“You wanna hear a good joke? Nobody speak, nobody get choked.”
— Run the Jewels
“In the good old days this doesn’t happen because they used to treat them very, very rough. And when they protested once, you know, they would not do it again so easily.”
— Donald J. Trump
“It is the function of the public realm to throw light on the affairs of men by providing a space of appearances in which they can show in deed and word, for better and worse, who they are and what they can do, then darkness has come when this light is extinguished…”
― Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism
I don’t remember how I discovered DJ Shadow’s “Nobody Speak” (featuring Run the Jewels), but I started listening to it (and watching the video) repeatedly sometime in September, about five months after the song had been originally released and a month after the video came out. As I explained when I wrote about “Turn Down For What?” back in 2014, being middle-aged means I am always behind the curve when it comes to new popular music, so despite the gap between the song’s arrival and my repeated listening, the song was new to me, and it felt like the perfect expression of the gonzo turn in American politics, especially since (and this is nothing to brag about) I called that Donald J. Trump would be elected the next president of the United States back in July of 2016. And trust me, knowing this would be the case did not make the actual election any easier to accept. In fact, the deep realization that white America would rather risk destroying itself than continue on the track of what tepid progress Obama represented is not one I can hold in my mind and heart for too long. It comes to me in anxious snatches of panic, followed by gradual mellowing into temporary ignorance until it returns.
Like “Turn Down For What?,” I also cannot think about “Nobody Speak” without thinking about its video, which puts the song into the context of the seeming inevitability of Trumpism; the explicit crassness of unchecked privilege and the threat of violence that undergirds notions of national belonging. The video, which evokes some form of United Nations mediations—what with its facing tables, entourages of aides, hushed voices, and flags of many nations in the background—erupts into an ego-driven rumble between two old white men (the U.S. and UK delegates) that eventually draws in everyone present. Even those who at first express shock and disdain for the crude discourse end up joining the brawl.
The video was filmed in Kiev, Ukraine at the the former Lenin Museum, what is now a convention center. In a piece written for Roads & Kingdoms, Alexander Kleimenov explains the significance of the setting to the locals, and provides readings of some the specific elements of the video. For example, when the U.S. delegate turns the fight raw by trying to stab the UK delegate in the neck with a broken pencil it evokes deposed Ukrainian president Victor Yanukovich’s (failed) attempt to break a pen at press conference after fleeing the Euromaidan Protests. The production company’s Kiev-base, the casting of mostly Ukrainian actors, and a long history of parliamentary violence throughout the world provide a lot for Kleimenov to chew on when exploring the video’s Ukrainian context, resisting its makers’ claims of being apolitical. And yet, even without those details being available, the music and visuals work together to reveal something about the intersection of politics and violence, and even suggests politics can be a form of violence. And with all due respect for Ukraine, the dumpster fire of American politics has me thinking a lot about that politics/violence framework radiating out from right here in the U.S.
Part of what makes the violent disruption of the U.N. scene in the “Nobody Speak” video so visually effective is the juxtaposition of the ostensibly respectable well-dressed diplomats with the braggadocious lyrics and spitting delivery. The song and accompanying visuals excel in their use of two-men facing off with nasty battle rhymes consisting of irreverent wordplay that surpasses the wackness of the contemporary notion of battle-rap found in the countless terrible joke videos found on Epic Rap Battles of History, which appropriate the form in pursuit of low comedy. El-P and Killer Mike’s vocals are laid over music that evokes an Ennio Morricone Spaghetti Western score mixed with the theme of a 70s cop show, transforming a site of ostensible diplomacy into a frontier of hatred and violence, blurring the line between an affected respect for propriety and the ugliness beneath what we’d think was ideological conflict, but is really just trumped up dick-wagging. The lyrics are pure absurdity. From the opening, “I’m a bag of dicks / Put me to your lips” to the responding “Pinch your momma on the booty / Kick your dog, fuck your bitch,” these are lyrics in which Trump’s own well-documented crude talk—“Grab them by the pussy” and “I moved on her like a bitch”—would fit perfectly. In fact, Trump’s bizarre obsession with objectifying his own daughters makes an appearance when El-P raps, “Flame your crew quicker than Trump fucks his youngest.” The crudity of the lyrics are an echo of Trump’s brazen stupidity and adolescent fragility in his tweets and those of his sycophantic surrogates. Of course, this is not limited to Trump, even if he is emblematic of it. This is the world we live in now, as when Pakistan’s defense minister threatens Israel with nuclear retaliation based on a false claim published in a conspiracy-minded right-wing “fake news” site. Bluster and bravado in the form of disingenuous schoolyard threats and “locker room talk” cascading beyond the virtual world into geopolitical consequences. Bullshit becomes fighting words becomes reason for World War III.
