Last week, amid the upheaval surrounding the killing of Michael Brown by a police officer, Victor Vazquez, the rapper/visual artist/novelist also known as Kool A.D., posted a painting to his Instagram that stood out. His AMERIKKKAN DIALOGUE, acrylic paint on paper, is a haunting portrait. In it, a tired-looking Mickey Mouse, face decrepit and unshaven, stares out with bleary, unfocused eyes. His speech bubble contains the McDonalds logo, nothing else.
It's a striking comment on how utterly devastated America's political discourse looks today on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri. In the days since the shooting of the unarmed black teenager by white officer Darren Wilson, civil unrest has persisted, with isolated instances of property damage on the protestors' side being met with overwhelming force from military-style riot police. At the McDonalds near the site of the original killing, demonstrators broke windows to get milk for tear gas victims after getting hit by a surprise offensive that started well before curfew ended. Lampooning any notion of a free press, journalists found themselves squared off in a cramped press pen, gassed and arrested if they wandered—just as they were roughed up and cuffed for charging their electronics at that same McDonalds a few nights before.
But the seeming senselessness of Michael Brown's killing—he was shot more than six times with no signs of struggle, we learned on Sunday—followed by what looked like urban warfare in the streets, provoked only a mealy-mouthed call for calm on both sides from the nation's highest office. In his much-anticipated remarks on Ferguson, all President Obama could muster was that there is a "gulf of mistrust" between the community and law enforcement—a gulf wide enough, for example, to accommodate the beating of a black man then charged for getting blood on officers' uniforms.
To their credit, some of the music community has stepped into this vacuum of solidarity. It's no small development: as Rihanna's tweet-then-delete in support of the Palestinian struggle showed in July, it's not simple being an artist with political views in the Internet age. But as with the killing of Trayvon Martin in 2012, the stakes for many this time feel closer, realer, personal. "That coulda been me, easily," wrote J. Cole, who released a tribute to Brown that quickly went viral. Figures as far and wide as Killer Mike, Frank Ocean, Childish Gambino, Questlove, El-P, Moby, Big Boi, Young Jeezy, Ms. Lauryn Hill, John Legend, and Talib Kweli have joined the movement, taking to Twitter and the airwaves to express their dissent.
In the middle of that star-studded roster, Victor Vazquez might seem like a minor figure. But Kool A.D.'s tweets and artwork in response to Ferguson aren't an aberration — it's who he's always been. Here, after all, is the guy who rapped back in 2010: "See me grace the pages of your favorite Conde Nast Publication / They asked me all about my views on relations of races / And cut out the radical shit for space, that's racist." Since he made waves as part of now-defunct Das Racist and throughout his diversifying solo career since, Kool A.D. has put his radical politics front and center. And he's done so in a way that's deeply experiential and existential, reflecting rather than preaching, hoping for better beyond simply decrying. So I spent some time with him recently, discussing his views on everything from riots to gentrification to the Tao Te Ching—and how all these shape who he is as a person. Here's what he had to say, radical shit presented in full:
Broadly speaking, how would you characterize what's been going in Ferguson, Missouri? What's at stake? What do you hope for?
The cops shot and killed an unarmed 18-year-old black youth with his hands up, six times, twice in the head, from a distance, with essentially no evidence of justifiable cause for doing so, over the alleged theft of a box of cigars. It was a senseless murder committed by a man paid by American tax dollars, and if it wasn't a government subsidized hate crime it was at the very least deeply involved in White America's—in particular a White American Law Enforcement's—ingrained, institutionalized, often unconscious fear of black people. When people gathered in vigil to publicly mourn this sick, sad travesty, police tried to disband them, which resulted in rioting. In response to this, police came in tanks with military equipment and tear gassed them—classified as a war crime by the Geneva Protocol, it should be noted, and the very same brand of tear gas, it should also be noted, used by Israelis in Gaza the past few weeks, both purchased with American tax dollars—shot them with rubber bullets, beat them with batons, intimidated them with assault rifles loaded with live ammunition, literally called them "animals," declared martial law, withheld information, set curfews, threatened on camera to kill members of the press, ejected Amnesty International at gunpoint, attacked and arrested members of the press, holding them with no charges and refusing to legally process them. This is Gestapo behavior. On top of this, the victim of this murder has been painted as a thug and a criminal. Compare this to the portrayal of 2012 caucasian Colorado movie theater mass murderer of twelve James Holmes as a "great student" who was "good at science."
