The George Floyd protests as told by Run the Jewels

Originally published on Sumner Newscow on June 12, 2020

Happy Friday. CultureCow has been off for the last two weeks because, as everyone is aware, there is a worldwide protest going on against systemic racism and police brutality, sparked by the gruesome murder of George Floyd

This isn’t the first time protests like these have happened, it’s not even the first time an unarmed black man was murdered by cops on tape while saying “I can’t breathe” (if you can remember all the way back to 2015’s murder of Eric Garner).

What’s different about these protests is that they stretch not only coast to coast, but to countries all over the world and the outrage is palpable.  These protests are also different in that they’re already yielding results. 

The Minneapolis city council announced that they’ll be disbanding their police department, George Floyd’s murders were arrested and charged, and Louisville passed the “Breonna Taylor Law” which bans no-knock warrants (despite not arresting her killers).  This is an important moment in history and it’s vital to stand with the Black Lives Matter movement, educate yourself, and donate what you can. 

One way you can educate yourself is by listening to black artists, which is why instead of talking about the new (and very good) Lady Gaga album, let’s look at the protests through the lens of one of rap’s best duos, Run the Jewels.

Run the Jewels is comprised of EI-P, a white rapper out of New York, and Killer Mike from Atlanta.  Killer Mike has been an activist for most of his life and has been very vocal throughout the protests.  They even rushed the release of this album to ensure people could put some of the finer points of the BLM movement into context.

The first two songs, much like the early days of the protests, are angry and upset with how leadership has failed black people and people of color for decades in the U.S. with lines like “It’s scammer bliss when you puttin’ villains in charge of s***” and “When we usher in chaos, just know that we did it smiling. Cannibals on this island, inmates run the asylum.”

That outrage shows how it was not only understood but expected for protests to result in massive property damage around the country (and by the way, if you’re more upset that some Targets got looted than the police killing 1,004 unarmed black men in 2019, you’re the problem).

The aims of this album (and these protests) are more nuanced, however than music to the mob.  The remaining nine tracks break down some of the symptoms of systemic racism and the fake allies who support them.  RTJ4 chooses to scatter references to institutional problems throughout its songs like seasoning with some standing out more than others.  Here’s 3examples, just to name a few:

  • “Ayo, one for mayhem, two for mischief. Now aim for the drones in your zoning district” on the album’s 4th song talking about how republican lawmakers use gerrymandering to devalue voting power in black and brown neighborhoods
  • “They promise education, but really they give you tests and scores and they predictin’ prison population by who scoring the lowest, and usually the lowest scores the poorest and they look like me.” Walking in the Snow uses this verse to highlight how racism in the school system is used to target vulnerable people later in life.  Standardized testing has long been proven to be racially biased and on top of that, communities of color receive much less funding for schools than their white counterparts.  Considering how little we fund schools, as is in this country, underfunding a wide swath, is criminal
  • “The Thirteenth Amendment says that slavery’s abolished. Look at all these slave masters posin’ on yo’ dollar (Get it?).” It’s no question that the U.S. has used racist imagery and idolization of slave owners for decades.  One method we can use to challenge this is happening all over the country right now with the excellent videos of people tearing down Christopher Columbus and confederate statues (also don’t be in the comments with “heritage” arguments, those statues only went up in the 1930’s to intimidate black people during Jim Crowe)

Even some of your “woke” friends aren’t innocent in this either.  RTJ4 has harsh criticism for all the fake allies out there who might have posted a black square on Instagram or put a hashtag on Twitter.  And by “fake allies,” this includes lawmakers who think kneeling in a Kente cloth or painting a big “Black Lives Matter” on the street actually accomplishes something.

Throughout the album, there are harsh digs at people who have been so desensitized to police brutality that they don’t even react anymore.  The media is so saturated with videos of POC getting assaulted or murdered that it barely registers.  One of the best examples of calling out fake allies comes midway through the album:

“Pseudo-Christians, y’all indifferent, kids in prisons ain’t a sin? S** if even one scrap of what Jesus taught connected, you’d feel different. What a disingenuous way to piss away existence, I don’t get it I’d say you lost your g***amn minds if y’all possessed one to begin with.”

This stands out because a lot of people both supporting and condemning the protests have been people of the Christian faith.  Religion is not a substitute for morality, but Christians are the shining example of people who claim to love everyone, yet harbor some of the nastiest opinions of people that don’t look like them or live the same lifestyle.

Of course, this doesn’t only pertain to religious people, there are plenty of secular folks who haven’t raised a finger during these protests, and their silence has been noted.  Your key takeaway from lines like this shouldn’t be that Run the Jewels is unfairly chastising Christians, but that if your community is being criticized at all, it means that you aren’t being open enough with your support and your activism.

RTJ4 is the perfect album for what’s going on right now.  It’s not my favorite Run the Jewels album, but it is the most socially conscious piece of music I’ve heard in a long time and EI-P and Killer Mike are keenly aware of their impact on the culture.  Again, this is no stand-in for donating and protesting, but educating yourself on issues you’ve been privileged enough not to be affected by during your life is a good place to start.

Donate: Vox compiled a list of organizations that need your help

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