The Difficult Truths and the Almost Forgivable Lies of Straight Outta Compton

N.W.A. first popped up on my radar in the seventh grade.  I was in my woodworking class sitting next to a Black kid who with the exception of rhythmic mutterings under his breath was silent.  I do not remember his name and we hardly spoke.  I think we both took comfort in the soothing sounds of a dozen sanders, the smooth feeling of finished wood under our fingertips, the absence of a teachers’ droning.  In the socially exhausting routine of middle school, woodworking was our sanctuary.

I do not recall what our exact assignment was, but the boy next to me was carving something into his project.  I was curious, but was afraid to ask.  At any rate, I would see what the writing was eventually.  Unfortunately, the teacher dropped by and asked him point blank what word he was etching in the wood.  The boy seemed at first to cringe, but then he sat up in his chair and said with sass, “N.W.A.”

He got in trouble and was forced to replace the piece.

I was thoroughly perplexed.  At the time I did not question the teacher’s authority to do such a thing but I wanted very badly to know what the three letters meant.  I spent the rest of the workshop summoning up the courage to talk to him, and when the bell rang and we were in the hallway a safe distance from the class, I asked him what N.W.A. meant.

He looked at me, flashed a smile, and gave their full name.  After thanking him for enlightening me I walked to my locker and thought to myself, “well, no wonder he got in trouble.”

The seventh grade was when people started to call me “Dan Dan the Music Man” because I spent a lot of my time singing.  My musical taste was rudimentary–I listened to what my dad did, sought out musicals, and had yet to choose the 2000s over anything else.  But when the cute girl asked me what my favorite genre of music was I would lie straight-faced and say rap.  For someone who had 3 years to go before he even came close to puberty, I did anything to feel cool.

I did not fake it hard at all though.  I did not go home and look up songs by N.W.A.  I wish I had that day though, because it would have given me an introduction to the pioneer of a crucial and relevant musical genre in American history.  At twelve years old I certainly would not have understood the socio-economic and racial importance of the hip-hop group N.W.A., but it would have helped me talk to that kid in woodworking and perhaps we would have become friends.  Perhaps he could have introduced me into the harsh realities of their music and our world.

The highly successful N.W.A. biopic opened in theaters two weeks ago and the music lover and critic in me was absolutely salivating at the opportunity to see it.  The empath in me also became very aware of the intense feelings the movie would provoke.  Last week I went to see the film with my little seventeen year old brother–who is a more savvy rap fan than myself–and it was quite an experience.

From the opening sequence, the entire film shows the artistic motivations of N.W.A.  It is terrifying and infuriating to be Black in an inherently racist system, where the most viable ways to earn a living are illegal, and that no matter how successful they are, the struggle never stops.  Juxtaposed over various racially motivated acts of violence and other illicit activities, N.W.A.’s story is at times difficult to swallow.  But the film itself is so captivating that looking away would itself be a crime.  For someone who is so deeply affected by music, to see so many people brought together with gangsta rap was magical.

On the other hand, this is a biopic about a group that raps lyrics such as “So what about the bitch who got shot? Fuck her! /
You think I give a damn about a bitch? I ain’t a sucker!” and, “So we started lookin for the bitches with the big butts / Like her, but she keep cryin’, “I got a boyfriend,” Bitch stop lyin’ / Dumb-ass hooker ain’t nuttin but a dyke.”  Rap has a notorious history with misogyny, and that was on full display in Straight Outta Compton.  Women are reduced to nothing but objects to be used and then discarded.  The crucial detail left out of the story, however, is producer Dr. Dre’s assault of journalist Dee Barnes.  The film’s portrayal of women is accurate, but to leave out Dre’s history of abuse left her “like many of the women that knew and worked with N.W.A.: a casualty of [the film’s] revisionist history.”  The brilliance of the film comes from its moments of authenticity, and F. Gary Gray decided to tarnish his movie by treating an important case of violence against women like a footnote.

You can make five different N.W.A movies.  We made the one we wanted to make.

–F. Gary Gray

Furthermore, Dr. Dre should not have been allowed to executively produce the movie along with Ice Cube.  That is gross conflict of interest.  I highly encourage everyone to read Dee Barnes’ personal essay on this issue here.

