Retro poetic: ‘Thieves in the night’ Black Star (Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star, Rawkus Records, 1998) plus Toni Morrison and Langston Hughes

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?/And who are you that draws your veil across the stars? 

Langston Hughes, 'Let America Be America Again' (1936) 

Listening to “Thieves in the night” now, a song I know well and have listened to so many, many times over the years, what strikes me most is its intimacy, in particular, the verse of Talib Kweli. This reflects the way it’s recorded, there seems to be no space between the elements; this makes the music sound close to you. But it’s also the way Kweli sounds so sincere, so urgent, when presenting his verse.

Urgency is a key defining quality for me when appreciating the work of an MC, especially when you can sense something of the artist's personality and if it feels true, sincere. I’ve had plenty of conversations with hip-hop fans, more knowledgeable than me, who argue for the quality or cleverness of rhymes as being the key defining element of an artist's worth. Often such talk comes across as mathematics. For whatever reason I hear the music/feeling first – the way the music sounds, the way it’s put together.

Strange, though, to be speaking of this in relation to “Thieves in the night” that is at once heartfelt and political. I won’t summarise/paraphrase the politics as it’s there for you, written on the page, but this is politics as lived experience, as something that is deeply felt. The genius lies in the way the song allows for sentiment to co-exist with the message. See, for example, the wry quality of the hook, with its mild admonishment that can still make you smile – ‘now who the nicest?’ – while savaging the compliance, complicity of the oppressed.      

[Hook: Mos Def, (Talib Kweli)]
Not strong (Only aggressive)
Not free (We only licensed)
Not compassionate, only polite (Now who the nicest?)
Not good but well behaved
(Chasing after death, so we can call ourselves brave?)
Still living like mental slaves
Hiding like thieves in the night from life
Illusions of oasis making you look twice
Hiding like thieves in the night from life
Illusions of oasis making you look twice


[Verse 1: Talib Kweli]

Our morals are out of place and got our lives full of sorrow
And so tomorrow coming later than usual
Waiting on someone to pity us while we finding beauty in the hideous
They say money’s the root of all evil but I can’t tell
You know what I mean, pesos, francs, yens, cowrie shells, dollar bills
Or is it the mindstate that’s ill?
Creating crime rates to fill the new prisons they build
Over money and religion there’s more blood to spill
The wounds of slaves in cotton fields that never heal, what’s the deal?

Produced by 88-Keys, the only track he produced on the record and inspired by Toni Morrison’s 1970 novel, The Bluest Eye 

Thieves in the night is also the title of a novel by Arthur Koestler, published in 1946 and described by this contemporary New York Times review as ‘bitter, sardonic, probing and introspective, and it is given an ironic kind of pity and terror by the struggle between yogi and commissar that still seems unresolved in Mr. Koestler's soul’.

Many of the listeners commenting below the YT video single out Mos Def’s - Yasiin Bey's - verse, understandably perhaps, as it is a classic example of an MC speaking directly to the listener, as if he is sharing some essential truths, “most cats in my area be loving the hysteria/synthesized surface conceals the interior …” The line about “America, land of opportunity, mirages and camouflages” connects with the repeated refrain in the hook about “illusions of oasis.” Mos Def here is relating a kind of false-consciousness, as it used to be called. Certainly, there’s frustration in the following:

America, land of opportunity, mirages and camouflages
More than usually, speaking loudly
Saying nothing, you confusing me, you losing me
Your game is twisted, want me enlisted in your usury
Foolishly, most men join the ranks cluelessly
Buffoonishly accept the deception, believe the perception
Reflection rarely seen across the surface of the looking glass
Walking the street, wondering who they be looking past
Looking gassed with them imported designer shades on
Stars shine bright, but the light rarely stays on
Same song, just remixed, different arrangement
Put you on a yacht but they won’t call it a slave ship
Strangeness, you don’t control this, you barely hold this
Screaming “brand new”, when they just sanitized the old shit
Suppose it’s, just another clever Jedi mind trick
That they been running across stars through all the time with
I find it’s distressing, there’s never no in-between
We either n*ggas or Kings, we either b*tches or Queens
The deadly ritual seems immersed in the perverse
Full of short attention spans, short tempers, and short skirts
Long barrel automatics released in short bursts
The length of black life is treated with short worth
Get yours first, them other n*ggas secondary
That type of illing that be filling up the cemetery
This life is temporary but the soul is eternal
Separate the real from the lie, let me learn you
Not strong, only aggressive cause the power ain’t directed
That’s why we are subjected to the will of the oppressive
Not free, we only licensed, not live, we just exciting
Cause the captors own the masters to what we writing
Not compassionate, only polite, we well trained
Our sincerity’s rehearsed in stage, it’s just a game
Not good, but well behaved cause the camera survey
Most of the things that we think, do or say
We chasing after death just to call ourselves brave

But there is also great tenderness in this verse. It is written from the perspective of someone who is speaking to those who like him are trying to make sense of a frequently hostile environment, where their very existence often seems to be open to debate. Such writing is comparable in impact (and theme) to the famous Langston Hughes poem, ‘Let America Be America Again’ published in 1936 in Esquire. 