Mike Brown's murder and the proceeding events aren't particularly new behavior for American police, or really police globally and historically, but this instance happened in a particularly ugly rash of nationwide, publicized police brutality: the senseless killing by strangulation of a fully compliant, non-combative Eric Garner in New York last month who was literally crying out for help as he died; the senseless killing of 23-year-old black man John Crawford last week who was jokingly brandishing a toy gun in a Walmart when he was shot by police—meanwhile white NRA "activists" are walking into restaurants with real assault rifles with little to no repercussions; the senseless murder of 19-year-old black man Jeremy Lake last week, shot by the police officer parents of his white girlfriend, and was immediately followed by the beating to death by police of 37-year-old Latino father of three Omar Abrego in LA; the murder by police taser of unarmed 36-year-old black man Dante Parker in Victorville; the shooting to death by police of unarmed 23-year-old black man Jacorey Calhoun in Oakland; the shooting to death of 25-year-old black man Kajieme Powell in Saint Louis for the shoplifting of two sodas (nine shots, many of them fired after he hit the ground, then cuffing the corpse); and the shooting of 25-year-old unarmed black man Ezell Ford in LA, who was lying on the floor when police fired three shots into him, just like transit cops shot 22-year-old black man Oscar Grant to death as he lay on the floor five years ago in Oakland; similar to how a security guard and son of a judge shot an unarmed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin for being black and wearing a hooded sweatshirt in a gated community two years ago and was acquitted, wasn't even arrested the night of; similar to how NYPD shot unarmed 23-year-old black man Sean Bell over 50 times eight years ago and were acquitted and shot an unarmed 22-year-old black man Amadou Diallo 47 times about seven years before that and were acquitted.
These are just the stand out cases that spring to mind, but there are hundreds of cases of police brutality reported each year and no doubt countless more unreported incidents, the overwhelming trend being predominantly white officers attacking predominantly black, Latino and other non white civilians. Bottom line, police have been freely terrorizing, brutalizing, murdering poor people, black people, Latinos, other immigrants and any combination thereof with no legal consequence since time immemorial.
You asked me what I hope for. I hope for this to never have to happen again, and it fucks me up to have to consider the vast irrationality of that hope.
Have you ever been personally involved in any type of community organizing?
I've never been too formally into community organizing outside of going to this or that protest or performing at this or that rally. I guess I've worked at some nonprofit community organizations here and there and so has my dad and sister and a fair amount of my friends. I've had some bad experiences with cops and some relatively unremarkable ones. I would never be a cop or encourage anyone to be a cop but I do admit there are some cops out there that are at least trying to be good people in their own basic way. On the whole I think police (American and otherwise) as an organization, as a community, as a concept, and an ideology are deeply flawed and dysfunctional.
The question of resistance seems to come up a lot in your work and public remarks. Specifically, I wonder what your thoughts are on the boundaries of violence/nonviolence. Do you think that in resisting police repression we have moral obligations not to do certain things?
I'm not a fan of violence but I think that we as humans have not yet collectively outgrown it. I think if somebody punches you, you don't have to punch them back, but also you're not wrong if you do punch them back.
What do you think is the function or value of a riot?
I think there is such thing as relatively "effective" relatively nonviolent rioting. I don't think it's too idealistic to attempt this. I think it's worth attempting to mass educate people and say, "If you're going to loot and riot, then at least vandalize police property, loot this list of unethical corporate businesses, and avoid these local businesses, etc." Obviously not everybody will listen or care, but I think it's worth it to try. If police are not paying for their crimes against the people, I see no reason why the people shouldn't "fine" the police themselves by destroying their shit and making them have to buy new equipment, uniforms, cars, etc. I think it's pretty directly democratic, actually. Of course, there are going to be some indiscriminate looters acting irresponsibly—that's unfortunate collateral damage; it's an imperfect tactic—but I think it helps to set a precedent. It essentially says this behavior is not acceptable, and if justice isn't served by the state, then the people will attempt to serve it in their way. Even if it's sloppy, it's no sloppier than the shitty job police do.
Do you identify politically? Does art further political goals or nah?
I guess I believe that all existence can be perceived as political or has a political nature. I don't know how I identify politically. Like on an academic level or whatever, the philosophies and writings and whatnot that I've read and sort of struck me and stuck with me tend to be "filed under" socialist, communist, anarchist, democratic socialist—and I understand there's a lot of contention between these factions. But I appreciate art and music and other means of learning and acting that are less hampered by the seemingly inevitable dogmas you tend to find when you follow any argument about how people are supposed to live to their "logical" conclusion.
