Hip-Hop and #BlackLivesMatter: A Conversation With Shaun King

How the culture can get involved.

Hip-hop is a house divided on the Black Lives Matter Movement. As the deaths of Black men and women at the hands of law enforcement continue to rock America, the culture that has been heralded as the “voice of the voiceless” has had trouble figuring out what to say. A$AP Rocky is in the hot seat for refusing to talk about police brutality because he “can’t relate.” The Game and Snoop Dogg are taking to the streets of Los Angeles in protest, meeting with their city’s mayor and uniting gang members against violence. Kevin Gates and Fetty Wap have been criticized for subscribing to “all lives matter” rhetoric. Killer Mike is urging fans to quit marching and bank with Black-owned companies to take back the community’s power. A mirror of the waywardness of the Black community itself, hip-hop is having trouble finding its way through the trauma.
And if you ask writer/activist Shaun King, this is all because we are operating as EMTs, trying to put out a fire.
“One of the most difficult things about the constant onslaught of this terrible news, is that it makes it almost impossible for us to think through and implement long-term solutions,” he says, squeezing in 40 minutes for this call between covering social justice for the New York Daily News. “It’s hard to advocate for the change of fire code when your house is on fire. So for two years, witnessing the deaths of Mike Brown or Eric Garner several weeks before that, we have been in a state of emergency.”
As the flames continue to tear through our walls, our difficulty with figuring out viable solutions to America’s broken system lurks. Though equipped with resources and large audiences, the world’s most affluent culture struggles to ward off an inevitable sense of helplessness. Even for King, who spends his days pinpointing the flaws in the justice system for a national publication, it becomes difficult to take stock of the toll it takes. One strategy he’s tried to implement is an unplugging from social media at night. But what ignites him again the next day is empathy.
“I’ve always been in the charity space, doing social good. Because the pain that people experience, it resonates with me, it matters to me, and I take it personally. That allows me to be a fierce advocate for people who’ve been wronged and that comes even from my own life experiences.”
With help from other men and women on the frontlines, hip-hop might be able to extinguish the discord.

In your observation, where do you believe the Black Lives Matter movement and hip-hop intersect?
I have a couple of thoughts. I hate when an artist attempts to dive into the issue and they do so clumsily, and people just blast them. A lot of these artists will then reach out to me, because their intent and their heart was pure. A lot of them – for reasons that other people couldn’t understand – a lot of them live in a bubble. And that bubble doesn’t allow them to be as informed as others. Because they are often trying to protect themselves from the craziness that people say about them online, they really don’t look at social media and the news the way you and I and other people do. So they try to say something, they try to make a statement, and they end up walking sometimes onto landmines that they didn’t even know were there. And the consequence of that is, good men and women who could potentially have a ton of influence end up really pulling back. That’s unfortunate because hip-hop – maybe more than almost anything else – is a universal language to the world. 

I want to ask you about specific things that rappers have said. The Game, in particular, shared a post of frustration which basically said, ‘All we’re going to do is post his video and this hashtag and then we’re all going to move on, including myself.’ What do you make of that frustration?
I know Game fairly well and he’s frustrated. He’s one of those guys that’s always willing to tell you how he feels at that moment. Again, what happens is, a lot of people will see that and criticize him for it two weeks from now. But he took a real risk by saying, ‘In this moment, right now, this is how I feel.’ And his feelings are valid, because it seems like we’ve made very little progress on the issue and it continues to happen. I didn’t agree with every word that he said, because there are many of us who are doing way more than posting videos and moving on; we are crafting policies. There’s a group of people that are forming a super PAC to fight again against police brutality. There are a lot of us who are trying to do the best we can to take it beyond hashtags and videos, but the spirit of his comment – one, was real because that’s how he felt – but it was real in that he’s just saying it’s not enough. We’re not doing enough. If you want hip-hop artists to be involved, you’re gonna get raw thoughts from The Game and you have to take that and try to see the beauty and the pain in it, and see where you can help take it.