A poem that would have had an enormous impact when published in that era of Jim Crow in the way it presents unspeakable truths, while giving voice to people not commonly heard. Here is an extract, the poem can be read here

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one’s own greed!

Strangely, or perhaps not so much, the poem’s title has been misused, co-opted by a number of (white) politicians in the US, as Wik explains, ….

"The title of this poem was used by Democratic United States senator John Kerry as a campaign slogan in his 2004 presidential campaign. In 2011 an exploratory committee for conservative Republican former senator Rick Santorum used a variant of the phrase ("Fighting to make America America again") on its website; told of the slogan's derivation from the Hughes poem, Santorum stated he had "nothing to do with" its use by the committee."  

Even the most extreme and successful example of a white supremacist politician, the current US President, seems to have co-opted the title in his inane campaign slogan that is all about race-based exclusion and violence. This co-option reflects what I often think is a degree of awareness among white racists that the very foundations of their bigotry are not only morally abject, but untenable. Everything, in the end, is stolen. And they know it.

And yet, despite or perhaps because of this, the poem by Hughes has a kind of secrecy about it that gives it enormous power, particularly in the repeated refrain, (America never was America to me.) Never before has the use of punctuation been so charged, full of meaning. But this secrecy is also there in the italicised lines and the poem's conclusion, which contains apparent contradictions within it in terms of its tone. It includes extremely tough depictions of suffering (the perpetrator of the crimes remaining nameless) to end on a kind of rallying cry.

Langston Hughes, like his descendents sixty years on, had the capacity to speak on many levels, while maintaining emotional intensity. This underscores their status as great writers. But Hughes inevitably was also writing in code, able to share one hidden, unacknowledged truth – “the rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies” – but only by cloaking it in the notion that this suffering was universal and might lead to a greater good. This interplay can be seen particularly at the end in the final verses of the poem. 

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose—
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
We must take back our land again,

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain—
All, all the stretch of these great green states—
And make America again!

The Reader, Bernhard Schlink, trans. Carol Brown Janeway (New York, Vintage, 1998)

After a long, long time of reading, certainly, but reading snippets and slashes, feasting on morsels of information/arguments – so many arguments – chosen by others, unfolding in an endless scroll, I am reading books again.

Appropriately, the second book since this return is one I first read many years ago: Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader, published in 1995. What struck me this time around was how strange, in the best possible way this novel is despite its massive commercial success, both in Europe and the United States and elsewhere. (The same success that makes me hesitate to even write on the book at all: it was selected as a favourite on Oprah’s Book Club).

Something about the depiction of the central character, Michael Berg, struck me as incredibly true, so honest; the way Schlink evokes his silence and apparent indifference, but decades-long devotion to this woman he had loved as a teenager. Reading the novel the dominant impression you get of this man is that he has no feeling, he seems callous to the point of indifference (when, for example, Hanna Schmitz is sentenced). But still, he makes cassettes for her – reading aloud – for her to listen to while she is in jail, for years with no messages included in the packages he sends.

I never made a personal remark on the tapes, never asked after Hanna, never told her anything about myself. I read out the title, the name of the author and the text. When the text was finished, I waited a moment, closed the book and pressed the stop button.

It is the combination of the repeated act and the way that it is presented that conveys the power of the unspoken commitment. In contrast, Hanna's responses have a wonderful spontaneity about them, as she responds to the authors as if they were still alive: 'There were always only a few lines, a thank you, a wish to hear more of a particular author or to hear no more, a comment on an author or a poem or a story or a character in a novel, an observation about prison.'

‘The forsythia is already in flower in the yard’ or ‘I like the fact that there have been so many storms this summer’ or ‘From my window I can see the birds flocking to fly south’ - often it was Hanna’s note that made me pay attention to the forsythia, the summer storms, or the flocks of birds. Her remarks about literature often landed astonishingly on the mark, ‘Schnitzler barks, Stefan Zweig is a dead dog’ or ‘Keller needs a woman’ or ‘Goethe’s poems are like tiny paintings in beautiful frames’ or ‘Lenz must write on a typewriter.’

