Racism

"Killaz Theme," writing on Cormega, betrayal and justice in hip-hop and other genres

[Intro]
Heh heh, yea
Hahahaha, right
Part the crowd like the Red Sea
Don’t even tempt me

Genre: Hip-Hop Style: Thug Rap, Conscious


Towards the end of a 2015 interview with Dead End Hip Hop (DEHH) that’s equal parts monologue and free-form talk, New York rapper Cormega says that remaking his début album The Realness was always an option, but that he wanted to do something more, something different to reflect his changed perspective. The man who made the music more than one decade ago was not the same one speaking today. “If we go back to the year of The Testament, (2005) I would have had at least 14 more friends physically still breathing, I would have no kids ...” Not only that, throughout the interview the Queensbridge MC stressed how he was aware of his position as a role model, as someone who could show others ways to move forward in their lives.

One of the DEHH team had suggested that his album Mega Philosophy was “preachy” in parts, then later clarified that he missed the “charismatic Cormega” (before listing all the tracks he liked). “If you speak truths, I don’t consider it preaching, maybe I’m wrong but I don’t,” Cormega replied. “Everything else I said was to uplift us, to say we’re not at the bottom, we’re more than ni**as standing on a corner dealing, jail is a business trying to employ our children, and destroy our mental; every day we’re more conditioned to conform to ignorance …” Starting to rhyme, momentum building as he interspersed lines about how he sees the world around him today with references to African lineage and references to pyramids in Egypt and Sudan to conclude that Black Americans “came from something great.”

Another DEHH host added that Cormega’s serious lyrical intent was “good preaching … (The word) preachy is now given a negative edge so when he says it sounds preachy it sounds like an insult … I say make it preachy as possible because we need that.”


Writing about an artist always involves multiple, sometimes contradictory, impulses: your motivation is greatest when writing on something that clicks with you, but you also need to be true to how the artist sees themselves and their work. Not to reproduce their perspective so much as show respect to the artist’s vision, otherwise the project doesn’t make much sense. Still choices are made. Rather than me unpicking Cormega’s recent more philosophical work, my interest here is to focus on “Killaz Theme,” with “Unforgiven” as the coda.

This is a partial – even personal – perspective on Cormega’s work. It’s not an overview of a career, but writing inspired by some of his music, and possibly work that he would like to transcend. (This is speculation on my part, which may be wrong: he’s said that “Killaz Theme” is a favourite track of his, but also said in the DEHH interview that he never wanted to glorify crime, which “Killaz Theme” and “Unforgiven” might do to a certain extent).

This work flows from questions and thoughts about the way the desire for justice – and the associated themes of betrayal, injustice, the quest for revenge – are represented in various musical genres, starting with dub reggae, but also all forms of Black American music to end with hip-hop. There is so much talk of “the struggle” in hip-hop (and reggae), what I’m interested in thinking about here is how those forced to endure such conditions might reflect the emotional toll such oppression takes on their private selves in their music.

Around the same time I (first) listened to “Killaz Theme” on repeat, I’d broken my typical rule of keeping it eclectic and kept my focus firmly fixed on dub/reggae. Listening to the Cormega/Mobb Deep track, within this space came as a jolt. Not only for the work’s poetic intensity, but the way it undermined reggae’s dominant conceptual framework; that is a belief that wrongdoers will be judged, that Jah sees all. Despite the image of reggae as the genre extolling “one love,” underpinning much of the lyricism is righteous anger and faith that on the final day of judgement the inhabitants of Babylon will be punished. Frequently dub/reggae lyricism builds on clearly defined polarities, between those leading a godly life and those committing all kinds of crimes, encouraging listeners to choose the right path.

This is deeply “biblical” - Old Testament in nature – and tough, even if the denunciation of the devil and longed for day of judgement is sung in the dulcet tones of Twinkle Brothers or Carlton and the Shoes.

Belief that the world’s wrongs will be brought to justice is equally deep in Black American tradition and musical culture; the other day I watched an interview with bell hooks where she slipped a casual reference to “Babylon” in her reply, not skipping for a breath, but it’s been there from the beginning, in the Spirituals in the Blues.

Think too of gospel, even if frequently there is space for contemplation and a questioning tone, amid the bombast of the chorus, where the soloist makes such themes personal. See, for instance, this really beautiful piece, “Do you believe” by the Supreme Jubilees (It’ll All Be Over, Sanders & Kingsby, 1980/81) that includes the rhetorical question: “What if you live a sinner’s role, at the end of time you must surely lose your soul.” Or Aretha Franklin’s sweet medley “Precious Lord You’ve Got A Friend” which is deeply comforting, providing solace; both the way the music of the chorus rises and the amazing vocal performance of Franklin, urging us to “meditate on him.” This is far removed from the stark clarity of dub reggae’s fire and brimstone call for reckoning, despite the religious roots of both.

Late 60s/early 70s jazz includes many implicit/explicit meditations on judgement and racialised justice: too many to detail here. Indeed the oeuvre of certain artists embody this territory, in terms of their work’s lyrical content, but also in their pure being – see Nina Simone:

Within Soul/R&B the general, all-encompassing shifts to the personal so that critiques of “smiling faces” and “backstabbers” abound: see the Undisputed Truth’s classic song of 1971 that was covered by David Ruffin three years later with an incomparable introduction. For the most part the “judgement” aspect of the lyricism remains personal, spelling out betrayals, the feelings of regret and loss linked to relationships between lovers and friends. While the genre’s political songs from the ‘70s favour a descriptive approach that rarely condemns those perpetuating the system or the injustice: see the Stevie Wonder penned “Heaven Help Us All” that has been described as the song expressing the essence of Motown or Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues (Makes Me Want to Holler).”

With this in mind a song like Gil Scott Heron’s “We Almost Lost Detroit” is striking, the slowed-down groove and song’s lyricism focuses on the “we” - and the potential loss - not the “they “ responsible for causing the narrowly averted environmental disaster; the only lines registering the malfeasance links it to greed: “That when it comes to people's safety/money wins out every time.”

One of Curtis Mayfield’s greatest songs, “Stare and Stare” conveys a typically nuanced perspective while tackling social issues; the target of the critique remains multiple, fluid. Sadness and despondency dominate here, as Mayfield expresses his disappointment that doing good and brotherhood mean nothing, noting that on the shared space of the bus “a sister is standing and no-one even cares” and that “some people boarding, different color than us/They hate to mingle but no one makes a fuss/The thing about it, there’s no one here we can trust ...”

II.

“Killaz Theme,” Cormega, feat. Mobb Deep, prod. Havoc (1998)

“That’s my favorite song I’ve ever done with Mobb Deep. I just had to have that on my album. The reason I called it ‘Killaz Theme’ was because Havoc had a brother named Killa Black, God bless the dead, he died. When I heard the beat and I heard the chorus where Havoc’s saying, “We wanna kill you,” I just imagined his brother smiling and singing that type of shit. It reminded me of his brother, so I basically named it after my brother. I named it after Killa Black.

“I leaked that shit in ’98 because it was just too dope and I was on the road. I was on the shelf [at Def Jam] but I thought my album was coming out that year and it didn’t, so I just leaked that song to see what people thought of it, and people went crazy.

“I think Havoc did some beat for me and then he used it for something else. So ‘Killaz Theme’ became the make-up beat and oh am I glad he used that fucking first beat, because it was way better than what he did for me originally. When he did it, I came to the studio and Havoc was asleep behind the big studio console. He’d been drinking so I remember he was asleep and when I came he woke right up, pressed the button on the machine, laid back down and all I heard was, ‘We wanna kill you.’ And the beat came on and I was blown the fuck away. I was like, ‘Whatever the fuck Havoc just did, he needa do it again. Go to sleep all the time.’ That’s one of my favorite tracks ever out of my entire catalog.”

Hip-hop/rap as a genre is awash in lyrical violence; MCs frequently recount acts of violence they’ve witnessed or committed against enemies, friends who have betrayed them and former lovers while including boasts of their ability to cause physical and other harm. Rhymes also recount systemic violence; police profiling, murders, mass incarceration, the denial of the means of economic survival, schooling and housing segregation.

Most of the time such themes, including the more abstract/political frameworks, are presented in first-person narratives, encouraging us to see the stories as an extension of the artist and their lived experience; notions of truth, being authentic, keeping it real are ways people judge the worth of the rhymes. All this leads to an interesting doubling, or tension. In an art-form that is extremely artificial (see the emphasis on language/lyricism) the MC is frequently judged in terms of how true they are to their personal experiences.

Alongside the personal struggle narrative and MCs boasting of their skills, the other key lyrical theme in hip-hop – maybe even the key theme – is seeking revenge against those who’ve betrayed you. This also plays out in all the media-friendly “beefs” between the MCs (something that is almost unknown in other musical genres) - a major source of entertainment for all those looking on.

All this operates on the level of the interpersonal and the individual gripe, rather than some imagined Armageddon hailing justice on the maintainers of the corrupt, racist system. Of course there are exceptions: Public Enemy brought the noise in 1988 and warned of the current white supremacist neurosis so evident today in the United States, maintaining a clear-eyed desire for justice that would not be out of place in any of the most ferocious reggae songs of this ilk, other artists too mined this territory: from Paris to Dead Prez to Killah Priest to Ras Kass to Geto Boys, the list goes on.

“Killaz Theme II” - recorded in 1998, included as a bonus track on the 2001 The Realness album (and also Cormega’s 2005 album, The Testament ) reworked some of the lyrics from “You Don’t Want It,” prod. Godfather Don and later inspired the Lloyd Banks tribute and was used as a sample on a Conway The Machine track, “Mandatory” feat. Royce 5’9”.

In the comments below the YouTube video for “Killaz Theme” there’s speculation about who is the target of the repeated threat - We want to kill you (that's right)
We want to kill you (no doubt, that's right) … Is it Nas, the subject of a famous beef with Cormega that inspired some of his best songs, or someone else, or no person in particular?

The fact that the target of the threat is not identified is central to the song’s power. The important thing is not who suffers, but the desire (among the victims) to cause damage and inflict the harm on those who have wronged them. Despite talk of forgiveness and letting go, those who are victimised and expected to bear the brunt of it on a daily basis inevitably feel angry and long for justice; heard above a whisper it might sound just like this. Such music enacts the elemental voice of those forced to live in the shadow of persecution. Havoc in the final moments intoning “We want to kill you” has an almost meditative quality that sounds extremely real, as if we’re hearing voices from the underground.

Notice the way the song is put together, from the three MC verses to the instrumental. The beat by Havoc, all swirling strings builds at certain points as if the soundtrack of some kind of twisted romance where certain words are doubled for emphasis (“armed robbery”). Listener comments say the beat borrows from The Twilight Zone soundtrack (I haven’t been able to check or disprove this). There’s something erotic about this music. Not in the conventional sense of two people, but something more general and elemental: it sounds like a lust for revenge, as if it is all that these MCs desire, above all else (“that’s right”).

Prodigy’s verse ends on the lines:

Put this in heavy rotation
Overdose music,
it’s therapeutic to the user
Drive awhile under the influence of this
Careful cause you might just crash and shit
Total your whip and still pull my tape out your deck
Me and Mobb tryna connect,
like thirty-thousand dollar links
Unpopable, unstopable, topple

Maybe because of the fact that it is so raw and unfiltered, as Prodigy notes, this “overdose music” is “therapeutic to the user.” Something lost in all the condemnations of rap/hip-hop violence is the fact that listening to this kind of music allows those who feel stepped on, disrespected and worse to feel vicarious power; the rousing music of Havoc’s instrumental reinforces this.

