JANUARY 23, 2016
I have to please
The dead far longer than I need to please
The living; with them, I have to dwell forever.
— Antigone, Sophocles
ANTIGONE’S RESPONSIBILITY TOWARD THE DEAD, her desire to perform proper rituals of mourning and burial denied her by Creon, forms the basis of her claim against the state. Her grief allows her to envision a truer justice.
As Jacques Derrida claimed,
No justice — let us not say no law and once again we are not speaking here of laws — seems possible or thinkable without the principle of some responsibility … before the ghosts of those who are not yet born or who are already dead, be they victims of wars, political or other kinds of violence, nationalistic, racist, colonialist, sexist, or other kinds of exterminations, victims of the oppressions of capitalist imperialism or any of the forms of totalitarianism.
Today, perhaps more than ever before, the demand for justice calls for a sense of obligation toward those no longer with us. Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown — these names demand loyalty. There are countless more, victims of police brutality and contemporary technologies of death, as well as the millions whose deaths as a result of centuries-long racist, sexist, and colonialist violence remain unaccounted for. As we face evolving models of colonialism and slavery, it becomes increasingly necessary to fashion a politics of resistance that is cognizant of the ways people of color, especially black people, have been systematically targeted for demise throughout America’s history.
However, much of the discourse that hopes to confront these racist systems has focused on political reform and structures of power. How do we also attend to structures of feeling? How do we cry? How do we express pain? How do we mourn the dead? The process of mourning creates its own ethico-political conditions, its own conception of justice, as we see with Antigone. It rests on the promise of devotion to the dead, to the past, to loss itself. How do we express this attendance to mourning, this continual and inconsolable declaration of loyalty to the other side — the wrong side — the space of the dead, the imprisoned, and the marginalized?
In the early 1990s, when reality rap (or gangsta rap, as some called it) was gaining mainstream attention, bell hooks sat down with Ice Cube. She asked him the following question: “There’s so much emphasis on black men and violence. What about black male pain and grief? What do you do with your pain and your grief?”
Twenty-five years later, hip-hop might have finally found a befitting reply in G Herbo’s music. The Chicago rapper’s songs — most of them soul-baring farewells to departed friends — are stark reminders that we cannot afford to ignore pain and grief as lived realities, as affective nodes that ground sociopolitical categories like violence.
The first song of G Herbo’s latest mixtape Ballin Like I’m Kobe starts with an intro to set the tone — “RIP all my niggas” — over a soulful vocal sample, before he pronounces the chorus:
Love and live your life
Make it lavish long
And I can’t right my wrongs
So I just write my songs
How would I live if God guaranteed my life was long?
And when I sin I pray that God don’t leave my life alone.
Then the rolling drums drop, and the rapper is recounting near-death experiences —
In the streets, ditching school, murder, drugs around me
Rapping it just found me, thank god it wasn’t in county
Bunch of shoot-outs, lucky that them bullets went around me
God was with me, jumped straight in that water, it didn’t drown me
— and naming dead friends not as lucky as him: “Long live G-Fazo, Vito, Cheeko, C-Mo, Pistol, Kobe, Rock / Blizz, Richie, white folks, cracks, playboy, yeah my broski Capo.”
The name of the mixtape itself is a dedication to his dead friend Kobe, or Jacobi D. Herring. The album art is a black-and-white picture of G Herbo kneeling over Jacobi’s gravestone, the rapper’s face turned down toward the earth. Unfortunately, this is nothing new for G Herbo — his last two mixtapes, Welcome to Fazoland and Pistol P Project, were also named after dead friends.
By now, it is clear to the listener that Ballin Like I’m Kobe is not a typical compilation of melodious sing-alongs about drugs, sex, and violence. While the mixtape contains generous doses of these elements, culminating in some choice moments of braggadocio (“Look, I be with trigger happy, pill-popping, drug-dealing, wild ass niggas / I’m a young black male, dropout, worth a couple hundred thou[sand] ass nigga”) and ruthlessness (“I keep them killers with me, they tryna roll shit / I can’t control shit, let off the whole clip”), what sets the mixtape apart is its ability to express pain and grief as unabashedly as it does the jouissance of violence.
