This past weekend, I attended the Common Ground Music Festival in the heart of Lansing, Michigan. I have attended my fair share of music festivals, but never one within city limits—this definitely gives it a slightly different atmosphere. I entered the festival grounds with a typical half-assed search, walked across a bridge decked out in glow sticks and found myself in the middle of the madness. I had about an hour before BLAT! Pack performed so I decided to roam around.
I walked along the Grand River, past craft booths, food stands and a few little games for the kids—it sure did feel like a festival, though extremely small. I stretched out on the riverfront for a bit and soaked in those loving Sunday vibes. After thoroughly Zen, I made my way to the main stage to catch a little bit of Jon Connor, a Flint-based MC. I had never heard anything by him before, but I was pleasantly surprised; he had energy, presence, and great band backing him. He spoke of unity, the great state of Michigan, the healing powers of hip-hop and of course, peace and love. Near the end of the show, his sister joined him on stage, and it started to feel like one big happy festie family—everyone was laughing, dancing and putting their drinks in the air for what was bound to be a great night. Content with the performance, I headed back downriver to see BLAT! Pack.
I arrived with fifteen minutes to spare, laid out in the grass, and watched as people slowly started to gather in front of the stage—a few folks sported BLAT! Pack and James Gardin shirts. Before I knew it, people were flooding in from left and right eagerly awaiting the show. The atmosphere around was all love, hugs and a sense of anticipation, which unleashed as BLAT! Pack took the stage; and once they took the stage, they didn’t miss a single beat.
It was the first time they had ever performed as BLAT! Pack, and shit, they had better do it more often. It wasn’t just Jahshua Smith, it wasn’t just James Gardin, or Red Pill, or Yellowkake, it was the complete BLAT! Experience—the horns, the rhythm section, and every MC took this show beyond sun, moon and stars, hurling us audience members into the next dimension. It was a funky, fun-loving show that radiated with pure artistic bliss. I don’t know who had more fun, the audience or BLAT! Pack. As I was lost in that backbeat, the MC’s were running around on stage, laughing, goofing around—organically going from mock backup dancer to main performer. The music was clean, the vocals were crisp and you could feel the heart and soul radiating through sound waves.
Underneath the music, the love and laughter, was something that resonated with the human spirit: accepting change and revolution. Throughout the concert, brief words of wisdom were spit between songs: they talked about letting go of your past, your anger, your frustrations and just letting it float away in the wind; they stated our need for revolution, not only at a societal level, but a revolution within ourselves; Jahshua Smith mentioned Trayvon Martin, but instead of being on a soapbox, he let the verdict speak for itself, and told us all to raise our fists, together. And everyone in the audience, from different lifestyles and cultures, raised their fists into the sky; I turned around to face the whole crowd and noticed sunlight pouring into the pavilion, across all our faces, across all our fists. Then, the beat dropped, and hands went wild.
After the show I was elated, and laid back in the grass, soaking up the light of the people. Moments like these are what the world needs—bringing the festival vibes to a city, speakers blasting onto the streets. You know, you read the “news” and hear about all the horrible things in the world, about how our world is falling apart, but then you go out into the world, and are greeted with nothing but love. I find when I actually leave my computer screen, unplug and live my life, the world is more vast and beautiful than ever before. THIS IS THE REVOLUTION: get up, get out, and do something! I love that local groups such as BLAT! Pack exist to expand the consciousness of man from the bottom up; we need to support more grassroots movements and recreate local culture. I believe, if we focus in on here and now, we will uncover all our souls’ desires. We just got to get up, get out, and do something.
