My Pop Life #163 : Early (ft BOOTS) – Run the Jewels

Early (ft BOOTS)   –   Run the Jewels

And he still put my hands in cuffs, put me in the truck
When my woman screamed, said “shut up”
Witness with the camera phone on saw the copper pull a gun and
Put it on my gorgeous queen
As I peered out the window I could see my other kinfolk
And hear my little boy as he screamed
As he ran toward the copper begged him not to hurt his momma
Cause he had her face down on the ground
And I’d be much too weak to ever speak what I seen
But my life changed with that sound

*

When we moved to New York City in February 2014 we felt positive, optimistic and excited.  As a mixed-race couple (I am ‘white’, my wife is ‘black’) we were looking forward to living in a multi-racial city of immigrants where the old blocks of black/ white/ jewish/ korean/ italian/ hispanic /chinese had at least been partly broken down.  Brooklyn was mixed and thriving and beautiful.  The last time we’d been here (apart from the Julius Caesar run in late 2013 see My Pop Life #143) had been the late 80s when we’d stayed in Alphabet City and been shocked by the homelessness, the filth everywhere, and felt at street level the racial tension in the city.  The block mentality appeared to be based on racial origin depressingly.   It was 1989 just after the Central Park incident when five black and hispanic teens were arrested and indicted on robbery and sexual assault charges against a white middle-class female jogger.

White fury 1989 believing in the rape narrative of the Central Park 5

The city prickled with palpable suspicion and anger.   In June 2014  the five men – who were between 14 and 16 when they were arrested – settled for $40 million in compensation after many years of jail, followed by negotiations with the city.  They were all innocent.  The perpetrator, Matias Reyes, had acted alone and confessed in 2002, some 12 years earlier.

On July 17th 2014 Eric Garner was selling cigarettes outside a store on Staten Island.  Bystander footage shot on mobile phones showed five policemen forcing him to the floor, one with a chokehold as Garner said on numerous occasions “I can’t breathe“.  He died on the street, on camera.  The Black Lives Matter Movement had been born in the wake of the murder acquittal of George Zimmerman who shot 17-yr old Trayvon Martin in Florida the previous year.   A protest group coined the phrase and it stuck.  It doesn’t have an “Only” in front of it, but it might have a “Too” after it.  It’s not offensive, or divisive, in the context of the regular dehumanisation of black life in America.

Ferguson, Missouri 2014

Between these two murders was the shooting of 18-yr old Michael Brown in Ferguson Missouri which had ignited the nation – a black man shot multiple times by a white policeman and left dead on the street for over five hours – a white officer also later to be acquitted by a white Grand Jury, in a secret hearing.

Since then we have had a rising tide of unacceptable black death at the hands of the police, often captured on camera : Tamir Rice, 12 years old from Cleveland (no indictment of the officer), Eric Harris from Tulsa was shot in the back while lying on the ground (this case resulted in a manslaughter conviction), Walter Scott from North Carolina, shot in the back while running away (a murder charge has resulted from the camera phone footage) Sandra Bland in Texas who apparently committed suicide in her prison cell after being arrested for ‘not signalling when she pulled over’.  And Freddie Gray in Baltimore whose spine was broken while he was handcuffed in the back of a van driven at deliberately high speeds around corners after his arrest.  He died.  All the Freddie Gray cases have resulted in acquittals for the group of officers involved, dripping through the news bulletins one a week in 2016.

Then two weeks ago Baton Rouge had another cop shooting a black man – Alton Sterling – outside a store, and on the same day in Minnesota we had a live Facebook feed from the girlfriend of Philando Castile, shot in his car by an officer as he was handing the cop his legal gun licence.

moments after the shooting of Philando Castile

All this exploded further 14 days ago when – at a Black Lives Matter protest in Dallas against these last two shootings – a sniper shot and killed five police officers and was himself killed by a police robot bomb.  Then 4 days ago another (black) sniper who was also ex-military shot and killed three police officers in Baton Rouge, which has been extremely tense ever since the killing of Alton Sterling.

