Like the Notorious B.I.G. and Nas before him, J. Cole’s lyricism centers on the unlikely prospect of individual success in a gothic underworld defined by corrupt social institutions (“like a corpse six feet, shit’s deep,” “Grown Simba”; “My mind’s elsewhere: my mom’s health care. To get out this hell, here,” “I Get Up”). J. Cole specializes in elaborating an unruly cityscape where death is familiar, making fantasies of bling desirable (where social reproduction lies in the slim possibility that some of the “seeds” he and members of his cohort manage to help produce might survive to see a brighter tomorrow; where he and his peers might live on in legends told by the women they too often reduce to accessories and vehicles for sexual satisfaction, despite the longing they routinely express for a partner who could appreciate the social and psychological suffering that defines their plight). Precisely because J. Cole doesn’t consider himself to be much interested in electoral competition or protest politics, I was struck by a single line from, “Can I Live,” that echoes ominously in the aftermath of Oscar Grant III’s tragic death: “He didn’t even get a chance to run before the bullet hit his lung.”
In the first few hours of 2009, Johannes Mehserle stood over, shot and killed, Grant, as the twenty-two year-old father lay face down on Oakland’s Bay Area Transit platform, while another officer kneeled on the young man’s neck. The bullet passed through Grant’s torso and hit the ground before bouncing back into his lung, ending his life some hours later. In courtroom testimony, Mehserle maintained that he meant to reach for his taser but mistakenly drew his semi-automatic handgun, although he was wearing his taser on the left side and his .40 caliber on the right side of his body, and despite the fact that the former weighs about half as much as the latter.
On July 8, 2010, Mehserle was convicted of involuntary manslaughter, marking the first time in the history of the state of California that a police officer has been convicted for shooting and killing an unarmed African American man, although it happens at an alarming rate. What some onlookers view as a just conviction was met with widespread disappointment and diverse methods of protest. Supporters of Grant, legal experts, and grassroots activists hoped the jury would return a verdict of second-degree murder or, perhaps, voluntary manslaughter. But then, Mehserle’s defense team had insisted in pretrial correspondence, apparently with far-reaching effects, that the presiding judge should instruct the jury to limit its deliberations to either second-degree murder or acquittal. Even more unsettling, Michael Rains, counsel for the defense, managed to have each potential African American juror removed from consideration for the trial based on the dubious rationale that Oakland’s black residents cannot be expected to deliver an unbiased verdict in a criminal trial involving a police officer suspected of violent conduct. The kind of shooting J. Cole writes about (involving miscellaneous “niggas” and rival drug crews) would seem wholly different from police violence wielded by a state employee, except that we are too often discussing “accidental shootings,” in either case.
Particularly in the 1990s, when hip hop began to enjoy unprecedented commercial success, rap lyrics became increasingly preoccupied with the violence that derived from urban narcotics firms that used high-powered assault weaponry to eliminate competition from prized blocks and alleyways. While this violence is structural in scope, an offshoot of the dramatic increase in potential profits associated with crack cocaine (which required little investment compared to its promised dividends) was that innocent people sometimes got caught in the crossfire when rival drug crews went at it. Recall: the innocent honor student cut down in a hail of stray bullets became a familiar media archetype during this period.
But, while people easily become irate when faced with the fatal consequences of drug violence, they are not always as outraged by police violence. This tension is especially acute in cases like the one involving Oscar Grant, where suspicion too often falls on the young people who fit a particular profile and not the police officers who exhibit questionable behavior. If lazy law enforcement officials see fit to harass, detain, and abuse young African Americans who are statistically more likely to commit certain kinds of crimes, it’s worth asking how we might view and assess Johannes Mehserle’s behavior on January 1, 2009 given his own documented history of violence. Here’s a Freakonomics question worth pondering: what is the statistical probability that a police officer alleged to have beaten one African American man, Kenneth Carrethers, in an unprovoked attack so severely that he required hospitalization would kill another African American man some weeks later under troubling circumstances?
Since so many scholars remain convinced that apathy defines the political ethos of the hip-hop generation, it’s worth asking if J. Cole’s lyricism might help enrich discussion about the implications the Oscar Grant case will have for people in his demographic category. What does it mean for members of an entire demographic to worry about being murdered in cold blood by the police? What is your perception of politics when you feel like there is little difference in being killed by a stray bullet, a drug dealer, and a law enforcement official? Elsewhere in “Can I Live,” J. Cole promises to keep “rhyming
until his heartbeat drop[s]” like the “phone” that falls from the hand of his street protagonist’s mother “when she heard the news,” as he favors lyrics that are riddled with elegies for fallen comrades (“More blacks singin’ more blues. More niggas pourin’ more brews. Pour dude, he was young, like, twenty-one. Straight up out that city that I’m from”). His swagger is defined by tales of masculine conquest, sexually and lyrically; still, in the aftermath of a fatal gunshot, the characters in his scenes convey an anguish that is even more acute than their audacity:
“Breathe, nigga,” his nigga screaming, “Don’t you fuckin’ leave, nigga!”
He took off his shirt, tryin’ to stop the bleedin’, nigga
One wonders what went through the mind of Grant’s friends who watched him plead with Mehserle not to fire, as the Oakland police officer’s partner derided him as a “bitch-ass nigga.” Here hip-hop meets a different genre of masculine violence, leading us to wonder whether Grant shared J. Cole’s critique of Obama. Did Grant help to elect the President who claimed victory two months before he was tragically killed, and who was inaugurated several weeks after his untimely demise? I can’t help but wonder whether Oscar Grant shared J. Cole’s skepticism, whether he was more hopeful.
And whether it matters anymore.