That said, I know that there’s a risk in me over-stating the universality of the track and its impact, especially since Havoc’s verse suggests that it might be specific to the three MCs and conflicts they face closer to home:

Got drama with my clique
I’mma take it to the source QBC representative,
I’m just tryin to live
If I can’t get to you,
I’mma take it to your kids
Spray your crib, fuck it son, somethin’ gotta give If I can’t live,
then ain’t nothin’ gonna live

I’m just tryin’ to live.

Coda:

Cormega, “Unforgiven” The Realness, prod. Gold Fingas (Spank Brother)

“I just wanted it to be gutter. There’s a certain raw Mega that people used to really like. Even now people say they wish I would do some shit like that and be that raw person, but I’m not that person anymore in life. I wanted that record to be hard and I’d already released a hard edge song, but I wanted something new that no one ever heard, so that’s what ‘Unforgiven’ was.

“That was a raw fucking record. The producer’s name isn’t actually Spank Brother, it’s Gold Fingas. What happened was at the time he didn’t have a producer name back then, and The Realness was a rushed album, so the credits and the artwork needed to be turned in early because it takes a certain amount of time for the album to get printed. So I needed a name for him and at the time he ain’t have no name. I was trying to get in touch with him but I couldn’t so I didn’t know what to do.

“So Spank’s brother produced it…it was the last day to turn the album in and we still didn’t have a name for him yet, so I was like fuck it. Put Spank’s Brother because that was my man Spank’s brother. So that’s how that name got on there. And when I do the sequel to The Realness, I’m gonna try to bring every producer that was on the first one on the sequel, so when he appears on the sequel, God willing, he’ll be Gold Fingas.”

The track includes the unforgettable sample from Yusef Lateef’s Symphonic Blues Suite, Fourth Movement : Passacaglia (Suite 16, Rhino Atlantic, 1970),

The same sample was used in IAM’s 1997 track “Un bon son brut pour les truands” (L’Ecole du micro d’argent, Delabel, 1997)

***

You swimmin' with the sharks and the water is tainted
If you feel it in your heart (bring it)

Children of the Indigo: ‘Fall through’ Mick Jenkins, prod. THEMPeople (The Healing Component, Cinematic Music Group, 2016)

Resistance at the point of listening to (new) music. Sometimes reactions can be so intense they stop you from listening further; telling you, no, this is not yours, it’s not for you - and then, other times something keeps you there with that same music, despite your instinct to leave.

It was months back now, so I can’t remember what it was that kept me at a remove when first listening to Mick Jenkins’ The Healing Component (it was probably related to the beat, so wafery/illusory like paper being burnt, the flame curling in on itself, refusing any sense of home: the same beat that provides the unstable foundations of the modern hip-hop aesthetic, where the edges are forever privileged over the centre). 

Then I heard this song and my favourite ‘Fall through’… which made me realise. 

[Intro]
I see the light
Hesitate
Hesitate
Hesitate
Hesitate

[Hook]
Don't you feel the soul?
That's the truest well
Of all the things you know, do you know yourself?
Well enough to trust the way you go
When you don't, know the way
See the light, still hesitate
See the light, hesitate

Contemporary poetic: opening up the conversation about love, politics and remembrance. 

***

To talk about the song’s mood; sometimes hip-hop artists and producers refer to their work as cinematic. Usually this means that they think that the lyrics resemble a film narrative, with a plot and characters, or that the music contains moments that could be likened to scenes in a film. Frequently this impression is enhanced by interludes, performed by actors or directed lifted from films.  

Listening to ‘Fall through’ I saw scenes – like a movie - in my imagination that were not directly linked to the lyrics (the film in my head was medieval and masculine - made up of the bodies of men - maybe based on Herzog, or the photographer Salgado), but with a different colour scheme, shades of dark blue (the children/men indigo). Perhaps I was making a connection with a half-remembered evocative soundtrack

Such images in my mind are completely absent now when listening to ‘Fall through’ – I have listened to this music so many times since then and done some reading, so there’s some distance - but I can understand how when listening to this music I could imagine this idea of a mass of people (of men) rising up, in movement, as an indistinguishable mass of bodies.

This is body music: pure and visceral, speaking to the heart, while expressing an essential truth that is carried by, expressed in, blood.

 

'I’m just tired of this shit,' Jenkins says. 'Tired of the fact that it’s happening, and tired of the fact that I have to sing about it.'

— Mick Jenkins in an interview with Complex, speaking about his song '11' (that referred to the number of times Eric Garner said, 'I can't breathe' before he died).

Okayplayer noted that this song, ‘Falling through’ was ‘a rumbling rebuke of race relations from one of the nation’s many hotbeds of police brutality and harassment.’ A perceptive comment, even if the term ‘hotbeds’ bothers me, as I'd always thought it was used with something positive (a hotbed of activity etc, though I saw the definition used it with treason so I might be wrong here). 

From a conversation with Jenkins in Interview:   

RACIAL TENSION AND POLICE BRUTALITY: 'I started to notice it when I got to Chicago, really. When I was around 11 or 12, that's when I was able to see it. In high school, there was a big let out—all the students would walk in the street, the police would try to keep students out of the street, [so] they would hit them upside the head with billy clubs trying to keep them in line. We weren't being rowdy or anything; we just weren't moving fast enough. It had been affecting me my whole life, I just never realized it. I do rap because black lives matter, but it is not the only reason.'

Quoted in Drew Millard's interview for Noisey (2014)

'Niggas didn’t think I was cool. I got beat up; I’ve been robbed at gunpoint. It’s the same shit. I’ve robbed niggas; I’ve beat up people. I was young and silly and that was the environment that I grew up in, but that’s not how I turned out and I want to represent that. There’s tons of other people who grew up right next to me in those impoverished areas and that’s just not how they turned out. I want to represent that Chicago. I like the fact that it’s two sides because even when Chance reaches out and shouts out Chief Keef it’s because we know those people, and if I don’t know Cheef Keef, I know too many people like that; who look like him, who act like him. It’s all Chicago.'

And The Fader from last year:  

'With everything going on, it’s very easy to cling to all of the negativity. I was feeling like What can I do? How do we solve these problems? I was looking at the perceived solutions like protesting and going through the government. It's also not just about racial injustices. There’s all types of injustices going on and there’s a system in place that continues to push them and we feel like we can’t really fight them on any front. I wanted bring it down to a personal level, when I say “spread love." It mirrors the message that I think Jesus had when he was on the earth. Whether you believe in Jesus or not, understanding the story of him as someone who was really meek mannered and selfless even in the face of some of the most hateful things, all the way down to being killed on the cross.'

***

Over the past day or so I’ve been seeking out articles about, interviews with Mick Jenkins and while of course there is plenty of interest, I’ve also noticed how so many writers go off on tangents, perhaps reflecting a confusion about how best to relate to him and his work (one article opens with a reference to Jenkins’ brief stint in jail; another seems more interested in writing about Jenkins at a fashion show, or something.  Most, if not all, refer to his height).

My inclusion of the above is not to disrespect my colleagues, or even imply that I may be different, but I wanted to mention this as it says something about Jenkins’ apparently ambiguous, hard to locate persona as an artist (though, I don’t think it’s that contradictory, there have always been mystics/seers in hip-hop, alongside intellectuals and Black radicals calling out to people to wake up – to ‘drink more water’ - and see the truth).   

Here is a statement of the obvious: Jenkins is a deeply thoughtful person/presence in contemporary hip-hop, who is almost painfully, aware of the significance of his role as someone with a voice. In interviews, Jenkins repeats often the instance during a murder trial when the accused quoted a rapper’s lyrics as if justifying his crime. Jenkins says it so often, he seems haunted by it. 

Comfortable operating within the realm of abstractions – water is truth; love stems from knowledge; redemption might come after the oppressor and the oppressed submerge themselves in the same waters – Jenkins has said that his primary objective is to open up the conversation about love; to speak about the healing power of love. But this love, he insists is not some kind of Hallmark variety, but one that asks people to look within first and to accept and know themselves. I was particularly struck by Jenkins' point that for many people it was difficult for them to say what they wanted, or needed and thereby made it difficult for them to love and be loved.  

As Jenkins said in an interview with Pigeons and Planes:

'When people talk about love, you really only think about the pretty parts, the romantic parts of love (...) People don’t think about things like loving themselves, and what that takes. And that you have to know yourself to love yourself, and how difficult of a battle that might be.'

The interludes on Jenkins' The Healing Component - conversations with his sister that create a bridge with the work of Lauryn Hill - were meant to show that he, Jenkins, was no expert and was just another human being, trying to make his way. His view on the significance of love was just one of many. As Jenkins explained in an interview with Billboard: 'Diving into love as a topic, you know, the [people in this room] probably don’t agree on what love is, what it looks like, and what it should look like, just because we’ve all had different experiences growing up and becoming men.' 

Jenkins has expressed his ambivalence about performing in front of largely white audiences, in that his primary feeling of responsibility is to speak of and to the Black American experience; that is, to speak to his own.

My first draft of this piece was an extended riff on ‘Fall through’ within a broader discussion the importance of mood in hip-hop and Black American Gothic: it was all very interesting with its reference to DMX and a book written by an academic, and is something I’ll return to I’m sure, at some point, but after writing it I wondered if I were doing the same as so many of the other journalists: not really listening. As Jenkins’ raps in ‘Fall through’: 'I been all around the globe, different languages they feel me they don't hear me though.' 

Note then that I’m offering this appreciation up of ‘Fall through’ – a song that I think is truly beautiful – with a degree of humility; get in contact with me with your own take on its significance, especially if you think I’ve missed it; I’d be more than happy to include your voices in the mix. This is not the final word on the song, by any stretch.

***

Hip-hop has always been concerned with the marking out of territory, status and position; the easiest reading of ‘Fall through’ includes this frame-work …

“So sticks and stones I rub them off
At this hater conjunction I’m an apostrophe, above them all
That’s why I keep my circle small
Seen so many rush as Limbaugh
Niggas talking shit that I just cannot trust at all
But trust I fall, you can trust I’ll tell you just how I trip
Before I ever power trip, brought the light like a power strip
Fuck a Powerade, we bringing water”

especially in the way Jenkins acklowledges the Chicago-based movement of hip-hop artists (Chance the Rapper, Sensei Blue …) But this is not all there is going on here. My interest in the mood of the song reflected the fact that, for me, it's the most striking element and is certainly unique, but what immediately struck me – and it did, with real force – was the extraordinary contrast between the quiet moments in the music, evoking Nature and the urgency of Mick Jenkins’ delivery. Jenkins is presenting us here with a new kind of hip-hop that is at once suggestive and intense; poetic and personal, while maintaining some mystery.  

Reading the lyrics, you can’t really see a ‘coherent’ – for want of a better word – through-line, as there is so much movement (this, I think is a positive thing, adding a kind of intensity to the music because it denies us easy scripting) though by the end of the song there is, I'd suggest, a clear message.

“[Verse 1]
Nigga had to fall on his knees for a second
Stop, dropped and rolled in the middle of this fire
And the smoke, nigga had to go and breathe for a second
Plus I needed direction, a fork in every road at like three intersections
Pray for discernment, I’m seeking his blessing
This ain’t no sermon but vermin ain’t never want to see they reflection
Come and see his reflection
Like...mirror, mirror on the wall
Who’s the most hated of them all?
Most creative of them all
Who’s post-racial, who’s the most basic?
Who despite that loved them all?”

