Culture

Can You Love America And Hate Questlove?

CREDIT: AP Photo/Matt Rourke

Frontman Tariq "Black Thought" Trotter and drummer Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson on stage with The Roots on Independence Day, 2014

Days after Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) announced he is running for president, journalists picked up on an old story about the time Kasich mounted a personal campaign to get the movie Fargo taken off the shelves at Blockbuster. But in the same 2006 book where Kasich told that story, he also discussed the intersection of morality and culture in a context that may provide much greater insight into how he views key issues of race in America.

John Kasich thinks The Roots are trash.

“I still listen to new music, but more and more these days I find there are some thresholds I have a hard time crossing,” Kasich writes in Stand For Something, at the beginning of a 674-word stretch about buying the latest CD from The Roots. He wanted to “give hip-hop a fair shake,” but quickly abandoned the effort. “I slipped in this new CD and was quickly appalled at what I was hearing. The lyrics just put me over the edge. Every other word…was intended to shock and titillate, for no good reason but to shock and titillate, and I couldn’t listen to it.”

Having decided that Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter and his guest emcees couldn’t possibly have any artistic reason for cladding their stories and boasts in language he disliked, Kasich apparently started to see a menace to American society.

“The language didn’t add anything to the music, or to the message, which I guess is the very definition of gratuitous. And then I caught myself thinking, What if my wife got in the car and the album happened to still be in my CD changer? How could I ever explain what I was doing buying this stuff? Or, even worse, what if my daughters chanced to hear it?”

With that paternalistic fear echoing in his skull, Kasich “pulled into this place near my house where I usually stop for coffee and threw the CD in the trash.” Tossing the music made him feel righteous. “In my own way, I was taking my own little stand, against the societal drift we’ve allowed ourselves to get caught up in, against the meaningless and increasingly offensive drivel that passes for intellectual or creative thought.”

Describing The Roots as meaningless and offensive-for-offensiveness’-sake says far more about Kasich and the particular kind of white middlebrow moral panic he represents than it does about Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, Trotter, and their bandmates. It’s hard to say which album Kasich threw away — 2004’s album The Tipping Point was their most recent prior to the spring 2006 release of Kasich’s book, but who knows just when this anecdote happened. Regardless of which it was, he deprived himself.

If Kasich had listened a bit closer he would have heard Black Thought talk about how these structural factors filter down into individual lives. He would have heard an angry, proud, intelligent, and resolute black man speak about being born into a system that’s rigged against him.

On “Stay Cool,” from the last Roots album to come out before Kasich’s book, Black Thought rhymes about “pimping on the same system that forever shorted me” and growing up in a country where dirty cops kill haphazardly, black children meet violence in the shadow of their own homes, and millions of black men spend decades locked in cages.

from the block where the crooked cops killin like a villain

children in the hood getting rocked by they buildings

and brothers cross the board getting knocked by the millions

the stress got me igniting the potent marijuana leaf

tryina play it cooler than a polar bear colony

you feel the music, know I’m over there probably

pimpin on the same system that forever shorted me

Things have changed dramatically for The Roots since Kasich’s moment of flailing disgust and incomprehension at the tail end of the Bush years. They now back up Jimmy Fallon on NBC’s The Tonight Show, a move that inevitably raised their profile with many of the exact same folks that Kasich’s book was written for.

Black Thought talked about the complicated effects of that new exposure to rap-averse white America on him and the band in a February episode of the podcast The Champs. He also discussed growing up amid gangsterism, his father’s murder when he was an infant, and his early and constant efforts to make money for himself and his family with all manner of small-time jobs.

But when asked about how the Fallon gig has changed his exposure to the public, Trotter said something that hits right at the disconnect Kasich’s book passage highlights. The show has rendered both the emcee and the band behind him as pure entertainment and joviality, and won them an audience they didn’t previously have. But that audience isn’t following them off of the show and into their own space. They’re not crossing the border of language, attitude, and bleak emotion that animates much of The Roots’ catalogue.

“I could be anywhere, and a woman’ll be like ‘I know you.’ And it’s not ‘you’re that guy from that rap band,’ it’s ‘you’re Tariq’,” he said. “She knows my government name. She watches the show, everyday she sees me act a fuckin’ fool. It’s not like she recognizes me from my music. Nine times out of 10, the middle America people who are Tonight Show fans, they’re not really up on my discography. They know me from shenanigans.”