On “No Limit” G Herbo raps, “I’ve been in the streets so much that I don’t like it / All the hurt in me, I try to fight it / It’s hurting me until the anger just burst in me.” More often than not, such admissions are related to the rapper’s fond memories of dead and incarcerated friends — “Damn Cap, we was just ridin’ through the town / Smokin’ out the pound,” or in “100 Days, 100 Nights,” which deserves to be quoted at length:
Spent years on that avenue, shed tears on that avenue
My niggas made decisions and did bids for that avenue, free Crazy James
Go to sleep, wake up with nothin’ to eat, yeah that’s a crazy thing
Sometimes I think I can just blink out this crazy dream
But reality it really ain’t as easy as I make it seem
Lost my nigga, why they off, my nigga?
I give it all up, what it cost, my nigga?
I ain’t really ever give a fuck ’bout shit, but now I ain’t ever gon’ toss, my nigga
Say Kobe, without you in these streets feel like I’m lost, my nigga
Shed so many tears, make me feel weak, but I ain’t soft, my nigga
Without his dead friend Jacobi (Kobe), G Herbo feels unmoored in a reality that resembles a “crazy dream.” But the act of remembrance, of grieving, lets him imagine his friend’s presence and makes way for an existence that strives to live with ghosts rather than forget them. In a verse like this, lamentation becomes a way to orient oneself in the carceral geographies of the inner city.
While the mixtape hosts many instances of hip-hop’s distinctive braggadocio, it also cultivates, urgently and significantly, a fragmented but unending narrative of loss. It becomes a performance of mourning, both for the dead and for those among the living who occupy the same space in the public imagination as the dead. The mixtape is essentially a valediction: a struggle to mourn the victims of a racist culture.
The contemporary rap scene in Chicago began to develop in earnest a few years back when the rapper-producer duo of Chief Keef and Young Chop gained a massive following after the release of their lo-fi songs and videos on YouTube. Their style of music — often called “drill” — relied on repetitive lyrics and dark yet danceable sounds to capture the unprecedentedly violent gun culture taking shape in Chicago. Building on the earlier success of Southern “trap” music (named for the political, social, and economic trap black people found themselves in due to the War on Drugs), especially independent Atlanta artists like Gucci Mane, drill music became a hit. G Herbo has undoubtedly taken advantage of this musical spotlight on Chicago, but he has also engaged drill music with caution, refining key elements of the genre while abandoning others.
First and foremost, he has a unique voice, a hungry delivery that prowls ahead of the beat, eager and self-assured in the same breath. His voice pairs well with the sonic atmosphere of drill, bringing out the emotional ferocity of the repetitious machine-gun hi-hats, dark synths, and shuffling keys that characterize the genre. Where he differs from the genre is in his old-school, almost conservative emphasis on lyrical ability at a time when most trap and drill artists have focused on melodies and repetitions, sometimes going so far as to entirely liquidate word-meaning (with undeniably impressive results, too). He also often juxtaposes conventional drill elements in the music production with singular sounds that displace the faster tempo of the beat by invoking a slower, introverted temporality, opening up unseen emotional spaces in the orthodox drill arrangement.
A compelling example is the song “Bottom of the Bottom,” which details G Herbo’s thoughts on the prison industry over a lingering violin sample:
From the bottom of the bottoms, there was nothing under me
Now the judge hang us with a hundred years, used to hang us by a tree
I was born in the trap, tryna stay up out the penitentiary
’Cause living ain’t cheap, how the fuck is this the land of the free?
