My dad is a union welder in Georgia with a wide, gummy smile, and a head that was filled with gray hair before he left high school. I came to know the world through the passenger seat of my dad’s car; he’d blast rapper T.I.’s Rubberband Man through the speakers, and we’d ride around town as his grayish-black head bobbed to the beat, my bones rattling with the bass and treble. I was barely old enough to be on a computer, but I remember wanting — needing — to hear more, and finding the lyrics to T.I.’s 2001 song What Happened at the perfect time. On the song he raps:
“Worked us and never paid us
Killed Malcolm X, Martin Luther King
And everybody else tried to come down here and save us
Kept our fathers from raising us
Kidnapped us from our country
and took our traditions and religions away from us
Well now it's time for the AK to bust.”
As a youth the words hit me deeply, because he called attention to violence — committed against Black people, and violence as a potential option response to our oppression — in a direct way. This weekend, as I watched T.I. share a stage with fellow rapper and landlord, Killer Mike, and Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, in an attempt to disparage the righteous Black rage in response to the police killing of George Floyd, I instantly knew we’ve entered a new era of Black sellouts that we must reckon with.
Following the police killings of several Black people, specifically George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Tony McDade, residents in dozens of major US cities took to the streets to protest the latest acts of violence in a centuries-long war against Black people. In Atlanta, as the number of people protesting grew into the thousands, reports of cop cars being burned and a few broken windows became the center of attention in both the media and Lance Bottoms’ Friday night press conference.
T.I. referred to Atlanta as fictional country Wakanda, saying “we don’t do this here” because “Atlanta has been here for us.” Killer Mike gave a more substantive, impassioned but ultimately politically confused diatribe against police violence, then still deferred to pacification of Black rage through electoral solutions to a problem which has yet to be solved through a ballot box, and is unlikely to be.
“We have to be better than this moment,” Killer Mike said, while wearing a shirt which read ‘Kill Your Masters’ and teetering between tears and angst. “We have to be better than burning down our own homes because if we lose Atlanta, what else do we have?”
The city of Atlanta, along with the rest of the world, then witnessed an angry, seemingly disturbed mayor scolding the residents of her city as if we were her grandchildren. “What are you changing by tearing up a city?” she asked. “You’ve lost all credibility. This is not how we change America, this is not how we change the world.”
The entire spectacle was a mishmash of scolding, empty political sloganeering, tone-deaf pleads for “peace” in response to systemic state violence, and the treachery of the Black misleadership class. In his 2018 article, Black Agenda Report executive editor Glen Ford defines this class as both an “actual and aspirational class of political forces” readily prepared to “sell out the interests of the overwhelmingly working class Black masses” for the sake of capitalist, corporate, or imperialist interests.
While Killer Mike may genuinely care about Black people in Atlanta, one must also understand his class interests do not fundamentally align with the larger majority of Black people in the city. Even in his reference to protesters burning down “our own homes”, there is an irreconcilable tension which alludes to the either ill-informed or intentionally misleading nature of Killer Mike’s words. When the “we” is meant to be Black people, then it must be made clear that most of “us” do not own this city, even if it was built by our forced labor in generations past. Data shows that despite representing roughly 33 percent of the Atlanta population, Black people are less than 25 percent of homeowners; in fact, Atlanta is among the worst cities in the US in terms of home ownership disparities, has the worst income inequality as of 2018, and is suffering a gentrification boom which is throwing Black Atlantans further into economic crisis. If Black residents own little yet make up the largest portion of the workforce, are they burning down their “own homes” or are they burning down a plantation?
“The protests are pent-up frustration, not only with police brutality but with economic instability that has been bubbling since the last recession and is now collapsing due to the pandemic,” Asia Parks, an Atlanta lawyer and activist told me. “Millions of people are unemployed and are not receiving unemployment checks. We received a stimulus check for $1200 to last three months while ‘essential workers’ are risking their lives for minimum wage, and rent is still due.”
It is obvious that Killer Mike is not in meaningful conversation with local grassroots organizers who have spent several years trying to bring attention to and correct these racist, systemic injustices. Atlanta’s Housing Justice League, a coalition of Atlanta residents taking action against the violence of gentrification of multiple historically Black neighborhoods, has hosted public forums, teach-ins, protests and demonstrations, and even occupied a major section of downtown for several weeks to bring attention to these issues, which are all intricately connected to police violence.
T.I. boldly proclaimed that “when you don’t get treated right” in other cities, “Atlanta has been here for us.” But if Atlanta has “been here for us”, why are Atlanta police officers still responsible for multiple instances of violence and killings of Black people? What safe haven are these rappers referring to when still no recourse has been given for the 2015 death of Anthony Hill, who was completely naked and experiencing a mental health episode when he was shot twice in the chest by officer Robert Olsen; nor for the police murders of Alexia Christian, Nicholas Thomas, Oscar Cain, and many others? Atlanta is not the fictional city of Wakanda, but a real city filled with real Black people, steeped in real death.