I am aware of my white privilege, especially in newly-gentrified Fort Greene, Brooklyn.  I’m not going to discuss the ins and outs of gentrification here because it is quite complex and more to do with money than race – and there are good points, and bad points – but walking down the streets and avenues of Brooklyn, I never feel threatened by the police.  That’s just my reality.   I’m not in the matrix that says – young black men commit most of the crime, so target them, shake them down, stop and frisk.  We know the NYPD profile young black men.  We know they have quotas and monthly targets.  And whatever irrational fear I may have of groups of young black men with hoodies on the street – the reality is that they have a far more rational fear of me as a white man.  Historically and actually.  White people run things.  It’s not a black problem all this.  It’s a white problem.

My white privilege allowed me to attend a Black Lives Matter protest in Los Angeles in 2015 while I was shooting Agent Carter at Disney, a rally then a walk along Hollywood Boulevard with a few hundred protestors past the 101 Freeway entrance blocked by LAPD thence to Hollywood & Vine where we were invited to sit down on the intersection and block the road, to actually lie down as if we were dead on the street.  It felt vulnerable and brave, there were LAPD all around us, but I never felt in danger.  I was a white middle-class English protestor after all.

How ironic, how tragic indeed that all of this is kicking off at the end of the second term of the USA’s first black President.   Barack Obama did speak up about the Trayvon Martin murder saying “he could have been my son” – and NRA membership shot up, as did gun purchases and registrations.  Obama backed off after that, thinking clearly not to stir the hornet’s nest, but it stirred itself anyway.  One of the things I didn’t realise before moving here was how little command & control the President has over the police.  Police Departments are run on a state-by-state basis and controlled by the State Governments.  The Federal Justice Department can however intervene in high-profile cases and seek an indictment, they have done so in the Alton Sterling case.   But Obama often feels side-lined by this issue.  Some, like Cornel West, and I would fall into this category too, feel that Obama has not done enough as a black President to reform a racist police culture.

El-P and Killer Mike : Run The Jewels

Run The Jewels was formed by black rapper Killer Mike and white rapper/producer El-P in 2012 after they had toured together.  Killer Mike debuted on Outkast‘s Stankonia LP in 2000 before releasing 5 full-length independent political trap/hip hop albums out of Atlanta.  El-P is outta Brooklyn, original member of Company Flow and owner of Def Jux records where he produced Cannibal Ox‘ The Cold Vein among other independent hip hop albums.  A well-respected hip-hop producer he has also released 5 LPs, two as Company Flow and three as El-P.

Run The Jewels first LP was a free download in 2013, self-titled with the strange logo that has got me into a few odd situations – severed, bandanged hands holding onto a gold chain – what ?  But it has been hugely effective in establishing them as a force – political uncompromising, old skool, with a political angry content to match a punchy noisy style -they remind me of Public Enemy, committed hip hop from the underground, sent to upset the apple cart.  Run The Jewels 2 was released in October 2014, was again free, and included this track Early, featuring a new face BOOTS aka Jordan Asher who had risen to glory from nowhere in 2013, writing three and producing no less than NINE of the tracks on Beyoncé‘s self-titled 5th LP ‘BEYONCÉ‘ along with a roster of up-to-the-minute talent.  His contribution to this song ‘Early’ is quite stunning.

Killer Mike rapping live in 2015

The first verse, partly quoted above is delivered by Killer Mike, reminiscent in rhythm to Young M.C.’s ‘Know How‘ and in rhyme pattern to Run DMC’s ‘Walk This Way’ : a black male under arrest for weed “could it be that my medicine’s the evidence”   while his partner and child protest and are held by the police

‘cos I respect the badge and the gun,

and I pray today ain’t the day when you drag me away, right in front of my beautiful son

His queen gets shot at the end of that verse “and my life changed with that sound“.

The chorus is devastating, eerie, other-worldly from BOOTS –

Get out get out get out feelin this feelin this too early…”

and appears to be in a different song altogether.  A startling moment where everything you know suddenly floats untethered and the sky is falling in.

Then El-P’s verse – the white verse – starts with the same couplet

It be feelin’ like the life that I’m livin’ I don’t control
Like every day I’m in a fight for my soul

– he agrees with Killer Mike that his life ain’t his own, but he talks about the system – there’s a they – and how things are rigged but it ain’t a game if it don’t pause with the sound of Pacman dying in the mix behind him.   He sees the street cameras watch the birdie but it doesn’t record the cop shooting the woman… he finishes with hearing the sound of gunshots maybe two blocks away but he’s going to bed he’s going to sleep, getting up early, unfazed.  White privilege.

