My Pop Life #247 : This Is America – Childish Gambino

This Is America   –   Childish Gambino

This is America 
Don’t catch you slippin’ now 
Look how I’m livin’ now
Police be trippin’ now 
Yeah, this is America 
Guns in my area
I got the strap 
I gotta carry ’em
Yeah, yeah, I’ma go into this 
                                              Yeah, yeah, this is guerilla                                                    Yeah, yeah, I’ma go get the bag
Yeah, yeah, or I’ma get the pad
Yeah, yeah, I’m so cold like, yeah 
I’m so dope like, yeah 
We gon’ blow like, yeah 

Ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh, tell somebody
You go tell somebody
Grandma told me
Get your money, Black man 

*

2018 had some other elements which I’ll examine here, perhaps not at quite so much length as the last post. Or maybe at greater length, but with fewer pictures !

In January, having been offered Gemini Man, I called my English agent and let her go. I’d been thinking over something she said to me before Christmas : “you’re aiming too high Ralph…” and decided I just couldn’t get past it. It was a stupid thing to say to anyone, and she doubled down on it rathr than withdraw it. The previous year she had kept trying to get me to sack my manager in Los Angeles because “whatever”, but I am living in the United States, that’s a reality. It was all very unpleasant to be honest. We have since made up, but at the time of writing I have no representation in the UK.

Shortly after that episode it was minus points in New York and I was trying to take my thermal longjohns off one night (boy they were tight) when a snapping noise indicated that I had broken a tendon in my finger. Didn’t really hurt but the final digit became kind of floppy. Some people call this Basketball Finger or Jammed Finger because it’s quite common in that sport. I called it a pain in the ass because I was about to go and shoot a movie called Gemini Man, and it looked all wrong. After a consultation in the local hospital across the park and an X-Ray to check it wasn’t broken (it wasn’t) I was set up with some PT down in Park Slope south. Excercises I had to do, splints I had to wear etc. This little incident dominated the early six to ten weeks of the year. It did heal really well though, eventually. But enough about me and my miniscule problems. How did 2018 actually pan out for the rest of America?

In February there was a school shooting in Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Parkland Florida. 17 children were killed and another 17 injured. This made it the worst school shooting in US history, surpassing the notorious Columbine massacre of 1999. The reaction of the political establishment stretched from the “thoughts and prayers” of President Trump to the Democratic Senator Bill Nelson who stated that the murder weapon – an AR-15 – was not for hunting (as claimed by the NRA) but for killing. The survivors of the attack came together and formed Never Again to stop gun violence, confronting the NRA head-on, led by David Hogg  Emma González, and Cameron Kasky.

This resulted in the March For Our Lives in Washington D.C. and other locations in March 2018 (estimated turnout 2 million people) and quickly became the hot issue of the year, especially when another school shooting took place in Santa Fe, Texas in May, resulting in 10 deaths.

In the previous six months there were two more notable mass shootings which means to say that they made the national headlines – I don’t know the actual figures because killings of one or two people just don’t register any more. Las Vegas was the site of the biggest mass shooting in American history on October 17th when a 65-yr old white man shot over 1000 rounds of ammunition from a 32nd floor suite in the Mandalay Hotel over a 15-minute period into a huge crowd of people celebrating a music festival below. 60 people died and 411 were injured amid scenes of panic where further people were injured.

On November 5th 2017 there was a mass shooting at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas where a man opened fire killing 26 worshippers and wounding 20 others. Camera footage at the back of the church showed the man methodically shooting people in the pews and pausing only to reload.

So as we moved into 2018 the right to bear arms was under massive scrutiny once again. “Open carry” is on the statute books in some states where armed individuals go shopping with their rifles or handguns plainly visible.

Gun violence has become, perhaps has always been, an abnormally normal feature of American life. Particularly for black people. Any interaction between police officers and black people are fraught with tension – parents must have what is known as “The Conversation” with their children when they are old enough to understand it – and The Conversation is all about how to stay alive when the police want to speak with you. How to speak. Where to put your hands, how to move. I wrote about Black Lives Matter back in 2014 in the early days – teenager Trayvon Martin‘s murder was the trigger for the movement in 2013 when a jury exonerated his killer, then Eric Garner was murdered by NYPD in New York in 2014 for selling cigarettes – his final words: “I can’t breathe“, Tamir Rice a 12 yr-old child murdered in a Cleveland playground by police and Michael Brown shot on the street by a policeman in Ferguson, Missouri – all were triggers for large BLM protests on the streets (see My Pop Life #163 Early).