Despite the glaring omissions, I paid to go see this movie because it was made by Black people for a Black audience and was not stereotypically offensive.  In Hollywood, the number of movies with the majority of the cast people of color is horrifically and inexcusably low.  So low in fact, that when a Black biopic largely set in Los Angeles is released, the police beef up security at the theaters.  This precise kind of ingrained, institutional racism is what makes Straight Outta Compton so relevant and so powerfully good.  To this day the police are intimidated by mainstream art made by and for audiences of color, which is so rare that it’s treated like a terrorist plot.  In 2015, the LAPD have shot 25 people and killed 13, but there have been no acts of gun violence by Black theater audience members in Los Angeles in the same year.  So as N.W.A. would say, fuck the police and go see the year’s best movie.

I’ve thought a lot about that day in woodworking in the recent weeks.  My pretentious response to a boy etching in an acronym for a empowering rap group name was an ignorant one.  The real reason he got in trouble was because the white teacher’s socially and racially motived power dynamic was in jeopardy.  In an inherently racist system the Black boy was not allowed to express his interests in art that upset the status quo.  He was also afraid of something that exposed his privilege and of music that did not represent himself.  Straight Outta Compton is a magnificent portrayal of a crucial chapter in American musical history that is sure to make people uncomfortable. As a result it is poignant and provocative and invites engaging in debates about several important issues relevant to life in the United States.



Will Star Wars Be a Tiny Baby Step in Black Film History?

Happy Star Wars Day everyone, and May the Fourth be with you!  Expectations for Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens are already stratospherically high, but I’m going to set them even higher.  After all, I’ve been a devout Star Wars Fanatic all my life and I deserve this entitled moment to make some demands.

It’s really not that simple though.  This is a necessary step the film industry needs to make.  Hollywood is notoriously bad at casting people of color (POC) and whitewashing period dramas, the most egregious recent example being Exodus: Gods And Kings.  As far as anyone can tell from the two trailers and released information, it appears that John Boyega will be the lead protagonist.  In fact, the two main heroes might be a woman and a British-Nigerian, which is actually a very big deal.  Some figures help show how big this may be.  All information provided by Box Office Mojo.

Top Ten Grossing Films Ever Worldwide and (Domestic) With POC Cast in the Lead Role

45 – Independence Day (46)

89 – Hancock (113)

90 – Men In Black III (199)

97 – Life of Pi (412)

102 – Men In Black (88)

106 – I Am Legend (81)

175 – Men In Black II (170)

185 – Django Unchained (242)

221 – Slumdog Millionaire (314)

238 – Hitch (198)

Pause for a moment and reflect on Will Smith.  He is in 7 of the 10 movies on that list.  SEVEN!  He is also the only Black lead who has ever been in the top 100 grossing films all time worldwide or in the US.  But come on, Will Smith isn’t the only Black actor in this world.

Now, if John Boyega is indeed the lead, then all three films in the upcoming Star Wars trilogy will fall under the above category, and all will most likely crack the top ten.

Star Wars Franchise Worldwide, (Domestic), [US Adjusted For Inflation] Box Office Gross Spots

Phantom Menace – 17 (5) [17]

Attack of the Clones – 84 (43) [87]

Revenge of the Sith – 40 (22) [60]

A New Hope – 52 (6) [2]

Empire Strikes Back – 124 (61) [12]

Return of the Jedi – 151 (45) [15]

So casting John Boyega is a pretty big deal for Black box office numbers, but of course Star Wars is a franchise that can afford not to pamper to white, subconsciously racist audiences.   And the cast is still almost all white.  The highest grossing film where a majority of the cast is Black is Coming To America, which is absurd and culturally offensive.  The most successful and/or profitable Black films almost always portray people who are in submissive roles (12 Years a Slave) or solidify insensitive and absolutely messed up stereotypes (Big Momma’s House).  There are reasons why Selma did not receive Best Actor or Best Director nods, and those reasons are triumphant Black role and Black Woman director, respectively.


First and foremost, let’s put away the pessimism.  George Lucas did not write the script and–okay hold on a sec.


