What Does Reform Look Like?
A BLM anthem for the ages
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Here we are. This is the second summer in a row where America faces the same two domestic challenges:
a surging pandemic changing our lives, and
American policing that just won’t change -- even amidst that pandemic, and the intense scrutiny of the BLM movement that intensified last summer.
This piece looks at the second challenge. On MSNBC, we’ve covered many real stories of police brutality, protest and reform -- and heard from experts and full-time civil rights advocates. There’s also value in hearing from artists who have lived this, and whom the next generation are listening to for the soundtrack of this tumultuous time.
“I Got Power”
The most viral, popular BLM anthem to come out of last year’s protests is “The Bigger Picture.” It just went double platinum this month, as music outlets have reported.
Now, genres evolve and anyone can debate taste, but this track emerged as the song of the summer protests. The People picked it. (You can watch the short music video for it here.)
Many will look back at this anthem to try to understand this time, the way we now look back at political songs from Marvin Gaye or Bob Dylan. (And as a sidenote: When songs top the charts or go “platinum” today, those accolades reflect a far broader group of people than before streaming. Nowadays, people don’t need to buy an album to support it, they just need to play it a bunch.)
As for the song, here’s a clear, earnest couplet that Lil Baby shares:
“Every video I see on my conscience/ I got power/ now I gotta say something/ Corrupted police been the problem where I'm from/ but I'd be lying / if I said it was all of them/ I ain't do this for the trend.”
Lil Baby swiftly tackles a lot. He suggests corrupt police are a persistent problem in his own town, but not all cops are corrupt; and he feels an obligation to speak with the new power he has -- but not to engage BLM as some kind of fad or “trend.”
What was he getting at? Here’s how he explains those lyrics:
“I done been through the system -- it ain't all of them. You could have a group of six [officers] that stop you, and two of them just tripping. Like four might be cool, the other two might be tripping, [but it’s] a ‘brotherhood’ or whatever, they gotta go with [the corrupt ones]... Everybody ain't gonna be bad, like, with anything...some of them got a good heart…
[Other critics] are just beyond like-- like, ‘F--- police, period.’ And I ain't on that.”
This is where art can enhance our sense of nuance and understanding.
Lil Baby is referring to popular songs that are more strident against police, like “F The Police” by N.W.A., and more recent platforms that may seem to deride “all” police as part of the problem (in rhetoric, or in advocating defunding all police). Apart from what may be trendy, he says, it’s important to reflect his lived truth.
It’s especially striking to remember this song proved so popular last summer with activists -- it seems to have resonated as an honest take on the issues, not ‘pandering’ to some idea of what activists and fans might ‘want to hear.’
That quote above is from my conversation with Lil Baby this month, when he welcomed me to his Atlanta studio.
Near the end of the interview, after discussing his surging career -- Rolling Stone reported he was the “most popular rapper of 2020” -- and his wider recent prominence, from Barack Obama’s playlist to a meeting with Kamala Harris, I asked him this:
Question: Is there anything you've learned on this recent journey these last four years that you wish you knew when you started?
LIL BABY: “I come from what they call “the trap. And it’s really a trap. That’s why they call it a trap. Like, you be trapped. You don’t know a lot of stuff. You know what goes on inside the trap… and now I am in the world… If I knew any of this a long time ago, I could go a whole lot of different routes.”
That blunt assessment really resonates.
Many people and politicians talk about “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps.” Here is someone who escaped poverty, and a neighborhood marginalized by economic and political realities, discussing how this is a country where much is dependent on where and how you grow up. And he said that, with plenty of humility, after answering questions about a journey that led him from serving time in prison -- stemming from marijuana and minor charges -- to the White House at the age of 26. Just imagine what else he, and people across America, can do when provided the opportunity.
P.S. Here’s the Beat segment we did on this with highlights of my interview with Lil Baby:
We also posted the entire interview with Lil Baby, with many parts that were not on TV, and posted it on YouTube in case people want to see the whole thing:
LiL Baby is just the tip of the ice berg when it comes to being trapped in the trap. There are hundreds if not thousands of POC’s who will never ever get out. The sad part about everything he said is that it was like his eyes were opened to a whole other world. This is America and yet he described the trap like it was a third world country. Your interview LiL Baby has probably enlightened a lot of people. Thanks for another great piece and pulling back the curtain exposing what we all try so hard to ignore. #poverty #thetrap
I watched your whole interview this weekend, and I was so impressed how he doesn't write down the lyrics to his songs. He just speaks from deep in his soul from his experiences in his life. He is a humble young man. I also read the lyrics for the Bigger Picture the "clean version". So sad that people don't try and understand what the black communities are dealing with every day of their lives. Growing up, I lived in a small town where the hispanics were the minority, and we felt inferior to the white population. Though we never experienced any violence, we still felt the discrimination. Things never change. After last summer, I felt things are going to be different, but unfortunately they're not. Thanks Ari!!!🙏