Funeral for the victims in the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, Charleston

In 2015 a white man murdered 9 black church-goers in a Charleston, South Carolina church (a church I visited in 2016 when on a break from filming in Richmond, Virginia), Sandra Bland was arrest for changing lanes in Texas and “died” in prison, apparently hanging herself, Freddie Gray was killed in a police van in Baltimore after his arrest. There were others.

In 2016 Philando Castile was shot in his car in St Paul, Alton Sterling was murdered on the street in Baton Rouge, Terence Critcher was killed in Tulsa among many others. San Fransisco 49er quarterback Colin Kaepernick started his protest kneeling for the anthem before NFL football games, and was vilified by Trump and others for doing so, particularly in 2017 as the kneeling protests gained support from other players and other sports. Trump said that those who didn’t stand for the anthem should be fired. As a reality TV game show host (The Apprentice) he was on confident ground here.

Kaepernick was released from his 49er contract at the end of the 2017 season and has not played professional football since. He featured notably in a Nike commercial in 2018 featuring the slogan “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.

2017 was relatively quiet, by which I mean that very few police killings were caught on camera-phone. As Will Smith said “Nothing has changed except people now have the means to record police interventions”. However there was a Unite The Right Rally in Charlottesville, North Carolina where far-right white supremacists, nazis and Klan marched with tiki-torches chanting anti-semitic slogans while anti-racist protestors faced them down, and the following day Heather Heyer was killed by a fascist driving his car deliberately at a group of counter-protestors. Trump notoriously described these events as having “very fine people” on both sides. Joe Biden has gone on record as saying that this remark prompted him to run for the Presidency.

Charlottesville is the site of a statue of General Robert E. Lee, leader of the southern Confederate states during the civil war and a hero for those who mourn the end of slavery, to put it in the simplest possible terms. Fight me. The proposal was to take the statue down. As I write in November 2020 the statue is still standing.

Just after the Parkland shooting I was in the Southern Georgia wetlands not far from the Florida border, Jacksonville less than an hour away. Americans felt under siege from gun violence. I was in my safe Brooklyn bubble most of the time but now my skin was prickling in the heat. And black people continued to make pop music, make pop videos, dance sing and entertain us.

Lakeith Stanfield, Donald Glover & Bryan Tyree Henry in Atlanta

And this is the context of the video for This Is America, directed by Donald Glover’s regular collaborator Hiro Murai who directed some episodes of Glover’s excellent comedy-drama show Atlanta for FX. The iconic video was never explained by creator Donald Glover, aka Childish Gambino.  As a result the internet has proliferated with thousands of sites explaining the coded messages in it, which I’m not about to contribute to.  I will quickly point out a few images though –

the strange facial expression that Glover pulls at the beginning is a reference to the racist iconography of the Coon Chicken Inn which served americans chicken dinners from 1925 until the late 1950s.

The odd pose Glover stands in to execute the musician in the hood is a visual quote from Jim Crow, a racist minstrel character devised by Thomas D. Rice in the 1830s and appropriated from black folk culture which he had observed. The character’s name was then applied to racist laws which enforced racial segregation in the United States after Reconstruction (the period after the Civil War which lasted until the 1960s aka the Jim Crow era).

The Gwara Gwara Dance is a South African dance move created by DJ Bongz and popularised in the US by Rihanna and others. It occurs throughout the video while scenes of chaos, suicide and death are happening in the background. Entertainment takes our attention while violence occurs constantly.

The White Horse with seated figure of Death escorted by a police car.

I’ll leave the rest for you to enjoy or be horrified by and pick out for yourself.

This Is America is a multi-layered and brilliantly constructed piece of work which examines entertainment and race, guns and money in 21st century America.  If you haven’t seen it yet, stand back and stand by.

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.