Fighting Trump with the Only Album That Matters
American activism, particularly liberal activism, has a complicated relationship with anger. In moderation, it’s always succeeded as a rallying cry, from the tea parties to the Tea Party. But just as often it is shoved to the side or chided, the Malcom Xs and Ferguson Riots scolded for their lack of discipline. Anger, though tolerated to a point, supposedly threatens real “progress,” as if anything except pure, non-violent protest is actively destroying our chances for change. But what’s the power of non-violence without the threat of more dramatic action to back it up?
Killer Mike and El-P, the geniuses behind Run the Jewels (and this year’s RTJ3), have no such qualms. Their anger is palpable and full-throated, but it is anything but one-note. Anger, like any emotion, has a legitimate place in American discourse. Violence, when tempered with tolerance, is a tool we’ve too often forgotten about in the course of human progress. Run the Jewels songs flip from chants to “Kill you masters,” to laments that “we hear the same sound coming / and it sounds like war / and it breaks our hearts.” These lines, dropped before Trump even came to office, perfectly capture our need to fight, to stay angry, while still decrying the evils necessary to do so.
That the same album calling for “no more arms in the air / we put firearms in the air” starts with the words “I hope,” is no mistake. Killer Mike, the most intelligent commentator CNN has hosted in the past 3 years, is smart enough to recognize the hope within the deepest of angers. Too often, liberals lift the peace and love talk from a hero like Martin Luther King away from the fiery oratory he delivered it with. Killer Mike and El-P won’t let us forget that genuine hope and love can stem from unresolvable anger. In the Trump era it must, and talented blogs like RadFag are realizing it too.
Being angry, finally, is in vogue again. Trump’s made it acceptable for liberals to get pissed off. It’s possible for a couple of anarchist punks to throw bricks in the window and not be immediately scolded by the intelligentsia (and the Right, who loved this when it was Tea Party-based, is terrified). When anger, bullying, and button pushing elects a moldy tangerine to the (formerly) highest office in the world, it’s time to take a few of his tactics to fight him. “Riots do not develop in thin air…” MLK intones in a sample from the song “Thieves!,” and Run the Jewels owns that sentiment. While far too mature for a blase “fuck shit up” mantra, they’d never judge you for doing it yourself. Sometimes we have to fuck shit up.
“They talk clean and bomb hospitals / so I speak with the foulest mouth possible,” El raps in the album’s final, and hardest hitting, song. While the regressive left frittered away years worrying about language over actual action, El-P instinctively understands that a bit of trolling is the only way to get a point across. That pushing buttons works, especially if you back it up with action. Getting peace doesn’t always require peaceful talk, and getting hung up on wars over language or correctness is idiotic: “Fuck with us / You fuck with the truth, we speak openly.”
Because Run the Jewels isn’t angry just to be angry. As willing as they are to put an AR to anyone who deserves it, they’re also willing to forgive those trapped in the system for murdering their friends. As much as gentrification hurts minorities, RTJ acknowledges that “Here in Cabbagetown they put they white-ass out,” too. The most powerful video of 2015 is about police brutality, but it’s not content to let anyone off the hook. Anger comes for everyone — and harnessing that anger can bring us together against the fascists holding us down. The song also, to put it bluntly, is a fucking banger:
No matter how angry they get, Mike and El still know how to have a great time. El-P’s production is furiously danceable. And that’s important. A blind and consuming anger is just as dangerous as no anger at all; we must be hostile to the systems, not each other. El-P dropping “open up the books and stop bullshitting the kids / my dick got a Michelin star, I’m on par with the best that ever took the gig,” is just one case of serious activism butting up against a bit of humor. Neither detract from one another — in fact it is essential that they share the same space. Real protests, violent or otherwise, must work on multiple emotional levels to be successful.
This is RTJ’s biggest lesson. While Trump unleashed a blind, ignorant rage on his way to the White House, Today’s Only Band that Matters knows that anger is just one tool in a greater sociopolitical toolkit. That you can own your anger without letting it own you — that getting peace isn’t always peaceful.
“We the gladiators that oppose all Caesars,” Killer Mike raps on “A Report to the Shareholders.” It’s an important line, not just because it seems to legitimize violence. Killing your masters doesn’t have to mean murdering people, it means burning the prisons they’ve erected. It means owning up to our anger. Seeing the biggest march in American history, watching as JFK gets shut down in spontaneous protest, I have some hope that we’re finally listening. The revolution is coming — and it’s got a filthy beat behind it.
Nick Geisler is a collaborative, multimedia writer in Los Angeles. His latest project, Dave is Dead, is an internet novel about the role of art and protest. It is due out Summer, 2017. Follow me for more details and articles!