"The Jones Men" and Mike Mictlan’s "Clapp’D"

Last week, I posted about Run The Jewels’s “Early.” Today, I want to take a minute and write about Mike Mictlan’s song “Clapp’D” from his album Hella Frrel (2014). In some ways, the song reminds me reminds of “Early,” at least in the way that Mictlan speaks about the stereotypical views that the media creates in regards to certain individuals. Mictlan begins by commenting on the fact that the “ghetto” gets fetishized and represented as a “middle class circus at a lower class zoo.” Essentially, he speaks about cultural tourism where individuals take what they want from a specific community and appropriate for their own entertainment or benefit. He continues by rapping, “Not everyone from the hood is a killer or a dealer or a villain/ everybody in the hood wanna do something better/ for their life and their children.” These lines really stick out because they work to shatter the perceptions of a lot of individuals in regards to people who live in the space that Mictlan raps about.

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Literacy in Iceberg Slim’s "Pimp: The Story of My Life"

A couple of weeks ago, I read Justin Gifford’s Street Poison: The Biography of Iceberg Slim. It is not my intention, with this post, to review Gifford’s book. If you would like to see some reviews, check out Kiese Laymon’s, Robin D. G. Kelley’s, and my own upcoming review in African American Review. After reading the biography, I went back to look at Robert Beck’s (aka Iceberg Slim) first book, Pimp:The Story of My Life (1967). The book comes across as an autobiographical account of Beck’s movement from pimp to author; however, some of the information, as is true with may “autobiographical” texts, appears fabricated. Gifford does an excellent job extricating the fact from the fiction in his biography.

 What interested me most when starting to reread Pimp had to be the focus on literacy and writing as a means of escaping an oppressive system. Literacy as a tool to extract oneself from the institutions of slavery or Jim Crow has a long lineage in African American letters. One needs to only think of Frederick Douglass’s letters in his Narrative, Solomon Northup’s letter to his friends in Twelve Years a Slave, and Richard Wright’s letter that allowed him to check out books from the library  in “The Ethics of Living Jim Crow” to see a few examples. Beck works within this tradition to hopefully educate others on the world around them and to secure his release from prison for the last time in the early 1960s.

Pimp opens with a  “Foreword” and a “Preface.” The “Foreword” paints the scene of Beck controlling his stable of women and making sure they make him money. Here, Beck sets the stage for what will follow in his “autobiography.” For my purposes here, the “Preface” provides an intriguing look in to Beck’s goals with writing this book in the first place. Many may, and do, find this book to be nothing more than salacious fodder, but I would argue that Beck does much more than just provide grotesque images to tease and titillate his readers. Instead, he constructs a narrative that shows the systematic racism he, and others, endured. Beck frames Pimp with instructions on how to actually read what he writes.
In the “Preface,” Beck tells the reader, “In this book I will take you the reader with me into the secret inner world of the pimp. I will lay bare my life and thoughts as a pimp” (17). These first couple of lines appear to say that Beck intends to instruct his readers in how to actually become a pimp, mirroring his education in the street. He immediately undercuts this thought by noting that the pictures of his “brutality and cunning” will fill many readers with revulsion, and he continues by writing, “however if one intelligent valuable young man or woman can be saved from the destructive slime then the displeasure I have given will have been outweighed by the individual’s use of his potential in a socially constructive manner” (17). Beck wanted his writing to steer people away from the same path he chose to follow at an early age, and his “Preface” lays out that goal from the very beginning.
While Beck deploys literacy as a tool of warning and instruction, he also highlights its power as a means of escape when he essentially writes his way out of the Chicago House of Correction in 1962. Facing another month on top of his ten month sentence because the prison administration failed to count some of his time, Beck composed a letter to the warden. Within the letter, Beck deploys legal sounding arguments, humor, and veiled threats to convince the warden of the illegality of adding another month to his sentence. The letter does not appear in Pimp; instead, Beck pleads his case to the Warden face-to-face, and while his argument remains similar, the words are different from the actual letter that survives. In the book, Beck’s speech focuses on legal arguments and panders to the warden’s sensibilities; however, he also presents blatant threats to the warden. He writes, “Wild rumors are circulating to the effect that you are not a fair man, that you are a bigot, who hates Negroes. I discounted them immediately that I heard them” (306). Beck follows this idea with a threat that if the warden does not grant him his release “a certain agent of [Beck’s] here in the city is going to set in motion a process that will not only free [him], but will possibly in addition throw a revealing spotlight on certain not too legal, not too pleasant activities carried on daily behind these wall” (306).
Beck’s speech works, and the next day he gets released from prison. The letter that Beck actually wrote provides a well thought out case for his release and relies on research and rhetoric. Most importantly, the conclusion of the letter needs to be quoted here. Beck writes, “In closing, I must say I realize that mine is a tiny voice crying in the wilderness, but it is historical fact that even a tiny voice can often bring cataclysmic change” (qtd in Gifford 137). Little did Beck know that these words would be prophetic. As Gifford argues, Beck maintains a large impact on our culture in literature, music, and cinema.
There is, of course, much more to say here. For more information, take a trip over to Gifford’s website. What are your thoughts? Let me know in the comments below.
Gifford, Justin. Street Poison: The Biography of Iceberg Slim. New York: Doubleday, 2015. Print.

