When I arrived at the dinner, I had no idea who to look for, so I hugged the bar and tried to calm my nerves. But Shay, God bless her, called and got Arianna Huffington’s team to find me. Once this happened, the night became a whirlwind: I went from being bewildered on the red carpet to having my hand grabbed by Arianna and introduced to everyone as her personal guest. Needless to say, she can work a room -- this woman has game! She informed folks that I will be writing for the site (I didn’t know that, but was glad to hear it), and introduced me to everyone from Walt Frazier and Neil deGrasse Tyson to Jane Fonda and Wolf Blitzer. I met Patriots coach Bill Belichick and got him to smile for a selfie (I’d heard he hadn’t smiled since the ’90s). I bumped into Nancy Pelosi, who asked, “Remember me?” from a chance meeting at the Denver airport. (“Damn, she remembered me,” I thought.) Someone tried to introduce me to Michael Bloomberg, but I declined.
During dinner, I sat with three Huffington Post writers: Sam Stein (who’d suggested to Arianna that I come), Ryan Grim and Jennifer Bendery. But before we started drinking and heckling -- my table was the one yelling “F— it!” when President Obama talked about his “bucket list” -- the conversation was serious. I said that Marcus Garvey and Elijah Muhammad are the only two black men who have created successful, self-contained economic movements, and while I don’t follow Muhammad’s policies -- or any religion’s -- I acknowledge them. Black people need to share collective dollars and demand equal representation, and the way you do that is by controlling their own economy and putting money behind candidates. Sway popped over while we were having this conversation. Leave it to me to talk Pan-Africanism in such a setting.
I tweeted and Instagrammed so my fans could share this incredible night -- and as I followed social media, I saw that Baltimore was burning. As I sat there and watched my timeline, I felt helpless, hopeless: “Here I am at this lavish event -- the most powerful man in the world is black, and people like him are being killed by the citizens who are paid to protect them.” I left the dinner numb.
And in the days since, I’ve watched Geraldo Rivera and Blitzer pander to the audiences of oppression on TV. Rivera was approached by a very sensible man who said, “Why are you here? Not to cover a calm and peaceful protest -- you’re here to sensationalize it.” Rivera turned his back on him, and at first I thought it was arrogance, but I think it was actually shame. This half-Hispanic, half-Jewish man who comes from two different communities, who knows what poverty and oppression can do, could have said, “I want to know the real story.” And Blitzer, as Jon Stewart pointed out, said he never thought he’d see such violence again in America, and he said nearly the exact same words about Ferguson a few months ago. I turned away from the TV with far less respect for him -- if I were introduced to him today, I’d walk away. Not because they’re evil and bad people, but because they’re players in the game that sensationalizes and objectifies this in the worst ways -- I don’t trust they that they want to see the change.
And I don’t have a problem with police -- a lot of people might not know my father was an Atlanta policeman. If you see our new Run the Jewels video for “Close Your Eyes” — nearly every director that sent us a treatment sent us something like “Pressure,” my song with Ice Cube, or other videos we’ve done: anarchy in the streets and all that. No -- we need a video that shows the exhaustion that this situation causes, and this video (written and directed by AG Rojas, starring Keith Stanfield and Shea Whigham) does that. As a black man, it shows what it’s like to wrestle with police in this culture, and secondarily it shows that most police don’t want to be doing this. These men are exhausted! And we need police -- everyone knows that, and I don’t have a problem with them. I do have a problem with a culture that uses illegal roadblocks to search Americans.
For the people of Baltimore -- I don’t criticize rioting because I understand it. But after the fires die down: organize, strategize and mobilize. Like Ferguson, you have an opportunity to start anew. I don’t have a solution because whoever’s there will have to come up with it. But we need community relations: riots are the language of the unheard.
I’m grateful to have been invited to the dinner, and Sway let me know how important it was that we both were there, representing hip-hop. But as I got into the car at the night’s end, and the driver played “Pressure,” a song by me and Ice Cube, I could not help but wonder if this country will ever truly be what is promised in our Constitution for people who look like me.
An edited version of this article first appeared in the May 9 issue of Billboard.