As these rappers talked down to protesters who were wading in righteous anger following lifelong state brutality, none of these names arose, no truth was spoken to power, and the majority of attention was thrust onto damaged property.
"This is not in the spirit of Martin Luther King, Jr. This is chaos. A protest has purpose. When Dr King was assassinated, we didn't do this to our city,” Mayor Bottoms stated sternly, "If you want change in America, go and register to vote. That is the change we need in this country."
The only problem is: when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, roaring uprisings did break out in nearly 100 cities including Atlanta. Moreover, King himself spoke straightforward about riots and uprisings, stating that they “do not develop out of thin air” but rather are the inevitable result of injustice, state violence, and poor living conditions which must “be condemned as vigorously as we 'condemn' riots.”
Upon Dr King’s assassination, the Black Panther Party issued a statement which declared that “although officials on all levels of government give public praise to the man and his deeds, they are all too silent in pledging themselves to the concrete actions that are needed to deal with the evils in American society that Dr King dedicated his life to eliminating.”
“In the six years since Mike Brown was killed, Atlanta has repeatedly brought celebrities in to calm the outrage. In 2016, Mayor Kasim Reed invited Usher to a meeting that was meant to be for #ATLisReady organizers, and no one knew why Usher was there,” Parks tells me. “He told organizers outside that ‘the mayor is trying hard’ and to ‘calm down.’ Did they think the organizers would be enamored by his stardom?”
Eva Dickerson, an Atlanta community organizer, farmer, and teacher, tells me that they “stand in full solidarity” with protesters who have damaged property, because “the violence happening in the streets is being perpetuated by the state. The rioters have rocks and their voices. The state is using military-grade weapons on the youth who are the majority of these protesters.”
Dickerson says that Killer Mike and T.I. have specifically been “thorns in the sides” of Black grassroots organizers for some time now. “They've let what little class status they've been able to obtain confuse them, and have decided to align themselves with the oppressive class. Their role as agents of the oppressive class is to undermine, belittle, and complicate whatever steps working class and otherwise marginalized Black people take to build power in and across our communities.”
The existence of such a misleadership class is not new, and as many before me have noted it is actually necessary for the perpetuation of the capitalist system. In his magnum opus How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, Guyanese historian Walter Rodney illustrates how colonial forces across African societies gave meager power to select members of society in order to stratify the classes and for them to act as padding between the masses and their colonial rulers. Rodney writes that “the presence of a group of African sell-outs is part of the definition of underdevelopment,” inextricably connecting this group to the economic pillaging of Black communities.
Martiniquais psychiatrist and revolutionary, Frantz Fanon, explains that this group is given the role of an “intermediary” group whose task “is not to transform the nation but prosaically serve as a conveyor belt for capitalism.”
Tea Troutman, an urban studies researcher and community organizer with Atlanta’s Justice4All Coalition, tells me that many in the Black entertainment industry “do not plug in with grassroots organizations doing this work, but are typically deployed as a means of issuing the ‘rules and expectations,’ or in this case, call for law and order or peace in the event of uprisings.”
Troutman says that at least since the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, the city has tried to put up a veneer of equality and “positive race relations” to maintain its mythical description as the “Black Mecca”, often at the opposition of residents’ demands.
After decades of struggle, local coalitions primarily composed of formerly incarcerated women of color successfully forced Mayor Bottoms to end Atlanta police cooperation with ICE, and to formally shut down the Atlanta City Detention Center. This would not have happened without the tireless work of local activists, organizers, cultural workers, and dedicated residents who all came together to pressure the local government to do so through a multitude of tactics. During this time, rappers like T.I. and Killer Mike were nowhere to be found, and Mayor Bottoms would not have taken these actions without her hand being forced by dedicated locals.
So why now, in the midst of a tension that is the combination of centuries of state violence, dispossession, and the “Atlanta way” not working — a tension which feels increasingly irreconcilable and undoubtedly pivotal — do Killer Mike and T.I. have so much to say about peace? It’s likely that on a personal level, they genuinely care about these issues, but their class interests have evolved into a place which puts them at opposition with the very fans who catapulted their careers forward. Those class interests have also blinded them to the reality that they are used as pawns by the political class to sustain the very system which their music critiques.
While they were profiting from illustrating and vocalizing life in the trap they come from, those still inside the trap continue to perish at the hands of their government and its actors. As the masses continue to mobilize and revolutionary spirit grows, many of our favorite rappers, actors, and artists will continue to expose themselves and their allegiances. Are we ready to listen to the voice of the people, and to stop getting our politics from celebrities?
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