In the middle of season one of the pandemic in 2020, I found myself in a flea market in White Flight, Georgia — located north of Atlanta where the wealthy white people move when black and brown people start to move into their previously all-white neighborhoods.
I was trying to find inspiration on this day. I was trying to find vinyl records that I could sell in the event that a future MLB work stoppage might put my business at risk. I was looking for something for the site that I was busy building, which eventually became this site.
On that day, I played one of my favorite albums for the first time. A pink album cover with two hands making the shape of a gun and a fist, Run the Jewels 4 was highly talked up by a Facebook friend, and I was trying to find modern rap artists to listen to, after growing up on Biggie, Eminem, Outkast, Jay-Z, various members of the Wu-Tang Clan, and then underground rap in my college years.
Run the Jewels is made up of Killer Mike and El-P. It’s an All-Star pairing of one of the best rappers today and one of the best rap producers today. One black, one white, and neither holds back punches. RTJ4 offers the perspective of America today from the streets of Brooklyn and the streets of Atlanta. El-P describes the impact of capitalism and an oppressive system that slowly pushes down on the people at the bottom. Killer Mike talks about the impact of growing up in a society where cops routinely are free to kill black people.
On that day, I found myself in a massive flea market, full of people selling anything and everything to make a dollar in the middle of a pandemic that at this point had no vaccine in sight. We were all there risking our health because the economy we have today does not allow for people to take time off. If you’re not working, and you don’t have savings, you slowly die. It doesn’t matter if you’re black, white, brown, or any other shade of the human race. When faced with the choice of death by capitalism or death by a pandemic, there’s not really an actual choice involved. It becomes a lesser of two evils.
There’s a line, and those above the line aren’t immune to the grind. We’re all running from the wave of inflation, and the only difference between any of us is the leisurely pace some can take when they’re well ahead of the others running for their lives. We all have to keep moving, keep working, and keep earning. And that recipe prevents us from ever stopping to help those who have fallen behind, or who are at risk the most.
Or, in the words of Killer Mike:
And you so numb, you watch the cops choke out a man like me
Until my voice goes from a shriek to whisper, “I can’t breathe”
And you sit there in the house on couch and watch it on TV
The most you give’s a Twitter rant and call it a tragedy
But truly the travesty, you’ve been robbed of your empathy
Replaced it with apathy, I wish I could magically
Fast forward the future so then you can face it
And see how fucked up it’ll be
I promise I’m honest
They coming for you the day after they comin’ for me
I had planned to write about Killer Mike this week, as the first of four Saturday music articles during Black History Month, focused on my favorite black artists and the messages and insights they provide of their culture. As I’m writing this article on Friday night, another black man — Amir Locke — has been killed in his apartment by a heavily armed SWAT team in Minnesota that just executed him. As usual in these cases, there will be defenders of police who will say that the black man had a gun, and the police were right to fear him. For all of my pacifist-based distaste in weapons, you can’t ignore that we live in a country where the right to arm yourself is heavily fought for, and only seems to be spoken of negatively when it’s a black man armed in the presence of the police.
I don’t know what to do as a white man trying to fight as an ally against this wave of indifference and illogical talking points. Even by writing this article, I risk people trying to hurt me financially as punishment for saying something that ruins their personal view of America as some dream, filled only with happiness, where the only people who can’t survive or who get shot and killed by police somehow did something to deserve their lot in life.
I’m writing the article anyway, because the least I can do is tell my fellow white people to momentarily step outside of your comfort zone and listen to black artists who tell you what life is like for black people in this country today. The only way to understand someone is to walk in their shoes, and I can’t think of a better way to understand the current risks to black Americans than Killer Mike’s 2012 album R.A.P. Music.
That’s a sad sentence to write. This album from 2012 is still relevant today. I starts off as most rap albums do, with a lot of fast paced anthems to pump up self-confidence, with bragging and boasting about money, cars, women, and fame.
