that baggage on the table, watching the video for "Close Your Eyes (And Count To Fuck)" stirs those emotions up again...in ugly ways. I began thinking about Killer Mike's first few bars in which he requests that the thuggers, Blooders, Crippers, and brothers band together to kill cops...not quite the heavy-handed "what about black on black crime" references I'm used to from Kendrick, but it's still a reference to gangs killing each other as opposed to turning their guns on a larger, more oppressive army, the militarized police.
We see an out of breath cop fighting in the middle of the street with a black kid hinting at a long term struggle. Before I go further I think it's important to read portions of the notes for this video.
The director A.G. Rojas wrote: "For me, it was important to write a story that didn't paint a simplistic portrait of the characters of the Cop and Kid. They're not stereotypes. They're people - complex, real people and, as such, the power had to shift between them at certain points throughout the story. The film begins and it feels like they have been fighting for days, they're exhausted, not a single punch is thrown, their violence is communicated through clumsy, raw emotion. They've already fought their way past their judgments and learned hatred toward one another. Our goal was to highlight the futility of the violence, not celebrate it."
Killer Mike wrote: "This video represents the futile and exhausting existence of a purgatory-like law enforcement system. There is no neat solution at the end because there is no neat solution in the real world. However, there is an opportunity to dialogue and change the way communities are policed in this country."
El-P wrote: "This is a vision of a seemingly never-ending struggle whose participants are pitted against each other by forces originating outside of themselves."
So here's why I have a problem with all that shit.
In the video, we see an officer and young black man evenly matched. There is give and take. They are wrestling over handcuffs at one point and suffer similar injuries during this everlasting struggle. The cop accidentally pepper sprays himself while pepper spraying the black man. Leading to a moment that is all too commonly seen and typically understood by disenfranchised people of color -- the black man runs from the officer. In a later scene, they share a milk jug to wash out the pepper spray which is adorable. Let's focus on that black kid running and the officer chasing him.
While I do agree with certain aspects of what the director, Killer Mike and El-P are saying, this small moment of a black man running from an officer debunks any 'mutual struggle' between cops and black folks. No one doubts that a cop's job is hard or difficult. Prior to the widespread use of video recording smartphones, EVERYONE doubts a black man running from a cop. More people need to be made aware that cops that want to see trans people of color, women of color and men of color dead in this "never-ending struggle" are having their way. Killer Mike is absolutely correct; there is no neat solution and a dialogue is necessary for us to get to said solution(s).
We can't get solutions without bringing these flaws to light from the very artists trying to help illustrate our current environment. The end of the video shows the cop and the black man getting in the same bed. This highlights the bigger system both the black man and cop play within. Both of them are to appear powerless within this purgatory, but I think we all know whom is less likely to wake up the next day.
It might not be clear, but I am harshest on the artists I value. Run The Jewels' "Close Your Eyes" and Kendrick Lamar's "Alright" are actually songs I like. So it should mean more that I am critical of the very powerful videos attached to their amazing music. We need their voices. We need this dialogue to continue. No artist is perfect nor are the messages they attempt to deliver, but this doesn't absolve them of criticism.
*Unlike a lot of black rap artists who run afoul of the hip hop community. El-P was allowed this "pass" because he's white and this racist incident (because there's no other way to put it) happened when very little people knew who he was. I think even he'd acknowledge his whiteness played a big role in him being able to say the n-word in the underground rap scene and still manage to have a successful career afterwards. Every so often, I see a new fan bring this issue up to him on twitter and he's still apologizing for it. As he should.