I remember listening to Run The Jewels 2. I had just graduated, gotten my work permit and I was desperately looking for anything to keep paying rent since my parents had just told me they couldn’t afford to help me. On the day the album was dropped (two weeks before the release date!), I had just finished my second job interview at a door-to-door salesman job so naturally I was utterly pissed, especially because they lied about compensation before the second interview.
RTJ2 came during some troubled fucking times. Not just for me, but for almost everyone I know. As Ferguson was blowing up, Ebola was spreading and Russia was invading Crimea, the world felt like it was inching closer to a reckoning. Events like those seemed muted and faded, the sort of footnotes that you joke about with your friends in a decade, but it’s not hard to think of them as build up to the brutality that defined 2016, with Russia’s confidence growing to the point it was willing to influence an American election (to which degree, we’ll probably never know), Zika ravaging through third world countries and police departments across the American continent gearing up for a war against those who dared speak truth to power.
Tracks like “Close Your Eyes”, “Angel Duster” and “Blockbuster Night Pt. 1” are tinged with a no-prisoners, no-quarters sense of revolution. In none of the lyrics is there a single demand or a single request. El-P and Killer Mike are here to fight bullshit and they won’t stop until it’s dead. It was an album about drawing a line in the sand, planting your feet on the ground and resisting, come hell or high water. It was relentlessly aggressive and it never bothered to consider any other truth than resilience in the face of oppression. There are some tracks that divest themselves from justified white-hot rage, like Crown and Early, which present a world that’s so oppressive that the subjects Mike and El inhabit are powerless and just trying to get by. And there’s also the songs where Mike and El just shoot the shit and throw jokes out, like All Due Respect or All My Life. But there’s a common thread through all of RTJ2: there are people out there who would have you believe the world and life are fair. It is not. That’s no excuse to give up or stop demanding justice.
And yet, that aggression didn’t define my political discourse or thought. I was closer to being a neoliberal than a leftist. A damn shame. During the last two years, we all witnessed the rise of a man that needs to be met with the sort of aggression that defined Run The Jewels through their seminal record and that led to Mike becoming Bernie Sanders’ secret weapon during the Democratic primary. One of the most important sights during, 2015, a year that proved to be a preamble to the rise of white terror across the world was watching Killer Mike, wearing a cast and a sling after hurting his arm in a previous concert, shouting and demanding for more alongside his audience.
I’ve seen Run The Jewels live twice. Both times, it felt necessary. Back in 2014, a day after Darren Wilson was acquitted by a grand jury, they went to what was the first concert I went to out of my own volition and pocket. The anger and sympathy sweeping through the Danforth Music Hall for Killer Mike, who was in St. Louis at the time of the verdict and who cried on stage before playing to a raptured Louisiana audience who was feeling the exact same indignation is something that has forever stuck with me. It wasn’t just the banging music and the energy and love in the room. It was the fact that Mike and Jaime were just as angry as I was about the injustice that defined the fall of 2014 and ended up creating Black Lives Matters and they were willing to do something about it. I was unable to join BLM protests in Toronto, something that still upsets me to this day.
My second time at an RTJ gig was 3 months before the election. At the time, Trump felt like a small tear in the system: dangerous if unattended or unaddressed, but ultimately manageable. And yet his presence in the biggest democracy in the world as an actor was not going to simply fade away even if he lost. We all knew that. Presidential candidates have an annoying tendency to stick around and pipe up with their particular brand of Monday morning quarter-backing which almost always hides an attempt at another run or to push the party into a direction where political allies can flourish. It all seemed like it’d fade away after Clinton won, or at the very least, become tolerable. Naiveté at its finest. But in all of that, Trump still inspired a fundamental anger inside of me. His first speech involved him wanting to deport anyone and everyone who looked like me for committing the crime of wanting a life in America. And it went worse from there.
When Jamie and Mikey took the stage at the Time Festival, I was with a friend and they launched into a chant of “Fuck Trump”. I always disliked political chants, since they tend to be soundbites, used to reduce critical thought at rallies. They’re about raising the room to a fever pitch. But damn if I didn’t join in that day. I needed that reminder that I am not alone or even isolated from those who would call out white supremacy for what it was. And it proved vital at a time where Trump’s candidacy and campaign had become an ever consumed black hole at the core of my life.
And yet, as intoxicating as Run The Jewels were live (and on record!) my politics had more in common with people like Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. The sort of establishment politicians that Mike and El treated as the enemy. I still fundamentally think they’re moral humans whom I respect, but I don’t know that I can agree with their political approach. Not with the coming times.