Thompson, with his signature afro, is probably even more recognizable than his bandmate and longtime friend. And while his family background is much different from Black Thought’s, the drummer has of course also experienced direct negative consequences of having black skin in America.

On Thursday night, Questlove attended a U2 concert and posted a long note to Instagram recounting the time when, at 16 years old, he and his friends were pulled over and held at gunpoint on their way home from seeing the band’s concert film Rattle & Hum. “When you get pulled over in a hostile manner you are NOT in your right mind,” he wrote. “They were itching for us to try something. I hated the guilt of just being me. Nothing more degrading in life than the helplessness you feel when you get pulled over.”

These formative experiences are reflected in The Roots’ critically-acclaimed albums. Their music explores what happens to a person after years of living in a country that fears, devalues, segregates, and confines them.

Kasich’s aversion to understanding black music is no small thing when considered alongside his own record, and the track record of interactions between black citizens and white officials in Ohio during his tenure. Kasich himself made it harder to get food stamps in the counties where most of Ohio’s black population lives, while ensuring that the bar is lower in whiter rural areas. He has also pushed hyper-restrictive voting laws that will have a disproportionate impact on black voters.

Such policies help create structural discrimination that curtails black America’s prospects, caps their potential, and seeds the ground with the sorts of narratives Trotter and his band so skillfully weave. Systematic disenfranchisement and disparate barriers to anti-poverty assistance help to preserve the longstanding chasm between the median wealth of white and black families — and frequently drive young people of color into the criminal economy and, later, the prison system.

Even those who do not chase economic security outside the law find themselves victimized by its officers. White policemen in Kasich’s state have killed multiple unarmed black men during his tenure.

In just the past year, police in Ohio killed both 12-year-old Tamir Rice and 22-year-old John Crawford for the sin of holding a toy gun. The pair of killings speak to more than just rash action on the part of police. The cops who killed Rice and Crawford were responding to alarmed 911 calls from other white Ohioans frightened by the sight of a weapon in a black hand. In Rice’s case, the caller specifically told the 911 operator that the weapon he saw might have been a toy — information that might have defused the situation, but which was not passed along to officers by dispatch for reasons that remain unclear. In Crawford’s case, caller Ronald Ritchie told 911 operators that he’d seen a man pointing a gun at customers — then later told reporters that Crawford had never shouldered the unloaded BB gun or aimed it at anyone.

In these stories, a white civilian’s fear is transferred up the chain of state to white civil servants empowered to use deadly force at their sole discretion, who then misuse that power to snatch a black life. This merging of official power and unofficial, abstract white fear down at the popular level is essential to understanding what Black Lives Matter — and indeed, almost all anti-racism work in the United States — is trying to address.

To his credit, Kasich has signed legislation and issued executive orders designed to reform the profession of policing in Ohio in the wake of the Rice and Crawford killings. But the need to reevaluate the relationship between the state’s minority citizens and its institutions might have occurred to him sooner if he actually had “give[n] hip-hop a fair shake” a decade earlier.

Rap music persistently addresses that deadly alloy of civilian fear and police aggression, which is an inescapable presence in black people’s lives but something most white Americans can go decades or lifetimes without encountering directly. Much of the culture’s musical output speaks explicitly to the immense willpower and moral compromises required for a black American to survive — let alone thrive — in a reflexively hostile, deathly afraid culture.

If politicians are going to close their ears to that output because it contains cusses and crassness, then they will be far less able to incorporate black experience into their policy thinking. The status quo thrives when the people who want to lead the country ignore and denigrate the stories its most oppressed people tell.

Kasich closes the passage on The Roots in his book by writing that he threw the CD away “because I’d convinced myself that if I let that kind of garbage into my life and the life of my family I’d have lost.” But “this kind of garbage is everywhere and all around, and I maintain that if we don’t stand against it, if we don’t take our own little stands, we’ll look up one day and it will be who we are.”

Do you see the tell? Kasich is writing from a very particular understanding of the word “we.” And because he refuses to open his ears to what black America might tell him about oppression, he can’t see that state violence and desperate clawing for dignity already defines existence for a very different “we” that’s right under his nose.

UPDATE JUL 31, 2015 10:53 AM

This piece originally stated the Ohio Secretary of State said that the state “shouldn’t contort the voting process to accommodate the urban -- read African-American -- voter-turnout machine.” In fact, those were the words of Franklin County GOP Chair Doug Preisse.

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