Recently, I came across Run The Jewels’s song “Early.” The song provides a commentary on the current state of affairs regarding incidents such as those that occured in Ferguson and Baltimore. Consisting of legendary independent hip-hop artists Killer Mike and El-P, the group confronts the superstructure that led to events like the ones mentioned above. “Early” shows the discrepancies in regards to how society views and treats certain individuals when the only difference between them happens to be the color of their skin.
I would suggest that “Early,” along with the accompanying video, can be used in the classroom to get students to understand voice in literature and to open up discussions regarding race and class in the United States. To begin with, Killer Mike and El-P exchange verses. Students need to understand that Killer Mike is African American and El-P is white, and they need to note that when then duo raps in the song they rap in constructed narrative voices like a poem. In the opening verse, Killer Mike raps about using marijuana as a means of coping with the struggles that confront him in his day to day life: “It be feelin’ like the life that I’m livin’ man out of control/Like every day I’m in a fight for my soul.” While the Killer Mike does not sell drugs in the song, he questions if the marijuana is the reason the police stop him on his own lawn with his wife and son watching. Killer Mike pleads with the officer to not lock him up in front of his family, and he speaks about having respect for the badge. (Killer Mike’s father was a police officer.) The officer does not listen and arrests Killer Mike. At this point, Mike’s wife runs out of the house begging the officer to stop; instead, the policeman pulls a gun on her. Camera phones appear, and Killer Mike’s son runs out to protect his mother. The verse ends with an ellipsis, with something left unsaid: “And I’d be much to weak to ever speak what I seen/ But my life changed with that sound. . . “
El-P’s verse begins with the same two lines as Killer Mike’s: “It be feelin’ like the life that I’m livin’ man out of control/Like every day I’m in a fight for my soul.” This repetition links the two and shows the way that each rapper occupies the same space, within the same society but they have experience things in different ways based on their skin colors. While Killer Mike’s verse contains more narrative structure, El-P’s appears more abstract, questioning truth and the idea of surveillance (who that surveillance is meant to protect). Speaking about “truth,” El-P raps, “And I find you odd, so convinced of the truth of y’all/That the true truth’s truly gone.” Does the “truth” actually exist? Who tells us the truth? According to El-P there is a “they” that tells us the “truth,” but in all honesty, if you believe that “they” tell you what should be considered the “truth,” you’ve lost the plot. Near the end of the verse, El-P raps about surveillance cameras watching our every move, whether we no it or not; however, “But it didn’t record cop when he shot, no warning.” Who does the surveillance protect? Who does it serve? Those are the questions that arise here. El-P’s verse concludes with a link back to Killer Mike’s: “Heard it go pop, might have been two blocks/Heard a kid plus pops watched cop make girl bleed/Go to home, go to sleep, up again early.” Even though the narrator of El-P’s section exists within the same society, and within close proximity to the events that happen to Killer Mike, he does not become affected by them.
What does the proximity of the shooting to the narrator of El-P’s verse and the speaker’s apparent non-concern say about our society? What are your thoughts? Let me know in the comments below.
For some more information, check out Killer Mike’s speech before a concert in St. Louis in regards to the murder of Michael Brown. As well, check out Killer Mike’s interview on CNN and his Op-Ed for Billboard.