Other influences: Franz Fanon, Jean Michel Basquiat, Paolo Friere, Karl Marx, Walter Benjamin, Hakim Bey, John Zerzan, Bell Hooks, Beyonce, Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie, Jay-z, Solange Knowles, Jaz-o, Nas, Dame Dash, Funk Flex, Chuck D., Chuck Berry, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Jean Michel Basquiat, Andy Warhol, Charles Mingus, Miles Davis, Questlove, Nikki Giovanni, Maya Nagelou, Nikki S. Lee, Coco Fusco, Guillermo Gomez-pena, Michel Foucault, Mikhail Bakhtin, Leroi Jones/Amiri Baraka, Cornel West, Spike Lee, Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, Jose Marti, Celia Cruz, Tito Puente, Marina Abramovic, Saul Williams, Maya Mathangi Arulpragasam, Sol Lewitt, Pharoah Sanders, Ornette Coleman, Anthony Braxton, Tyondai Braxton, Swizz Beats, Alicia Keys, Miles Davis, Betty Davis, John Coletrane, Alice Coltrane, etc.
My art reflects my experience and so yeah, I guess it reflects the politics of my existence too. I try not to overthink things when making music and visual art or even writing lyrics because the rigorous logic of prose is often times antithetical to the freedom of art, or at least it feels that way.
To me your work seems to explore a lot of sociopolitical themes on the one hand and these sort of spiritual, existential themes on the other hand. Could you talk about your influences and thinking on the latter? Yin-yang signs come up a lot in your visual work—are you into any spiritual traditions yourself?
I like the Tao Te Ching, and I read pretty casually about Zen Buddhism. As far as the yin-yang in my art, I like it on an aesthetic level, and I guess it always seems like a relevant enough thing to include, sort of an all-purpose symbol.
It sort of summarizes my feeling, I guess, that universality is a fact, that we are all part of one universal organism but at the same time we're also distinct individual creatures. I think a lot of people operate on a false sense of universality that's rooted more in individualistic urges of the ego. One pretty prime example is the concept of a "post-racial" society, kind of a rehash of Reagan-era thinktank-manufactured "colorblind Constitutionalism," where you're manipulating grand truths in order to skew or camouflage them. Like saying affirmative action is "reverse racist" and so instead of trying to look at the problem like "OK, there is a diversity disproportionality in academia/the workforce/etc.—how do we fix that?" you're basically just shooting down the one thing—however imperfect it may be—that's helping the problem.
That's just one example, and I'm sure I could have said that in plainer English, but yeah, I mean, the politics of the particular and the individual do exist. They don't automatically disappear when you consider that we're all human beings on this planet in this universe together. Rather, you have to then use that realization that we're all in this together as a lens to look at whatever situation is in front of you. Universality is not a utopia or a solution or an end in and of itself; it's a—relatively pragmatic, in my opinion—means of perceiving the world and acting in the world and moving through the world.
You're from the Bay, and you rep the Bay, but the Bay is changing a lot really quickly. What's been your reaction to that? Seeing like Google Glass wearers getting beat up in the Mission, tires slashed and all that; very contentious city council meetings in places like Oakland…where do you see it going?
Well, I guess I can understand the motivations of why somebody would want to punch a dude who's wearing Google Glasses. I feel like it's such a blatant visual marker that somebody seems to be more concerned with the virtual than what's right in front of them, of what could be rather than what is. Like, you could live in the Mission now and only go to bars and restaurants built a few years ago, where there are only transplants, mostly white and rich at that. Silicon Valley fools are just more muggable—it seems like a fact that doesn't need explanation.
What's been going on at Oakland city hall meetings?
Like, at a recent meeting, for example, this quote from a 65-year-old West Oakland community organizer, a man named Monsa Nitoto, stuck out to me: "There is some gentrification going on, but no more than these Occupy folks moving into West Oakland…They're gentrifying while they're talking about not gentrifying, and they don't know what is going on."
He's right. I think often enough the loudest cries against gentrification are from people who are themselves guilty of it and trying project that guilt onto somebody else.
I've lived in Potrero Hill, Hunter's Point, Alameda, and West Oakland. I was in West Oakland last year, like 10 blocks from my parents. I was in New York for the past few months, and I'm about to move to El Cerrito with my wife. Every neighborhood changes over the years, especially in metropolitan areas. I mean, there's nothing wrong, really, with a couple new coffee shops or bars or restaurants every now and then. The problem with gentrification is an economic one: families and businesses being pushed out due to rising property values and rents. Oftentimes it's landlords' and city planners' faults, and the rich people that move to a spot because it's cool or whatever generally don't acknowledge the politics of their presence. Often enough, there's a refusal on their part to see themselves as part of any community but that of the cafe/bar/restaurant that they participate in. There's like this built-in classism. The area becomes more moneyed, but it's like a closed circuit where none of that money ends up benefitting the people who were already there. It's just this weird bougie picnic, and the neighborhood becomes like a backdrop. That leads to alienation and aggression and all of that.
Do you feel like you have any particular social/political obligations as an artist?
I think that all human beings have social obligations and all social obligations are political. Politics is just a net of interconnected social obligations.