On April 4, 1968, a white third-grade teacher named Jane Elliott sat, like much of America, in shock and horror watching news coverage of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. When she went to teach in her school in rural Iowa the following day, Elliott found that while her students wondered about the death of King, they could not follow the discussions of race and racism that Elliott attempted. Elliott asked the children if they would like to find out what it was like to experience discrimination; their “yeahs” were the start of a controversial teaching experiment that temporarily segregated and privileged students based on the color of their eyes. Motivated by what she observed as white people’s blindness to discrimination, Elliott sought to address racism with the people she felt were least able to understand it.
In a recent track and its accompanying video, “Warzone,” (released August 31, 2016) rapper T.I. extends Elliott’s experiment into the modern day through hip hop. T.I. asks audiences to consider how reactions to the shootings of unarmed black men by white police officers might be different had the victims been white. The video recreates the deaths of Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, and Philandro Castile, but with white actors portraying the victims and black actors portraying the police officers. Much like Elliott’s exercise, which focused on white recognition of racial discrimination, T.I. explains that the video represents him “speaking to the oppressor and just trying to put something out there, a platform for people to speak so we can address this and move past it.”
The subject of police shootings is incredibly complicated, and a complete, nuanced account would include statistics not only of white police officers shooting unarmed black men, but of black police officers shooting blacks, white police officers shooting whites, in addition to statistics for other ethnicities. Such statistics have been difficult to track due in large part to a paucity of data with regard to police shootings (though economist Roland Fryer Jr. has attempted just that, in a controversial study that concluded that police in Houston, Texas, are not racially biased in how they use lethal force). Further, a complete understanding of violence involving police officers would also investigate the rate at which police officers are the victims of shootings. However, this essay does not explore these crucial issues; rather, I focus on interpreting T.I.’s vision, asking how the sounds on his track work with the images in his video to present his understanding of racialized police violence. Ultimately, T.I.’s track revolves completely around the shooting deaths of unarmed black men by white police officers.
T.I.’s “Warzone” video recreates the deaths of Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, and Philandro Castile, but with white actors portraying the victims and black actors portraying the police officers.
Beyond the visual imagery of the video, T.I. abruptly dismisses claims made by some following the election of President Barack Obama in 2008 that America was in a post-racial phase. Instead, T.I. uses lyrics, samples, and music to tune listeners’ ears backward in time, to the end of the Civil Rights Movement and the death of Martin Luther King Jr. The track opens with the sound of a thick chord on a Hammond B3 organ, reverberating with its characteristically fast vibrato, and is accompanied by a broad piano melody played emphatically in octaves, ending in a glissando or sweep up the keyboards as the organ takes over the melody. The overall effect is similar to that of a 1960s or 1970s gospel introduction.
Once the beat drops, T.I. raps against a background of piano tremolos and glissandos and a drum set playing backbeats, punctuated by rhythmic exclamations from male rappers. Female vocalists support T.I.’s lyrics, repeating his refrains of “Hands Up” and “Can’t Breathe,” phrases taken from Black Lives Matter protests; like the organ in the opening of the track, the singers’ wide vibratos and scoops up to the chords accompanying T.I. recall backup singers from R&B acts like Ike and Tina Turner and Ray Charles. Combined with the modern day lyrics, the vocals place the present within the context of the past. The track features mostly acoustic instruments, from the drum set to the backup vocals to the piano, offering the illusion that the background is largely unmediated by today’s technology. This is another sonic signifier of the past and present colliding.
As he pulls his audience from the present day to the post-Civil Rights Era, T.I. uses instruments, beats, and timbres to draw upon traditionally “black” genres (such as soul, R&B, and gospel) that have since found a degree of popularity among white audiences. But perhaps the clearest sonic message from the past is T.I.’s sampling of Jane Elliott herself from a 1999 documentary. In her characteristically matter-of-fact delivery, Elliott states, “If you white folks want to be treated the way blacks are in this society, stand. [Pause.] Nobody’s standing here. [Pause.] That says very plainly that you know what’s happening, you know you don’t want it for you. [Pause.] I want to know why you’re so willing to accept it or to allow it to happen for others.” The sample accompanies the last scene of the video, in which a white woman boards a bus and black passengers refuse to make eye contact or allow her to sit near them, which sends the white woman alone to the back of the bus. T.I’s message is clear: this scene and its implicit discrimination (subtly depicted through sideways glances, hand gestures, and movements of bags, coats, and purses to cover adjacent empty seats), though all too familiar for many people of color, may be difficult for some white American audiences to understand.
Perhaps the clearest sonic message from the past is T.I.’s sampling of Jane Elliott herself from a 1999 documentary. In her characteristically matter-of-fact delivery, Elliott states, “If you white folks want to be treated the way blacks are in this society, stand. [Pause.] Nobody’s standing here. [Pause.] That says very plainly that you know what’s happening, you know you don’t want it for you. [Pause.] I want to know why you’re so willing to accept it or to allow it to happen for others.”
Elliott knew in 1968 that there were two ways of being treated that were governed by race: as a superior and as an inferior. In that same year, the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, formed by President Lyndon Johnson, released its report on race and class relations in the United States. The Kerner report, as it would be called, was largely written by liberal New York City mayor John Lindsay. It concluded that “Our Nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.” But the Kerner report went further, arguing that not only were there two societies, but that the white society was nearly completely oblivious to the unjust conditions of the “racial ghetto”; it stated, “What white Americans have never fully understood—but what the Negro can never forget—is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.”
Fifty years have passed, and T.I., among others, believes that America’s racism remains largely unknown to those who do not feel its effects daily. Following the release of “Warzone,” T.I. told NBC: “White supremacy [used to be] in the forefront of America’s sights and thoughts. You knew where you stood, what position you held in this country, good, bad or indifferent. Now, it is covertly done. It is covertly done through the judicial system, the financial system, the educational system, and some may even say through medicine. So it being so covert—those who either don’t know or want to pretend they don’t know can act as if it doesn’t really exist when it really does. And the only people who ever really see it, feel it, or acknowledge it, are the ones who are affected by it.” Through audio cues that recall the post-Civil Rights Movement and visuals that force audiences to reckon with police shootings in a more empathetic way by shifting perspectives, T.I. insists that Americans are not done with racism—and refuses to let listeners uncritically participate in an otherwise progressive racial narrative.