In praise of: ‘Terrorist Threats’ Ab-Soul, feat. Danny Brown, Jhené Aiko (Control System, Top Dawg Entertainment, 2012)

The song itself is popular - almost 20-million views and the first result when you put Ab-Soul’s name in a search engine; this is where the irony begins. Two wealthy, successful rappers in branded clothes, with money to burn (even if it is done ever so carefully, so delicately) giving voice to the marginalised.

Personally, I think this is one of the best political songs in recent hip-hop for two reasons. First, for many of the ideas conveyed. The way the lyrics, delivery, mood and music coalesce, allowing space for interpretation even if some of the lyrics are so clean and direct and memorable – catchy even. Some of the words could be used as slogans, worn on a T-shirt, or  unfurled on a banner, held high above people’s heads:

Peep the concept
You’ve got progress, you’ve got congress
We protest in hopes they confess
Just proceed on your conquest
I ain’t got no gavel, I ain’t finna fight nobody battle
I just wanna be free, I ain’t finna be nobody’s chattel

And second for the way, Danny Brown’s verse conveys something of poverty as a felt experience, rather than something abstract, or described as a narrative about someone else in a story that is being told.

In this extract from the Ab-Soul’s verse above there is some nice word-play with the repetition of “pro” and “con” (“for” and “against”), some listeners claim this reflects Ab-Soul’s belief that this is how the system operates, as a series of mediating and opposing forces. Lyrically Ab-Soul’s verses are super-dense, I won’t unpick them, as that goes against the spirit of it – for me – to read the track’s lyrics and interpretations, go here

It’s also hard to dislike a mainstream hip-hop/rap track that opens with a reference to Selassie, making connections to another radical Black musical/cultural tradition. The hook is great, so concise and powerful: "Wish I could see out of Selassie' eye/Maybe my sovereignty would still be mine/If all the gangs in the world unified/We'd stand a chance against the military tonight.”

Maybe there is some kind of connection here with the Mos Def/Massive Attack track from 2003 (and then Bad Brains’ track of the same name released back in 1986) even though there is a long, maybe unrecorded history of MCs and producers making such links between the genres.   

There’s also other stuff going on at the start, with direct references being made to the key sample used by producer Dave Free: Jay-Z’s “Ni**a What, Ni**a Who” that originally came out in 1998 (this is the j-version, not sure why, of the same song).

Danny Brown gets a mixed response critically and among hip-hop people, with some turned off by his “insane in the membrane” antics. But his verse here is genuinely affecting, stops you. And for this reason it's political. His words and delivery convey something of how it feels to be poor, the relentless and mundane reality of struggling to get by when you don’t have enough money to feed yourself or your children: "Feel my pain, goin' insane, I'm ashamed

‘Cause I ain't got shit but an EBT card
From a fiend that owe me and it's in her daughter name
How the fuck is they 'posed to eat?
How the fuck am I 'posed to eat?
Got a nigga in the streets, no health care
Tryna slang weed just to put shoes on his feet
So fuck you! You don't give a fuck about me
Can't get a job if they drug test me
Got a ni**a stressed, depressed
Got a feelin' in his chest
And the world's stripped of happiness
I ain't got no gavel, I ain't tryna fight nobody battle
I just wanna be free, I ain't finna be nobody's shadow."

(I’m not sure if the final word is correct, if it should be “chattel” as before). There’s nothing heroic or remotely Romantic about any of this. Nothing noble, it's soul-destroying. That makes this true: “Feel my pain, goin’ insane, I’m ashamed.” 

Creativity First: an essay on producer/composer Paul White

There’s something appropriate about the fact that producer/composer Paul White was born and still lives in London’s South (Lewisham); a part of the city brimming with immigrant voices, open-air markets selling fish, batteries and kitchen utensils, rich with Blakean echoes.

The great Romantic poet and mystic, William Blake (1757-1827) lived in Deptford, not so far from Lewisham. As a child, Blake would regularly go for six-mile walks in this untamed, bucolic part of the capital. At the age of four, it is said that Blake saw God’s head appear in a window and then as an eight-year-old on one of his walks in south London saw the prophet Ezekiel under a “tree filled with angels.” 

(Blake’s first biographer, Alexander Gilchrist writes: “Sauntering along, the boy looks up and sees a tree filled with angels, bright angelic wings bespangling every bough like stars.”)


