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.

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My Pop Life #130 : America – Simon & Garfunkel

America   –   Simon & Garfunkel

Let us be lovers we’ll marry our fortunes together

I’ve got some real estate here in my bag

So we bought a pack of cigarettes

and Mrs Wagner pies

and walked off to look for America…

It was some time in early 2015 when I became aware of the two Swedish sisters Johanna & Klara Söderberg who call themselves First Aid Kit covering this evergreen classic.  Clear, bright, bel canto voices with a precise harmonic shiver  : the song lived again in their youthful rendition.   It marked our first year living in New York City, two English actors who’d packed two suitcases and one cat each and upped and flown to the Big Apple on a whim in February 2014.   My wife Jenny and I had moved six times by the time I heard this cover of Simon & Garfunkel‘s song, from Harlem in the snow, to the top floor of a brownstone in Washington Avenue in Brooklyn in the deeper snow (and an encounter with fairy godmother Johanna), across the street to a sublet in an apartment block, to the Village in Manhattan, then Air Bob in Bed-Stuy, to Hall St in Clinton Hill, now next door in Fort Greene.  It was our third major stint looking for America.  First – 1992 Los Angeles for three years, Venice, West Hollywood and Green Cards.  Next – 2002 Los Angeles for another two years – Los Feliz.  Now New York.  Coming up for two years as I write this.

My first experience of America was in 1976 when my best friend Simon Korner and I hitch-hiked from New York to Los Angeles to Vancouver to Cape Cod.  It was our gap year – though it was called “a year off” back then.  We’d done our A-levels, got our University places sorted – him at Cambridge, me at LSE.  I’d then left home and gone to work in Laughton Lodge as a Nursing Assistant, a period I outlined briefly in My Pop Life #58.

Essentially I was required to keep an eye on a ward-full of 30 men of differing shapes and sizes, but all classified in 1975 as ‘Mentally Subnormal’.  Some of them were dangerous.  Some were catatonic.  Now they would be called clients with a learning difficulty.  All this for a later blog, but I mention it in passing.  I worked there from October through to April 1975, saving money to fly to New York with Simon, to go and look for America.

It was terribly exciting, we were 18 going on 19 and from a small Sussex town called Lewes.  Seeing the skyscrapers of Manhattan, the Smithsonian, the wide open prairies of Nebraska, the Rocky Mountains, Monument Valley and the Arizona desert was an unparalleled experience for two young men, and it changed and bonded us both.    Paul Simon did a similar trip with Kathy Chitty in 1964.   I kept a diary of the trip and at one point in New Mexico wrote a kind of Ode :

America ! America ! The skies all seem to say !

Or are they saying something else, like : “Let’s be on our way” ?

 It’s rather hard to tell because it’s cloudy out today

But Ralph and Sigh don’t mind because they’re IN THE USA !!

Fairly safe to say there wasn’t a budding Paul Simon hiding within at that point.   It’s more of a Soviet Farm Song satire.

Perhaps not surprisingly this song always makes me feel emotional for reasons I can’t quite put my finger on.  The ultimate line : “…counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike, they’ve all come to look for America…” is so simple and ordinary yet it has a poetic magic that lifts the song into a mythical hymn for the soul.  Of all those people searching for their best life on this vast continent.  Plenty wrong with the USA of course which I won’t rehearse here.  this is about the other side of the coin.   The optimism of America, constantly encouraging, constantly asking you to make the very best of yourself.  The reason why we keep coming back.    The hope.  The interior yearning made physical reality.