Nor is he directing.  So no trade disputes and no static, completely lifeless attempts to create political intrigue.  These reasons alone are enough cause for celebration.  The other reason for pessimism is that when Disney acquired Lucasfilm, they announced they would do away with the current canon and expanded universe.  Therefore those of us who are sad we won’t see the alien race who’s gods name I just invoked, we’re going to have to deal.  I however, am really happy that those stories won’t get a movie adaptation, because my childhood imagination and memories of them will remain uncorrupted.

Nothing is ever going to match the original trilogy, and why waste breath bemoaning the prequels when you can look to the promising future of one of the best franchises in cinematic history?

May the Force Be With You,

Sincerely, Deej*

*Deej was an Ewok wind spirit that gave her life to teach the Ewoks the secret of music.

Concerning Viet Cong and the Politicization of Band Names

The cancellation of Viet Cong’s show at my alma mater Oberlin College is now receiving national attention.  They were scheduled to perform at the ‘Sco (which is the small club located within the Student Union) on March 14, but the promoter, Ivan Krasnov, cancelled it after receiving backlash over the offensive band name.

In the past I have argued that band/musical project names should hold nothing back from the artist’s work.  Specifically I have fought for people not to blindly hate Tom Krell’s band because of the silly name How to Dress Well.  In making that point in my top 10 albums of 2014 post my girlfriend and occasionally brutally honest editor (I am immensely grateful for this) told me that band names are important and that one should judge music based on its titles and artists to a certain degree.  She told me that it was especially important for Tom Krell, an independent artist who’s band name plays an enormous part in its image and promotion.  I grudgingly concede, especially after I asked a good friend the other day if he would listen to a band with the name How to Dress Well and his response was to laugh and say hell no.

While How to Dress Well may be a somewhat absurd name that decreases Tom Krell’s pool of potential new fans, the negative effect is nothing compared to Viet Cong.  If you chalk it up as “just a band name,” you discredit those who were or had family veterans tortured for years in prison camps.  No, discredit is not strong enough a word to describe the impact this name has on those directly affected by the Vietnam War.

In an interview, front man Matt Flegel laughs the controversy off.  Not only is he aware of the problematic connotations, but he dismisses a letter directly from someone who had family that were tortured.  It is repulsive to see his reaction, and based on the half-assed apology that he released today, he’s keeping the name.

Our band, Viet Cong, has existed for a little over three years now. When we named ourselves, we were naive about the history of a war in a country we knew very little about. We now better understand the weight behind the words Viet Cong. While we don’t take any concerns about the name lightly, we feel it is important to let you know that we never meant to trivialize the atrocities or violence that occurred on both sides of the Vietnam War. We never intended for our name to be provocative or hurtful.
We truly appreciate the seriousness of the feedback we’ve received, and we will continue to be open to listening to issues and concerns from all perspectives.
With love from the band Viet Cong.

There are several problems with this “apology.”  They acknowledge the band name is problematic and that they are in the wrong for choosing it.  They claim to “better understand” the appropriation they are benefiting from and “truly appreciate the seriousness of the feedback,” and yet have made no efforts to change their name.  They do not care, and to prove it, they end the damn thing with the damn name.

For those who believe that censoring artists for politically charged names is ridiculous should at the very least recognize that there will always be social backlash.  This band, bathing in its power and privilege, doesn’t want to aid a marginalized community and are actively promoting the racist notion that their feelings are invalid.  If you don’t see it that way, then consider starting a band called the Auschwitz (insert word here) and see how that goes.

So yeah, Oberlin added to its progressive reputation and cancelled Viet Cong’s show.  To his credit, promoter Ivan Krasnov made the tough decision to abort the event after he made the effort to bring them to perform.  In his issued apology, Krasnov explains the motives behind the decision and gives some really good points.  The one that I appreciated the most from a history major perspective was the citation of Oberlin’s commencement cap and gown tradition.  In the summer of 1970, Oberlin seniors refused to wear the cap and gown to their commencement ceremony and used the refund money to give to Vietnam War protest efforts or local community projects.  To this day, graduating Obies wear whatever they want.