During one of our two phone conversations in August/September, Paul White often speaking in a very quiet voice, his sentences full of pauses, interspersed with bursts of enthusiasm, I asked if there was any significance in the fact that many of the samples used for his production work with Detroit MC Danny Brown came from English artists. “Do you feel that you’re drawn to a particular sound that comes from the UK,” I asked.

Paul White: “I don’t think so, not necessarily, it’s a feel. I’m drawn to something that is totally different: someone being themselves and experimenting, that’s what I can really relate to. Something so wild and so free, that’s how I try and create.”


'Alone' Tomas Tranströmer, trans. Robin Fulton. New Collected Poems, Bloodaxe Books, 2011


One evening in February I came near to dying here.
The car skidded sideways on the ice, out
on the wrong side of the road. The approaching cars –
their lights – closed in.

My name, my girls, my job
broke free and were left silently behind
further and further away. I was anonymous
like a boy in a playground surrounded by enemies. 

The approaching traffic had huge lights.
They shone on me while I pulled at the wheel
in a transparent terror that floated like egg white.
The seconds grew – there was space in them –
they grew as big as hospital buildings.

You could almost pause
and breathe out for a while
before being crushed.

Then something caught: a helping grain of sand
or a wonderful gust of wind. The car broke free
and scuttled smartly right over the road.
A post shot up and cracked – a sharp clang – it
flew away in the darkness.

Then – stillness. I sat back in my seat-belt
and saw someone coming through the whirling snow
to see what had become of me.


I have been walking for a long time
on the frozen Östergötland fields.
I have not seen a single person.

In other parts of the world
there are people who are born, live and die
in a perpetual crowd.

To be always visible – to live
in a swarm of eyes –
a special expression must develop.
Face coated with clay.

The murmuring rises and falls
while they divide up among themselves
the sky, the shadows, the sand grains.

I must be alone
ten minutes in the morning
and ten minutes in the evening.
– Without a programme.

Everyone is queuing at everyone's door.




Unlikeable victims, race and the limits of empathy

Problems arise when there is something excessive about the victim. Something about her behaviour or identity that makes her difficult to like. There’s just something about her that I don’t trust; there’s something about her that unnerves me. None of this is surprising when you remember the way she behaves. 

Such reactions are common among women and men. They reflect a desire for a security-blanket of cause and effect when understanding frightening things: the woman was abused because she did something wrong; she suffered because she is wrong. It also suggests a child’s mindset and vulnerability. Why is my father angry at me; if I stop doing this, or being this way, will he love me, will he give me his attention; will he see me? If I am different, will I be safe?

Our desire to survive and be safe from harm also requires that our empathy become conditional and enact social norms. Becoming a woman is built on the awareness that we might not be able to defend ourselves against a stronger man, so we need to be smart. We need to make deals. We need to be careful and alert. And yet sexual and other violence does not discriminate. You might be the prettiest, most popular, most submissive woman in the room and still get raped. 

Perhaps some women will say this does not reflect my reality. I am not afraid of men. I have not been threatened by them. Such women might also be so enmeshed in the social system that they laugh along with “jokes” about male sexual violence and then call it “locker room talk”.  They might accept religious dogma claiming that male dominance and female inferiority is natural. They might argue that their mothers in “traditional” marriages had good lives, wanted for nothing in a material sense, even if their lives were spent serving their husbands. 

My belief is that the frustration many women feel in their lives energises this belief that for them to be kept safe, some women need to be wrong, outside the norms of what is allowed or acceptable. And here we find the intersection with race. Certain women, those who are seen to be too aggressive, too sexual, too poor and marginalised, too desperate and needy, too vulnerable, or not white enough easily become “natural victims.” The violence they suffer is to be expected, often not reported or even discussed.  

How otherwise can we explain the fact that a famous white Australian film star called a Black American woman, a well-known MC, a ni**er; spat at her, pulled her aggressively to make her leave a Hollywood party and has suffered no consequences? Even now, as the “scandal” morphs into a debate about why another famous Black man lied and refused to help the woman, the white man at the centre of this is absent. Some might argue that the lack of condemnation directed at him reflects “white privilege” but the fact that the Black female victim is seen to be unlikeable/difficult/aggressive is also at the heart of his erasure. 

It’s hard to imagine a famous white woman being called a “bitch” or a “whore”; having a man spit at her in front of a crowd of onlookers (who later defended him to the police). Even these words don’t come close to the offence of “ni**er” based as it is on white male hang-ups about Black men; the fact that the actor used this word only further denies the woman any femininity, or status as a woman. That he did this in public makes it worse, as such words and behaviour are usually hidden away in the home. 

