The unintentional soundtrack of the George Floyd protests
In mid-May, the New York rapper, producer, and ex-indie label executive El-P discussed his past work with The Ringer, and dismissed any notion of his artistic prescience. His debut solo album, 2002's abrasive, paranoid Fantastic Damage, was seen upon its release as a misanthropic survey of post-9/11 America. But, he told the site, it was recorded before the attacks. "So the s--- that you're hearing on that record, believe it or not, is from a guy who, before 9/11 happened, was thinking the way that everyone started thinking when 9/11 happened… I was annoyed and angry that people weren't thinking this way until something f---ing horrible happened to them … That was the first experience I'd ever had with a record landing at a time when there had been some event that people naturally associated with it."
19 years later, it has happened again, and with even greater force. El-P is now best known as one half of Run the Jewels, his duo with the Atlanta rapper Killer Mike; their fourth album, RTJ4, was rush-released on June 3 to a country at war with itself. "The world is infested with bulls--- so here's something raw to listen to while you deal with it all," they posted on Instagram. The group, which started as a mixtape project in 2013, has become a dependable source of rap that is at once irate, despairing, defiant, and funny. Across their catalog, El-P's production has maintained a precise and relentless cacophony; none of their 40-odd songs could be considered a "breather." But while their first three albums (and Mike's vocal support of Bernie Sanders) got them labeled "protest rappers," their pranksterism — lyrically assaulting baby bears and poodles, remixing RTJ2 to get more cats in it — sometimes overshadowed their furor. They sounded political even when they were goofing off though. "[RTJ3] feels like a protest album," The New Yorker wrote in 2017, "in the way that many things that sound a note of refusal feel political these days."
This time around, there is no ambiguity or need for that qualifying "feels." The police killing of George Floyd and the convulsions that have followed hang over RTJ4 like an inverted flag. But as with Fantastic Damage, it isn't prescient; it simply documents what most have tried to ignore.
"And you so numb you watch the cops choke out a man like me/And 'til my voice goes from a shriek to whisper 'I can't breathe,'" Mike raps on "Walking in the Snow." "And you sit there in house on couch and watch it on TV/The most you give's a Twitter rant and call it a tragedy."
The fact that he was referencing Eric Garner in 2014, and not Floyd in 2020, both amplifies his rage and deepens the guilt of his white armchair "allies." Such music would be bracing at any time, but in our present context, it practically suffocates. Run the Jewels has always sounded urgent, but RTJ4 feels necessary in a way that it wouldn't have if it dropped two months ago. A review of the album by The New York Times, published before the protests, said that such music "can serve as a galvanizing reminder that millions of people feel just as you do, and are burning for change… It can also, at least, give you something to move to inside your apartment while waiting to see what's next."
People will no doubt move to RTJ4, but its purpose seems higher now. In the three and a half years since Donald Trump took office, his administration — with its race-baiting power moves, Constitutional insults, and ravaging of norms — has not been musically met in kind. There have been strong exceptions: Childish Gambino ("This is America"), YG ("FDT" — sure, decipher the acronym), Kendrick Lamar, Fiona Apple, Solange, and others. But the songs didn't coalesce into a recognizable movement, an artistic swelling to match the menace above. Maybe the musical landscape was too fractured to support such a thing. Perhaps, as some have argued, the president's bluster has been empty all along. Or, as the comedian Patton Oswalt contends in a recent special, Trump's presidency is a disaster so grotesque that commentary is redundant. Whatever the reason, and despite widespread loathing of Trump, like-minded musicians remained in their own corners of Spotify.
The early sixties had Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, and the Village folkies, who agitated for civil rights and against the bomb. The latter part of the decade was marked by the Woodstock bands whose very existence was a threat to the pro-war status quo. In the seventies, Marvin Gaye, Nina Simone, and other soul artists described the black experience in new and wrenching terms; as that decade closed, the punks described their own by tearing everything apart. And on it went. Sort of.
Somewhere along the way, the idea of protest music as a cultural necessity fell by the wayside, to the point where Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the USA" — a 1984 song about a veteran's shattered life — could be viewed as rah-rah pap. The music has never gone away — Public Enemy, Rage Against the Machine, and System of a Down gained huge audiences by agitating as loudly as possible — but, like Kendrick Lamar, they were outliers, however popular. "It's not like Vietnam," The Flaming Lips' Wayne Coyne said in a 2010 history of protest music. "The youth aren't dying in the same way. There's no protest, really. [Listeners] ... just didn't give a s---."
But that was 10 years ago. America in 2020, with its marches, batons, and riots in the streets, suddenly feels like 1968. People give a s---. And musicians are responding, with new protest songs by Denzel Curry, LL Cool J, YG (this time, it's "FTP"), and others in the past week alone. And, of course, there is RTJ4, recorded before George Floyd's killing but after dozens like it. If the new flourishing of protest music builds to something more, the shrieking, thumping album will be this era's What's Going On or its London Calling.
"We want to see four officers prosecuted and sentenced," an emotional Mike said in a recent press conference. "We don't want to see Targets burning. We want to see the system that sets up for systemic racism burnt to the ground." He and his partner have supplied the soundtrack to that dismantling. We will now see if more artists join the fight.
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