“The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge natural to party dissention, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries, which result, gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an Individual: and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of Public Liberty.” –George Washington, September 19, 1796
With the recent verdict and acquittal of George Zimmerman regarding the shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, we have once again been thrown into the twirling ring of “true America”. Although the concord of the United States has proven itself at times in this country’s young history, we live in an age where George Washington’s grave prediction of a “frightful despotism” is hard to shake off. It’s not just the Zimmerman trial that has caused an eruption and desecration of our country’s whole either. Rather, it’s been a multitude of tragedies and events for centuries. At this point, how can we have a country where the government doesn’t trust the people, the people don’t trust the government and the people don’t trust the people? Why do we have to live in a constant divide? Now, of course America is not alone in this regard, but if we want to solidify our world as a whole (because our government thinks we should police this planet), we can’t be living in a country with blatant injustice thrown before our feet. The result of this injustice is the separation of our country, whether it’s regarding race, politics, religion or gender, and the suffering from this divide is immense.
The story revolving around Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman has represented so much depending on how you see it—this goes without saying that most people see this story representing multiple facets of its overall blueprint. For most, it’s been an issue about race, civil rights and racial oppression. For others, this story represents everything from the country’s legal system, to gun control laws and mainstream media, and if anything is to come out of this case unhinged from the start it’s that we are still a grossly divided nation: those fighting for Trayvon Martin, his family and justice in America are opposed by those who firmly believe Zimmerman acted in self-defense and nuts like Ann Coulter; those fighting for stricter gun laws and background checks are opposed by those who stand by today’s gun regulations and most likely own many firearms (three out of the six jurors in the Zimmerman trial are gun owners); and those fighting for blue states are opposed by those fighting for red ones.
To put this into a perspective that makes more sense these days, Unreal News Online has reported that last Sunday (24 hours after the Zimmerman verdict) Facebook experienced more blocking and un-friending than any day in its history. Says Mark Zuckerberg:
“Everybody had something to say about (Saturday’s) verdict. Charges of racism were thrown around at everyone. Tempers flared and a lot of connections and ties were severed. It was even worse than the day the Casey Anthony verdict was announced. It really makes you wonder what would have happened if Facebook were around in 1995 when the O.J. Simpson trial reached its conclusion.”
Although this is a small sample of the big picture, it nonetheless shows how we are at the core. Our division amongst each other and our government not only hinders the country’s ability to progress as a whole, but it clinically showcases our flaws. Most of the time, we as people tend to bash on the things that we hate rather than promoting what we love. I think, to speak realistically, we’re all susceptible to this flaw and it truly affects our overall being.
And yet, through all of the division and separation, anger and sadness, our country continues to amaze me.
If there’s a positive I can take from recent travesties such as the Trayvon story, the Oscar Grant shooting (Fruitvale Station is now out in theaters), the Marissa Alexander conviction, the highly unreported slaying of Jordan Russell Davis and the thousands of other stories that go unreported, it’s that these events have spurred the congealing of people from all backgrounds and cultures unified for a common cause. Just when I think the division among the people of this country has come to an all time high, rallies and protests in response to these tragic events have calmed me down, subtly reminding me that the good always outnumbers the bad.
Regarding the George Zimmerman verdict, much like the protests that spurred an investigation in the first place, people from all over the country have come together to resist the forces that continue to separate the people.
On Sunday evening in New York City, thousands gathered as part of a nation-wide movement to fight against injustice in the legal system and racial oppression.
New York City via AP
New York City via AP
Like New York City, protests all around the country connected thousands.
Milwaukee, Wisconsin via AP
Detroit, Michigan via AP
Seattle, Washington via seattlepi.com
Jacksonville, Florida via AP
The Trayvon Martin blackout protests and million hoodie marches have further shown me that our country is still a wondrous entity. For times I have forgotten just how immense and absorbing we all are. But to this I must ask why it takes a tragic or monumental event like this to bring us all together. A year from now, if things haven’t changed, will we continue to march upon the steps of Washington with words of protest? Or will we, like so many times before, step down until another saddening event throttles our emotions? Is this just human nature?
If we can take something like the Trayvon Martin story and demand change for our legal system and call for justice, we must learn how to do this without the wake of such an event. To continually fight means to never succumb and forever persist, and it’s with this where we must stand.
