Run the Jewels Brings Frustrated Community Unity

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By Kelsey Hess

I watched two strangers hug at the Marquee Theater last Sunday. It’s not odd to see camaraderie at concerts, but it is surprising to see strangers hugging at a Run the Jewels show. The high-energy rap duo, El-P and Killer Mike, held the sold-out performance nine days after President Donald Trump took office.

If RTJ captures any feeling, it’s the feeling of blood boiling and the slow sinking of quiet rage as it lowers itself into your gut. It’s great music to listen to on your way to a presentation. It’s an even better soundtrack in 2017 as protestors look for pointed, definitive anthems supporting political nonconformity.

“Look around,” El-P said to the fired-up crowd as the audience paused within the mosh pit. “This is your community.”

And that’s when I saw two testosterone-fueled guys hug, palms firmly placed on the backs of their soaked-through t-shirts.  El-P was right. If a deafening, angsty hip-hop concert wasn’t home to a frustrated millennial, where would be?

While President Trump’s largest accomplishment within the liberal 18-25 year-old demographic may be increasing voter turnout for the next election, RTJ fans can take solace in having one night to dance to the sweet sounds of revolt.

Run the Jewels recently debuted their new material on NPR Music as a part of the popular “Tiny Desk” concert web series.

“At some point in the future, they’re going to try and label us as a political rap movement,” Killer Mike said. (Can you blame me?)

“That we are not,” he continued. “We don’t care what political party you belong to… We care that, socially, every one of you knows that you are absolutely born free and nothing has the right to interrupt that freedom.”

And while the duo didn’t necessarily address their so-called political bipartisanship as articulately in Tempe as they did for NPR, their values were implied and understood. Despite “F*ck Trump!” chants that broke out in between songs, the crowd’s anger seemed to stem less from specific incidents with Donald Trump as it seemed to be situational anger, and even systemic. Thieves! (Screamed the Ghost), a track on their new album, energized their crowd to a new level:

CNN got dummy Don on the air//

Fear’s been law for so long that rage feels like therapy// Nobody gets no more sleep till we teach them remembering//

Sky became black like the stars aren’t aligning// So many years of this violence// Now we’re surrounded by the souls of the dead and defiant// Saying, “Look what you’ve done, you designed it”// When the bough breaks, hear the wraith scream, “Riot!”

At this point, two security guards entered the crowd, standing nearby with their arms crossed. A bulky, bald man was thrown toward me from the pit. His head landed at my feet as neighboring attendees gathered around to pick him up. He scrambled for his glasses, stood up straight and with no hesitation, jumped back into the pit.

Killer Mike and El-P will never be accused of not saying exactly what they mean. To outsiders, their sound could reasonably be classified as aggressive, intimidating, intense, (insert your own description for the first time you heard RTJ here). But within hip-hop, the duo is doing exactly what they’re supposed to be doing.

Hip-hop took off when it became a stage for political expression. Many remember the culturally preserved memory of N.W.A. and the politically charged subgenre of gangsta rap, which has historically been anti-police through social commentary. But political rap isn’t as inherently anti-police as much as it is about freedom.  If 2015 and 2016 – both notable years in the evolution of hip-hop – were years of political discourse, RTJ 3 feels like a call-to-action. As Donald Trump holds a steady approval rating of just 40%, it seems like as good a time as any for a push from communities towards political engagement.

In an essay that Killer Mike wrote for CNN defending a student’s expression via rap, he acknowledged rap’s invaluable role in society, for those who will give it a chance.

“No doubt, this is in large part because of rappers’ willingness to confront institutions of power and openly defy social conventions with language that is provocative, even offensive, to some,” he wrote.

At the end of Thieves!, Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech “The Other America” is sampled. It can be assumed that RTJ included this as homage to King, and a reminder that history, like hip-hop, has a way of repeating itself.

“I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air. Certain conditions continue to exist in our society, which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard,” said King.

So as my parents ask me to turn down my hip-hop, I do without complaint because I want to avoid the confrontation. And I do so with the comfort that Killer Mike and El-P will continue building the safe haven for today’s growing community of disenfranchised, post-9/11, “age of the Internet” kids. It’s a time when hugging your community is all that anybody can do, keeping in mind that no one understands you as much as the guy standing next to you at a concert.

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