Better Late than Never: 2014’s Best Music

I did it!!!!!!!  I published this on my self-imposed deadline of whenever!!!!  Before you venture into the vast amount of music critique below, a brief explanation of my method.  If I had my way, I would write about my top 50 musical releases of the year.  Indeed, that would be too much, so I’ve compiled a list of my top 10 releases as well as a few interesting/fun superlatives.  This was damn bloody difficult because music is such an ardent passion of mine and the pool of candidates is enormous.  In the end, my top ten releases were judged on strength of intrigue, play-count/replay value, emotional clout, relevance, artistic proficiency, nostalgia and innovation.  These include ANYTHING released during the year 2014, even deluxe reissues and live recordings.

Best Opening Track (Tie)

“Weight of Love” – The Black Keys, Turn Blue & “Palace” – The Antlers, Familiars. 

It’s quite cool to see a band as big as the Black Keys take a risk* and start a record with a song that is seven minutes long and entirely instrumental for the first two.  Not to mention the guitar solos are downright gorgeous.  The soaring brass in The Antlers’ “Palace,” meanwhile, is equally beautiful.

*Then again, is it risky? Or is it just a tribute to how rock used to be?

Most Enormous Yawn-Inducing Cop-Out Overdone Topic of a Track

“Welcome to New York” – Taylor Swift, 1989.

Seriously?  Singing about New York City?  Please, do go on and tell me how bright the lights are.  Come on Taylor, you are a way better songwriter than this.

Best Closer

“Long Way Home” – Gareth Emery, Drive.

This is melodic trance’s equivalent to an Ansel Adams photo.  Or a J.M.W. Turner and John Constable painting combined.  It is a wondrous smile-inducing must-have-on-any-road-trip song of epic proportions.  When it gets warm outside, blast it in your car with the windows down.

Best Bonus Song

“Alright” (feat. Big Sean) – Logic, Under Pressure.

Big Sean follows up the line “She doin’ tricks with her pussy, I guess she’s a vagician” with “Yellin’ fuck the 5.0, state troops / Any nigga with a badge, I don’t even trust the boy scouts.”  Hilarious vulgarity followed by compelling social commentary on an impeccably produced beat.  How this song didn’t make the original album cut is beyond me.

Most Amazing Song That Was Released On An Album in 2014 But Has Justifiably Been Played At Least Three Times At Every Party Since 2012

212 (feat. Lazy Jay) – Azealia Banks, Broke With Expensive Taste. 

If it wasn’t, now it should be.

…Also Best Album Name


Top 5 Played Songs on My iPod From 2014:

1 “Two” – The Range (190)

2 “Repeat Pleasure” – How To Dress Well (113)

3 “Words I Don’t Remember” – How To Dress Well (113)

4 “Habits (Stay High) [Hippie Sabotage Remix]” – Tove Lo (102)

5 “Spectre” – Tycho (97)

Whenever I Heard This I Dropped Whatever I Was Doing And Danced (Tie)

“In My Heart” – Route 94, Fly 4 Life EP & “Shut Up and Dance” – Walk the Moon

Biggest “Upon My Word!” Album Cover:


On that note, I’ll begin my top 10 releases of 2014!!!!!!!!!!


10 – TOKiMONSTA – Desiderium

I stumbled upon Jennifer Lee’s project TOKiMONSTA whilst reading up on an unsurprising egregious music industry sexism story.  Some context.  Electronic trio Krewella broke up into two factions: 1) The two sisters Jahan & Yasmin Yousaf and 2) Kristopher Trindl.  As a result the two sisters became victims of plenty of gendered and sexist criticism.  Highest profiled of these was DJ and producer Deadmau5 who in a string of tweets  said the girls kicked out the “talent” of their act and “should have gone into porn” because “at least in that industry it’s acceptable to screw the people you work with.”  In an attempt to save face, he stated that he liked TOKiMONSTA’s work.  Right.  As if liking one woman’s music makes you not a sexist pig.  Jahan Yousaf later wrote an op-ed for Billboard discussing sexism in the electronic scene, which is even more bereft of women than other genres.

Anyway, I am grateful that Deadmau5’s rant led me to classically trained Lee.  This seven-track release is in my opinion her strongest, and the way she crafts her beats and molds them to perfectly accompany whomever is featured or sampled seems effortless.  On “Steal My Attention” she takes a typical 4/4 beat and throws in some half beats and syncopation.  When I first heard the song, this literally stole my attention.  Then, on “Dusty,” her Aaliyah sample just made me really happy.  All of her interesting time signatures make her music really catchy and makes her a really talented DJ.