The common result among our country has been that one of the biggest injustices is that of the separation of our country, whether it’s among racial, religious, political, sexual or cultural grounds. From the Trayvon Martin story to the NYPD pat down service to the ridiculous bills being passed that are further trying to chip away at women’s rights, the core institution of the United States has divided us instead of celebrating the uniqueness everyone brings to this great country. We have, as citizens, joined together to fight these injustices and demand change, but we need to be more frequent. By doing this, our voice will constantly be heard, and we will never fall beneath the abyss. By doing this, we’re not only demanding change, but we’re shaping the future of our country and the way it’ll speak for generations.
In the 17 days since the beginning of the George Zimmerman trial, I have tried to keep in touch with everything that has been going on. Like millions of Americans, I’m invested in this case. From the very start of the Trayvon Martin story we’ve delved deep down into the rabbit hole of topics that range from race to national gun laws to Florida’s Stand Your Ground law. Out of all these topics—which are all important in their own right—I still can’t get over one simple thing: George Zimmerman, after being told not to follow someone he deemed “suspicious looking,” decided it was in his best interest to continue pursuing his target, which ultimately lead to a 17-year-old black male with Skittles and Arizona Tea dead on the grass with a bullet in his chest.
And yet, the more I think about this story, the more it isn’t surprising.
I’m sorry for such a pessimistic view on the nature, but if we look at some things—more specifically the slayings and unjust nature against young black youth and minorities in America—how are we at this point surprised by these events when our country is yet to progress? Need I mention Oscar Grant? Or what about Nicholas K. Pert’s riveting story about N.Y.P.D. behavior against black males in New York City? In a day and age where we are almost 50 years removed from Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech (August 28, 1963), it seems that our progression as a whole doesn’t even come close to what civil rights activists in the 60s had hoped for in a 50 year span.
So with that, this is why the George Zimmerman case and Trayvon Martin story are important. And although it’s far from being the only one worthy of discussion—it’s amazing how mainstream media will invest everything into a certain story without focusing on others as well—it’s the closest America as a whole will get to understanding the core issues of civil rights in the 24 hour news cycle.
Stakes is High
Maybe it’s because we’re in an age of technological advancement and online everything, or maybe it’s because news outlets realize the magnitude of this case, but everything in the George Zimmerman trial is being taped and broadcast. This itself is a beauty, because we as a nation don’t have to take a reporter’s word or script to pass judgment; we can literally sit at our television and watch this unfold. And maybe, just maybe, this will ease the aftermath.
See, the Casey Anthony case was stunning, and the Kermit Gosnell trial was frightening and just, but the George Zimmerman case is extremely important in that the verdict will extend far beyond the reaches of the courtroom. Whatever verdict is decided at the end of this trial, it is a guarantee that this won’t signify the end of the story. If taping the entire trial for people to follow and judge for themselves as it unfolds helps ease some, then this is needed. More importantly, getting this first-hand look at the trial gives us a sense of actually knowing the story from witnesses and accounts.
The trial itself, at least through the first 17 days, has been patchy on both sides. From the jury selection, to the opening statements, and to the witnesses, both the prosecutors and defense team have gone through each and every ring a case could possibly throw.
At the end of the jury selection, it was decided that six women would consist of the jury with four alternates (the jury only has six members because second-degree murder cases in Florida only call for six jurors). Five of those women are white, and one is Latina.
Now what does it matter if the six jurors are women and that five are white and one is Latina? Why should there be questions asked? Well, for one let’s look at this case: first, the Trayvon Martin shooting has and will always focus mainly on race, because the details behind the altercation make it so (George Zimmerman was a Latino and Trayvon Martin was a black teenager; Trayvon looked like a “punk” and was “suspicious”). Beyond this, the jury selection was chosen for the benefit of both the prosecutors and defense: the prosecutors agreed upon this jury because to them, women have that instinct that Trayvon was just a kid, and that this would stir feelings of “that could have been my son.” On the other hand, the defense team agreed upon this jury because they wanted to emphasize the fact that Trayvon was a black male wearing a hoodie, and that he looked “suspicious,” trying to evoke feelings in the jury that this kid could have been trouble if they were in the vicinity. From the very get-go this trial continued to play on stereotypes, no matter how big or small they were.
