When I stepped onstage at the BET Hip Hop Awards last month, I felt anger, frustration, sadness, and hopelessness. It was overwhelming, and it also felt like a blessing. I was performing my verse from a song I did with Kenneth Whalum called “Might Not Be OK,” and I chose to wear a police uniform. Eight bars in, if you didn’t see the uniform, you might not know where the narrative was coming from. “Stop asking questions, why you filming? / You look suspicious, I think you dealing / Step out of the car, fit the description.” It’s that split second when someone’s ready to take your life.
Philando Castile was killed by police in Minnesota, Terence Crutcher in Minnesota, Keith Scott in Charlotte. The NYPD killed a woman with a mental illness in the Bronx just a couple weeks ago. This has always been going on, but now we have videos of it. Now you can see it, and that brings a new energy to any interaction with an officer. As much as you want everything to be okay, you know there are some people who don’t want you to be alive, or to see you doing well. A simple traffic stop could be the end of your life. That’s not what I used to think growing up, when getting pulled over meant thinking, “Aw, man. I don’t want to go to jail.” Now you think, “I don’t want to get killed. What should I do with my hands so that I don’t get killed?”
I’m from Meridian, Mississippi–it’s a small city where everybody knows everybody. Growing up in my neighborhood, you would usually know the police officer on patrol. Maybe he was your friend’s uncle, or something like that. He doesn’t want to see you get in trouble. He’d want to keep you out of those situations. When a kid was outside kicking it, instead of putting him against the wall, an officer might just say, “Hey, go home. I know your mama’s waiting for you.” And it goes both ways: If a person in the neighborhood saw a police officer they knew, they’d say, “Hey, how’s it going? Thanks for keeping us safe.”