Black Thought

Reece Chenault
Black Thought
Speech at May 4 Growing Nuclear Danger Conference

Thanks so much to AFSC, my fellow panelists, and the organizations that put this together. I also want to see and recognize family that reached out this morning from Portage County, Ohio. I see you and love you and we remember Kent State.

Today I’ll talk about organizing in this moment. To do that, I’m going to need the help of a man named Tariq Trotter AKA Black Thought of The Roots and his skills as a freestyle lyricist that were displayed on Hot 97 here in NYC.

Black Thought’s 10-minute, 2000+ word freestyle on Hot 97 became viral quickly, earning over a million views in 24 hours and is of the most viewed Funk Flex freestyles of all-time. If you get a moment after this, look it up. It’s gorgeous lyricism but is important here and I’ll get into later.

Our organization participated in a delegation in 2017 only to lead one in 2018 that centered the experiences and leadership of Black and non-Black people of color. Many of those that went identified it as life changing and it created a lot of opportunities internally.

But many “important” White men in the labor movement didn’t see this as progress. I received feedback from White trade union leaders that used words like “low quality” and “uneducated” to describe many of the thoughts and feelings expressed in public facing USLAW work these women participated in. The professorial tone oftentimes gave way to racial code words characteristic of a movement I’ve worked in for years.

White Folks just didn’t want to hear from these Black folks.

Not because they were wrong or lackluster leaders.

It was because they were delivering the right words in a voice others didn’t want to hear.

We run into that problem a lot at this cross-section of labor and militarism. But we should be grateful to live when we live because if you don’t live in NYC and there wasn’t YouTube, Black Thought’s flow couldn’t deliver the advice we need today.

In his 11 minute cascade of verbiage, Black Thought references war the way I know most of the folks I know talk all the time.

He drops rhymes that hold Yeats and Achebe in their references.

“I hate to say I told y’all but I told y’all
Things fall apart when the center too weak to hold y’all”

He drops rhymes that refer to America’s foreign policy literally as “war policy” but holds the complexity of the link between domestic and foreign.

“The anomaly sworn solemnly, high snobbidy
Freakonomics and war policy, dichotomy”

But there are some rhymes that stand out today

The first:

“For a couple things we lost in a fire
The drive, the desire to perform on a higher
Plateau, I’m at that show lost in a mire
Wonderin’ how we got so far from inspired”

Black Thought is talking about the fact that his way of doing things, influenced by impossibly skilled 90s hip-hop poets like Rakim, is going away and he’s having a difficult time dealing with it. He is challenged by the next stages of his art and wonders what his place will be in a thing he is slowly starting to not understand. He’s also a little frustrated with the idea that he isn’t being centered despite his level of skill.

Organizing, for me, is a process of incredible discomfort. I am consistently working with a new cadre of younger people who will occupy both positions of leadership in USLAW as well as new organizations we’ve birthed like Justice Before Peace. I try to remember a lesson: there is no timeline in which I live forever and even within the one I’m in, the only God I can worship doing what I love is change. I am endlessly frustrated by the bitter and often selfish actions of many leaders within the anti-war movement and labor movement to use their discomfort as reason to hold back from saving their comrades lives let alone their own. It should fuel curiosity and inspire a commitment to risk, not an avoidance of it. Like a good thief, I’m looking under my own bed first. As we look to expand I can feel myself avoiding reaching out to younger organizing bodies and memberships… even though I know that every time I step into it with humility, openness and a closed mouth we do major things.

The final line is one that I really love:

“OGs and young lions equally proud to listen
The secret amalgamism of algorithm”

Black Thought is actually classically trained. He’s a practitioner of his art and has learned in the field, but he uses his education too. And these freestyles come from lines and pictures that he admits exist outside of on-the-spot improvisation. But in his analysis of his own work, Black says clearly that to reach new audiences as well as his fans of old he needs to expend energy on both types of craftsmanship.

Campaigns that focus on issues like military spending often have a hard time taking hold. I did some digging and came to the conclusion that Black Thoughts genius is worth exploring here as well because we already have a lot of information about why.

A continuing line of strategy is justifiably pointing toward shifting priorities, specifically the idea that we need to move money from defense into many other things that we need. There’s a movement around changing budgets which I think in theory is right. I totally think budget priorities are important to move on. But the obsession with the ginormous numbers of military spending has always seemed wrongheaded to me too.

Where I ended up was not on the upwards of $3 trillion we have spent on war in the Middle East since I was in grade school or the $600 billion plus asked for last year to fund more boondoggles. I didn’t think about the cost of the F-35 or contemplate the dollar value of uranium dragged out of stolen Indigenous land. I arrived at zero.

The politics of today are defined by this number and our human understanding of it as a symbol.

Corporate masters that have been held accountable for their role in the robbery of millions in the financial crash? Zero.

Politicians that have been held accountable for their role in propagating endless war? Zero.

Number of mainstream anti-war candidates running for president? Zero.

Days my son has spent in a country not waging war against someone real or imaginary? Zero.

Number of movements that have succeeded in changing this so far? Zero.

So we shouldn’t be confused by empty rallies and protests. Folks out there are calling the question, asking us to show our work —

Have we ever had democracy if it is, built by slave owners, intended for White men with land?

Have we ever had unions if solidarity is only for people White men aren’t afraid of?

Have we ever been against war if we can’t see military gear being used on students in Baltimore and Ferguson as anything but war on our streets?

It seems the answer for many is “no, we have not.” The answer remains the empty set, the nothing… the zero.

“Don’t go from written bars filled with rage
To prime time television and your gilded cage
Then forget it’s people in the world still enslaved.”

There’s an odd comfort in knowing more than the person in front of you, informing them. But telling someone what you know isn’t as important as learning about someone else in organizing.

I wish lyrics were my medium for combat. Art seems so generative and freeing for communication. Organizing work is my medium and I do what I can to be a student of it.

I think the organizing to come requires us to be dexterous. It requires us to be as bold as Black Thoughts swagger on a track… but also requires self-awareness. Getting farther means stripping away those trappings that Mr Trotter outlines for us. Our egos moved away, folks will know what side we are on.

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