Writing this now I see a Black American teenage girl in a swimsuit being aggressively pushed to the ground in Texas while being handcuffed by a police officer; another young Black girl being hurled against desks in a class-room and a scene that haunts me, a mother being handcuffed in the back of a police van, moments after her partner was murdered; her tiny daughter consoling her, telling her not to cry, urging her mother to be calm and quiet so they don’t get shot as well.       

This is written for Azealia

Live Recordings: Ibeyi (Mama Says/Better in Tune with the Infinite)

“Ibeyi” – twins, in Yoruba.

Born in Paris, sisters Lisa-Kaindé Diaz and Naomi Diaz, twenty-two years old possess that kind of virtuosic magic that is impossible to discount, or miss. Their father is the late Cuban percussionist, Anga Diaz, their mother, the Venezuelan- French singer, Maya Dagnino, who appeared in their heart-rending video for ‘Mama Says’. (To be blessed among women)

Such sweetness and strength in this rendition, I especially like the way Lisa’s vocal performance – all emphasised consonants, “gone” – is imperfect and the way the sisters close their eyes, as they sing together. How Naomi taps out the beat on the drum, on her body. The simple lyrics that are perfect, while appearing to be a little lost in translation (‘I’m afraid that she’d be hurt and .. sink’)

I appreciated this comment below the ‘Mama Says’ video from Monroe Rodriguez Singh

I love this group because they write in metaphor based on Afro-Caribbean tradition spiritual music/stories and pair it with their own lives and music. “The man is gone/And mama says/That she can’t live without him. ...There is no life without him.” In this song, at first glance it’s about the loss of their father and how their mother is dealing with that loss. Towards the end, they sing a song to Elegua and the lyrics “the man is gone, there is no life without him” bring new meaning because Elegua, is the Yoruban orisha of communication, roads. He is the bridge between the spiritual world and the material world. He is the first orisha to be saluted in any ceremony. So in essence, when he is out of the equation, there is no ceremony, no communication to the divine, no path, so there is no life without him.

During the same performance recorded at Seattle’s KEXP studios, they transformed and unearthed Jay Electronica’s ‘Better in Tune with the Infinite’ –

Here is an entire, albeit short, concert by Ibeyi filmed in Paris at Le Ring last year.

I have read a number of really lovely, interesting, evocative articles based on interviews with the Diaz sisters, take this one for example by Jazz Monroe published in The Skinny in 2015.  (There are many more). 

Eminem, BET Hip-Hop Awards Freestyle Cypher, Detroit MI, 10.06.17 (Rap as poetry & LKJ)

Would some of the age-based prejudice that afflicts hip-hop - distorting the critical reception of the contribution of artists and encouraging a kind of jockeying for space and attention - fade if we spoke of MCs as poets, and often great ones at that? As Rapsody said recently when dismissing the sex-based labelling of women who rap, being a skilful MC is not linked to physical strength, it’s all about the intellect, so why is there a culturally imposed age limit on the practice?

I’m no particular fan of Eminem. This reflects my inbuilt interest in the marginal and esoteric: there is comfort to be found in this quiet space for people with a temperament like mine. But most of all, I have never listened to an Eminem record from beginning to end because I will never accept the premise that there is anything worthwhile in music, or art, that revels in violence against women. Just like I wouldn’t sit down on a Sunday evening to watch a classy-take on a lynching, or a well-shot video showing the physical, sexual, or emotional abuse of a child, I refuse to acknowledge music/art/literature that holds up violence against women as entertaining, or cathartic (choose your adjective) for men. I make no exceptions here. None.

For too long male artists have argued that their art matters more than the abused bodies of women: in a literal or figurative sense. But it seems the times are changing, as even pretty, white women are speaking up about the abuse they have suffered in the popular media these days.

But to return to Eminem and this question of rapping as poetry. Certainly, this freestyle is manufactured and stagey and not even something I’d listen to twice, but it has an undeniable power. It is pure and resolute in its political message and I hope impact, not unlike this wonder from Linton Kwesi Johnson from another era, another locale (1980).       

Both peel your eyelids open and force you to take notice, while carrying the imprint of the artist. Within the critical/cultural milieu surrounding LKJ it would be strange for someone to dismiss his art and contribution, past and present, based on the fact that he is no longer 20-years-old, simply because it is a generally accepted fact that he is a ‘tap natch poet’ (and a much respected, beloved one at that). 

Maybe a similar shift would occur within hip-hop culture, if we just changed the terminology: rather than focussing on MCs as performers, jumping around, we started to speak about them as poets, speaking truth to power ... Maybe the overwhelming response to this Eminem freestyle will be part of this cultural change, we’ll see. It’s certainly needed.