Who is speaking here (and about whom)?

Jenkins uses the first person, so it seems to be something about his life experience, reflecting Jenkins’ uncertainty as one man among many -using the narrative trope of a choice, the fork in the road which isn’t singular, but multiple; but this certainty about perspective becomes unclear by the end of the verse. Who is he speaking of, when he says the ‘most hated' - the 'vermin' - or the man falling to his knees? 

Is he speaking of Black Americans more broadly, reproducing commonly used stereotypes that appear to be benign, but are in fact offering just another cage: ‘Who's the most hated of them all?/Most creative of them all/Who's post-racial, who's the most basic?/Who despite that loved them all?’ 

It's possible that there might be a kind of humour here, playing on the view that Black Americans may be oppressed, but still create great art (you know the athlete/artist escape route) as if that somehow evens it all out. Though I’m not sure if this is right. All of this demonstrates the intelligence of Jenkins' lyricism. On one level, it seems almost sarcastic (with this talk of the US being ‘post-racial’ ...) but then ends on the unexpected and touching line about these unknown subjects being loved.

My interest here is not to try and pin down a unitary interpretation; I like the fact that I'm not sure about what it means, or even that there are multiple meanings. I especially find his repeated use of ‘Who’ interesting, moving from who is being talked about – ‘the most hated – to the unknown one who loves them; are they not the same? This is far, far from basic.

Earlier, Jenkins speaks of ‘vermin’ not wanting to see their reflection, a strong word to use that again does little to clarify who again is the subject here. It is possible he is speaking of himself - or could it be the police forcing a man to kneel before he dies - we, or I, don't know for sure. 

“[Pre-Hook]
When autumn falls, you see the leaves (light, light)
You feel the breeze, you feel the breeze (I see the light)
Hesitate
Hesitate
Hesitate
When autumn falls, you see the leaves (hesistate)
You feel the breeze, you feel the breeze
Descendants of the realest souls
Children of the Indigo
You feel me, y’all don’t hear me though (When autumn falls, you see the leaves)
You feel me, y’all don’t hear me though (You feel the breeze, you feel the breeze)


[Hook]
Don’t you feel the soul?
That’s the truest well
Of all the things you know, do you know yourself?
Well enough to trust the way you go
When you don’t, know the way
See the light, still hesitate
See the light, hesitate”

‘Children of the Indigo’ ...

“[Outro]
’Coz I might fall through if I catch the breeze
Know you probably missed the roots, but I know you seen the leaves (seen the leaves)
We descendants of the illest souls
Children of the Indigo
’Coz I might fall through if I catch the breeze
Know you probably missed the roots, but I know you seen the leaves (seen the leaves)
We descendants of the illest souls
Children of the Indigo”

The intensity and passion brimming inside this song makes it clear, it seems to me, that the sentimental heart of this music is much more than a condemnation of police violence, or a celebration of the Chicago hip-hop scene. It is something much more profound. I can't help when listening to it, especially the question - 'Don't you feel the soul?' - to think that this music is a kind of call for people to recognise the past within the present. It is an act of remembrance. 

(Listen to Curtis Mayfield’s lines in the live version of 'We the people who are darker than blue' to see how similar they are to the Mick Jenkins worldview: ‘Get yourself together, learn to know your side/Shall we commit our own genocide/Before you check out your mind?' And then ... 'I know we've all got problems/That's why I'm here to say/Keep peace with me and I with you/Let me love in my own way.'

There's a lot more that could be written here, deciphering the spiderweb nature of Jenkins' lyrics and how it connects with the past. You could link his repeated reference to water to Nina Simone who was also drawing on a much older musical tradition. I also have a half-memory the late, great poet of the NYC hip-hop underground Capital STEEZ calling himself one of the Children of the Indigo, which is some kind of New Age notion relating to those who are apart from the crowd because of their talent or insight, but I haven't checked this).    

To fall through might then be a call to reconnect with a community and its past: in this sense the evocation of Nature, the breeze, but also the leaves of the trees has a real power to it, suggesting how Nature might offer a kind of succour, while also referring to those who have come before and are still present, waiting to be acknowledged (if those alive are willing to fall through).   

Musically Mick Jenkins’ ‘Fall through’ exists within a deep space atmosphere, the sound effects creating a silvery effect, with the vocals so, so quiet. I first connected with the music as it has such a distinctive sound – such a rare and precious sound; occasionally opening up, the bass-line meandering and never really developing in any sense, whirling around in itself and the beat seemingly always just a little bit behind the vocal-line.   

In an interview on the release of ‘Fall through’ Jenkins emphasised how this music reflected an interest in playing around with tempo and ‘melodic aspects of songs’ - or to use his words, the ‘endearing parts of songs’ that his listeners liked (singing along with it, even if they didn’t understand it). ‘It’s about not being locked into the structure, or time signature’ and ‘creating something new,’ he said. ‘Fall through’ is arguably a supremely artful take on protest music, but it is also intensely private, while reaching out.  

To conclude, I liked this description from a FACT interview that captures something of Mick Jenkins' character and temperament: 

‘Spend two days in Jenkins’ company and he will smile and laugh as much as the average person. And yet, he knows that most people assume he has a grouchy disposition. He says with a laugh that a 6’ 5” black man doesn’t really scream “comedian”; his stoic facial expression comes off as unapproachable.

'I don’t purposely project it,' he says. 'I understand how it could be perceived but it doesn’t bother me to change because that’s not who I am. My normal face, people will ask me what’s wrong. Well, nothing’s wrong. I’m just looking.' 

Paris Récit: Police attack on Théo Luhaka, Aulnay-sous-Bois

On the 2nd February, during a stop and search of one of his friends, a 22-year-old man was brutally assaulted by police in Aulnay-sous-Bois (a poor neighbourhood north of Paris) and is now in hospital recovering from rectal injuries, caused by a police baton. One officer has been charged with rape, another three have also been charged with assault: all have been suspended.

‘There was blood everywhere, on the walls,’ the lawyer defending the man commonly referred to as ‘Théo’ by the media said. During the assault, the police are said to have called Théo Luhaka a ‘negro’ (it might also have been the French equivalent for nigger) ‘bamboula’ and ‘bitch’ and spat at him. For days after the assault, the impoverished housing estates to the north of Paris erupted in anger: cars were burnt and Molotov cocktails thrown in running battles with the police. The French President, François Hollande visited Mr Luhaka in hospital, where the young man called for calm.    

For reasons that remain a little opaque for me, I’ve found it difficult to write on this subject, even though it’s such a simple story - the facts write themselves - and such a familiar one.  

I live in northern Paris, but it is a completely different world to that of Aulnay-sous-Bois. If I walk down the street about five minutes, I’m in a largely immigrant neighbourhood, but in my immediate vicinity it’s cafés filled with tourists and women wearing very long coats and pearly-white sneakers. The extreme deprivation that marks out the poor neighbourhoods surrounding Paris, places like Aulnay-sous-Bois, with its rows of anonymous housing estates is less obvious in my area (though, of course, it is here as well, as is the aggressive police presence).  

Perhaps my ambivalence reflects tiredness about how this story keeps repeating and nothing gets done, alongside broader feelings of suspicion about how news stories of police violence against black men (and boys) play out in the dominant culture, whether it’s Aulnay-sous-Bois, Baltimore or the juvenile jails of the Northern Territory, Australia. (And it is gendered, non-white women are also victimised, of course, but the images we see repeated on the news tend to be of men being hurt, beaten, suffocated or shot)

In the end, I wonder about the value of broadcasting this brutality, without an exploration of the broader context, or statement of explicit political demands. Does the widespread dissemination of images of non-white people being hurt serve to further reinforce racist stereotypes, I wonder, while inflicting further harm on the victimised via the denial of their basic right to privacy? Surely, in the end, this right to be private, to decide how we are seen and perceived by others, is what makes us human.  

And even though it’s rarely said, I also wonder if this dissemination of imagery of violence against non-white people reflects a ghoulish perversity that has a long history, stretching back to the plantation and killing fields of Colonial Australia. Often people, usually white, say racism towards non-white people reflects ‘fear of the other’. It's not always this, racism in its most brutal form enacts a desire to humiliate, to insist upon another person that they are less than human, nothing more than bodies.

For a period of time, my Facebook feed was filled with images of black men being shot by police in the United States, which appeared to be updated on a daily basis by activist groups. (There was one video that didn’t get much attention, but shocked me deeply of a man being shot execution style in an Ohio street by a police officer; in such an ordinary street, in the middle of the day). And I started wondering about the value of all of this.

How effective was it in a political sense to keep seeing these images of people being killed, or handcuffed and shoved to the ground, I thought then, does it raise awareness in a way that leads to reform, prosecution and convictions of the perpetrators, or maintain the status quo (while significantly adding to the stress felt by minority communities in the US)?  

Now this perspective might seem strange coming from a journalist, but it is this professional background that motivates this reaction. In a news-room you quickly learn how and why certain stories rise to the top, usually it comes down to the maxim: ‘If it bleeds, it leads ….’

You also see how quickly stories and victims are forgotten. One of the older journalists used to talk to me about ‘old news’ saying that it had as much interest as ‘yesterday’s fish and chips’ (something that is foul, inedible). Within a few weeks, there is a chance that the abuse of Théo will for many people here in France be seen as old news. Let’s hope I’m proven wrong.

The counter to this point of view is that such videos raise awareness in the general community; well, firstly who is this general community? None of this is news to me, or people with any kind of political consciousness, nor is it news for members of the affected groups. Whose interests are being served here and at what cost?  

In the end, I wonder why this shocking/extreme/brutal representation of racism is privileged by the media above all the other forms of race-based oppression. I have been educating myself about the economics of racism, past and present, in the United States and find this equally disturbing, if not more. But this colder version of race-hate doesn’t get the same kind of airtime on the nightly news and the question is why.  

This is the reason why I haven’t written about the brutalisation of Théo and the death of Adama. I have been watching, though, just like I have been watching the way the police stop and search non-white people in my neighbourhood, and especially the way the police touch the crotches of the young men as they pat them down.

And the way vans full of police in riot gear seem permanently stationed down on Boulevard Barbès, dozens and dozens of police kitted out like over-sized plastic action heroes, their shoulders and knees covered in black like beetles, waiting, just waiting …    

For more background on all of this, have a look at this very strong piece of reporting on the death of Adama Traoré in police custody, again in a small town to the north of Paris in July last year and attack on Théo Luhaka by Iman Amrani and Angélique Chrisafis, published in The Guardian a few weeks ago. 

The Commandant’s Daughter (Travelling South)

Females guilty of disobedience of orders, neglect of work, profane, obscene or abusive language, insubordination, or other turbulent or disorderly or disrespectful conduct, shall be punished by the superintendent with close confinement in a dark or other cell, until her case shall be brought under consideration of the Principal Superintendent.

Rules & Regulations, 1829, Cascades Female Factory, South Hobart

 

I am doing my best during this visit to be quiet and observe. I use silence as a way of keeping distance and protecting myself; in conversations with my father, for example, to avoid complications, or any situation that my son calls ‘awkward’.

