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Thursday, Dec. 4, 2014 12:01 am

Inspirational rap concert in St. Louis

The biracial Run The Jewels played the night of the grand jury decision

 

On Monday, Nov. 24, I was faced with a quandary. Several months back, a friend had gotten us tickets for a nightclub concert scheduled in St. Louis that night by high-profile rap duo Run The Jewels. For years, I had been a fan of both Killer Mike – who first came to attention in collaboration with Georgia hip-hop superstars OutKast – and his musical partner, New York City underground rap artist and indie-label owner EL-P. Their previous St. Louis appearance in July of 2013 had been a great time.

However, the concert was scheduled for 8 p.m. at the Ready Room in St. Louis’s Grove district; the announcement of a Missouri grand jury’s decision in the shooting by white police office Darren Wilson of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown was due at 7. Gov. Jay Nixon had preemptively declared a state of emergency a week earlier and tensions were running high. By mid-day it began to seem counterintuitive, if not foolhardy, to cavalierly drive into what may have been shaping up into an honest-to-goodness danger zone just for a concert.

Of course, this was not just any concert. Killer Mike is black. EL-P is white. Both artists regularly deal with social and political issues in their lyrics and both had been publicly outspoken about the situation in Ferguson. During a recent appearance on “The Late Show with David Letterman,” the duo had performed their new song, “Early,” which includes the lyrics (sung by Killer Mike), “Please don’t lock me up in front of my kids / And in front of my wife / Man, I ain’t got a gun or a knife / You do this and you ruin my life / And I apologize if it seems like I got out of line, sir / ’Cause I respect the badge and the gun / And I pray today ain’t the day you drag me away / In front of my beautiful son.”

Not typical lyric fodder. And certainly not a typical day. It was sheer coincidence that the concert fell on the day of the verdict, but the timing began to look almost providential. An abstract fear for safety was gradually superseded by a palpable sense that this concert might end up being of cultural, even historical, significance. I went. The show did not disappoint.

The neighborhood streets were quiet and the racially diverse crowd inside the Ready Room itself was enthusiastic but restrained. When the news of the grand jury’s decision not to indict Wilson started filtering in via smartphones around 8:30, the mood was more one of dejection and resignation than rage.

After three well-received opening acts, Killer Mike and EL-P came onstage. A visibly shaken but resolute Mike explained to the crowd that they had decided not to use their standard entrance music of Queen’s “We Are the Champions” because he was feeling far from a champion. “Tonight I got kicked on my ass when I listened to that prosecutor,” he admitted.

Mike began by expressing unequivocal support for both peaceful protesters and “people who could not hold their anger in.” His usually defiant voice choked with emotion, he said, “I have a 20-year-old son, I have a 12-year-old son, and I am so afraid for them.”

In a stirring, extended oratory that managed to be both eloquent and profane in equal measure, Mike admitted that upon hearing the decision he “had no peace in [his] heart” and felt like “going out and burning this motherfucker down.” Instead of resorting to violence, he chose to recall his Atlanta, Georgia, roots shared with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He described Googling King and being shocked to realize that he had only been 39 years old when he was assassinated, the same age as both Killer Mike and EL-P today.

“It is not about race, it is not about class,” he said of the conflict which led to Brown’s death and Wilson’s exoneration. “It is not about color. It is about property, it is about greed and it is about a war machine. A war machine that uses you as a battery.”

Rhetorically addressing the power structure, Mike said, “We know you don’t value my skin and we know [indicating EL-P] you do value his,” he said. “But you know what? We’re friends and nothing is gonna devalue that.”

It was here that the spirit of Dr. King was truly evoked. Indeed, as Mike and EL-P exchanged a heartfelt hug, it seemed the entire existence of Run The Jewels could be seen as an embodiment of King’s dream of a future of racial harmony. These were those former “little black boys and little white boys” all grown up and working together for justice, even as a few miles away Ferguson burned.

The concert itself was joyful, hard-edged and cathartic.

Scott Faingold is a staff writer for Illinois Times. He can be reached via sfaingold@illinoistimes.com

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