And then T.I. made a statement addressed to “the so-called goons,” calling them to action and urging them that “if you don’t stand up for what’s right, then you don’t get any stripes for doing wrong.” Do you think this message is more poignant coming from an artist of his caliber, who has been in the streets himself and has walked that walk?

I think it means a lot. I [lived] in Atlanta, and T.I. is still very influential and loved here in the city, more than anywhere else in the world. The day of the protest, he was there with his son. T.I. and I both, between us, we have like 12 kids. I have five, I think he has six or seven. Everything I do and everything I say, like T.I., I do from the lens of a father. I’m thinking about what’s ahead. Even at the protest, he’s there with his teenage son, who’s taller than him now. Again, I think it’s just a brother trying to say – and I’ve heard this all week, in a way that was a little different from Ferguson or after Sandra Bland – that we have to do more. It’s him trying to lead out front. 

On Fabolous’ part, he made a public plea to President Obama. That’s one of the knee-jerk reactions that happens, right? We go straight to the President. What are your thoughts on that?

I thought a lot about President Obama in this, and it is a knee-jerk reaction to say, ‘He should do more.’ Cornel West made some comments about the tenor and tone that President Obama has given on the issue, and I feel like it could be stronger. Like when President Obama spoke about the Dallas shooting, he called them ‘disgusting’ and ‘heinous,’ and that’s true. But when he generally speaks about police brutality, he doesn’t use those words. It’s ‘unfortunate,’ it’s ‘painful,’ but it’s not ‘disgusting’ and ‘heinous.’ Pretty much, the only thing that the President can do in his position with the time he has left in office, is talk about police brutality. Because police brutality is highly local. It’s district attorneys that effect who prosecutes officers. It’s police chiefs that affect the tenor and culture of departments, not the President. And so, no matter who the President is, there’s very little they can actually do about police brutality itself. Police departments are among the most local forms of government we have left in the country. So the President is so detached from being able to influence police brutality on the policy level, on the discipline level. He has no arresting power. Again, even with Fabolous, what you see is people just saying, ‘Damn! I want somebody in power to do something!’

And then we have our rap stars like Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole, who have brought the struggle to their music. Do you think more of that type of activism is needed? And how does that help?

It helps a lot. I’m deeply grateful for what all those guys have done. I remember J. Cole released a song soon after Mike Brown was killed, and there was a time I was listening to that song on repeat everyday. The pain in his voice and even the lyrics themselves just kind of captured what was on my heart. Hip-hop artists, they are poets. They paint pictures with their words, and I felt like J. Cole showed us his soul in this deep moment of pain for black folk all over the country. And then Kendrick Lamar’s kind of created an anthem. I don’t know what he had in mind, but if you go to any protest in the country, people are saying ‘We gon’ be alright.’ There was a time when we were singing spirituals. In a sense, and I don’t think this is an overstatement, there is a connection from that lyric in particular, ‘We gon’ be alright,’ that connects to the history. In essence, he’s saying ‘We shall overcome.’ ‘We gon’ be alright’ is ‘We shall overcome.’ It means, substantively, the same thing. But singing solemnly ‘We shall overcome,’ doesn’t fit the culture of our time. So he created a lyric that resonated with people’s hearts that were on the frontlines of the protests. And that’s a powerful gift, because artists find not just the right words, but the right tone and spirit and energy to say something. That’s what he did, and what he’s continued to do.