9 – Sun Kil Moon – Benji

“To get a look at those I’m connected and see how it all may have shaped me” – “Carissa”

For the longest time, this was for me hook, line, and sinker the best of album of 2014.  There was, however, something about it that got under my skin, and it wasn’t the tough lyrics and thematic content.  A good friend of mine was able to put into words exactly what I was feeling, and it was that Benji is way too specific.  Panera Bread is mentioned more than once and the album closer is about Ben Gibbard of the Postal Service and Death Cab.  My friend, who is a scathing Sun Kil Moon critic, explained that this dates the music and makes it sound like Kozelek is singing from a diary.  Of this I agree.  Art’s greatest strength is that it’s open to interpretation.  More often than not music lyrics should not be too specific but rather complex thought provoking poetry.  But this paints too simple a picture and doesn’t do Benji justice.  It is raw anguish and adoration that leaves Kozelek completely bare.  Almost every song involves someone’s death and there are warm loving tributes to his mother and father.  Connection.  Friendship.  Family.  Of these fundamental human themes no music from 2014 comes at all close to paralleling Benji.

LCD last

8 – LCD Soundsystem – The Long Goodbye (Live at Madison Square Garden) 

“I know it gets tired, but it’s better when we pretend.” – “All My Friends”

On Record Store Day of last year, I woke up at 7am hoping to grab one of the local hole in wall’s two copies of the vinyl box set recording of this show.  I was not nearly early enough (i.e. did not camp out), and my place in line was too far back.  Looking back on this memory makes me realize that this was more than fitting.  Many people loved LCD Soundsystem before I did, and when I got caught up, most of them moved on and left me alone to discover the harsh reality that there’s nothing romantic about growing older while still trying to experience life like when you were 18.  But the truth is, I am far from alone.  If you embark on this mammoth three hour emotional roller coaster ride you’ll hear the thousands of fans that are cheering, crying, and above all, dancing with me.  James Murphy could’ve never released a recording of their farewell show, but “If it’s crowded, all the better,” and for those of us who weren’t able to make it to MSG, we can all close our eyes and dream we were there.

LCD Balloons


7 – Babymetal – Babymetal

“Babymetal doesn’t hide its contrivances at all” – NPR’s Adrien Begrand

Japanese teen girl pop metal infused with reggae, dub-step, and hip-hop influences.  It’s an ingenious marketing Frankenstein of epic proportions that makes sweaty greasy metal heads cringe and start cursing.  To the haters out there I say this:  Since when has relentless headbanging been reserved solely for western white men?  To hell with predetermined notions of “its all been done” and to hell with the idea that metal is for the aggressively masculine, because this….

babymetal concert

is happening.  In the words of Aaron Sankin, “Babymetal is kind of like a magical, leather-clad, fire-breathing, sonic unicorn,” and they stand alone as a current genre pioneer.  It is completely okay to let loose and have a ridiculous amount of awesome fun every once and a while.  With an emphasis on ridiculous.


6 – Le1f – Hey EP

“It saddens me out that a straight man is the voice pop music has chosen for gay rights” – Le1f

When someone told me that Macklemore’s “Thrift Shop” ripped off Le1f’s song “Wut,” I didn’t hear it and I argued that just because two songs use the same time signature and instrument doesn’t signal plagiarism.  The thing is, I’m probably wrong.  Because a white straight man saw success and queer person of color did not.  Macklemore also received tons of acclaim for his song “Same Love,” which cemented his image as a white knight for gay rights.  Le1f is pretty clear in his pointed criticism of Macklemore, but he doesn’t let it get in the way of him making fantastic music.

