There’s an old parable that tells the story of six blind men examining an elephant. As the tale goes, each of them feels a different part of the pachyderm and then comes to his own conclusion as to the properties of the massive animal. A man touching the tusk compares the beast to a spear, while another flaps the elephant’s ear and concludes that it’s more like a fan. Another man patting its torso compares it to a wall. Of course, all six men are simultaneously right and wrong, hindered by the limits of their perspectives.
Adapting that idea for modern times, different people — whether jurors, witnesses, op-ed writers, or Twitter users — can have dramatically different viewpoints of the same situation. Detroit rap vet Royce Da 5'9" (born Ryan Montgomery) fixated on this theme while creating The Allegory, a soon-to-be-released album thick with examination of race in America from a variety of vantage points.
Subjects like racism, gun violence, and law enforcement have only grown more fractious and bitter as national conversations within the past decade, and yet, Royce’s stances are nuanced, sophisticated, and expressed in powerful bars on his upcoming eighth solo studio album, due to be released February 21.
One of the most powerful statements on The Allegory isn’t even poetry. “Perspective,” an interlude that recreates a memorable talk with Royce’s friend and longtime collaborator Eminem, finds Marshall Mathers reflecting on hot topics, like the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education and the reason White America pushed the button for Elvis but not Black rock pioneer Sister Rosetta Tharpe, in one of his most powerful and direct public statements on race to date.
Both Royce and Em agree that it takes something powerful and visceral, like sports or music, to bring folks together in a world that’s simultaneously more connected and divided than ever. And while they won’t be handing out Cokes and imploring the world to sing anytime soon, both men believe hip-hop can be a bridge to unite and not divide. All it takes is the blind recognizing their own blindnesses — then reaching out to one another, across misperceptions and mistrust, until all can truly understand the elephant in the room.
On what coincidentally would have been Trayvon Martin’s 25th birthday, Royce Da 5'9" phoned LEVEL for a conversation on race that’s anything but black and white.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
LEVEL: Growing up in Detroit, you lived through Mayor Coleman Young cursing in press conferences, White families leaving for suburbs like Macomb County, the war on drugs.
Royce Da 5'9": Absolutely. All I remember of the Coleman Young/Reagan era is drug dealers were making a lot of money. You had the Chambers brothers on the news every other day. I think they was flushing money down the toilet while counting — they ain’t even want the singles. Like Big Meech way before Big Meech. You had guys that were homegrown, like Butch Jones, a crime boss.
Those guys moved to Oak Park, the first suburb that hood niggas started going to. When I was about 10 years old, I remember being in my crib on Six Mile. It was just me, my little brother Kid Vishis, and my mom. Some dude pulled one of the bars off the window. Steel, welded bars! My mom heard the glass [breaking] — it was the same room Vishis was in — seen this dude trying to climb through the window, and ran out the front door, screaming, in her panties and bra, “Can somebody please help me!?”
The police came. My uncle, a pro boxer, pulled up fast as hell. Another uncle came into the living room, just started loading the chopper. Then my granddad comes, gives my dad a bag with $13,000 in it. He took that money and put it down on a [new] house, and we moved to Oak Park.
That’s the origins of the Montgomery family in Oak Park, huh?
That’s how we got to Oak Park. And the very first day, I got called a nigger. Day one. They ain’t waste no time. Playing with one of the little kids from down the street, I think his name was Josh. We disagreed on something. He came right out with it: “Nigger!” It kind of throws me for a minute, ’cause the topic didn’t really come up much, like, “If anybody ever calls you a….” We’d never really seen White people like that. We’d seen them on TV. I don’t know from where, but I knew that he wasn’t supposed to do that. I knew it wasn’t right because of the way it made me feel.
Over the past decade, the high-profile deaths of young Black men like Trayvon Martin and Philando Castile have prompted a national conversation about racism, racial profiling, and police brutality. Were you having those conversations at home growing up — and with your own kids now?