To achieve this, I take on an earlier persona that is very familiar to me, from my years of growing up and young adulthood in Melbourne; a part of me I name ‘The Governess’ or ‘The Abolitionist’ - nineteenth century, inevitably, so grave; seen to be disapproving, stern and perhaps lacking in feeling outside her moral quest. The woman who can be depended on to remember the titles of obscure books or records, dates and the endless cycle of historical ‘cause and effect’ when required, furnishing fact-based knowledge that can be useful in arguments.

One of those women from the Colonial era, her skin becoming paler as a result of the moment of being photographed, or because of the contrast with her sober clothes, hair flattened and darkened hard against her scalp.

All this reminds me of a portrait owned previously by my grandfather, perhaps bought in Vienna, the man my father says was a ‘tyrant’ but also a great aesthete with an expansive knowledge of European high culture. I recall how my mother spoke about her girlhood as spent hiding out in hollowed out trees, where the dirt at her feet was coloured grey, and the branches all around her …

Trying to remember her, where the ants pricked at her bare feet, so white in the shadows. I’m crying now as I feel her absence.

 

On the way to Port Arthur, the bus driver tells us the story of the Commandant’s daughter, who ‘escaped’ (is that the right word to use here; she went missing; left?) one afternoon and how her nanny was punished as a consequence: three days in solitary confinement. I think about this forgotten woman punished for the wrongdoing of another.

At Port Arthur, my father, son and I try to find the cell where the servant was imprisoned, with no success. We don’t have enough time. We also try to find a stone table where – the bus driver told us – the prison doctor carried out experiments on inmates that resembled the ‘research’ carried out under the direction of Eduard Wirths at Auschwitz. The bus driver told us that there were ghosts in this space, in this place. (Later I try to fact-check either of the above stories, but find nothing online to prove or disprove them).

Our visit is a little rushed, there is so much to see. We walk up the hill to the Separate Prison, built in 1849 – that at the time of construction was seen to reflect ‘modernity’ in nineteenth century penology, in that ‘harsh physical punishment within the prison was rejected in favour of punishment of the mind. Flogging gave way to solitary confinement.’

Outside a sign asks visitors to be silent so that we can imagine how it felt to be jailed here. This sign appealed to me, as this silence I thought was also asking us white Australians to show some respect at this ‘sacred site’ in our country’s history; a prison, that although considered enlightened - a ‘Model Prison’ - drove its inmates insane.

A prison with its own innovative brand of cruelty (see the masks, silence and isolation) that might symbolise the particularly Australian penchant for torture, seeing that we as a people have inflicted official forms of torture, under the rubric of punishment and control, on the young; the weak and vulnerable; the poor, the non-citizen and non-white repeatedly since 1788.

‘This is so familiar,’ I say to my father after reading that the Separate Prison inmates were referred to by the number of their cell, never by their names. I say how asylum seekers imprisoned at Curtin, or Woomera were likewise never named. Camp guards there used numbers that included a reference to their ship of arrival when speaking of the immigration detainees, or the ‘residents’ as they were sometimes called.

‘This is worse,’ my father replies. ‘As here it’s the number of the cell, the building, nothing that relates to them as an individual.’

For these prisoners, kept in total silence (guards wore felt slippers and used sign language to avoid making any sound) spending 23 hours a day in their single-occupant cell, the mark of their identity referred to the prison building. Prisoners in this sense merged with the stones, the walls that imprisoned them.

At the Separate Prison, my ten-year-old son dashes about, rushing around the white-washed halls, in and out of the cells and then to the pulpit of the Chapel (my father takes a photo of him there). Prisoners were let out of their cells for one hour a day - when outside they were hooded - to exercise, or go to Chapel, where they were held in individual cubicles facing forward to hear the sermon like soon to be butchered cattle.

According to a Port Arthur Historic Site fact sheet, to revolt against the system prisoners ‘would insert their words to ‘talk’ to their fellows under the cover of hymn singing’.

‘Come here, come here,’ my son pulls at us. ‘Come here.’ He leads us to the prison’s punishment area, known as ‘the dumb cell’ that today has a small light-bulb flickering illumination, but where in the past prisoners were kept for periods of up to 30 days in total darkness and silence, locked into a pitch-black space behind four heavy doors. I imagine how it must have felt to hear the first door locked, the second, the third …

The jail exhibit mentions that the Separate Prison’s ethos continues at ‘Supermax’ prisons, such as the ‘Katingal’ unit inside Long Bay Correctional Centre in Sydney, which had surveillance cameras, electronically operated doors and no windows, but was closed in 1978 after human rights complaints. Today, Australia’s remaining ‘Supermax’ area is at Goulburn – a place named the High Risk Management Unit (HRMU), but the prisoners call HARM-U.

 

The Governor’s House is a ruin now, but if you look down from the small hill, there is a beautiful garden with a fountain. The guide at Port Arthur says how the two axes of the prison were symbolised by the Commandant’s House on one hill, on the facing side, and the Church on the other, keeping watch over the inmates. When walking down the elegant incline of the garden, my father comments how seeing this garden, so well-tended with the delicate roses, makes him think of Nazi concentration camps – civilisation and barbarity.

At Sachenhausen, Buchenwald, Dachau and Auschwitz where the officers forced inmates to play music (one site refers to the repertoire including ‘marches, camp anthems, salon music, easy-listening and dance music, popular songs, film and operetta melodies, opera excerpts, and classical music such as Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony’).

“Black milk of morning we drink you at night
we drink you at dawntime and noontime we drink you at dusktime
we drink and drink
There’s a man in this house who cultivates snakes and who writes
who writes when it’s nightfall nach Deutschland your golden hair Margareta
your ashen hair Shulamite we scoop out a grave in the sky where it’s roomy to lie
He calls jab it deep in the soil you lot there you other men sing and play
he tugs at the sword in his belt he swings it his eyes are blue
jab your spades deeper you men you other men you others play up again for the dance”

— 'Death Fugue' Paul Celan, trans. Jerome Rothenberg

Nigel, the bus driver, with his brown hair sticking low from his head like broken wires, cheeks coloured by rosacea, maintains a steady monologue the length of the journey from Hobart to Port Arthur, cracking jokes and telling stories of cannibalism to the small group of tourists (my father, my son and I; two other Australians and five Chinese people, three of whom sleep the entire journey). My father says: ‘Bus drivers on tours always have this kind of patter’.

Imagine the situation, Nigel says, you steal something out of desperation, out of poverty, remember this is the time of the Famine (this convict in his telling is Irish) you come to Hobart you work, but you’re depressed, there’s nothing to do, missing your wife and children so you drink, you commit another crime and are sent to Port Arthur. Imagine this life, he says, the sadness of it.

And yet, another guide at Port Arthur – a man with a very loud, forceful voice he seems to be speaking against the elements, against the wind - cautions us against thinking that the Port Arthur convicts were ‘misunderstood victims’. He says: they were, in fact, ‘bad, bad men’ ... ‘the worst of the worst’ for whom being lashed was a mark of honour (he provides detail abut how a flogging cut through the skin to the bone). He urges us to remember that Port Arthur offered a way out to these men from the ‘mean streets’ of London, from the North of England.

As at Port Arthur if you wanted to improve your circumstances you could. You could learn a trade, and many did. There was a library, he gestures to the upper walls of the ruined Penitentiary building, with hundreds of books: not just religious books, all kinds of books. This chance to redeem yourself, the guide says, was even more marked for the boys sent here. Those boys sent to Point Puer, who were kept separate from the male inmates - ‘for obvious reasons’ - and kept there on the island, he gestures across the expanse of water. I feel cold in my inappropriate clothing. Those boys, the guide at Port Arthur says, were offered a new start in this country, impossible to imagine if they stayed in England. (According to the Port Arthur Historic Site website, three thousand boys were sent to the prison at Point Puer between 1834 and 1849 – the youngest inmate was nine years-old).

On the way to Port Arthur, before launching into a never-ending, gory tale of convict Alexander Pearce’s multiple escapes from Sarah Island, out there on Tasmania’s wild, wild West Coast, who at one point of the narrative was watched by Aborigines amazed to see this white man eating the corpses of ‘his mates’ (especially remembering how for them food was everywhere in the bush) Nigel refers to the Four Corners documentary on Don Dale I watched the night before, linking this modern-day atrocity with how children were treated at Port Arthur.

A few days later in Melbourne, on our way to our first decent coffee of the morning at a local café, I carry a newspaper that has a photo of Dylan Voller, his face covered in a ‘spit-mask’ shackled by his ankles and wrists to a ‘mechanical restraint’ (a metal chair where the 17 year-old will be immobilised for around two hours after reports that he threatened to self-harm, while being held at a prison in Darwin that had previously held adult prisoners).

On seeing Voller’s photo, his face hooded, his body shackled, my son, bouncing down the South Yarra street, after noting the expensive imported cars (‘Look Mum a Lamborghini, another Mercedes …’) calls out: ‘Port Arthur, Port Arthur!’

 

‘How’s that, that bit alright?’

‘There ya go. Yep no, worries. Alright you keep chilling out yeah?’

Dylan Voller replies: ‘Yeah’

‘We’ll come back and revisit this, yeah? We don’t wanna keep you in here.’

(Guards instructing)

‘Alright. You’re doing well.

 

I watched the August 2014 CCTV footage from Don Dale Youth Detention Centre of a 14 year-old boy (Jake Roper) trying to open the door to his isolation cell in the Behavioural Management Unit with a broken light-bulb and then screaming out in his distress after being locked up for 15 days on my phone at the Best Western hotel in Hobart.

The door to the boy’s cell that had no running water, no natural light, no fan or air conditioning, we are told, was left open by mistake that afternoon. The boy enters the main area, outside the other cells where another five children (aged 14-17) are also being kept.

He calls out: ‘I’ve been in the back cells for how long bruz?!’

The guard replies: ‘Have you had time out or not?’

‘Yeah, but I’ve been fuckin’ stuck in here for how long?!’

Four guards behind the reinforced door watch the child lose control, bashing against the walls and breaking windows; as do the other five children, some of whom are seen literally trying to climb up the walls, or repeatedly scratching their names onto the concrete walls. Two boys are locked in one of the cells, unable to walk around because of the lack of space.

‘That door’s not going to hold,’ one guard says.

‘He’s supposed to be getting out next week,’ says another.

Some can be heard laughing, during the 36 minute recording, others add: ‘Fuckin’ idiot’ and ‘He’s an idiot, bro.’ More laughter.

‘If he tries to get in, poke him back through,’ says one. You can hear the child banging against the walls, smashing windows. ‘Go grab the fuckin’ gas and fuckin’ gas them through fuckin’ get Jimmy to gas them through here.’

The distressed child is tear-gassed, as are the other children for eight minutes. ‘I can’t fuckin’ breathe,’ the child says.

‘That’ll learn you,’ says a guard in response.

One guard adds: ‘Now he’s shitting himself.’

At one point a guard says: ‘Let the fucker come through because while he’s comin’ through he’ll be off balance, I’ll pulverise, I’ll pulverise the little fucker. Oh shit, were recording hey.’ The six boys dressed only in shorts, are then taken outside by guards in protective masks where they are handcuffed and shoved face down in the dirt to be washed down by a firehose. Don’t put it in my face, one of the children says, I can’t breathe.

