This dark track from the newly released album Gothic Luxury, asks questions about state violence, biopower and the portraying of black liberation movements. These themes will be reviewed in relation to Judith Butler’s text on non-violence.
The song opens with a dark atmosphere, minor scales accompanied by what sounds like a modulated voice singing an eerie melody. The beat drops into a classic hip-hop instrumental and Meechy Darko starts rapping the hook: “They can’t kill us all”, the backing voice affirms that negation “Nah, nah, nah”. This statement is a praise of life but also a promise of death. One could therefore ask who are “they” and “us” respectively in that context.
“They” points at the US system, not only the government and its various entities but also doctors, the media, and really “America” understood as: the USA as a whole. “Us” refers to black Americans, Meechy Darko being himself Afro-american.
The bridge follows: “it’s either kill or be killed, I ain’t gon die tonight”. The message seems clear, if the choice is between killing or being killed and he is not going to die it means he will kill. This however should be understood beyond the scope of direct violence: What is at stake here is really the liberation of black Americans from a system that tries to kill them. Let us then take a look at the criticism of the system and the solutions raised by the artist.
The firstly mentioned and most evident form of violence is direct state killing. Meechy poetically frames it with a powerful antithesis: “Black kid get shot, white man get tazed” this stylistic device highlights the contrast in grievability (Butler, 2020) between black and white people in the United States. It also encompases both forms of Butler’s debate on non-violence firstly “not killing and destroying another or others” and secondly “to preserve the life of the other or others”(Butler 2020).
Meechy also raises the question of biopower, an idea brought forth by Foucault that is developed further by Butler. The idea of the biopolitical is the state conceiving of its subjects as biological, living beings. (Butler, 2020) Violence in the context of biopower is explored by Meechy Darko when he accuses doctors of drugging “us up so we can reach an early grave”. This is a reference to the poor health care provided to Afro-Americans in general, resulting in lower life expectancy as well as to the opioid epidemic ravaging the US for which pharma groups and doctors in part are to blame. Johnson & Johnson was held accountable for fuelling the opioid crisis in Oklahoma for example. (Attorney General of Oklahoma, 2019) Even if the ruling was then overturned by the Supreme Court two years later.
Bringing about the end of the state violence, both direct and indirect, requires for Walter Benjamin some kind of divine violence which is understood as being non-violent but framed as violent because of its destructive nature. (Butler, 2020) Meechy Darko however questions this appeal towards non-violence, especially through a criticism of the portrayal of black liberation movements in the US. He points out the negative press that armed groups receive while the softer black representations are praised. This is especially evident in the phrase: “America loved the Black Panther Movie but in ‘66 they hated the Black Panther Movement”. Also the classic opposition of the good liberation protester, incarnated by Martin Luther King and the violent Black nationalist, represented by Malcom X is criticised by the artist: “I turn on CNN they tell me be MLK instead of Malcom X but they both died the same way”. He points out indeed that both the peaceful and the armed group leaders were gunned down. The culprit for him is named a couple of sentences later: “Operation Black Messiah is the FBI paid”. This is a reference to the FBI’s objective to “prevent the rise of a black messiah who could unify and electrify militant black nationalist movements” (FBI, p69, 1966). The FBI’s memo continues to state that “Dr. King could be a very real contender for this position should he abandon his supposed ‘obedience’ to ‘white, liberal doctrines’ (nonviolence)”. The vocabulary used here is particularly striking as the term Messiah can directly be associated with Benjamin’s concept of Divine violence. The idea then was that he could turn messiah by rejecting non-violence which seems to contradict Butler’s view.
A final appeal to theological terms is used by Meech in his last verse: “We head to Armageddon, this is Revolutionary”. His raspy and deep voice seems to call us towards the end of time, towards a revolution. Whether this is the literal end of time and a violent revolution or the end of oppression to a revolution of the mind, is up for interpretation.
Finally the chorus comes again hammering the deathly affirmation of life: “They can’t kill us all”.
Federal Bureau of Investigation. 1967. COINTELPRO Black Extremist Part 01 of 23, p.69, Accessible on: www.vault.fbi.gov/cointel-pro/cointel-pro-black-extremists/
Attorney General of Oklahoma. 2019. Attorney General Hunter Celebrates Major Victory for the State after Judge Balkman Issues $572 Million Judgement in Opioid Trial, Accessible on: www.oag.ok.gov/articles/
J. Butler, 2020. The Force of Nonviolence: An Ethico-Political Bind, Chap.3, London: Verso.