Nah. I wish I was that enlightened when my older son was coming up. I teach them at a rate that lets them maintain innocence as long as possible. My dad was more of a disciplinarian. I got a lot of game from him, ’cause he’s a wise man, but he’s old-fashioned. A lot of things he expected me to just know. My 13-year-old son has autism; I don’t assume he knows anything that I didn’t teach him myself. We could be about to cross the street, and I’ll be like, “Listen, don’t cross this parking lot or street unless blah blah blah,” and make him repeat it back to me.
“We need to start being okay with not agreeing on everything. It’s alright to not agree. It’s even alright to be racist. I’m not the racist police.”
These days, your music reaches people who may never need to give or receive “the talk” about how to deal with police. Some of your fans likely support the current president, even though you’ve been critical.
I touch on perspective a lot on [The Allegory]. I’m enamored of the idea that two people could be looking at the same thing, seeing it two totally different ways, and neither one of them is really wrong. Your truth is how you see it, based off your perspective. How you feel is your truth. If you can live in that truth, and me and you can agree on music and coexist in the same environment, the same show? We don’t have to agree on shit as long as the right song is on.
We need to start being okay with not agreeing on everything. It’s all right to not agree. It’s even all right to be racist. I’m not the racism police. I’m very aware that I have to guard my energy. I can’t put myself in the position where I’m getting upset all the time at the way that somebody views me. The only thing that I demand is respect. That’s it. I can have dinner with a racist person as long as you’re not disrespecting me. People just get so uptight when you want to start talking about the tough topics. Everybody ignoring it is not going to make it go away!
On one Allegory track, “Perspective,” Eminem runs down an abridged history of racism in America and speaks about hip-hop unifying people. Does that interlude reflect conversations you’ve had with Em about race?
How it came about was we were on the phone, talking about him growing up. A lot of people think he’s from the trailer park. He’s from Detroit; grew up in the hood around Black people. We talk all the time about how tough it was, him being White and into hip-hop, and Black people thinking he’s trying to act Black. They used to beat him up all the time, just jump him. He couldn’t understand why. It wasn’t until he met Proof and Proof took a liking to him [and] started vouching for him that he got accepted at the Hip-Hop Shop.
“If it wasn’t for Marshall Mathers, I don’t think I would like Whites. And on the flip side, if it wasn’t for Proof, I don’t think he would’ve liked Black people.”
It goes both ways. I talked to him about a lot of things that I went through in Oak Park, the racist shit that happened to me that started when I was young and didn’t understand. We both came to a very clear understanding. I feel like God put him in my life to teach me that it’s not cool to generalize. Because if it wasn’t for Marshall Mathers, I don’t think I would like Whites — and on the flip side, if it wasn’t for Proof, I don’t think he would’ve liked Black people. He assumed Black people didn’t like him, because they used to beat him up. God places people in your life for a particular reason. Marshall restored my faith in people. It’s not really about converting people; it’s just about gaining understanding.
What do you remember about the conversation that inspired “Perspective”?
He said so many beautiful things, man. He does this all the time. We’ll be talking, and he’ll drop so much knowledge. This particular time, I was like, “If I send you a beat, can you talk on it and express some of these things?” The phone conversation version was way better. When I sent the beat, he talked for 12 minutes. We edited it down. A lot of the album excerpts and shit like that are there for you to know that somebody has that perspective. It’s not necessarily my perspective.
It sounds like you largely agree with his perspective, though.
I think the main point he was making is that hip-hop brings people together, and I 100% agree. I just don’t think we utilize it as much as we can. I don’t think it’s this big kumbaya party in hip-hop, where everybody’s there. Hip-hop can be that bridge. You got great men like Farrakhan, real leaders. They’re trying to touch the hip-hop artists’ platforms, to get them to understand that we’re the new leaders, the people that kids are gonna listen to.