The nerdy and mood-alleviating lyrics over beats that hit as hard as any club banger out there are indeed so curious and awesome that it’s hard not to crack a smile and step onto the dance floor.  “Fire type, I flame throw and it’s over / I’m combusting, bitch check your locals / I’m a Charmander, a banjee commander.”  He later raps about how a flirtatious man tries to use all his pokéballs on him, but there’s “no capture.”  That’s from the first song, “Hey,” and the next track, “Sup,” is even better: “Rumspringa, Rumspringa!!… Serving it grande, venti, trenta / Skin color: spicy chai latte / Get some coffee, pop it like edamame.”  Later in the song it’s, “I’m in that garden / With Adam, Eve and Steven / You wanna rub the apples? / Call me Johnny, I’m seedin'”  These are lines written and rapped by a fiercely proud gay man who is not only justifiably confident but is also on a mission to prove he’s better than all the hate and corruption swirling around him.  The politics that Le1f attracts pisses him off and “if you ask a gay question [he will give you] a black answer.”

“Don’t ask me how I been cuz the answer is relentless

Innocent until proven filthy I’m wildin’ out here.

I hope the cops don’t kill me

They wanna see me blend in like Realtree

But I can’tz do thatz. I gots to do me”


5 – Ex Hex – Rips

For Mary Timony, this is something like her fourth band.  I haven’t listened to her other work from other outfits, but my god, if they are anything like Rips I must get my hands on all of them.  This album is SO. MUCH. FUN!!!!!! It’s straight to the point catchy as all hell rock and roll, something that has unfortunately fallen by the wayside.  Made up of a power trio of bad ass women, a guitar, drum set, a bass, and two-and-a-half minutes are all they need to rock their way into your ears through to your heart and out your mouth making you “bumbumbum” right along with them forevermore.


4 – How to Dress Well – “What is This Heart?”

“It’s hard to see how much of our social fabric is made up of a radical refusal to love people” – Tom Krell

When I went to see Tom Krell and his band How to Dress Well perform at U Street in DC last year I was expecting a haunting and evocative performance.  After all, Krell’s music explores devastating topics like heartbreak and suicide, just to name a couple.  So it was pretty cool and quite entertaining to see him lighten the mood with quirky quips in between songs.  As he was introducing the song “Suicide Dream 1,” however, Krell told a story about a dear friend and roommate who had died soon after Krell moved to Europe.  During this time, the audience held conversations over him, cheered and clapped.  To say I was livid would be a gross understatement.

I have introduced How To Dress Well’s music to many but still have not found anyone who comes at all close to sharing my intense love for it.  Reasons range from the understandable “obnoxious falsetto,” to the irritating “the band name is dumb.”  I cannot do anything about musical taste and it is annoying to see people judge a project by its title, but it is impossible to criticize Krell for the unequivocal expression of his emotions.  “What is This Heart?” is a masterpiece of immensely honest emotional expression that is so powerful it sometimes seems corny, but in the end deserves sympathy and respect.

Terry multiplicity

3 – The Terry Hsieh Collective – Multiplicity

During his 2014 set at Coachella, Beck told a story about how he waited in the rain to see a band play a gig in a small bar in his neighborhood.  As it turned out, that band was Arcade Fire before they became the enormous stadium rockers that they are now, and Beck made a point to say that the local music scene–wherever you are–is often the best.  I had the pleasure and privilege to attend Oberlin College, where I could see budding musicians play at one of the best music conservatories in the world.  I was exposed to some amazing things, and it was there that I saw my track teammate Terry and his jazz band perform his compositions.  WOW.  I vividly remember watching him that first time at the Cat and the Cream and getting completely blown away by the performance.  “Dream of The Red Chamber” moved me to tears.  To have a polished recording of his new work is an awesome thing, because brilliant artists all have a launchpad, and Multiplicity is a rocket ship.

American Football Album Cover2 – American Football – American Football (Deluxe Reissue)

“Play the sad one!” – Audience Member at American Football’s Pygmalion Set

Sometimes a band forms, records a classic album, then breaks up and moves on, never again to bless us with new music.  Sometimes this is perfectly necessary, and makes sense given the lives and feelings of those involved.  And sometimes they unwillingly set up something out of their control and greater than themselves.  Sometimes the music ages and transcends all boundaries.  Almost sixteen years ago American Football recorded their only album, a self-titled monumental pillar on the foundation of emo rock.  It inevitably spread, and for those of us who grew up with it nurturing our angst understand that those nine songs are impervious treasures.

