The use of rap music to reflect upon racial discord is nothing new. It is pretty despairing to hear rap’s greatest voices repeatedly lamenting the deep-seated prejudice underpinning the murders of unarmed black men. Maybe there is some hope that by sharing their perspectives they are elevating the often easily erased stories, into spaces they might not otherwise reach. But to what extent is this true? As much as rap music continues to thrive in mainstream culture, soundtracking white spaces like a PureGym in Norwich, how much of this music is actually heard? Are people really listening to the messages in the lyrics of their favourite rap anthems or is half of raps audience just gym bros looking for some background noise to get a pump on?
Not everybody, regardless of race, age or preferred genre, chooses to go beyond surface level with the music they listen to. But some artists make this nigh on impossible. Cue Run The Jewels. This duo of intense truth tellers; El-P and Killer Mike, craftily balance brassy humour (they’re not short of crude jokes) with intelligent social commentary, drawing listeners in to assess and question the world we live in. You don’t have to investigate very far into RTJ to understand their interest in challenging the ruling classes, with Killer Mike coining the slogan ‘Kill your Masters’. Mike explains this in an interview with The Line of Best Fit in 2017: ‘If I leave any legacy besides music, that’s what I’d want it to be: to let people know that they are absolutely free, and that you have the power to bring who you perceive to be powerful to their fucking knees. Kill your masters.”
Killer Mike is used to the limelight. The rapper started making his mark in activism at the beginnings of his music career in the early 2000s. More recently, in the wake of RTJ’s new album RTJ4, Killer Mike’s activism has been propelled back into the public eye. On May 29th, Mike stood up and made an impassioned speech to Atlanta protesters on his thoughts in response to George Floyd’s murder. He urged the protesters to stay calm: ‘now is the time to plot, plan, strategize, organize, and mobilize.” The rapper powerfully surmised ‘We don’t want to see targets burning, we want to see the system that sets up for systemic racism burnt to the ground.” Four days later and RTJ bring forward the drop of RTJ4 (available as a free download), providing Mike’s followers and the group’s fans with more understanding, motivation and ammunition to carry on fighting the good fight.
RTJ4 is another masterpiece showing us why rap is the perfect tool for social activism. Each time you return to the album you uncover a new pearl of wisdom, experience anger and pain, but also joy – this is a soundtrack to progress. About half way into the album you’re hit with the powerful track: ‘Walking in the Snow’. Mike spits improvised rhymes (Mike doesn’t write before he records) over jarring electro, delivering the albums most unapologetic calling out of police brutality: ‘And you so numb you watch the cops choke out a man like me/ And ’til my voice goes from a shriek to whisper, “I can’t breathe.” This comment on the desensitisation of violence towards black bodies is not tragically prophetic to George Floyd’s murder (the album was made a significant time before this event). This is a reference to Eric Garner, who spoke the same dying words when strangled by a police chokehold in New York City nearly six years ago. You can pick out a lot from just these two lines. When Mike is using the words, ‘man like me’, we understand this unspoken acceptance that being a black man in America is a death sentence. It would be wrong to say it was luck that the release of this album was so timely with the recent tragedies in the news. However, what this album does show is the power of this music to put into words the generational trauma of racism in America.
Not all 11 songs on RTJ4 confront these hard hitting issues in this way. RTJ team up with rap heavyweights Greg Nice and DJ Premier for ‘ooh la la’, sampling old school goodness from Greg Nice’s verse in the DJ Premier produced song “DWYCK” by Gang Starr. In a Rolling Stone Music podcast Mike speaks about how much joy DWYCK brought him and how translating this joy was the main intention for ‘ooh la la.’ The song playfully imagines a world without capitalism. Mike reinstates the kill your masters narrative, drawing parallels between himself and beloved popular culture super villain the Joker,(I used to love Bruce, but livin’ my vida local/ Help me understand, I’m probably more of a Joker’) a character many interpret as a sort of anticapitalist
gangster. No track on RTJ4 is stuck on one sound, mixing it up between east coast hip hop samples from rap’s golden years and Mike’s aggressive southern rap flow. The group’s experimental side shines through in ‘JU$T’, enlisting the kings of the alternative: funk-rap producer Pharrel Williams and the rap-rock frontman of Rage Against the Machine, Zack de la Rocha. This track is another stand out moment on the album, Pharrel providing an overtly raw chorus where even the most casual of listeners cannot ignore the commentary on racism and capitalism: ‘The Thirteenth Amendment says that slavery’s abolished / Look at all these slave masters posin’ on yo’ dollar’.
RTJ are a creative force, and above all RTJ4 reminds us that the duo make music with a firm commitment to speaking their truth. RTJ rap about what drives them. What is on their minds goes into their music. Not every one of their songs is written to drive you towards a certain political morality, but as long as systemic racism keeps rearing its ugly head in our world, it will keep showing up in the music. But with this repetition comes hope. When speaking with Rolling Stone, Mike could not come across a better figure of optimism: ‘Times are finally prepped. In this moment right here, we have an opportunity to change legislation that means police will be held accountable. We have an opportunity to seize the moment, where money does not matter over the cost of human life.’ RTJ4 landed just on time, to pick up the woes of the long fight for equality and frame them with hope. RTJ will keep their listeners and fans joyfully entertained, but they will always make time for activism, time to make protest music for the masses. It’s hard to imagine any listeners could not be engaged with this, but now is a time, if ever, to remind consumers of rap and black music to read between the lines. The recent quoting of activist Amanda Seales, by Radio One presenter Clara Amfo springs to mind: ‘You cannot enjoy the rhythm and ignore the blues’. RTJ4 embodies this. You are not meant to sit and cry at every track but this will never be music to just listen to. This is a call to activism.
By Georgia Mulraine
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