The best rap albums use that as a hook to get to the second half of the album, where the education begins. Killer Mike, aka Michael Render’s education begins on this album with the song Reagan, and it goes hard.
In the song, Render denounces the first half of the album by saying that rappers are selling lies of fame and wealth they don’t have, when none of them own their own means of production or their own land. I should note that RTJ is an independent project, and Killer Mike has since become very wealthy, using his wealth to buy up land and businesses in his hometown in Atlanta, working to take back the city from developers and big corporations.
The real meat of the song comes in the second verse, which won awards that year. In this verse, Render takes aim at former president Ronald Reagan, laying out how his policies — especially the war on drugs — allowed the police to target and harass black people at a disproportionate rate. Render also sees no difference between Reagan, the two Bush’s, or Barack Obama, noting that they all had pushed or kept the United States in war that has largely benefitted the oil lobby.
The overall message is that the people at the top don’t care about anyone at the bottom. And that’s something we’ve seen all throughout the pandemic, with a minimum wage worker revolution starting to take place as it becomes more explicit that we should all be demanding more for our precious time on this Earth. Unfortunately, black people have been marginalized since this country’s formation, which has left them disproportionately at the bottom, and as the victims of this system.
The song right after “Reagan” is called “Don’t Die”, in which Render raps from the perspective of a black man waking up to cops in his place with a gun — which is obviously still a very real threat for black people.
The formation of RTJ started on this album, with El-P producing and even rapping on the track “Butane.” In the same year, Killer Mike appeared on El-P’s album Cancer 4 Cure on the song “Tougher Colder Killer.” A year later, they celebrated their breakout albums with the official formation of Run the Jewels.
R.A.P. Music was the unofficial formation of that group, and is filled with a mix of fun, pump up anthems and serious stories about life.
“Ghetto Gospel” sees Render stressing about not being where he wants to be in life to make an impact, which I find inspiring as he has since gotten in a much better position and has done great things as an advocate with his new fame and money. That includes this speech in 2020, speaking about the protests going on in Atlanta at that time.
In the song “Anywhere But Here”, Render takes a different viewpoint on police killings, looking from an outside perspective and surveying the damage that has been done. In “Willie Burke Sherwood”, he dedicates an anthem to “the dads and the granddads, and the little homies that ain’t never had dads”, talking about the struggles he went through and overcame growing up with his granddad raising him.
Connecting these two themes, if police are killing or arresting and jailing black men at a disproportionate rate, that only creates a cycle where black children are growing up without fathers able to provide guidance, which helps to perpetuate the cycle for future generations.
The final song on the album is the title track, where Render lays out the importance of rap music.
I’ve never really had a religious experience, in a religious place. Closest I’ve ever come to seeing or feeling God is listening to rap music. Rap music is my religion. Amen
In the second verse of the song, Render lays out almost two dozen black artists across multiple genres — jazz, funk, soul, and gospel — which all provide the foundational roots for rap music today.
I’ll be focusing on other genres of black artists in future articles this month. I wanted to start with rap music, and this album with the same name, because I grew up a white guy in the south. Even today, rap music is talked down upon from certain southern white people. If you say that you like Ray Charles or Jimi Hendrix or anyone else who made it in the past, you’re fine. If you say you like rap music, you’ll hear a critique about the quality of the music, or the violence they’re describing, or the language they’re using. And if you go back in history, you’ll see the same arguments used against every other black artist — with simultaneous praise of the acceptable black artists from the past who “did it right”, even though they too were criticized and marginalized in their time.
I think Killer Mike’s R.A.P. Music and RTJ4 by Run the Jewels are essential albums for everyone to listen to, in order to get a very raw and very serious look at how the black community is still being targeted and marginalized today.
The sooner we all acknowledge what is actually happening, the sooner we can all unite to come up with a solution.
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Song of the Day
This Week on First Pitch
TUESDAY: This Month on Pirates Prospects
WEDNESDAY: Black History Month
FRIDAY: Andrew McCutchen
SATURDAY: Killer Mike