While I believed in wealth redistribution, I also believed in incrementalism and that through struggle and collaboration with our institutions, we could create change. Of course, these are the beliefs of someone who grew up under benevolent if failed administrations. Obama faced opposition at a systemic level and the fact that he managed to accomplish so much and become so consequential through all of that is worth admiring. But his failures are not worth ignoring. Obama leaves his administration without being able to curb the war machine that has defined the US’ place in 20th century history. His internal policy economic achievements are accompanied by the fact that he was unable to reduce deportations, police brutality or the increasing risks to citizen privacy in a digital age (while also being complicit in one of the biggest mass surveillance projects ever embarked on)
Because the truth is that it’s harder and harder to truly consider myself aligned with the methods and the goals of neoliberalism across the globe. As the US struggled with Trumpism, the signature move from the Neoliberal establishment was “to go high when they go low”, a rhetoric style that proved to be positively cataclysmic as just enough Americans saw past Trump’s racism to trust him with the biggest army in the world. Colombia (my birth country) was on the verge of ending the single longest armed conflict in recent memory (at 52 years) through a referendum before ex-President and senator Alvaro Uribe Velez started a fear-mongering campaign accusing current President Juan Manuel Santos of being ideologically aligned with Hugo Chavez for being lenient to FARC forces in order to ensure their reintroduction to society. Uribe Velez’s campaign proved successful thanks to a combination of low turnout in areas where the weather was less forgiving (and which were heavily leaning towards accepting the deal) and the manipulation of the elites into agreeing that war was preferable to progress. All of these events were foreshadowed by the UK choosing to leave the European Union, spurred on by the lies of Nigel Farage, who promised the funds would be used to boost the NHS. A promise that was denied literally the day after the UK was misled into choosing an economic crisis for itself.
Through all of this, the opposing parties were willing to concede and compromise. Santos presented a Peace Deal that rewarded big businesses instead of the actual victims of the Colombian conflict. The Democratic party, in the face of Trump’s victory, started to cave in to the wave of white supremacy and to the incoming administration in the name of protecting what’s left of the democratic process and the US’ institutions. The UK was left in the hands of a stronger-than-ever Conservative party that will not stop at nothing to rebuild the UK into The European reactionary utopia.
And then RTJ3 came out. Just like RTJ1 and RTJ2 were there for me at times during the last two years where I felt truly lost (and I still consider myself lost). Every time I beat depression to write, or exercise or pumped myself to do anything of substance, El and Mike were there, being as funny and courageous as I aspire to be. As I reach 23 years of living and keep thinking of how I failed myself as much as I progressed (if not more), I keep going through the new tracks El-P and Killer Mike have released. I keep thinking of every single line in RTJ3 that sounds like hope, resistance, courage to the afflicted but also snark, clowning and even hate to the comfortable who have hoisted unto us one more attempt at perpetuating an age where injustice is justified in the name of profit.
I’m looking at 2017 in dread. Donald Trump is someone who I feel very comfortable calling my enemy. He has no respect for the values and ideals that I believe are important. And I think the answer to the question that has plagued my non-fictional work (Whether we can move past the plunder that built these cities?) has been answered with a thunderous “no”. I feel an incredible disconnect from the world as I understood it because I became cognizant of the world’s injustices at a time when the people in power were trying their best to solve them and listened to those who clamored and demanded for more.
I don’t do yearly resolutions. I believe them to be naïve at heart. But this was an exceptional year for me. My worldview was shattered and me and my friends were put at risk by a new movement that intends to empower the most dangerous elements of our society. So I suppose I can resolve to do some things more this year:
- Volunteer and organize alongside anti-fascist movements as best as I can. Maybe even join Black Lives Matters.
- Be willing to be wrong more so I can be right eventually
- Be more confident in writing about my politics in English.
- Surround myself with people who want the same things I do outside of the internet.
- Confront injustice and perspectives that enable them through writing and interpersonal interactions.
- Be as earnest, sincere and caring as I can and should be.
- Go back to school.
- Fight a nazi or two.
Jaime and Mike provided the soundtrack that I intend to blast through all of this. Run The Jewels as a band has built a body of work that embodies the values that I think I mostly believe in (hey, you can disagree with your mentors) To resist as hardly as possible and create as boldly as you wish until you are the sort of person that others can follow into a path worth walking.