This song is both the darkness and the light.  As it should be.

I had tickets to see Run The Jewels in late 2014 and couldn’t go – I had to be in Los Angeles for work on Agent Carter.   I gave to tickets to my Brooklyn friend and gig buddy Tony Gerber, also a white man, also married to a black woman Lynn Nottage, and he went to the gig with Aaron Nottage, his wife’s brother.  I was glad the tickets were used, and glad they were a gift.  I spent that Christmas alone (sob) in Brooklyn with the cats, as Jenny flew back to London to be with her family.  Tony and Lynne invited me round to their house for Christmas Day which was extremely kind of them, and I had a wonderful day.  Presents were exchanged, and Tony had bought me the Run The Jewels T-shirt complete with bandaged severed hand holding the gold chain.

Suzan-Lori Parks wasn’t sure about this T.  I couldn’t explain it

One of my friends here in NYC is a police officer.  We drink.  We argue.  We laugh a lot.   But she tells me things about things.  The gang mentality.  The win mentality.  The shoot-to-kill training.   Social media has heightened the issue a great deal and given us all access to Sandra Bland’s aggressive arresting officer, the shooting of Walter Scott or the shocking view of Philando Castile dying in front of our eyes.  We are not inured to these incidents, rather we are woken by them, they are brought into our homes, our phones, our lives.  What can we do ?  We can join Black Lives Matter, go out onto the streets and show our anger.  We do.  What else ?

Well I think one critically important step we can take is to acknowledge that we all live in a world built on white supremacy, and still operating through it.  White lives matter more, count more, than black lives.  Cops see a black face and see a) guilt and b) danger.  The fear count goes UP.  Each terrorist atrocity in Europe is lamented, people paste the flag of France or Belgium onto their Facebook profile and express sorrow and defiance.  But terrorist atrocities in Mali, Ivory Coast, Turkey or Iraq scarcely get a mention, let alone a flag of sympathy.  Not our tribe.  “A plane came down in Kenya yesterday. Two Britons were on board. ”  Oh.   So what kind of message does that send ??  Our kids are running off to Syria in their hundreds to join ISIL.  Why might that be ?  We live in an increasingly polarised world at the moment. Capitalism is wobbling seriously once again, the 2008 crash did not adjust our system in any meaningful way, and there is less money going round.  We all feel it.  But the banks were bailed out, over and over again.  Was Greece ?

Divide and rule, the old tactic is still taking our eyes off the ball.  These are dangerous times.  Reminiscent of the 1930s.  It feels like we need to pick sides, and people are very ready to do that.  I chose my side many years ago when I married my beautiful black wife.   My family is black.  Although I think I had been on this side for at least fifteen years before that.  And I’ve always felt like an internationalist.

If I had a child and I lived here in Brooklyn they would be mixed-race, or black – and I would feel the fear more keenly, the fear this nation always feels built on.  Across the USA, parents of black children raise them to simply get home alive.  If a police officer stops you, be polite, be respectful, do not move your hands, obey, don’t argue, don’t raise your voice, get home alive.  Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote his book Between The World and Me as a letter to his son about coming home alive and it was a best-seller in 2015.  The ABCtv show Blackish felt compelled to address the Black Lives Matter issues in one episode of their sitcom, now in its third series, and the Oscars were dominated by the issue of racism, and brilliantly helmed by Chris Rock on the night.  We are undoubtedly going through another major civil rights movement – but what will change ?   The root is deep, as deep and dark as slavery, and that went on for hundreds of years and made black skin into a commodity, dehumanised, valuable but like the pelt of an animal.  Even after the civil war – fought over the South’s refusal to free their slaves – Reconstruction meant that there was no price to be paid for losing the war.  Robert E. Lee kept his rifle and his Dixie flag and was sent home by Ullysses Grant and no black family got 40 acres and a mule.  The slave-hunters who had profited from bounty turned into the  Sheriffs, Deputies and then Police Officers of the Jim Crow South.  Lynchings, Strange Fruit.