As the actual trial started to commence, it looked like the prosecutors were gaining the upper hand. The defense team began their opening statements with a distasteful “knock-knock” joke, and the opening statements made by assistant state attorney John Guy directly used George Zimmerman’s line he said on the phone that went like this:
“Fucking punks. Those assholes, they always get away.”
Guy later went on to say:
“Those were the words in that grown man’s mouth as he followed in the dark a 17-year-old boy who he didn’t know … Those were the words in that man’s chest when he got out of his car armed with a loaded semi-automatic pistol and two flashlights to follow on foot Trayvon Benjamin Martin, who was walking home from a 7-Eleven … Those were the words in that defendant’s head moments before he pressed that pistol into Trayvon Martin’s chest and pulled that trigger.”
After day one, it looked like justice would be swift and vigilant. It looked, at least during that very moment, that George Zimmerman was doomed for what he rightfully deserved: second-degree murder.
And yet, as the trial wore on, things started to get shaky. The prosecuting team’s witnesses thus far have failed to fully bring the information they were hoping for that would pin George Zimmerman. This is especially true with Rachel Jeantel, the 19-year-old friend of Trayvon Martin who was talking to him that night. Not only was it hard to understand her on the stand, she was also caught with providing misleading information and wrapping herself up in contradictions. Comparatively, other witnesses have only bolstered Zimmerman’s case for self-defense, claiming that Martin was throwing punches and Zimmerman was pinned.
So as we stand, 17 days later and still in the midst of this trial, here’s what’s important:
No matter what the verdict of this case is, remember: George Zimmerman was the one who decided to follow Trayvon Martin, even after being told not to by authorities. We still don’t know who started the initial fight, but this fact is important to retain.
Despite the prosecuting team’s disappointing run of witnesses thus far, remember Zimmerman’s quote from opening statements: “fucking punks. Those assholes, they always get away.”
At this point, it looks like a lot of the evidence is pointing towards a worthy case of self-defense by Zimmerman. Even more disheartening is that the chances of him being convicted of second-degree murder are slim. If anything, he will get charged for manslaughter and will likely get a reduced sentence. His chances of walking are still high.
Most important, no matter what happens, we as a community stand behind Trayvon Martin, his family and all of the similar injustices that plague not only our country, but our world as well.
Which leads me to this.
If you can remember way back towards the very beginning, you’ll remember that Zimmerman wasn’t even taken in for a crime. In fact, it was Florida’s Stand Your Ground Law that actually shielded him from such an event. It took protests, petitions, “million hoodie marches,” demonstrations ,vocal output and action to actually bring authorities around to arresting Zimmerman and charging him for second-degree murder.
One of the biggest groups behind Trayvon Martin and the calling for social justice was the hip-hop community. Not only were there demonstrations and peace talks, but also artists and MCs (both high on the spectrum and underground) were making dedication songs to a story that is all too familiar in the hip-hop realm.
“I’m pretty much not the one to be told that a trial is going to make everybody feel straight and clear … The obvious point is that this young man lost his life from an unjust situation, and it needs to be hammered home. That’s bottom line.”
In the same article, rapper Game goes on to talk about the historical relevance of the Trayvon Martin story:
“For some reason, people don’t think that they need any excuse to kill us, beat us, hit us, run us over, disrespect us or anything like that. This is just another reminder that stupidity still exists.”
And even going past race, hip-hop recognizes that this story touches so close to the community because Trayvon was only a kid. Chuck D’s wife, Professor Gaye Theresa Johnson points out:
“We’re talking about a grown armed man who shot an unarmed child, regardless of race.”
From the outpour and concerns, the hip-hop community has also unleashed a plethora of tribute songs. And although some are better than others, a situation like this shouldn’t be judged on musicality, but sincerity.