Around the time of Mike Brown’s death, I participated in a panel discussion for VIBE about whether or not hip-hop had been doing enough. I challenged the negative messaging in the music and how that can be counteractive to what we’re trying to do. Do you see a correlation there?
These are just people. They are not trained spokespeople for causes. Sometimes you have to meet some of these men and women to understand that this guy is really rapping what he knows. I’m not with critiquing particular artists, if you’re also not willing to spend the time, in love, to tell them, ‘Hey, are you aware of A, B, C or D?’ I still think the majority of artists, as always, are kind of wasting their influence. And there’s another part of me that says, there’s a place for recreation. There’s a place to just do a hype song that’s not about Alton Sterling. There’s a place to do a song that makes you dance, that makes you smile. There’s a place for Kevin Hart to do comedy and to take our minds off of things. So sometimes, artists, entertainers and athletes do us a service by inspiring us, but other times they do us a service by taking our minds off of the pain of the world.
Another thing to note is, when Public Enemy was “fighting the power,” the times were very different with regards to social media, the Internet and society in general. From that observation, is that even more of a reason to be a little less critical of our artists today?
Yes and no. We all have a responsibility. Even back then, during the time with Public Enemy, even though I was a younger kid at the time, I still followed and listened to them and loved them. This discussion we’re having now, people were having then, [asking] Too $hort and others, ‘What are you going to do?’ So Too $hort came out with his song, “The Ghetto,” where he was talking about what he saw in the streets of Oakland, and how it pained him and bothered him. So, people have always been critical of artists and trying to help them push into something more thoughtful and substantive. I don’t think that’s ever gonna change.
In your opinion, why did hip-hop sort of retreat from social justice until recently?
That’s a great question. I did this blog post where I showed every hip-hop song that had ever been done that talked about police brutality. On it, I showed how artists have been talking about police brutality almost every year in some capacity, even if it was subtle. But I think artists reflect the time. Police brutality was terrible four years ago, but we didn’t know how terrible it was. It wasn’t until social media became a prominent, daily part of our lives and the telling of injustice on social media became a daily part of our lives that the world understood, ‘Oh my God. This is happening in all 50 states, from coast to coast.’ As that awareness changed, hip-hop changed. Hip-hop is always one of the most sincere reflections of our culture, and what I say is that it’s a deep reflection of America. America is very materialistic, hip-hop reflects that. America is very misogynistic, hip-hop reflects that. It not only reflects it, but it reflects it and guides it and becomes an influential force. And as our culture has become focused on social justice, you begin to see some of that. So hip-hop is a mirror to the truth of who and what America is, the ugly truth, from violence, to materialism, to misogyny, to social justice.
In the spirit of trying to inform artists and trying to bring them closer to the movement, how can hip-hop artists get involved? What are some things that hip-hop artists can do to help organize?
First and foremost, hip-hop artists have the capacity to mobilize and organize people. When they make a call like ‘Hey, I need people to come out to A, B or C,’ people are gonna come out. Or ‘Hey, I need you all to sign up for 1, 2 and 3,’ people are going to follow. And so, beyond their music – and I think hip-hop artists should try their best to reflect the times in their music – particularly in the cities where they’re from, hip-hop artists have major influence. Sometimes even influence with their local governments. More than you ever have, now you see hip-hop artists who have relationships with mayors and city council people and Congresspeople. Hip-hop artists are some of the most influential people in their local cities. So there is an opportunity for them to help inspire and motivate people in that sense.
Because hip-hop artists are human beings, I think there should also be a discussion around the fact that even though they have all this money and influence, that a sense of helplessness on a human level can set in. How do you propose artists and the rest of us combat that feeling?
There’s two things. One is – I have a piece coming out about this very thing – that the historical Civil Rights Movement was seen as lasting from 1954, that’s the first bookend which is Rosa Parks’ boycott, to 1968. We’re talking about a 14-year movement. If we are two years into this movement, the Black Lives Matter movement, we are at our equivalent of 1956. I say that to say, we’re two years into a 14-year span of history. And sometimes taking a longer view of it you can say, there’s time for us to work through the trauma and find substantive ways to make a difference in the world. It takes time. That helps me. How we started this conversation was saying that it’s hard to think long-term when injustice is right in your face. But our elders and those who came before us, painfully, were able to do that. And that’s why the Voting Rights Act passed and the Civil Rights Act passed. Those things didn’t pass in the beginning, it took 14 years. And it cost lives; we’re talking about a movement that lost its key leaders. So when I look at where we are now, it helps me to take the long view of things. And secondly, it also helps me to just do something. Everyday, I try my best to just do something with the issue of police brutality that makes me feel like I’m not sitting idly by. That feeling is an empowering one. 

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