Jan. 6 Gets Its Protest Anthem
“Put they feet up on your desk…”
Hi all, Ari here. Thanks for being a subscriber. Here’s my Friday post.
America marked January 6 this week. There are many ways to reflect on that day, and across the media, we again saw those initially shocking photos and videos. There’s value to bearing witness to history—especially as many lie about it—even as repetition can dull how shocking wrong this all was, when we first saw it.
That rioter, Richard Barnett, mixed his criminal activity with an arrogant lounging style, feet atop the Speaker’s desk. He posed for pictures. He gave interviews (telling a reporter about a note he left on the desk insulting its lawful owner). Barnett was also armed with a powerful stun gun. His dark political posturing carried even more menacing possibilities.
The image captures so much. He did have the run of the place, clearly—no officer in sight. That captures the operational failure. There’s his privilege, assuming no officer would come in and hurt him (largely true). There’s his much broader arrogance, too; he doesn’t hide his identity or his face, like most criminals, assuming he would never be charged. That proved incorrect. He’s been indicted on seven charges.
That image is deeper than another piece of photojournalism. It’s part of our culture. Fran Lebowitz told me about how it reminded her of photo of a member of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) with his feet up on Columbia University President Grayson Kirk’s desk during protests in 1968. And just as so many events from the 1960s and 1970s made their way into the culture of the time, tragedies and injustices providing the grist for stories and books and songs, that is beginning to happen with this insurrection as well.
“Put they feet up on your desk…”
A song by Jay-Z and Nipsey Hustle, “What It Feels Like,” crystalizes the entire attack into that Barnett moment:
They hate when you become / more than they expect
You let them crackers storm your Capitol? / put they feet up on your desk
And yet you ‘talking tough’ to me / I lost all my little respect.”
Jay says “they”—the retrograde, racist part of the nation—is angered by Black success, (a recurring theme in his music). This picks up a rebuttal to people who criticize urban poverty or their perception of Black American culture, but then also seem upset at the prospect of successful Black leaders exceeding their expectations, be it Barack Obama or, well, Jay-Z.
Race and racism drives so much of American politics, right wing attacks and the insurrectionists, so Jay uses this compact line to turn to Jan. 6. And he puts a twist on the idiom ‘they hate to see you win’—which is not usually literal—to refer to the very real hate animating the insurrection.
Then he contrasts America’s harsh law enforcement towards people of color with the leniency towards the rioters. (A topic we’ve been covering, from the policing that day to recent light sentences). So American elites, backed by a discriminatory justice system, “talk tough” to Black men while “letting” Trump fans storm the Capitol, leading to that searing image.
Here Jay gives voice to something so real to so many people on Jan. 6—that race defined the police response; that peaceful BLM protests have been met with far tougher tactics; that in a sense, some of the people in charge “let” this happen.
It’s a lot of food for thought in 3 lines of a song, and it’s probably not the last song or cultural work that will reckon with that day.
It won’t stop because cause they “spilled blood”
“What It Feels Like” was released for Judas and the Black Messiah, a film about Black Panther Leader Fred Hampton. In another link between history and culture, Jay has reflected on Hampton’s life before; noting he was born on the day Hampton was killed, in the 2011 song “Murder to Excellence.” (“I arrived on the day Fred Hampton died.”)
“What It Feels Like” includes a previously recorded verse from the late Nipsey Hussle, the rapper and businessman who was killed in 2019. It’s a sad fact, and a deliberate choice, that Jay was composing his thoughts about a fallen Black leader on a track with a contemporary, who became another fallen Black leader. The track tackles broad themes, and is also deeply personal, and here’s how Jay ends it:
I arrived on the day Fred Hampton got mur— hold up
Assassinated! / just to clarify further
What y'all gave birth / is the Chairman mixed with Jeff Fort
Big stepper on that jet / with my legs crossed
Black stones on my neck / y'all can't kill Christ
Black messiah / is what I feel like
Sh*t ain't gonna stop / 'cause y'all spilled blood
We gon' turn up even more / since y'all kill cuz'
Jay updates his own past lyric about Hampton’s death, calling it an assassination, then links it to the killings of Jesus Christ and Nipsey (his cuz, or cousin). The tragedy, sorrow and pain must be deep, yet his attitude is also full of defiant energy, and even, some hope.
He tells the world these murders only make the next generation stronger. They “birthed” the Jay we see today—a billionaire “chairman” mixed with a legendary gangster (Jeff Fort), who feels like a Black Messiah.
And for the killers, Jay has only scorn, admonishing them that their violence will not be rewarded, as it only makes it time to “turn up even more.”
That’s a resilient spirit many people need, right now.
Ari, your coverage the last few days has been solid and so important…your segments, guests and questions and pauses add up to must see tv…a public service, par excellence. Thank you for your heart, your wisdom, composure, and your thoughtful, caring reporting and storytelling….you are THE BEST!!!!
Happy Fri-YAY, Ari!
What a week it has been (the wild interview with Peter Navarro and the commemoration of the January 6th insurrection)…whew! It is interesting how you linked the lyrics of Jay-Z and the late Nipsey Hussle to Robert Barnett, the insurrectionist. He will forever be remembered as the rioter who had no business being at the U.S. Capitol but went there and put up his feet on Nancy Pelosi’s desk.
I need to watch the movie, Judas and the Black Messiah…still on my HBO Max list. I didn’t know that Jay-Z was born the same day that Fred Hampton was killed.
Enjoy your weekend, Ari!