Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?/And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?
Langston Hughes, 'Let America Be America Again' (1936)
Listening to “Thieves in the night” now, a song I know well and have listened to so many, many times over the years, what strikes me most is its intimacy, in particular, the verse of Talib Kweli. This reflects the way it’s recorded, there seems to be no space between the elements; this makes the music sound close to you. But it’s also the way Kweli sounds so sincere, so urgent, when presenting his verse.
Urgency is a key defining quality for me when appreciating the work of an MC, especially when you can sense something of the artist's personality and if it feels true, sincere. I’ve had plenty of conversations with hip-hop fans, more knowledgeable than me, who argue for the quality or cleverness of rhymes as being the key defining element of an artist's worth. Often such talk comes across as mathematics. For whatever reason I hear the music/feeling first – the way the music sounds, the way it’s put together.
Strange, though, to be speaking of this in relation to “Thieves in the night” that is at once heartfelt and political. I won’t summarise/paraphrase the politics as it’s there for you, written on the page, but this is politics as lived experience, as something that is deeply felt. The genius lies in the way the song allows for sentiment to co-exist with the message. See, for example, the wry quality of the hook, with its mild admonishment that can still make you smile – ‘now who the nicest?’ – while savaging the compliance, complicity of the oppressed.
Produced by 88-Keys, the only track he produced on the record and inspired by Toni Morrison’s 1970 novel, The Bluest Eye
Thieves in the night is also the title of a novel by Arthur Koestler, published in 1946 and described by this contemporary New York Times review as ‘bitter, sardonic, probing and introspective, and it is given an ironic kind of pity and terror by the struggle between yogi and commissar that still seems unresolved in Mr. Koestler's soul’.
Many of the listeners commenting below the YT video single out Mos Def’s - Yasiin Bey's - verse, understandably perhaps, as it is a classic example of an MC speaking directly to the listener, as if he is sharing some essential truths, “most cats in my area be loving the hysteria/synthesized surface conceals the interior …” The line about “America, land of opportunity, mirages and camouflages” connects with the repeated refrain in the hook about “illusions of oasis.” Mos Def here is relating a kind of false-consciousness, as it used to be called. Certainly, there’s frustration in the following:
But there is also great tenderness in this verse. It is written from the perspective of someone who is speaking to those who like him are trying to make sense of a frequently hostile environment, where their very existence often seems to be open to debate. Such writing is comparable in impact (and theme) to the famous Langston Hughes poem, ‘Let America Be America Again’ published in 1936 in Esquire.
A poem that would have had an enormous impact when published in that era of Jim Crow in the way it presents unspeakable truths, while giving voice to people not commonly heard. Here is an extract, the poem can be read here:
Strangely, or perhaps not so much, the poem’s title has been misused, co-opted by a number of (white) politicians in the US, as Wik explains, ….
"The title of this poem was used by Democratic United States senator John Kerry as a campaign slogan in his 2004 presidential campaign. In 2011 an exploratory committee for conservative Republican former senator Rick Santorum used a variant of the phrase ("Fighting to make America America again") on its website; told of the slogan's derivation from the Hughes poem, Santorum stated he had "nothing to do with" its use by the committee."
Even the most extreme and successful example of a white supremacist politician, the current US President, seems to have co-opted the title in his inane campaign slogan that is all about race-based exclusion and violence. This co-option reflects what I often think is a degree of awareness among white racists that the very foundations of their bigotry are not only morally abject, but untenable. Everything, in the end, is stolen. And they know it.
And yet, despite or perhaps because of this, the poem by Hughes has a kind of secrecy about it that gives it enormous power, particularly in the repeated refrain, (America never was America to me.) Never before has the use of punctuation been so charged, full of meaning. But this secrecy is also there in the italicised lines and the poem's conclusion, which contains apparent contradictions within it in terms of its tone. It includes extremely tough depictions of suffering (the perpetrator of the crimes remaining nameless) to end on a kind of rallying cry.
Langston Hughes, like his descendents sixty years on, had the capacity to speak on many levels, while maintaining emotional intensity. This underscores their status as great writers. But Hughes inevitably was also writing in code, able to share one hidden, unacknowledged truth – “the rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies” – but only by cloaking it in the notion that this suffering was universal and might lead to a greater good. This interplay can be seen particularly at the end in the final verses of the poem.