Adapted from Australia's Shame by Caro Meldrum-Hanna, Four Corners ABC, broadcast 25 July 2016

 

One of the first things I did after returning home was to go to the Melbourne Museum’s Indigenous Bunjilaka exhibition with a friend and my son who ran around, between the displays while telling us that people in the photographs weren’t ‘Aborigines’ (because they were too pale-skinned) to then receive a quiet lesson from me on Australia’s history. My friend was impressed when my little boy knew the word ‘segregation’ when talking about racism and my work in the United States, I felt proud as well, of course.

Before we entered the exhibit my friend gave my son a tiny Aboriginal Land Rights flag badge that he could wear on his jacket. My son replied that he was worried if he wore it, it might damage his clothes.

‘Ah, the Black Prince,’ my friend said when I mentioned the name of Brian Martin the first Commissioner appointed to Royal Commission into the Detention of Children in the Northern Territory that was announced within the 24 hours of the Four Corners report’s broadcast (Martin later resigned over perceived ‘conflicts of interest’ to be replaced by Mick Gooda, former Australian Human Rights Commission Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner and Margaret White, a former Supreme Court of Queensland justice).

My friend mentioned Martin’s judgement in a 2009 case in Alice Springs, where five white Australian men – the so-called ‘Ute 5’ - were convicted of ‘manslaughter by negligence’ for a case where the men drove their utility vehicle into a camp of Aboriginal people at Todd River, shouting out racist epithets (calling the campers ‘niggers’ and ‘black bastards’ according to two witnesses) and brutally kicked one man, Kwementyaye Ryder, causing his death.

During his sentencing, Martin repeatedly referred to the fact that the young men, aged between 18-23 were all of ‘good character’. The fact that they had gone at one point to get a replica of a Colt 45, which they shot into the air, causing the campers to scatter meant very little (and there was ‘no sinister purpose’ behind them returning with the pistol, he said: ‘You only wanted to have fun by firing it and making a loud noise as you drove around.' In general, Martin claimed, the men were simply ‘hooning’ as their counsel claimed, or ‘lairising’).

‘Of otherwise good character,’ my friend repeated.

For my friend who has spent the past two decades working closely with the families of people who have died in prisons and police custody, the announcement of the Royal Commission meant very little. At no point had the government done the most basic thing needed, my friend said, there was no call for the end of solitary confinement for juvenile detainees.

No statement as to how the children would have any redress, as a result of the inquiry. No mention of the racist assumptions underpinning the shocking rates of incarceration among Australia's Indigenous communities; no talk of how the investigation might cover other jurisdictions with similar problems.

Earlier, my friend searched out a photo of Dylan Voller on his phone – the child whose abuse from the age of 13 within the prisons of the Northern Territory was displayed to the world on the Four Corners program, his mother says that her son had been in and out of the system from the age of 10, or 11  – smiling with his sister. ‘See, this is a nice photo of Dylan, see this photo, this one here.’

 

At the Cascades Female Factory Historic Site, the few ruins of the convict prison and later asylum where women were interned in Hobart – we go there together, my son and I by bus in the cold weather, along the streets with no trees – I see that there is a display in a glass case. I look closer and see that the convict has the same name as my late mother. I look closer:

Byrne Ann

Tried: Kildare 20 March 1849

Embarked: 7 years

Arrived: 29 September 1849

Roman Catholic neither read nor write

 

Transported for: felony gold watch & chain. Gaol Report: convicted before, quiet, single. Stated this offence: stealing a gold watch & chain from Mr Wilson at Kildare (previous conviction) discharged for linen. Single.

Surgeon’s Report: Bad.

Ann Byrne was aged 23, five foot 3 inches and a third, with a fresh freckled complexion, with a round head and dark hair; a high forehead, dark eyebrows, light hazel eyes, small mouth and a large chin, according to the official report.

Weeks later I’m trying to find notes, or photographs on my phone that I took that day to describe her, unsure if I have confused ‘Ann Byrne’ with other women sent to the Factory, who were branded ‘insolent’ and punished for this; women who were separated into three distinct ‘classes’ and punished if they spoke with members of another class. Women who gave birth at the Factory, women who grew old within its walls and the women who died there.

Changa Onyango Interview, Community Mediation Baltimore after first acquittal in Freddie Gray police officer trial

‘Apathy is the word I'd use,’ Mr Changa Onyango replied via email when asked how people in West Baltimore responded to the decision that saw Officer Edward Nero cleared of all charges. ‘The people don’t hold out hope for justice in any tangible ways any more. Mainly they were happy to see that the world give them a nod for 15 seconds.’

Twenty-five year old West Baltimore native Freddie Gray died on April 19th after suffering a ‘high-energy injury’ an autopsy report said came from the sudden deceleration of the police van in which he was travelling, shackled and handcuffed, but not restrained by a seat-belt. As a result of his injuries – a severed spine and crushed voice box - Mr Gray fell into a coma and died a week after his arrest.

Baltimore’s former Police Commissioner Anthony Batts said the officers stopped three times: first, to put Mr Gray in leg-irons, second to ‘deal with Mr Gray’ and then to put another prisoner in the van. He also acknowledged that: ‘We know our police employees failed to get him medical attention in a timely manner multiple times.’ After a medical examiner’s report ruled Mr Gray’s death a ‘homicide’ six police officers were indicted on charges ranging from reckless endangerment, manslaughter to 2nd degree depraved-heart murder.

Last December a jury failed to reach a verdict regarding one police officer. During the most recent May hearing, Officer Nero was cleared of all charges (two counts of second degree assault; misconduct in office and false imprisonment). Legal commentators claim that the reasons for the acquittal provided by Judge Barry Williams might indicate a higher chance of a conviction in the remaining cases, especially in that he argued Officer Nero’s role was ‘secondary’ so he was not responsible for the fact that Mr Gray was not restrained properly.

The case of the officer driving the van, Caesar Goodson, begins next. He faces 30 years in jail if convicted of a murder charge. Considering the evidence that show Mr Gray’s injuries were caused by the van’s sudden stop and a proven history of ‘rough rides’ in police vans in Baltimore, many believe that the case against Goodson is strong.

And yet, as Mr Onyango explained this raises difficult issues for the local community. ‘A lot of people see it as a color issue or race issue and one of the key defendants is black. People don't want to see at the end that their protesting etc ends up sending a black person to jail - cop or not.’ Caesar Goodson, the driver of the police van, is African-American.

During the first Freddie Gray trial, Mr Onyango organised a series of open mics across the city so people could speak and be heard. ‘A big part of the violence (following Freddie Gray’s funeral on April 27th) happened because people had no place to fellowship. Churches weren’t open,’ he said. ‘There was nowhere you could take refuge from all the negativity. Having places open their doors and posting a sign up that says..."no judgement zone...speak your piece" was a way for us to be cultural relevant in our response.’

With more than 20 years experience working in West Baltimore, Changa Onyango is the Executive Director of Community Mediation and also helped set up two other non-profits in the city: OBI and Group Harvest. He explained the importance of his work this way:

As a mediator I facilitate tough conversations when people have a hard time getting themselves heard. The main thing we do is modelling the active listening skill in the context of conversation. We know through research that the best chance for peace is when both sides feel heard and understood. We train volunteers to do the mediations and we use local spots like conference rooms or churches to have the mediations in the community. Our mediators are trained not to input information or restate peoples position.. we only reflect, listen... listen, reflect. Its the key to people feeling like they own the solution. 

OBI is a non-profit that provides training to local boys and was founded after Mr Onyango travelled ‘around the country doing the training for other groups on contract through the United Way and Youthbuild USA’. While Group Harvest ‘came as a collaboration between myself and Rodney Powell who is now an administrator in Connecticut public schools.’

As he explained: ‘We decided to create a company that would go around and teach teachers through professional development workshops and also engaged directly with students to help build climate that over time could change the culture of student teacher relationships.’

In a series of YouTube videos, Mr Onyango has offered up some interesting perspectives on the best way to motivate young people via a concept of ‘leverage’ without returning to harsh discipline, or physical punishment that can entrench a sense of disengagement. He describes how he tries to motivate his own children to strive for better, while reinforcing a spirit of collaboration, rather than a winner take all mentality.

I asked him to speak about this more:

‘My theory is there are three main ways to motivate people; the first being to influence their preference the second being to introduce a logical idea and the third being violence. If children are people then we have to use one of these three to get them to make decisions that are in line with what we think they should do. If children are not people and they are instead property, then we can just pick them up and manoeuvre them however we wish.’

He continued: ‘I don't wish to treat my children as property so I have had to retrain myself to treat them as humans regardless of their size I've had to retrain myself to respect their logical processes and to introduce to them the reasons behind my decisions and actions as well as the reasons behind what I wish for them to do. I've also have to convince myself to be okay with the fact that this will not always work. In our society external influence is pervasive. In poor families it's even more so.’

The neighborhood where Freddie Gray lived in West Baltimore faces a series of issues, Mr Onyango explained. One of the most important being the lack of good quality housing. This problem is not new. Indeed, Freddie Gray’s mother won a court settlement after laboratory tests in the 1990s found Gray and his two sisters had double the level the State of Maryland defines as the minimum of lead poisoning. The lead came from squalid walls of the home where they lived. While a 2014 Maryland Department of Environment report found that more than 2,600 children in Baltimore had dangerous levels of lead in their blood.

‘West Baltimore is a very complicated set of circumstances. There's a lot of history that still effects and informs policy at high levels as well as individual decision-making at the lowest levels. There is still plenty of bigotry and hatred between disparate groups,’ Mr Onyango said. ‘The roots if you follow them deeply enough usually go back to resources and territory or property. Everyone wants to build a legacy and in America there's really only a few ways to do it.’ And yet, ‘the problem with trying to build a legacy (...) is that you must own the means of production. In this case that means of production is usually space.’

‘Baltimore is one of the highest concentration of dissing franchise black folk in terms of real estate meaning that the ratio of people who own is extremely low,’ he explained. ‘The fact is that this was intentional and very evident, yet no effort has been made to reverse the very real and lasting effects so this is the biggest reason that the hate endures.’

In conclusion, Mr Onyango said: ‘Poor education, Black Afluenza, discriminatory hiring practices, and media stigma are all also real contributors to the current climate,’ but in the end, the ‘housing/space ownership dilemma is the biggest piece of the puzzle for Baltimore.’

To find out more about Community Mediation Baltimore, go to http://communitymediation.org/

Thank you Omi Muhammad for organizing this interview.

December 28th ruling not to indict police officers: Tamir Rice case

Soon after Christmas, Timothy J McGinty – the Cuyahoga County prosecutor overseeing the investigation of the police officers involved in the Tamir Rice case spoke of empathy. Or to be more accurate, he spoke of his efforts to understand how the 12 year-old child may have felt in the two seconds before he was shot and killed by Officer Timothy Loehmann. 

“If we put ourselves in the victim’s shoes, as prosecutors and detectives try to do, it is likely that Tamir — whose size made him look much older and who had been warned that his pellet gun might get him into trouble that day — either intended to hand it to the officers or to show them it wasn’t a real gun.”

Embedded in this sentence – in the uncertain language, passive mood and shift in perspective (if we are trying to understand how Tamir felt, why are we being told how he looked, or that he had been warned that 'his pellet gun might get him into trouble'?) - is core unease, a kind of tension.

McGinty gestures towards empathy, but is unable to break out of his natural reflex to see the events from the point of view of the white police officer. The previous sentence read: 'At the point where they suddenly came together, both Tamir and the rookie officer were no doubt frightened.'