G Herbo’s mourning exceeds the category of an isolated or delineated mourning. He doesn’t only mourn the loss of an individual friend in order to digest it and move on, but he also begins to link the individual loss to the collective consciousness of terror that surrounds him, one that summons Jim Crow and slavery to the present, transforming the act of grieving for a friend into an endless mourning for an irretrievable loss.
Another example is the song “Remember,” which pairs a slow, haunting beat and a gospel-inspired chorus with stories of drug-dealing. The verses on the song brilliantly deal with the pain and grief of losing friends:
Remember: me, Fazo, and Manski used to hoop at the center
Now big homie gone and broski eating tuna for dinner
Then they really ask me why I’m a sinner.
The interlude after the first verse begins with a recorded voice — “A collect call from …” — which G Herbo interrupts with the following words:
Look man, I just told y’all
This the type of shit I do it for, man
All my niggas incarcerated
All my dead niggas, man …
I’m answering these county calls everyday, man
Putting money on all my niggas’ books, making sure they good, man.
By the end of the second verse, it feels like G Herbo has given up altogether. He stops rapping and simply speaks to the listener:
That’s just the way it is, man
I don’t want to do anymore talking, man
Ballin like I’m Kobe, the mixtape
150 dream team, man
Free all my niggas, RIP my niggas, man
I’m just going to let the beat lead me out, man, that’s all I got.
The unguarded message, the symbolic throwing-in of the towel, hits harder than the carefully crafted verses. The listener is given a small peek into the impossibility of living with trauma, a brief, frank glimpse into the enormity of the task of mourning. The beat plays for another whole minute while R&B artist The Mind repeatedly sings the chorus over it:
I’m starting to feel boxed in
Losing my conscious
What if I’m trapped in?
What if I’m locked in?
These thoughts can’t hold me
The lord consoles me
Trying to make it right but wrong is all around
And I’m down, I’m down, I’m down, I’m down, I’m down.
Hip-hop has always understood the responsibility we owe to the dead. In one of the earliest examples of hip-hop journalism, Steven Hager, writing a profile of Afrika Bambaataa for The Village Voice in 1982, mentioned how the legendary DJ kept a Xeroxed death certificate of his friend Soulski in his bedroom. Soulski was Bambaataa’s fellow member in the Black Spades gang of New York; he was murdered by the police.
Some of hip-hop’s most iconic verses have dealt with the loss of dearly departed friends: Jay Z’s verse on “Regrets,” RZA’s verse on “Tearz,” Bun B’s verse on “One Day,” Common’s verse on “Respiration,” Pete Rock and CL Smooth’s “They Reminisce Over You.” Of course, this is not a tradition exclusive to hip-hop: black expressive cultures in general have taken this commitment seriously. Ralph Ellison, while writing a critique of Amiri Baraka’s Blues People, noted that the blues were “the heritage of a people who for hundreds of years could not celebrate birth or dignify death …”
A reviewer of G Herbo’s mixtape pointed out that the Chicago Sun-Times’s extensive “Homicide Watch” could only muster two paragraphs on the death of Jacobi D. Herring, egregiously misspelling his name as “Jacoby Herron.” It is easy to imagine that if it wasn’t for G Herbo’s unwavering effort, Jacobi D. Herring would’ve been wiped from history without a second thought. Another racialized death America would rather forget than acknowledge.
Ballin Like I’m Kobe functions as a politics of resistance: a vital reminder to dignify each death, mourn each life with the rituals it deserves. For if we don’t commemorate our dead, if we don’t remember them, we will witness the continuation of a brutal and systemic denial of life. The inexcusable death toll in black communities and the extraordinary population of black prisoners is a moral indictment on everyone living in this country. We must not ignore it. G Herbo’s mixtape is one way to mourn the death of a dear friend, one spirited and worthy endeavor to remember those whose lives remain unseen.
As I listen, I hope the music continues to send our regards to those who have left us, preparing for our arrival among them. Most importantly, I hope that when we join the ones we must live with forever, we may tell them with pride and sincerity — I remembered you, I loved you, I fought for you.