We had Simon & Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits in our house all through childhood, Mum must have bought it.  This song didn’t stand out to me at the age of ten or eleven, I was hooked on Sound Of Silence, Parsley Sage Rosemary & Thyme, Homeward Bound.  But it must have crept under my skin because it has become one of my favourite songs of all time.  Again, I’m not sure why, but it has a strange ineffable power : unusually there is no rhyme at all in the lyrics, and the chorus is just one line, slightly altered each time “…look for America”.    Paul Simon evidently knows that from the specific and the individual experience comes the universal : the details of the Greyhound Bus trip from Pittsburgh which had started as a hitch-hiking journey from Saginaw, Michigan, the cigarettes, the jokes, the youthful joy which turns to melancholy in the last verse :

Kathy I’m lost” I said, though I knew she was sleeping..I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why

the reference to smoking pot “some real estate here in my bag” and the the space between the two voices above all lend this three-minute masterpiece a unique power.  In particular the middle verse :

So I looked at the scenery, she read her magazine and the moon rose over an open field..”

has no equal in pop writing for me.  There is just so much space in the song, and the listener fills it with their own fantasies, desires and feelings.  But mainly with their own bruised optimism.

graffitti on an abandoned building in Saginaw

I thought I would post the First Aid Kit version because I became rather obsessed with it, but after a few months of listening to hip hop and electronica I went back to it.  It still sounds bright and beautiful, but it is in the end a cover of a classic.  There are technical issues – chopped bar lines and other things I won’t bore you with, Paul Simon’s song is best served in the end by Art Garfunkel and himself, some acoustic guitars, a wandering soprano saxophone and a melodic bassline.  Larry Knechtel on Hammond organ and Hal Blaine on the drums join them on this recording, but essentially the space created between all of these elements is where the song’s beauty lies, which the Swedish sisters have understood so well.  David Bowie made a similar empty echoing version immediately after 9/11 which I post below.

My other memory of this song is the film Almost Famous of course, a film about music with one of the finer soundtracks I can remember.  The closing credits roll over The Beach Boys’ “Feel Flows“the closing song on their 1971 LP Surf’s Up and well outside the 20 Golden Greats arena.   Simon & Garfunkel’s song accompanies the young hero leaving home, looking for America.  One of those cliches that always lands.

Simon & Garfunkel 1966

Paul Simon is of course one of the finest songwriters of any era.  I sang his solo praises in My Pop Life #89 .  The combination he had with Art Garfunkel was immaculate though and unlikely to be bettered as a vehicle for his amazing songs.  I think they fell out probably – and unspoken issues kept them apart aside from one remarkable song My Little Town and a concert in Central Park in 1981 when they tried to heal the rift to no avail.

Carousel Singers at the Unitarian Church Brighton 2013

Towards the end of my Brighton period, around 2013 I suppose, I joined a group run by Julia Roberts called The Carousel Singers.  I was suggested by ace percussionist Paul Gunter who played for a while with The Brighton Beach Boys and is a senior graduate of Stomp – because Carousel – or rather Julia – were looking for a pianist who could accompany a choir of learning-disabled adults.  My year with Carousel was extraordinary, funny, moving and occasionally sad.  We’d meet every Wednesday evening in the Unitarian Church on New Road in the centre of Brighton.  Julia, Paul, another musician Gabrielle, graduate Karis and me.  My instinct was always to push the singers further, assume that they could do things that perhaps they hadn’t been asked to do before, stretch them out a bit.  And we used to write songs together, as a group.  In particular the choir members would come up with the lyrics, and I would supply some kind of tune and chords to go with them.  The first time we did this, for a song we called Song For Iain,  I used a simple descending F to C bassline which pleases the ear and sounds very POP, but for the second song I just couldn’t get ‘America’ out of my brain, and blatantly lifted chunks of melody for the choir to sing.  Fran in particular got it, and always remembered the tune from one week to the next.  Others joined her.  Others again could scarcely talk let alone sing, but it was a group which looked out for each other and didn’t judge, but always supported each other.  I learned a huge amount from working with these people, who just 40 years earlier would have been on a locked ward in a Mental Hospital being dosed-up with various drugs.   The Carousel Singers all have a level of independence, and a huge reservoir of compassion combined with a lack of judgement of other people’s ability and capability.  It was extraordinarily moving.  I do believe that we could learn a great deal from adults and children with learning difficulties.

Meanwhile I’m still looking for America.  Wish me luck.

Simon & Garfunkel :

First Aid Kit get an ovation from Paul Simon :

the David Bowie video isn’t the 9/11 one but hey !