Racism – the great white problem – has never gone away because the root has not been dug out.  The skin grows over it, and it lies there festering until the next breakout.

Charleston, South Carolina  July 2015 – a young white racist shoots 9 black people dead in a church as they pray, and when the police find him hours later they give him a bullet-proof vest and get him a burger.  South Carolina in the weeks that followed finally took the Confederate Flag off the State buildings – to much hostility from white supremacists, for it is their flag.  Quite why it ever became the flag of rock’n’rollers like Lemmy or Mick Jones from the Clash is beyond my comprehension.

And on we go.   In the end compassion is the only way.  Kindness.  We’re in a bit of a finger-pointing era though right now, picking sides, othering.  This song for me shows another way – a white man and a black man working together and seeing the world through each others eyes.  This is the way forward.  I realise too, that this has all been very male, and another great step for me, and for us all, is for MAN to see the world through WOMAN eyes.

Stay safe.

My Pop Life #71 : Song For Sharon – Joni Mitchell

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Song For Sharon   –   Joni Mitchell

…I went to Staten Island
To buy myself a mandolin
And I saw the long white dress of love
On a storefront mannequin

Big boat chuggin’ back with a belly full of cars
All for something lacy
Some girl’s going to see that dress
And crave that day like crazy…

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The first Joni Mitchell song I heard was Both Sides Now – but sung by Judy Collins –  “…it’s clouds illusions I recall, I really don’t know clouds at all…” It was 1968 and I was living in a small village in East Sussex with my Mum and two younger brothers.  We had Radio One on all day.  It seemed like a sad song.

The second Joni Mitchell song I heard was Stardust – but sung by Crosby Stills Nash & Young – “…we are stardust we are golden, and we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden…”   It was 1970 and unbeknown to me I was in the last few weeks of my idyllic village life.  It was a wise song, biblical yet green, and also rather yearning.

The third Joni Mitchell song I heard was Big Yellow Taxi – sung by Joni herself – “…they took all the trees, put ’em in a tree museum, then they charge all the people a dollar and a half just to see ’em..”  It was 1970 and she sounded like a teenage girl, but she was already on her 3rd album.   I was 13 and billeted with Pete Smurthwaite and his Mum Sheila in Lewes since we’d got evicted from the village house for not paying rent.  This song was an eyes-open description of a catastrophe.

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The first Joni Mitchell LP I bought was Court and Spark in 1974 with its brilliant title track, the thrilling Raised On Robbery, the swooning Help Me and the stunning Free Man In Paris  “…stoking the star-maker machinery behind the popular song…”.    I was in Hailsham,  had a new young sister, and I was a late-flowering 16-yr-old glam-rock hippy.  Joni was urgent, caustic, clever and brilliant to mine ears.

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LSE 76-79.  “Blue”  The masterpiece.  Much later, in the 90s this would become one of mine and Jenny’s top LPs, top five listens that would go on the turntable, or later the CD player on a daily basis – All I Want, Carey, A Case Of You, River, The Last Time I Saw Richard.   The shapes of those songs, of those melodies, the sense of a fully-formed musical genius spilling out her feelings is a pure joy.   Jenny sang A Case Of You for Amanda Ooms at a Bohemia Special Birthday Party one night in Brighton – acapella – and years later Glen sang “River” one Christmas at a Brighton Beach Boys gig at The Old Market accompanying himself on piano.  Two magical moments from a magical LP.

And over the years I’ve filled in the dots, bought The Summer Of Hissing Lawns, For The Roses, Clouds, Hejira, Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter, Mingus, Chalk Mark In A Rain Storm, Taming The Tiger, Ladies Of The Canyon and Herbie Hancock‘s 2007 album The River which is a jazz tribute to her music.  There is a wonderful depth to her music, both lyrically profound, often startlingly honest, and the music itself, rhythmically loose and swinging yet played with such crisp feel by Joni herself and the amazing musicians she assembles to play her creations.  Every album is worth examining, plunging in, submerging, re-emerging refreshed and moved.