On Jasiri X’s song “Trayvon,” he raps over the fitting beat of “No Church in the Wild” to explain the event that took place. It’s a haunting tale, especially over the churning production of “No Church…,” but its Jasiri’s vocal cadence and lyrical detail that reinforces both strength and sadness regarding this story.
“He had just came up from Miami to see his daddy / Who knew such a great weekend would end badly? / In a place where you move because it’s safe for your family / When some people gotta have grown hate for your family.”
Alternatively, on “Date of My Death (Trayvon Martin),” Tahir Jahi tells about continual injustices and the fight “for whatever is left.”
“Sick of innocent getting wronged by the ignorant / Who will benefit from this medicine / Coming from my lungs to warn veterans please let them in / Fuck Democrats and Republicans I don’t care bout your publishing.”
“Made You Die,” a song by Dead Prez, RBG member mikeflo and Yasiin Bey, takes a more revolutionary approach and expresses that the Trayvon Martin shooting is the straw that broke the back.
“Cause we do the same thing expecting different results / I’m checking the vital signs but I ain’t getting no pulse.”
These are just a few examples, but from the hundreds of Trayvon Martin tribute songs, it’s a clear-cut sign that this story isn’t simply a resurgence in hip-hop awareness. Rather, it’s a sign that the problems that plagued the hip-hop community from the very beginning are still very much alive. Moreover, hip-hop has always been something representing that fight, or that something to fight for, and this 16 month story is putting that fight on the national spotlight.
The shooting of Trayvon Martin and the George Zimmerman trial are part of a bigger story. On the surface you have an unjust Florida law that allowed a grown-man to murder an unarmed boy. However, at the core you have bigger issues. There are issues on race, oppression, stereotyping and issues of our country’s growth in general. It’s been 50 years since the “I Have a Dream Speech,” and yet we as a whole are yet to fully embrace it. We have continued to see the slayings of innocent and unarmed minorities (especially the black youth), and we have continued to see the perpetrators let off unfairly. Despite the vast improvements we’re making as time goes by, it’s not enough. We need action.
When the story of Trayvon Martin first surfaced, it took action to have the Sanford Police Department even consider charging George Zimmerman. This action, which included the protests and marches, directly resulted in an arrest and a second-degree charge. Millions of people around the country, whether they were involved with hip-hop or ordinary citizens, took to the streets and voiced their say.
Likewise, in the 60s and 70s, Americans protested the Vietnam War with action. Citizens marched, musicians sang and artists unveiled works all for one common cause. More specifically, these times brought upon thousands of musicians coming together and demonstrating resistance and action through song. One such example is Country Joe McDonald’s “Feel Like I’m Fixing to Die”:
“And it’s one, two, three, what are we fighting for? Don’t ask me I don’t give a damn, next stop is Viet Nam. And it’s five, six, seven, open up the pearly gates, ain’t no time to wonder why, whoopee we’re all gonna die.”
These examples of action demonstrate one thing that must be recognized: unity. We cannot as people continue along our petty ways of indifference if we expect to see change. Furthermore, we need to march together for the bigger causes worth fighting for. Politicians need to stop fighting for “seats” and actually work together and listen to the constituents. Law enforcement needs to stop playing stats and work on bettering the country as a whole. News outlets need to spread attention to all the important stories and stop broadcasting from one side. Focus on education needs to start playing to the needs of the kids instead of standardized tests and statistics. People need to look past skin color, culture, gender, sexual orientation and religious affiliation when judging one’s character. And we as a whole need to realize hatred and injustice are a waste of time; life’s too short to be full of hatred.
We need to come together like so many cultures and people have come together in the past, and fight for these things. We need to come together like hip-hop did for Trayvon Martin. We need to express ourselves, not just vocally, but through art, discussion, workshops, demonstrations, protests and marches. If we don’t take action, we won’t see change.
Along with action, we also need hope.
Tweeting from court Tuesday, Trayvon’s mother Sybrina Fulton wrote: “Day 17 – Remember God gives His toughest battles to His strongest soldiers. Please know I can’t give up now, I’ve come too far. Continue to keep us lifted in prayer.”