Slim, Iceberg. Pimp: The Story of My Life. Los Angeles: Holloway House, 1987. Print.


Run the Jewels’s "Early"

Recently, I came across Run The Jewels’s song “Early.” The song provides a commentary on the current state of affairs regarding incidents such as those that occured in Ferguson and Baltimore. Consisting of legendary independent hip-hop artists Killer Mike and El-P, the group confronts the superstructure that led to events like the ones mentioned above. “Early” shows the discrepancies in regards to how society views and treats certain individuals when the only difference between them happens to be the color of their skin.

I would suggest that “Early,” along with the accompanying video, can be used in the classroom to get students to understand voice in literature and to open up discussions regarding race and class in the United States. To begin with, Killer Mike and El-P exchange verses. Students need to understand that Killer Mike is African American and El-P is white, and they need to note that when then duo raps in the song they rap in constructed narrative voices like a poem. In the opening verse, Killer Mike raps about using marijuana as a means of coping with the struggles that confront him in his day to day life: “It be feelin’ like the life that I’m livin’ man out of control/Like every day I’m in a fight for my soul.” While the Killer Mike does not sell drugs in the song, he questions if the marijuana is the reason the police stop him on his own lawn with his wife and son watching. Killer Mike pleads with the officer to not lock him up in front of his family, and he speaks about having respect for the badge. (Killer Mike’s father was a police officer.) The officer does not listen and arrests Killer Mike. At this point, Mike’s wife runs out of the house begging the officer to stop; instead, the policeman pulls a gun on her. Camera phones appear, and Killer Mike’s son runs out to protect his mother. The verse ends with an ellipsis, with something left unsaid: “And I’d be much to weak to ever speak what I seen/ But my life changed with that sound. . . “

El-P’s verse begins with the same two lines as Killer Mike’s:  “It be feelin’ like the life that I’m livin’ man out of control/Like every day I’m in a fight for my soul.” This repetition links the two and shows the way that each rapper occupies the same space, within the same society but they have experience things in different ways based on their skin colors. While Killer Mike’s verse contains more narrative structure, El-P’s appears more abstract, questioning truth and the idea of surveillance (who that surveillance is meant to protect). Speaking about “truth,” El-P raps, “And I find you odd, so convinced of the truth of y’all/That the true truth’s truly gone.” Does the “truth” actually exist? Who tells us the truth? According to El-P there is a “they” that tells us the “truth,” but in all honesty, if you believe that “they” tell you what should be considered the “truth,” you’ve lost the plot. Near the end of the verse, El-P raps about surveillance cameras watching our every move, whether we no it or not; however, “But it didn’t record cop when he shot, no warning.” Who does the surveillance protect? Who does it serve? Those are the questions that arise here. El-P’s verse concludes with a link back to Killer Mike’s: “Heard it go pop, might have been two blocks/Heard a kid plus pops watched cop make girl bleed/Go to home, go to sleep, up again early.” Even though the narrator of El-P’s section exists within the same society, and within close proximity to the events that happen to Killer Mike, he does not become affected by them. 

What does the proximity of the shooting to the narrator of El-P’s verse and the speaker’s apparent non-concern say about our society? What are your thoughts? Let me know in the comments below. 

For some more information, check out Killer Mike’s speech before a concert in St. Louis in regards to the murder of Michael Brown. As well, check out Killer Mike’s interview on CNN and his Op-Ed for Billboard.