A James Baldwin quote plays. Two White male police officers confront and question a Black man sleeping in his car, quickly pinning him to the ground. The man (played by actor Kendrick Sampson) breaks free, flees, and is shot down. This recreation of the June 2020 killing of Rayshard Brooks by Atlanta police was all a setup for Lil Baby’s performance of his song “The Bigger Picture” at Sunday night’s Grammys — but it wasn’t the end of the theatrics. What followed was a group of protestors clashing with law enforcement in riot gear, acrobatic dancing, cameos by Killer Mike and activist Tamika Mallory, flares, a fake molotov cocktail, and pyrotechnics galore.
The routine, which sought to capture and reflect the unrest of the Black Lives Matter generation, played like a protest-era performance starter kit. But the 26-year-old rapper’s heavy-handed set is only the latest in a string of similar big-budget performances that border on exploitation, using a mainstream stage to replay what we’ve all seen on news reports about how policing impacts Black life. This performance of protest is sold as political solidarity but increasingly seems to be sold, period — a means of generating profits and clout for artists, personalities, or corporations, while doing little for those most directly affected by victims of police brutality.
While folks like Mallory, McKesson, and Shaun King can raise awareness for issues like anti-Black racism and violent policing, they rarely do so in service to those most impacted by such ills — but rather to their own social ascendancy.
Kendrick Lamar may not have been the first to bring the Black political rap performance into White spaces, but he certainly exposed the profitable side of social justice aesthetics. In 2016, the Grammys stage was home to one of his most stirring performances to date, in which he dressed as the leader of a chain gang while performing political singles “The Blacker the Berry” and “Alright.” Later that year, he and Beyoncé invoked Martin Luther King Jr. at the BET Awards, as they splashed in shallow pools while singing and spitting their collaboration “Freedom.” Others channeled the same energy: Pharrell’s “hands up, don’t shoot” demonstration at the Grammys in 2015; Big K.R.I.T.’s spoken word while curiously donning a cop’s uniform at the BET Hip-Hop Awards in 2016; and last summer’s update of Public Enemy’s classic “Fight the Power” at the BET Awards, featuring Nas, Black Thought, Rapsody, Jahi, and YG. During the latter ceremony, Anderson .Paak and Jay Rock performed “Lockdown” while showing off a Black power fist molded from the names of dead Black people.
The history of co-opting social justice aesthetics in performance isn’t new, but it’s clearly reaching its tipping point. Just consider rappers with sordid histories like DaBaby, who, along with Roddy Ricch, was praised for a performance of “Rockstar” at last year’s BET Awards that depicted George Floyd’s heartbreaking final moments. A demonstration followed where very intimidating men wore T-shirts bearing the names of murdered Black people. Sound familiar?
These showings came at a time when the violent realities of policing in Black neighborhoods were undeniable in pop culture. Artists — especially Black artists — were called on to speak to the social ills of a bloody era. The difference between Kendrick’s To Pimp a Butterfly-era artistry and more recent performances comes down to both execution and intended audience. While some imagery is similar — Black people (primarily men) being violated in order to elicit rage and anger, rap as a poetic backbone — the appeal is different. With Lamar, there isn’t an appeal to a larger movement or specific person. Though often filtered through the narrow lens of Black masculinity, his commentary is about approaching larger ideas like incarceration without succumbing to listing names or piggybacking on hashtags. The same can’t be said for most of the aforementioned protest-inspired performances.
The growing concern among those of us living the struggle is that celebrity activism threatens to co-opt the trauma of working class and poor Black communities as an artistic endeavor intended to pacify the masses. There’s a reason Black people in Ferguson caused an uproar when DeRay McKesson, who made a name for himself using social media to explain and showcase Black death, ended up standing next to Beyoncé and having chats with Oprah: It conveys a set of classist priorities. And when those activists have a platform as large as the Grammys, the ramifications of their public personas begin to unravel.
After seeing Tamika Mallory on-screen during Lil Baby’s recent performance, explaining all the ills of Blackness in America, Samaria Rice — an activist and mother to the late Tamir Rice — was fed up with the performative struggle. “We never hired them to be the representatives in the fight for justice for our dead loved ones murdered by police,” she said in a statement released Tuesday evening, specifically calling out Mallory, McKesson, and other members of Black Lives Matter Global Network. “We don’t want or need y’all parading in the streets accumulating donations, platforms, movie deals, etc., off the death of our loved ones, while the families and communities are left clueless and broken. Don’t say our loved ones’ names period!”
You can’t say she didn’t have a point. While folks like Shaun King can raise awareness for issues like anti-Black racism and violent policing, they rarely do so in service to those most impacted by such ills — but rather to their own social ascendancy. They’ve done away with the desire to provide material needs to the poor and working class and instead seek internet popularity and access to famous people. It’s about time we do away with them, too.
Protest hinges on disruption; that’s the means by which an end is realized. What public displays like Lil Baby’s Grammys performance have made plain is that the aesthetic of protest has become an effective tactic to placate guilty White viewers while doing very little to support the struggle it claims to represent. Playacting death, anger, and rebellion on a mass-consumption stage doesn’t disrupt or change anything — it just lines the pockets of our oppressors.