The song’s refrain reminds us of the contradictions of the political right’s incoherent demands and the perils of acquiescing to threats against speaking out or buying the notion of respectability defined from the top down. “You wanna hear a good joke? Nobody speak, nobody gets choked.” The “joke” here, of course, is that even capitulating to the silence Trump and his cronies demands of any would-be dissenters—and even skeptical reporters—is no guarantee of safety. In fact, the erasure that results from silence guarantees the opposite of safety. America, Americans, and the world are all choking on our current political discourse, where ignoring the incoming president’s absurd assertions allows him to define reality divorced from fact, but engaging with it tars all claims with the same sense of dubiety. Nothing—whether it be the promised safety of not speaking, or the expression of any hope that Trump might be a “successful” president, to his immediate impeachment—seems free of snowballing consequences leading to less freedom, more inequality, and the spread of violence at home and abroad. It is that eruption of violence resulting from the fallen veil of civilized discourse that the video makes visible. It casts just the kind of light Arendt wrote of in the epigraphic quotes above, and in the darkness of its absence anything is possible.
While ugly, the violence in the video is nevertheless tame when compared to hot zones the world over. Rather, the collapse of propriety that this violence represents demonstrates whiteness unleashed against itself in a direct way that has not happened since World War II, rather than played out through brown bodies the world over as happened repeatedly in places like Korea, Vietnam, Algeria, Angola, Iraq, Syria, Nicaragua, and Afghanistan. In a short article for Consequences of Sound, Michelle Geslani writes of the video that “[political] tensions [in the U.S.] aren’t nearly as bad as what’s depicted,” but she’s kidding herself. It is much worse. The difference here is that the video represents a form of violence between those who purport themselves to be equals and rational, practical people, and not targeted against the vulnerable along the lines of gender, class, sexuality, race, nationality or disability. Working to deprive millions of Americans of healthcare, secure retirement, and voting rights is no less violent, and is nevertheless what is at stake when those in power negotiate them as optional.
Killer Mike may have suggested in a statement about the video that the fighting men of the video were stand-ins for American political electoral conflict like that we just saw between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, but whatever Clinton’s sins might be, Trumpian arrogance and misplaced swagger is not one of them. Rather the song’s demeanor and the video’s narrative parallels Trump’s bullying vision of America and a simplistic view of its place in geo-politics. He and his buddy Vladimir Putin’s assertions of strength actually demonstrate the fear of a weak position and a lack of faith in their ideas that force bullies to commit violence to prove otherwise, making themselves vulnerable to the all-consuming power of retaliatory conflict in the process, even as they harm those already in marginalized positions. As I said above, in this political turn we see a White America willing to destroy itself— sadly including, 52% of white women expressing their internalized misogyny—if only to feel the satisfaction of having any power at all, and turning a blind eye to the degree that those they would destroy (and accuse of wanting to destroy them) are inextricably bound up in the same fate.
The video’s conclusion might be a little too on the nose for some, but it works for me. One of the two original brawlers ends up using the American flag as a weapon and is about to impale his opponent with the flagpole when he notices the cleaning lady has entered the room to deal with the carnage. The narratives that justify violence are threadbare, gendered, racialized, and ego-driven. The illusions that state-violence is just and righteous collapses and ruptures regularly, requiring repeated reinforcement to avoid being revealed as a barnyard rumble. In the video, chickens and pigs appear from nowhere to scramble and shed feathers in fear as human animals devolve into their worst selves. When the cleaning woman appears, her presence arrests the action, and her severe look seems as insufficient a response to the riot as a scolding. And yet, to depict her doing more would inject the video with false hope, and having her breakdown and cry would be risk making her into the punchline for what is actually not all that great of a joke. The best working people can hope for as a result of those in power exploiting their mediations to avoid these violent ruptures of propriety—while risking them or playing them out through proxies—is to be around to clean it up. Too often the marginalized are the worst victims when national ideologies are positioned as vehicles for the accumulation of capital and power. They become the instruments and victims of that power.
And yet, despite my assertion that this violence lies beneath and is a result of the traditional political discourse of the 20th and 21st centuries, I don’t want it to seem like I am endorsing it. Killer Mike too glibly suggested, “It’s what I really wish Trump and Hillary would just do and get it over with…,” as any claim that such conflict needs to come to the surface through actual fisticuffs is born of the same schoolyard politics that drive so many of Trump’s supporters. Instead, what I am suggesting is that Trumpism is based on the threat of an unconcealable eruption of untempered violence that the U.S. could inflict on enemies at home and abroad with impunity. Consider his tweet from late December 2016: what does it suggest but that the UN is a country club of elite “talkers” in opposition to his willingness to take tough action? The insidiousness of such an assertion, of course, is that in truth Trump is just the country club talker, an old fucker used to getting his way no-matter-what for so long he has come to believe his own bullshit. Over this past weekend Trump referred to Congressman and Civil Rights hero, John Lewis as “all talk, no action,” which unsurprisingly is an ignorant accusation. Trump has never had to deal with the consequences of physical and economic violence, but John Lewis has.
When Trump gets sworn in in a few days, “Nobody Speak” will be that much closer to reality, except of course, I doubt Trump has ever had to fight his own fight, get his hands dirty, his knuckles bloody, take a shot in the face or in the gut, or had his wig snatched off, but nevertheless it is this base impetus—“I’m not afraid to pop off!”—that supports his view of the world. The presidency is now simply a setting for his unchallenged hubris, and his fall is going to unleash terrible consequences on America and the world, without allowing any of us normal folks the opportunity to even enjoy his humiliating failure, because at best you cannot shame the shameless, and at worst, we all get choked.