Last year, you were one of the first artists to defend Jay-Z’s partnership with the NFL. Your song “Black Savage” ran as part of the NFL’s Inspire Change ad spots that recently aired during Super Bowl LIV. In the wake of those ads, Kaepernick has been weighing in on Inspire Change.
What exactly did Kaepernick say?
He commented on a picture of Jay-Z and Beyoncé sitting down during the national anthem — “I thought we were past kneeling?” — with a chin-rubbing emoji. [Editor’s note: Jay-Z has denied that his family sat in protest.] Most understood that quip to tie back to the larger criticism of, “When I was saying this, I got shut out of the NFL!”
Guys like Kaepernick dedicate their entire childhood and teenage years, putting their body through a rigorous hell to play some shit on God level. Then you get there and realize that you’re a slave! Kaep just decided he didn’t wanna be a slave.
“It’s obvious that the players are not gonna come together and say, ‘Listen, we’re out of here — we make the NFL — or else you’re gonna change these things.’ They don’t have the courage.”
This is not just the NFL. This is all professional sports. This is the music business. This is America. On an ownership level, Black people are not allowed economic inclusion. That’s a known thing, especially in the NFL. They’re saying, “We’re not letting you buy into nothing.” There’s White guys on those levels that get mad if you try to obtain ownership, like, “How dare you? That’s not where we place you in our minds.”
We as prominent Black people need to realize that the amount of revenue we bring to America — that guys like Kaep bring to the NFL — is astronomical. And the strength is in the collective. This is not about me taking Kaep’s side or Jay-Z’s side. It’s about taking steps. So I’m always gonna support his protesting. His protesting brought on action; he took it as far as you can take protest as a player. It’s obvious that the players are not gonna come together and say, “Listen, we’re out of here — we make the NFL — or else you’re gonna change these things.” They don’t have the courage.
You mean a general strike, like in the 1982–1983 season?
Yes! All it’s gotta be is all the Black people: “How dare you treat Kaep like that right in front of us?” That’s like breaking a man as a slave owner, right in front of his family, to put the fear in the wife. That way, she’ll just submit her baby to you, so when that baby grows a little older, he’ll just accept slavery as his reality and won’t give them any kind of problems. They made an example out of Kaep. Jerry Jones said it himself: “None of my ’Boys better not do that!”
“Black Savage” is a militant song and video — you don’t dilute the message. You’ve got credibility; Jay’s got credibility. At the same time, the NFL still has so much power.
My manager, Kino, had a conversation with Tidal, who said they were looking for a song to launch the initiative. Kino sent them the song, they liked the song, and that was it. The only involvement the NFL had, as far as I was concerned? They reached out around the time the thing was going on with T.I., his daughter, and her hymen. Everybody was outraged for a minute. They asked if I would take T.I off the song. I said, “Absolutely fucking not.” T.I.’s not coming off the song — take it or leave it. They decided to take it, and that was good.
I went to a game in Detroit. When they did the anthem, I was still sitting down, not even on purpose. I noticed toward the end of the anthem, they were kind of looking at us ’cause we sat down. I remember thinking to myself, “I dare one of these motherfuckers to say something.” I’m not trying to offend, but White privilege is expecting me to stand up for the national anthem and looking at me like you’re the police of that. Like if you say something to me, I gotta do what you say. Like I can’t stand up and knock your teeth out of your mouth. There was a point in time where by law they had that kind of authority, and that mentality continues to pass down.
It’s not just happening through families. All these things are programmed: the way our children view themselves, what’s pretty and what’s not, what’s socially acceptable, what’s considered cool. Not too many years ago, Black people were only the help on TV. There’s still a slave on the front of the fucking Cream of Wheat box, bro. You can get that at any supermarket. It’s not an accident, like, “Oh, we forgot to change that. Sorry about that!” No! If somebody makes a big deal about it, maybe they’ll change it. But if you don’t say nothing, they’re not gonna say nothing. That says everything you need to know.