So when it was announced that American Football was issuing a deluxe version and that they were going to play their first show in fifteen years in their hometown of Champaign, Illinois, people could not believe it.  In their own words from their song “But the Regrets are Killing Me,” the last fifteen years had been “a long goodbye / with mixed emotions / just fragments of another life.”

When you’re living teenage angst, you feel totally alone and there is no way on earth an adult understands what you’re going through.  Over the years we mature and discard the belief that adult feelings are completely different from those of a teen.  There are variances, to be sure, but they retain certain striking similarities.  This is why I come back to this album time and time again.  American Football’s music endures because the emotions are age defying and universal.  You could see this truth on the faces of the three middle aged band members while they played.  Their performance was the ultimate ending at the Pygmalion Music Festival.  The lead singer, Mike Kinsella, would repeatedly look out into the crowd in utter shock and disbelief.  He was overwhelmed at the sheer growth in his fan base, (the last gig they played fifteen years ago was in a half empty bar), but I suspect the real reason was the fervent cathartic realization that all in the audience identified and knew what they had gone through and felt all those years ago.

“Honestly I can’t remember those teen dreams

all my teenage feelings and their meanings

they seem too see-through to be true

all the who’s are there but the why’s are unclear”

American Football

 run the jewels cover

1 – Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels 2

“This whole court is unimportant, you fuckers are walkin’ corpses” – El-P on “Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck) [feat. Zach De La Rocha]”

That is, if the police officers who killed Eric Garner and Michael Brown even made it to court to begin with.  They didn’t even get indicted.  These implications are inescapable when listening to Killer Mike and El-P’s collaboration, but Run the Jewels is a merciless, ruthless behemoth of a bullshit-caller, regardless of your political views.  “You want a whore in a white dress / I want a wife in a thong.”

I tried a few times to see what the hype was about, but I couldn’t get past the first song.  The same happened for my brother and girlfriend.  The reason?  The predominant mood on this album is uncompromising animosity.  We grew to adore this album, however, because beneath all the vitriol and abrasive beats is blunt, impartial wisdom.  Whether it be in television (“They all actors, giving top in back of a BM /I’d fall back if the casting calls are ending in semen…The fellows at the top are likely rapists”) or religion, (“The forehead engravers, enslavers of men and women / Includin’ members of clergy that rule on you through religion / So strippin’ kids to the nude and then tell ’em God’ll forgive ’em”), Run the Jewels is straightforward and unforgiving.

Later in the album the two rappers face their shame.  Killer Mike says he “Won’t be the same type of man that puts cocaine in this lady’s hand / Heard she was pregnant, I’m guilty I reckon cause I hear that good shit can hurt baby’s brain,” and El-P questions his doubt for the armed forces: “We’ll teach you to move without mercy and give you the tools to go after the causers of hurt / You’ll become death / You will take breath / This is for everything you’ve ever loved.”  Anger is difficult to deal with, guilt often worse.

There is a scene in the film Selma when Dr. King has a tense exchange with Coretta about constantly traveling and being away from the family, for he is on the verge of leaving once again.  The brilliance of Ava DuVernay’s direction shows that during the discussion Martin is fumbling around the kitchen trying to find trash bags for the bin he just emptied.  Problem is, he hasn’t been home enough to know their location, and a frustrated Coretta hands them to him.  Afterwards he is left stressed and very much aware of the burden on his shoulders.  Before he retires for the night, he phones Mahalia Jackson and asks her to sing for him.

After the death of a cotton-picker in the film 12 Years a Slave, those that he worked with gather around his grave to sing.  Solomon Northup, who was kidnapped and lost everything, at first does not participate because he is completely disheartened and defeated.  As the voices swell and gain ground, however, he joins them, staring determinedly at a point on the ground next to the camera.

Music’s therapeutic qualities are just water molecules in the vast and complex ocean of African American history.  But what does it say about our society that the songs sung on plantations and the Black voices whose gospels inspired and comforted are evolving into enraged messages of malcontent?  That is why this album is so prominently prevalent.  Run the Jewels disguise the relevance beneath the ire because their work is meant to be experienced by those who are equally frustrated for the present and yet are hopeful for the future.  They are blue flames igniting our passionate fury, encouraging us to channel it into progress.

Martin Singing