So in this historic moment, the 'frightened' adult officer, Timothy Loehmann who used lethal force against a child, within two seconds of arriving on the scene and who had been rejected by three previous police departments and received a damning appraisal of his professional conduct, the report noted his inability to 'follow simple directions (and) dismal handgun performance' were somehow equal. The adult man with a real weapon and the boy with a toy gun were united by their fear.

Prosecutor McGinty then continues to offer his assessment of events: 

“As they raced the mile toward the rec center, the police were prepared to face a possible active shooter in a neighborhood with history of violence. There are in fact memorials to two slain Cleveland Police officers in that very park. And both had been shot to death nearby in the line of duty. Police are trained that it takes only a third of a second to draw and fire a weapon at them — and therefore they must react quickly to any threat. Officer Loehmann had just seen Tamir put an object into his waist as he stood up in the gazebo and started walking away. A moment later, as the car slid toward him, Tamir drew the replica gun from his waist and the officer fired. Believing he was about to be shot was a mistaken — yet reasonable— belief given the high-stress circumstances and his police training. He (Officer Loehmann, not Tamir Rice, ed.) had reason to fear for his life.”

(Notice also how McGinty refers to the black victim by his first-name only and the white officer via his title and surname). 

“Every time I think about this case, I cannot help but feel that the victim here could have been my own son or grandson. Everyone who investigated this case feels the same way. All of our children go to parks and rec centers. No parent follows their 12-year-old around all day to make sure they don’t get into mischief. That is why this case taps such profound emotions in us all. The Rice family has suffered a grievous loss. Nothing will replace Tamir in their lives.”

McGinty expresses apparent empathy for the Rice family; although the lack of precision, how could Tamir Rice be both his son and grandson? And reference to Rice's apparent 'mischief' make me wonder how genuine it is.

His next line returns to the perspective of the police: 'The police officers and the police department must live with the awful knowledge that their mistakes – however unintentional – led to the death of a 12-year-old boy. ' Mistakes, however unintentional ...

Perhaps my focus on McGinty's statement might seem surprising, even cold. We are talking about a child here, a 12 year-old boy, killed in a public park, shot to death by a police officer while playing with a toy gun. We are talking about a son and brother: a boy, whose distraught sister was handcuffed by the police and then shoved into the patrol-car, unable to comfort, to render assistance to her brother who at that point was still alive (the police waited four minutes before returning to Tamir to see if he needed medical assistance).

Elsewhere in the statement, McGinty spoke of the case as if it were a natural event – lacking human agency: 'Given this perfect storm of human error, mistakes and miscommunications by all involved (emphasis added) that day, the evidence did not indicate criminal conduct by police.'

But Rice's death was not an act of nature, outside human control. This death, although familiar, was far from natural. It was against nature – against the natural order of things, no matter how frequent such violence might be in the United States.

More than that Officer Loehmann had a choice. The police officer was not a victim of a 'perfect storm' of uncontrolled external forces, or his fear; this was not a Greek tragedy or a nineteenth century novel where a hapless hero is propelled by 'mistakes' made by others or himself. He had a choice. In a very powerful piece for the New York Times, 'Tamir Rice and the Color of Fear' Brit Bennett analyses the notion of 'reasonable fear' that informed the prosecutor's case. (Throughout the year-long 'investigation' leading towards the Grand Jury judgement not to indict the officers, prosecutor McGinty made no secret of his belief that the two officers should not face court).

Bennett writes of the trouble with 'empathy' and focus on fear:

“How do we determine reasonability? Who determines whether a fear is “objectively reasonable,” as coined in the report, as if reason can be completely impartial? According to the prosecutor’s report, a reasonable fear does not have to be an accurate one. “A reasonable belief could also be a mistaken belief,” the report outlines, “and the fact that it turned out to be mistaken does not undermine its reasonableness.” (…)

The report also dismisses the relevance of whether Rice heard the police yell for him to show his hands. The officers testified that the cruiser window was rolled up, but the prosecutor’s report states that “even assuming Tamir could not have heard Loehmann’s warnings given from inside the car, Loehmann felt he had no choice in the instant he used deadly force.” The report reiterates the circular argument used by the Supreme Court to define reasonability: A fear is considered reasonable if another reasonable person would fear it.”

And that 'reasonable person' usually resembles those being investigated, in this case white police officers who also received surprising advantages in the legal process; being allowed to provide written statements to the court, rather than being cross-examined. While legal, this is not standard practice.

But I wonder why such emphasis is being placed on these subjective notion of fear. Why not focus on whether sufficient efforts were taken by Officer Loehmann to avoid the use of extreme force? Why not focus on whether or not Officer Loehmann assessed the situation appropriately, with all due care given to the avoidance of causing harm? Ohio is an 'open carry' state which means that even if Rice had a real gun, rather than a toy, or was an adult he had not committed a crime. Keeping this in mind, that carrying weapons in Ohio is legal, why was Officer Loehmann so frightened that he thought he might die? Hadn't he received training on how to respond to civilians carrying guns in public spaces?

McGinty refers to the belief that the two officers believed that they were approaching an 'active shooter' situation, but this is not only illogical, but bizarre; Tamir Rice had a toy, which for obvious reasons could not shoot bullets. Moreover, Officer Loehmann shot Rice two seconds after arriving on the scene, from a close proximity. If he seriously believed he was entering a life-threatening situation, why didn't he keep his distance, take the time to assess the situation and then act? 'Any fear feels reasonable in the moment,' Brit Bennett writes. 'And if black bodies are inherently scary, white fear will always be considered reasonable.'

Something that continues to surprise me personally is the emotional charge behind white racism, where the perpetrator of the crime seeks out the status of victim. Whether it is in a colonial context, or modern-day US, those committing the violent acts desperately cling to the role of victim, while seeking sympathy from others. We are encouraged to empathise with them, with their confusion and their fear and then excuse whatever they did because of these misguided, or mistaken (or even completely illogical, groundless) fears. This impulse fascinates me, especially since it is so heartfelt.

Rare is it for white supporters of Officer Loehmann to imagine how such bluster must feel for the surviving family of Tamir Rice and his mother, Samaria, who continues to fight for justice, despite personal attacks. In an interview with Ebony from June last year, Samaria Rice said how 'Tamir is getting me up every morning because I’m still waiting on answers. I still don’t know what happened. I don’t want anyone to have to suffer like this. I want to be a part of making change. Whatever we have to do, I’m willing to do. I believe that we are in a war. We are in a war. They are out here killing us and whatever I can do to bring awareness to that ...'

Many months ago, I read that Samaria Rice and her surviving children were for a time homeless. No longer could Tamir's mother bear living so close to the park where her son had been so brutally killed. This stopped me cold. And reminded me how after each death, after each statistic – and all the outrage, or shameful justifications on behalf of those supporting the perpetrators – there is family, still alive and still grieving.

This essay was re-published in the Australian journal, Arena (Feb-March, 2016)

Supastition Interview

In this interview Supastition talks about racial politics in the US ('Black Bodies'); childhood memories of the Ku Klux Klan marching through his North Carolina home-town; Nina Simone, the role of interludes and why hip-hop is more than just a game.    

***

Behind the rap-stereotypes of shining cars and female body-parts (the subaltern's distorted Capitalist dreaming), there is another world of emcees/producers who understand what they are doing as part of a continuum and expression of culture.

And it's here that you find a kind of yearning. Artists wanting to be heard, alongside a complaint that they have been forgotten, or overlooked. This defines hip-hop as a genre, perhaps you could even say this is its sentimental core. Whereas many, if not most rock stars express desire, turning it outwards towards another girl, another planet; in hip-hop, the archetypal MC is seeking respect, asking to be recognised. How explicit the need is. 

One of the best examples of this cultural interplay is North Carolina-born, but now Atlanta-based MC Supastition. Honesty and sincerity is something essential to his art. It shines through. 

What follows is a record of our almost hour-long conversation, where Supastition described how his most recent record Gold Standard (Reform School Music/World Expo Records, 2015) is a new start of sorts, but also other subjects too; such as the importance of interludes in his music and his take on how it feels to be an established artist in a music genre that has an unquenchable thirst for the new.

MB: With Gold Standard, it's got various producers on it, but what really struck me was that it had a very confident sound; a very distinctive record compared maybe to some of your earlier releases; were you aiming to get a particular sound with that release?

S: I've done a lot of releases and I really feel that with Gold Standard, well, it's the one I can kind of boast and be proud of - for a lot of years, a lot of things weren't working out the way I wanted them to, but with Gold Standard it is one of those records where everything came together. I had a plan to do a tour, of 70 plus shows and I started working with a producer by the name of Praise, so I had the fire under me. So with that record it sounded a lot more confident and it's not as pessimistic as a lot of my other releases.

MB: It's really interesting you used the word confident, because the words I wrote down (when listening to it) were 'straight, confident, consistent (and) unified' - maybe compared to some of your other records. From the first track to the final track (you get a sense) it's the same artist, the same sound, even if you're working with different producers. I mean, were you inspired by any other particular hip-hop album when you were putting it together?

S: When I was putting it together, I was listening to a lot of albums that really strike me as inspirational like Little Brother's The Listening; Blu and Exile's Below the Heavens and the Brother Ali/Jake One record Mourning in America, Dreaming in Color. One thing I like about them is that they all have a consistent vibe from beginning to end. I think out of my albums that fans like, like The Deadline it has a similar vibe, even though I'm working with different producers, I want a cohesive sound. I learned that you can't just choose a lot of hot beats and make a lot of dope songs with them, that don't make a great album, that just makes great songs, I wanted to put together an album and have everything laid out. I had all the production set aside before I even got started writing the songs and I think that helps a lot too.

MB: I think it's interesting you referred to The Deadline because that's probably the other record that I'd compare Gold Standard to, where, you know the first track is completely, you know 'I'm here; I'm ready to be heard' that kind of thing, and I felt like Gold Standard had the same feeling, you know it had no doubts, or uncertainty, it's pushing that sound of – as you say maybe – like a new beginning, but it's also very political as a record. You've talked about your interest in 'concept albums' before, would you say this is a concept album and if it is, in what way?

S: Yes, it's a loose concept album, I wouldn't say it's a concept album in the sense in all songs pertaining to one particular subject, but for this record it is – Gold Standard just the title is saying that there are a lot of people in the music industry that basically brag and boast about a lot of things, but they have nothing to back it. With this record, I'm saying I've been here professionally since 2002 and after ten plus years in the industry I feel confident that speak about what I see. That's why you have songs like 'Gold Standard' and 'Know my Worth'. The concept behind it is, just be confident and proud of who you are. I'm not a twenty year old rapper any more, I'm confident and cool being a married man, a great father, a great friend and a dope rapper.

MB: (laughs) ok, and I think the track 'Unorthodox' wouldn't you say it's playing into this theme of providing a statement of who you are and what your history is, would you say that's the key track for that?

S: Exactly, I definitely think 'Unorthodox' is a great example of that. 'Unorthodox' is one of those records where I say, critically I didn't always the acclaim, you know when I release an album I already know they're going to give this album a 3.5, because I really don't have the name to get classic album rating, I don't have promo behind me, but on that track I'm saying I don't care if the critics understand me or not. I'm making records for the fans, you know.

MB: I understand that, but it does seem that things are shifting – Dr Dre has included in his radio show, is that right?

