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,
America!

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!