Rap music has long been a place for black Americans to speak truthfully about racism. But that reputation for honesty has been criticized recently. Black Lives Matter is the largest civil rights movement since the 1960s, and many would argue that rap is playing catch up to the times. As state-sanctioned violence against black men, women and children continues, more and more rappers are now stepping up and recording songs that explicitly protest systemic racism. Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” was chanted at protests; YG’s anti-Donald Trump anthem “FDT” reportedly earned him a visit from the Secret Service, and his song “Police Get Away With Murder” articulates even more rage. Jay Z, Vince Staples, Dr. Dre, J. Cole, and Vic Mensa have all hopped on the mic to speak about the black lives taken away by the police.
T.I. has added his voice to the discussion. Earlier this month, he released the video for “We Will Not,” a defiant call for black people to unite and stand up against their oppressors. Then, the provocative music video for “Warzone” followed, which reenacts the deaths of Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, and Philando Castile, but changes their races so that the victims are white and the officers black. Last week he released an EP, Us or Else, available for streaming on Tidal for members and non-members alike. Its six songs are dedicated entirely to themes of social justice and black unity. The record is the result of spending time with activists like Harry Belafonte, whose upcoming Many Rivers to Cross Festival near Atlanta will feature T.I., Carlos Santana, Dave Matthews, Macklemore, and others as performers. Some of the proceeds from the EP will also go toward Belafonte’s foundation Sankofa.org.
Speaking with Complex, T.I. discussed what he learned from these activists, the criticism he received for what many saw as detrimental tweets about Black Lives Matter, and why Quavo’s voice is just as valuable as anyone else’s during this time of need.
You’ve always struck a balance between great street music and great radio records. What kind of adjustments did you make to create Us or Else?
There’s always been at least one record off of each album that kind of addressed things that were going on. Whether it’s from a perspective of someone who is within it, or as an observer. “Still Ain’t Forgave Myself,” “Be Better Than Me.” Every album, there’s always some form of introspective, socially conscious record. They never become singles, but I think right now, the time of the things that are going on right now, it’s time for that.
I was motivated to do something, and it started with trying to mobilize and make sure that I was equipped with the information I needed to be able to lead if ever the time came. Which also led to protesting, sitting down, trying to have a meeting of the minds with people who have already been through this before. If you focus on a certain initiative, where you have something that you consume your day with, if you do music that day, the music will be a reflection of what your day consists of. So as I was recording during those times of July and August, these are the records that I came up with and it led to the EP.
In July, you were criticized for comments about Black Lives Matter. You tweeted, “For us to really have an argument in the BLM movement we must show that Black Lives Matter to us.”
This is true. I still feel that way. To be honest with you, you must understand what you’re facing. You’re facing two types of people. One, the type of people who want you to remain oppressed. And two, people who haven't reached the understanding of the fact that you are being oppressed. So if you’re facing these types of people—one who wants you to remain this way, and one who don’t realize that it is this way—you cannot continue to poke holes in your opportunity to advance. No one is going to do more for you than you’re willing to do for yourself. So I honestly feel that we have to respect ourselves in order to demand respect. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying snap our fingers and tomorrow all black-on-black crime goes away. But you have to take the necessary steps. Everybody has to, at one point, be responsible. Not just for themselves, but for the community. Once we begin to feel like that, then we will start to establish a certain amount of respect for ourselves.
I’m not going to do any wack music, regardless of the subject matter. Just because it’s socially conscious and aware, doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be dope or current.
People argue that police aren’t going to respect us either way.
One, I don’t necessarily believe that. Two, even if that’s true, you’re just helping them. You’re making their job easier. Why would you fight on their side? I think that’s an act of futility. I don’t see how that does anything to progress or advance the movement.
One thing about this record, you’re speaking about police brutality—
Well, police brutality is one thing. We’re speaking about murders.
But the music bangs. For a lot of songs with a message, it seems like the message takes precedent over the music. How important was it for you to make the music knock while actually saying something?
I’m not going to do any wack music, regardless of the subject matter. I’m just not interested. I’m not willing to invest in something that isn’t fulfilling. Just because it’s socially conscious and aware, doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be dope or current. You gotta have a jammin’ ass record, first and foremost.