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No song of Joni’s touches me more deeply than Song For Sharon, from the 1976 LP Hejira.  It’s very much set in New York City, opening on the Staten Island Ferry in the opening verse. She sees a wedding dress in a shop window, and this triggers an 8-minute meditation on love and marriage, success, family and dreams.

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Shine your light on me, Miss Liberty
Because as soon as this ferry boat docks
I’m headed to the church to play Bingo
Fleece me with the gamblers’ flocks

That’s a pretty astounding lyric, using the double meaning of “fleece” but she tops it in the next verse, talking about gambling with her heart :

I can keep my cool at poker
But I’m a fool when love’s at stake
Because I can’t conceal emotion
What I’m feeling’s always written on my face

There’s a gypsy down on Bleecker Street
I went in to see her as a kind of joke
And she lit a candle for my love luck
And eighteen bucks went up in smoke

Joni is laughing at herself here and goes on to talk about leaving her man behind at a “North Dakota Junction” and moving to the Big Apple to “face the dream’s malfunction“…why don’t her relationships last, why isn’t she married ?  The song, admitted by Mitchell to be written whilst on cocaine, fades in and out of her past memories, to her present on the Ferry, to her reactions to a woman friend drowning herself and the depression that then flooded in, and the advice from those around her on how to cope.   Then she’s back in teenage Canada again:

When we were kids in Maidstone, Sharon
I went to every wedding in that little town
To see the tears and the kisses
And the pretty lady in the white lace wedding gown

And walking home on the railroad tracks
Or swinging on the playground swing
Love stimulated my illusions
More than anything

So Sharon is her childhood friend, and is married with children and a farm.  Joni has never settled down.  The contrast for Joni is stark and she explores it further, deeper…

And when I went skating after Golden Reggie
You know it was white lace I was chasing
– Chasing dreams –
Mama’s nylons underneath my cowgirl jeans

He showed me, first you get the kisses
And then you get the tears
But the ceremony of the bells and lace
Still veils this reckless fool here

Joni is alone, and it seems to her, terminally so.  She actually had been married in 1965 to Michigan folk singer Chuck Mitchell, just after giving up her out-of-wedlock first child for adoption, (Little Green on “Blue” is about this girl) but the relationship had lasted less than 16 months.  After her affair with Graham Nash of The Hollies she hooked up with David Crosby and then others but none of these affairs took root.    Sam Shepherd, Jackson Browne, Don Alias, none of them could couple with her restless spirit, so evocatively captured in the swooning backing vocals and sexy rolling shuffle of the rhythm guitar, played by Joni herself throughout the winding sinuous storytelling of Song For Sharon.   The song is, in its unfolding of doubt and longing, its honesty and questioning, a masterpiece.  Or should that be mistresspiece ?  Her mother suggests ecology to counter the blues but –

Well, there’s a wide wide world of noble causes
And lovely landscapes to discover
But all I really want right now
Is find another lover…

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Last summer, 2014, Jenny’s older sister Marlyn came to visit us from Grenada where she is lives as a nun and teaches teenagers.  Or more accurately, a Franciscan Sister Of The Sorrowful Mother.   We were sub-letting in Washington Avenue at that point, and I slept on the sofa for ten days.  One day we took the ferry from DUMBO (Down Under Manhattan-Brooklyn Overpass) to Wall St, walked down a few blocks and boarded the Staten Island Ferry which is a giant yellow edifice towering over Battery Park and facing due south.  It is a free service, run by the City and runs 24/7.  From it, you get the most impressive views of Downtown Manhattan receding, and it chugs right past the Statue Of Liberty too, and Ellis Island.  Marlyn, Jenny and I had a little walk along the Staten Island shore, saw the 9/11 Memorial and then took the ferry back, Joni Mitchell’s beautiful clear voice singing through my head all the way across the harbour.   Marlyn is a beautiful woman, so open and sweet-natured, not heavily promoting her faith at all, but supported and strengthened by it.  We laughed a lot during her visit.

There are two versions of Song For Sharon below – the original from Hejira, stunning, eternal, majestic, then below that a live version from Wembley 1983 with an entirely different arrangement, no backing vocals, rocked-up, bold, brilliant.

…It seems we all live so close to that line, and so far from satisfaction…