S: Yes, he has a radio show that he does online where he plays different music and some people from Aftermath pick out the sound and the songs they play, so having Dr Dre include it and hearing that some of the people at Aftermath are big fans of the Gold Standard record, having people like Dr Dre and DJ Premier and Da Beatminerz supporting the record, it just makes you feel really, really confident and appreciated, you know. A lot of times when I lived in North Carolina and you'll hear a lot of other North Carolina artists say the same thing, we didn't really get support from radio as a whole, a few people supported us, but basically we had to go to other places abroad, outside the US or other states to feel genuinely appreciated.

MB: The track that they played was 'Know my Worth' right …

S: Right, 'Know my Worth'

MB: This is a gorgeous track, isn't it? You're working with a female emcee, Boog Brown ..

S: Yes, that's my home-girl, Boog Brown ..

MB: She's fantastic, I thought what she added to that track was not so much the lyrics, but the way she raps, is just phenomenal, isn't it? Can you talk a little bit about her?

S: Boog Brown is a very, very dope emcee. She's originally from Detroit, but she lives in Atlanta now. We've known each other for a while, I was a big supporter of her, early in her career, I just thought she was an incredible emcee – not just a female emcee, but an incredible emcee and I always tried to put people onto her music. A few years back she did an album with Apollo Brown, called Brown Study and I was featured on a track called 'Friends like these' and we've always stayed in contact and been supportive of each other, so when I was doing this record I realised I'd never had a female emcee on any of my albums and I was like, why not get Boog Brown on to speak about what it's like to be in this industry as a female where people don't know your worth, or under-value you, so I wanted a female perspective on this as well.

MB: I think it works on a gut-level too, it's not just what she's saying, it's how she's saying it too. She's really fantastic, I mean, if we keep referring to this idea of being confident, she shares that quality, you know. She's really present, I guess is the word I'd use to explain it.

 

The first track I heard from Supastition's album was 'Black Bodies' ...

With its distinctive repetitive-swirl sample - that manic Soul-based loop that has come to define a lot of contemporary hip-hop production, this time provided by Supastition's long-time collaborator, Praise* - 'Black Bodies' represents a new form of protest music.

*check out this great video interview with Praise.

When I first heard the name of the movement 'Black Lives Matter' I thought it was a bit weak, avoiding as it does any direct mention of those killing scores of unarmed African-American people, mostly young men and teenagers (the police), but now I can understand the logic behind it.

Rather than focussing on those perpetrating the violence, the aim is to state the apparent obvious and by doing this force non-Black people to recognise a basic truth: that African-American people in the USA share the same essential humanity as non-Black people. In the interview, Supastition stressed that his objective with 'Black Bodies'  was not to write a 'Fuck the police' song, but to try and put the current police violence in a broader context.    

MB: Okay, let's go to the first track from the record that I heard, 'Black Bodies' and obviously I was interested in it for the theme as well as the music. I mean you are originally from North Carolina, Greenville, is that correct?

S: Yes

MB: So as you know, there has been some horrific race-based violence both the police and a white supremacist in North and South Carolina recently, I mean, how do you feel when you see this on the news. You've produced this very powerful track about black bodies, obviously you produced it before the violence, but how do you personally feel when you see these kinds of things happening so close to where you come from?

S: The thing with me is it's not anything new, cause growing up in the South, growing up in North Carolina, I remember in Greenville, North Carolina you used to see the Ku Klux Klan march through town, you know things like that. I was in school and white people would call me nigger, you know different things like that, it's just what you would see growing up, you'd go to a store in a small town and people wouldn't want to serve us, or want us in the store; or we'd walk into a restaurant and everybody would look at us like we were crazy. It's something people don't speak about, I'm not from a major city in North Carolina. Greenville, North Carolina is kind of like a college town, a small town, so I'm used to a small town mentality and how people look at you, so when I see stuff like that (the violence) in North and South Carolina, well there's always been a lot of things happening like that. It's one of reasons why – I mean I love that place – but it is one of the reasons why I'd never want to live there, because there are so many things behind the scenes.

So when I created 'Black Bodies' you know, I didn't want to create a song because everybody else was doing a song, particularly I held my back and waited because I wanted things to die down and as we decided to release the song I realised it was always going to be relevant because these situations keep happening. There's always an unarmed black person getting killed somewhere around the world. I had read an article talking about when the US because a moral authority, a lot of the situations in the US where they basically bully people with the acts of genocide and different acts of that nature and I just wanted to dig a bit deeper in 'Black Bodies'. I didn't want to do a 'Fuck the Police' song, you know because when it comes to me if something happens to me or my family, first thing I'm going to do is call the police. You can go a lot deeper – look at the history of America, the judicial system, systematic oppression, it goes through a lot of different things.

MB: I definitely agree. But let's slow it down a bit here, because what you said was really quite shocking before, you're not so old, so when you're talking about the Ku Klux Klan and the racism you experienced growing up, are we talking the 70s or the 80s, or?

S: This is the 80s – the mid to late 80s.

MB: Oh God.

S: I remember being at school and getting suspended because a white guy called me nigger and we ended up fighting. This was like junior high school for me. A lot of people from small towns it's their mentality and a lot of times, these cities and towns are so segregated; a lot of people in my town had never seen (people different to themselves); they only knew blacks, whites and Hispanics. The first time I brought my wife to my home town and my wife is Asian, she is from Laos and I remember the first time bringing her and people were referring to her as being Chinese and I remember thinking these people hadn't had much exposure to different cultures. It was one of the reasons why I wanted to move away from small towns like that.

MB: Obviously this is very striking and shocking for me, I mean I come from Australia so I'm not so naive, I've grown up with a huge amount of awareness of race-based violence in my own country, but the idea of the Ku Klux Klan marching through the town in the 1980s is mind-blowing, I mean they had absolutely no shame, even at this time in the 80s, I'm amazed.

S: Yeah, there were a lot of things going on. We are technically still in the South – as a child I didn't really understand it. They had the white hoods on and the robes, but it would be in the newspapers – you know, announced, the Ku Klux Klan will march through Greenville on this date and different things like that.

MB: It's insane.

S: Once you look back, when you're older and understand it, it amazes you. I can't believe I witnessed and lived through all this stuff was still going on at that time. A lot of people think it ended in the 60s and the 70s, but all this goes a lot deeper than that.

“MB: The thing that is very interesting for me is your choice of the title ‘Black Bodies’ because it’s maybe the media, certainly the police and people in authority often see people of colour as just being bodies, rather than being human. When you were thinking about that title, what ideas did you have when you chose that title for the track?

S: The inspiration is just like you said it’s the way people don’t see African-Americans as being people, a lot of times (white) Americans treat dogs and animals better than they treat African-Americans, they have more compassion for animals than us. And it’s something that I’ve noticed when you look the news and you see people dying in America they don’t show dead bodies laying on the ground, when they show countries in Europe and places like that they don’t show bodies on the ground, but when they show African nations and people dying and starving they show actual dead bodies, the people, it’s almost as if they are de-sensitised. This is one of the reasons why I wanted to call that track ‘Black Bodies’ because when you notice this, if you look at it a lot of times they have massacres in Africa, you’ll see it on the news, the bodies laying there. It’s like they’re being treated as if they’re less than human sometimes. They would never show – any massacre that happens in America, they never show dead bodies laying on the ground.”

MB: You're absolutely right. I know this from having worked in newsroom, they just wouldn't receive the same 'feeds' of the dead bodies, in Paris, or wherever it may be. Are there any particular books, or writers you've read that have offered some interest or inspiration in terms of this thinking of yours?

S: A lot of different books;  I mean there are so many different books. I read books from all over and absorb knowledge, you know, sometimes you've just got to sit down, turn off the internet and pick up a big book. A lot of friends recommend books for me that I should check out, when we were on tour, Blueprint gave me a big list of books he likes to read …

MB: Just coming back to the location of it, the North/South Carolina connection are there any other things you'd like to add, I mean one of the reasons why I was interested in speaking with you was the fact that you're from the place where so much of this violence has gone on recently; I mean, Walter Scott being shot by a police officer in the back, when he was running away, is there anything else you'd like to add to this?

S: There's not very much more to add, I mean I just wish people would have more compassion and like I said in the song, 'Black Bodies' these police officers, they not held to the same standard as the average guy, I mean people talk about black on black crime, when someone gets killed in the neighbourhood, but these guys (the police) are not held to the same standard – they hold a position of service and so when we see this happen, it's a big disappointment, I mean we think you're supposed to be there to protect us, if we can't trust you, who can we trust?

...

Sometimes you hear a track and it draws you in; something about it connects with you in a way that is difficult to express. Supastition's 'Best Worst Day' from 2013's The Blackboard record is like that for me. (For days after listening to it on repeat, it remained with me; it was as if I could still hear it playing out in the recesses of my memory as I went about my everyday life).

“When I woke up today I felt incredibly refreshed feeling more blessed than ever with no head full of stress I was comfortable but calm in my warm spot didn’t even abuse the snooze button on my alarm clock sun’s shining through the burgundy drapes my lady wasn’t next to me, I guess she’s working today I’m accustomed to looking her in the face at 7 AM one particular person you see day out and day in anyway ..”

'Best Worst Day’ was an idea that had been floating around in my head for years. I could never find the perfect beat  that matched the idea that I had. I wanted something heavenly and atmospheric to deliver the story. This is a hip  hop version of the movie ‘Sixth Sense’ where I spend a day not knowing that I had already passed away. Originally,  the song was going to be similar to Ice Cube’s today was a good day but I decided to add a few twists to make it more  interesting. I love the art of storytelling and this came out the way that I envisioned it. I first heard the beat on the  Dirty Art Club instrumental album and asked them if it was cool for me to record a song to it. Madwreck (who has  mixed or produced on every album of mine) gave it the thumbs up along with his partner, Matt Cagle.' 

Supastition, writer's note for 'Best Worst Day'

That 'perfect beat' Supastition is referring to is glorious, sublime. But more than this what works so well in this track is the way the producers (Dirty Art Club) sensitively echo the movement of the song; so that at the start, around 33 seconds when he refers to the sunlight and then to his wife (a person who has a very important presence in his art, as a recurring point of tender reference) the music opens up, expands somehow, with great delicacy. It's very beautiful. 

And then again later almost exactly two minutes later, when he refers to hearing his music on the radio ... 

“I stepped outside wondering how could this day have gone
wrong
but then a Chevy passed by with my song on
the local radio station they had my song on
that’s when I knew something was horribly wrong, homes
‘cause they don’t play no local music if it’s homegrown
a motherfucker gotta be dead or long gone,
shot up or murdered? wait… what!
I jetted back in the store, I’m searching for the Charlotte
Observer
feeling faint, nauseous, and nervous
no wonder why nobody even noticed me, paid attention, or
turn heads
I started panicking as I was thinking back again
stiff as a mannequin like “yo, this can’t be happening”
picked up the paper and the caption read after my name
in bold black lettering… local rapper slain. damn”

... a similar feeling happens again. (You can sense the happiness of that moment in the music).  Such production where the music both reinforces and comments on the music is a wonderful thing.

At the end there is this very other-worldly interlude where Nina Simone, referring to herself as 'one' in a very regal (and slightly strange) manner, with her plummy vowels, speaks about how she wants to be recognised in her own country.

In an interview with his late friend Praverb, Supastition said: 'I’m all about lyrics and wordplay, man. I listen to cats like Royce, Elzhi, Phonte, Brother Ali, Shad, and brothers like that. If you’re still rhyming ‘hat’ with ‘scat’ and simple shit like that then I just can’t get inspired by that. That’s music for the lyrically challenged!' Before adding: 'At the same time, you gotta be able to make a decent song too.'