The “Warzone” video has made the biggest impact so far. How did that song and video come together?
“Warzone” was the second record I think I did for this particular project. How the song came together was—I just did it. I can’t describe or explain, I can’t articulate the steps that took place. I went in the studio with Mars, and he played some records. I heard that record, and it just came together. I didn’t do a whole lot of thinking about it. It was already on my mind to say it.
We knew that the message of the song was so strong that the video had to match the level of importance. We were conceptually coming up with the video right around the time of the Dallas police shootings. We were just like, we have to take some of the stuff that’s going on right now and do something with it. We had a few ideas that we tossed around. The idea of role reversal was the most unified agreement, like OK, let’s do that. And we started putting it in motion.
When it comes to race, some white people suffer from failures of imagination and empathy, and the video forces that person to imagine themselves or their children in that position.
This is true. The new racism is to pretend that it doesn’t exist. There is no neutral party in oppression. Either you are being oppressed, or you are the oppressor. There is no, “Oh, I don’t got nothing to do with this.” The sooner we as a nation begin to see that, the better off we’ll be.
Even though it’s only six songs, the EP has a lot of guests. Was it important for you to display a message of unity, or was it just finding good fits for each song?
As many as I have, I reached out to more people. I wanted to give everybody an opportunity to speak their part, how they feel. What you heard were the ones who were able to come forth with a contribution.
With safe sex, we can make songs about using rubbers, but we not gonna hand you one when it's time to get it on. We can’t roll it back for you.
The one that was real important to me was “Black Man,” because I wanted the young up-and-comers, the young rappers of now, to have a voice. You don’t have to be 30-something to feel a way about this. You don’t have to be socially conscious, or “woke” as they say, to feel a way about this. I just wanted them to speak in they voice. I wanted Quavo to do what Quavo do, in his voice. Same thing with Meek, as well as K.R.I.T.
I think that youngsters feel like that’s older people business, that it ain’t got nothing to do with them. But to be honest with you, the youngsters are out there in the streets the most. Y’all on the battlefield more than us, y’all all out there in the mix. Y’all gon have to come up with something. Whether they know it or not, this is a step closer to them figuring out what to do. They’ll just start hearing something play in their head for no reason, and they come close to facing circumstances like that. Hopefully it’ll help.
When you think of protest music, who do you think of? Who do you listen to?
Kendrick, J. Cole, OutKast, Scarface, 2Pac. I wouldn’t go as far back as Public Enemy, not really right now, but at the time I did. Ice Cube, KRS-One. Common.
What change can music bring about?
It’s creating awareness. With safe sex, we can make songs about using rubbers, but we not gonna hand you one when it's time to get it on. We can’t roll it back for you. [Laughs.] You just gotta put it on your mans before you do something. We can’t fight the fight for you, but we’re just going to create enough awareness to keep it on your mind so when the time comes, you can do something. Who knows what that is? Hopefully we can ignite the spark that sets the revolution ablaze. I don’t know know how, where, why, or when. But just hopefully, this contribution will be able to be present for the person who needs it most to pick it up and do something with it.
You said that before this record, that you met with people who were already doing this work. Who were you meeting with, and what did you learn from them that you didn’t know before?
I met with Mr. Belafonte, Dick Gregory, Quincy Jones, some community leaders in Atlanta. I had a financial institution meeting with Citizens Trust Bank, Young Thug, Dolph, Killer Mike, and some of my artists, Rara, to figure out the financial impact we can have. And also, the young ladies who founded Black Lives Matter, Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi.
First, [I learned] that nothing is new under the sun. The things that we are experiencing now are very similar to the things that we have been experiencing since we have been here in America, outside of slavery and segregation, of course. The disdain for equality has been ever-present, it’s just as much a part of American culture as baseball, apple pie, and Fourth of July. I think it starts in our community, us uniting. Not breaking down, not becoming a part of the problem, not helping them. You can’t oppose someone and assist them at the same time. If we truly are in opposition of our oppressor, we can’t assist them by doing things to ourselves that keep us in a regressive state.