Last week, as I was leaving a lousy Tinder date at the Top of the East, I ran into Michael Render in an elevator at the Westin. Better known as Killer Mike, one-half of the critically acclaimed hip-hop duo Run the Jewels (RTJ), Mike became a familiar figure to less rap-inclined voters after endorsing Bernie Sanders in last year’s primaries. His enthusiastic support led to viral talk show appearances where he spoke passionately about racial justice, economic reform, and weed legalization while stumping for Sanders. One particularly charming interview with Stephen Colbert has been viewed more than two million times.
So it was with great enthusiasm I accepted Killer Mike’s offer for a ticket to the sold-out show at the State Theatre. His manager, Joe, kindly texted my name to someone ten minutes before show time and I managed to sneak in and find a spot in front of a very tall man with a beer in both hands.
I’ll start off by saying the show itself was dope. RTJ knows how to put on a performance. Mike and his RTJ collaborator, Jaime Meline — stage name El-P — were tight as hell and the energy was electric. But it’s not in my nature to attend a rap concert where an overwhelmingly caucasian audience is throwing up the fist and gun symbol for which the group are known, without asking some questions.
That’s how I found myself outside asking fellow smokers how they felt about the death of Chance David Baker, the 22-year-old man fatally shot by Portland police officer Sgt. Nicholas Goodman earlier this month after brandishing a pellet gun in a public plaza. I’m fun at parties.
After speaking with 15 or so people outside the venue, I went back inside, discouraged. Not a single person I spoke with had heard about the shooting. When I asked one couple how they felt about Police Chief Michael Sauschuck’s comments about the “politicization” of Baker’s death to fast-track body cameras, they replied that they were just there to enjoy the music.
Hip-hop is, and always has been, a powerful way to protest police brutality and the prison-industrial complex — N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton came out nearly 30 years ago. And RTJ’s latest album, Run the Jewels 3, doesn’t shy away from political rhetoric. On “Talk to Me,” Mike’s intro mentions the Devil who “wore a bad toupee and a spray tan.” Later in the same verse he raps, “Born Black, that's dead on arrival / My job is to fight for survival / In spite of these #AllLivesMatter-ass white folk.”
It’s hard to imagine a world in which one could be an RTJ fan and an #AllLivesMatter enthusiast, although I wouldn’t be surprised if there were a few in the crowd, given my brief stint as a crowd pollster. But maybe it’s a better indication of the change white liberals are undergoing that RTJ could host a sold-out show in Portland, Maine. Would a hip-hop duo rapping about “white folk” have found an audience here 10 years ago? Unfortunately, I don’t think any of that matters. The current climate of violence and harassment won’t allow for another 10-year-long shift in perspective.
As a person of color, my impatience with white-centric liberalism feels particularly raw right now. Much of the despair and anguish felt by the white liberal community following President Trump’s election has been a daily part of life for disenfranchised communities for many years. I know this sentiment has been written about ad nauseam, although I don’t feel the least bit guilty repeating it, particularly after Chance David Baker’s death went unremarked by so many in Portland. Here’s hoping the next time RTJ comes to town, people will attend not just for the music, but the message.