Here in this track we can see the skill of Supastition's wordplay, via the half-rhymes and repetition of consonants, or repetition of words with the same number of syllables; in the movement backwards and forwards, the clever use of tempo to provide contrast. Here, too, with the Nina Simone interlude at the end we can see something else that I believe is a defining element of his art: that is the use of interludes in a highly literary, rather than purely musical, manner. 

MB: Can you talk to me about the producers who worked on Gold Standard?

S: The main producer on Gold Standard is Praise he's from the DMV area (DC/Maryland/Virginia area), he had worked with Pharoahe Monch and Torae, Skyzoo and people like that. A good friend of mine before he passed away, Praverb said that there is this producer you've got to work with, check him out, he's amazing. He sent me a link to his music and I thought this guy is incredible, before we could actually set up songs, Praverb passed away so Gold Standard is dedicated to him. Praise is the main producer and probably going to be the main producer for a lot of my upcoming projects too. Rik Marvel who is from Germany, originally from North Carolina, but he lives in Germany now. He's real dope. Veterano - he's from Cali. Jonny Cuba, Ollie Teeba from the UK as well. My man Croup from Germany as well. I try to stick with my usual suspects, keep it in-house. Also MoSS, he's an incredible, incredible producer he's worked with lots of different artists – DJ Premier, Elzhi, Joe Budden, lots of people like that. One of the main things I like to do is with with new talent that a lot of people aren't chasing yet. People I think are dope.

MB: Tell me how you work, for example, with Praise when you're putting together a track …

S: With Praise, usually he'll make a bunch of different tracks and send them to me and then I'll go through them one by one. In previous years, there'd be producers who'd put out 20 or 30 beats and they'd send them out to all their rapper friends, or artists they're trying to sell beats to, basically like a buffet and everybody is trying to get to it before the stuff is gone, so by the time I'd get to it I'd get the left-overs and I'd feel like I'm making a record from the left-overs, but with Praise or Croup, they specifically make beats tailor-made for me and then together we'd work it out. I like working like that. I mean, would you rather have a short-order cook, or would you rather have a chef that prepares meal for you?

MB: Croup, I mean he goes quite a way back with you, doesn't he? I remember he did an amazing interlude, if I remember right, 'Crazy' ...

S: Yeah, Croup did the entire Honest Living ep he produced every track on that, he also produced 'Adrenalin' on The Deadline so we've been working together since 2003/2004 – he's been really active, he paved the way in that personal approach in the industry.

MB: One thing that really strikes me in your music, across your records, is that you're really quite thoughtful in the way you use samples, in terms of spoken-word samples. I mean, say for instance in the middle and at the end of 'Black Bodies' … Can you talk to me about this, is it something you come up with, or the producer comes up with, who is behind these spoken-word samples?

S: Usually I go through them, I listen to different audio and interviews and different records and go through them and I piece them together the same way my favourite records from the 80s and 90s piece them together. I used to love the way Pete Rock records, Pete Rock/CL Smooth records, would bring in random samples. A lot of times I go through and find something related to the topic that the song is on, find a beat that will match up with it. I think it just provides better transitions when you're going through; rather than the song fades out and the next song starts … I just think that gets old after a while. You just add to it, by finding different things to complement it. I take the time. I'm glad you noticed that, because I'm not sure a lot of people did; I always try to add some random samples …

MB: I think it is probably – I mean you've obviously got great wordplay etc – but I think it is most distinctive aspect of your work. It's something that is quite striking and I think, well, you've referred to Pete Rock here, but what I would say is the difference is that Pete Rock's sample/interludes are driven by the music, while I think what really comes through in your work is that you're driven by the idea, or the words (in the sample). It's quite lyrical. Do you think that that's a fair comparison; you use the word random, but it doesn't sound random, it sounds well thought out.

S: Yeah, it's definitely thought out, when I say random I mean I go through random records – interviews and try to find something that fits …

MB: It seems to me that they're used more for commentary, rather than for their musical content. Do you think that's a fair point?

S: Yeah, yeah, definitely. It's to fill in the gaps and make the transitions between the songs better. It's almost like I do a song like 'Black Bodies' and the next song is dedicated to my wife, like I can't just go from one to the other. A lot of the times, sonically the tracks don't go together, so it's like a dj doing shows or mix-tapes, they always try and choose songs that go well together, with albums it's difficult to do that, so you need an interlude or vocals to make the transition go better.

MB: I know you've said in interviews that you're inspired by hip-hop artists who, I mean in one interview you said; 'I'm all about lyrics and word-play …' and you mention a series of emcees, when you're using these samples it strikes me you're working in the same way, it's quite literary and word-driven. When you're thinking about your art, do you still think that the words are everything, or the most important part?

S: Yeah, definitely, it always going to be the lyrics first. For me it's about the words first and foremost, because I'm a writer. It's always about that – lyrics, word-play, story-telling, concepts; it's everything to me. I want when people pick up a Supastition record for that to be the first thing that they want to hear, what am I going to say next, or what am I going to say that's thought-provoking. If I'm telling the story about my life, I like to deliver it in a way that no-one else can.

MB: Well, this brings me to the track that really impressed me, 'The Best Worst Day' – I think the reason why I loved it so much is that it's so clever the way it's put together lyrically, but the producer as well, he's using music to offer support to what you're saying. I mean it's quite exciting, really the way the two elements work together. 

S: The Best Worst Day was actually, if you've heard the instrumental it's from the Dirty Art Club – two producers out of Charlotte, North Carolina. They put out an instrumental album, I heard the instrumental and I thought, look that's a dope song, a dope concept I want to use and this is the perfect beat for it. They were like, cool and they sent me the instrumental for it. I was sitting there and I wanted to do something like the hip-hop version of 'The Sixth Sense' – I wanted to think what it'd be like if I was walking around and people couldn't see me. In my mind, I'm in a store and thinking somebody is racist because they're not giving me service (laughs) or I'm with my girl and thinking she's got attitude, you know what I mean (laughs) in reality. I'm not there; I've passed away. And then when I realise, it's the shock that I feel, like I go through all these events and I don't realise I've passed away until I heard the local radio station playing my song because at that time when I was living in Charlotte the local radio didn't play anybody from the city until you passed away. It's a kind of bitter-sweet thing, it's like hey man, I'm finally on the radio, but hey wait, I had to die to be appreciated (laughs), you know. The follow-up to that is 'The Day After' on the Gold Standard record; 'The Day After' is what happens after I passed away and everybody loves me now. Basically it's the sequel – I think those tracks should be listened to back and back.

MB: It's light-hearted in a way, but it's also got a real punch to it in the lyrics but it's got that feeling of not being recognised and if you listen to a lot of your tracks it's about that isn't it, not being recognised. It's got a real emotional aspect to it as well, I'd say.

S: Yes, it's definitely got that too (…)

MB: Thinking more generally about hip-hop, do you think this is a kind of pressure people on the industry put on themselves, when they refer to hip-hop as being a young man's game, or when they focus on these amazing prodigies like Big L or Nas in the history of hip-hop who were so young when they started. Do you think that there is something in the culture of hip-hop that makes people feel a bit pressured?

S: Definitely it's considered a young man's sport, if you're 28, you're considered old. It's almost like it's treated like a sport, when you hit 30, it's like you're over the hill in hip-hop, but I think a lot of that comes from the fact that there is no contemporary category. The demographic is mostly for young minds. I think it goes down to urban culture in general, where everything is trendy and it's much the same for hip-hop. People are into certain things for a certain while. If you look at hip-hop and dj-ing people love it for a particular time and then overall it became a thing of the past (b-boying and things like that). I think the music from myself or people influenced by the boom-bap/jazz hip-hop we feel like our time is limited, so we have to do as much as we do.

And in urban culture too there is no appreciation for history if you look at the African-American culture a lot of people don't appreciate the people who came before them, they'll disrespect their elders. It's like, cool you've paved the way, but we'll take it from here. A lot of times in hip-hop that's how we feel, we've reached a certain age or a certain point and they're telling us we're too old, but I think hip-hop isn't a sport, it's a thinking game. I mean you can't be the President of the United States at 25. You've got to have your thoughts and life experience together and I think with hip-hop as you get older you should get better, you should be more appreciated because you're a better thinker and you've lived a lot more.

MB: It's strange though as one thing that really strikes me is the nostalgia for the past in hip-hop, you have these 18 and 20 year-old kids saying, 'Oh the 90s, the 90s, it's the golden age/the golden era etc etc' – so there's this nostalgia for the music but maybe a disrespect for the artists, would you say? It's kind of bizarre.

S: It's disrespectful … I think a lot of people don't want to admit that they weren't around for some of the best times in life, you know; it's like I was really too young to appreciate Muhammad Ali as people from that time, but there is no way I'd say he wasn't a great boxer (laughs). There's no way I can say he wasn't one of the greatest. I think a lot of time for this generation if they haven't seen it, or experienced it, it's like it doesn't exist. To be honest when I started to listen to hip-hop, the first time I heard Grandmaster Flash, Melle Mel and Treacherous 3 and stuff like that, I wasn't into it, because at that time my mom, my aunts and uncles were into disco and it sounded so much like disco and dance music and it was years later that I started to Run DMC and Slick Rick, Jazzy Jeff and I started to hear it. But I would never say that all that stuff was corny because without all that it would be impossible for me to do what I'm doing now, you know what I'm saying. I think it's real disrespectful a lot of times. But if people don't have a respect for their history or their culture, you really can't expect too much out of them, you know.

MB: At the end of 'Best Worst Day' who was speaking, I've got a feeling it is Nina Simone but I'm not sure.

S: I think it is Nina Simone actually, yeah, when she's talking about how she had to go overseas to be appreciated – yeah, that's Nina Simone. I was listening to a Nina Simone interview and this really touched me because she was originally from North Carolina as well. She was just so inspiring and I could understand that. I just wanted to be appreciated by those around me, the people I'm doing this for.

MB: Just to finish could you talk to me about Nina Simone as I saw what struck me as a funny comment that you made in an interview, someone asked who of the greats would you have liked to have worked with and Nina Simone but then added, I'm not sure if she was into hip-hop.

S: (laughs)

MB: I mean, what are you're feelings about Nina Simone is she an inspiration for you?

S: She's definitely an inspiration, I caught on to her later in life and became so engulfed in her music. When I listen to her music I can tell the transition she went through, you can hear one song and she's doing all kinds of music – not only jazz, but she's classically trained; she'll give you love and heartbreak songs, but she'll also give you positive, and conscious songs – uplifting songs, songs where she lets her hair down and talk shit and do what she has to do. Just the dynamic of Nina Simone is just so impressive, like I said her being from North Carolina as well along with people like George Clinton and John Coltrane is just so inspiring.

MB: Where was she from in North Carolina?

S: I think she was from Tryon, North Carolina – another small town.

MB: Which Nina Simone track would you choose if you had to choose one?

S: (pauses) Wow, it's actually 'Funkier than a Mosquito's Tweeter'-

 

talking about a partner and saying you're always rapping about the same old things (laughs). If you listen to that track, I don't know why nobody's ever sampled it and put it into a song, maybe I should sample it and put it into a song, that and of course 'Don't let me be misunderstood' which is one of her most popular songs.