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Hands Up, Don’t Speak

Professional athletes take up the Black Lives Matter movement as the hip-hop community stays relatively silent

Photo by Jason Szenes/EPA

1968, Mexico City. U.S. runners Tommie Smith and John Carlos raise black-gloved fists during a medal ceremony, having just claimed Olympic gold and bronze respectively in the 200-meter sprint. The image of the men, heads lowered with arms raised, solemn in their moment of triumph, is an iconic one by now, the sort that ends up on t-shirts and cellphone cases and dorm room walls. In his autobiography, Silent Gesture, Smith argued that the move was not so much a “black power” salute as a human rights salute. To this effect, joined on the podium by Australian silver medalist Peter Norman, all three men wore Olympic Project For Human Rights badges. It remains one of the most poignant political statements from the games or any other sporting event.


Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympic Games

If one were to believe the Great Post-Racial Lie Of 2008 (that the course of centuries of anti-blackness and systematic racism in the United States had been reversed singlehandedly via Barack Obama’s election), the distance between those Olympic Games and a Week 14 NFL matchup in 2014 would be on the cosmological scale. Yet, the reality of “racial progress,” truly a game of inches, makes it clear how much “now” has in common with “then.” While much racism now lurks in the murky societal waters of poverty, mass incarceration and sentencing discrepancies, the active, pronounced racism of the past still affects the lives of black and brown Americans in all strata of society, the damage being different in degree, but not kind.

Decades after Smith and Carlos, social media has exploded with praise for athletes Reggie Bush, Derrick Rose, Lebron James, and Kobe Bryant for wearing shirts that read “I Can’t Breathe.” Those now infamous, desperate last words come from Staten Island father of six Eric Garner, whose death-by-chokehold at the hands of NYPD (and the resultant non-indictment of the officer responsible) has further bolstered a global protest movement already gaining steam this year after the all-too-frequent murders of black women and men at the hands of police. Along with the statement made by St. Louis Rams players entering the field with hands up in tribute to slain Ferguson teen Michael Brown, it seems the trend of athletes making even subtle statements on the current racial climate has been revitalized. And it’s throwing the hip-hop community’s relative silence on such matters into sharp relief.

Photo by L.G. Patterson/A.P.

There’s been a few exceptions: the eloquent and passionate discourse from Killer Mike, who spoke fervently about fearing for his children’s lives onstage in St. Louis the night of the Ferguson grand jury announcement; Andre 3000, whose recent tour jumpsuits are emblazoned with statements on race and existence; even Flava Flav, who was recently snapped chanting with protesters in Ferguson. Jay-Z, the living beacon of corner capitalism and part owner of the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets, hand-delivered his players their “I Can’t Breathe” shirts. Yet most of the biggest names in hip-hop, like Lil Wayne and Kanye West, have remained fairly quiet on the #BlackLivesMatter front. It seems like only yesterday that Kanye took it upon himself, on live TV, to remind us that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” How odd it is then that imagining such an outburst today from Jay-Z’s protege-turned-partner seems far-fetched at best.

Johnson Bademosi of the Cleveland Browns

While their silence most certainly does not mean that this issue isn’t important to them, it may lend credence to criticism that such artists are fake revolutionaries for profit. One must ask what good artists are if not a reflection, or at least refraction, of the world around them. For a genre whose founding principle was giving a voice to those long unheard, its current practitioners are on a different wavelength.

There is no doubt that the stakes are high. Yet, like top-tier hip-hop artists, professional and world-famous athletes are similarly beholden to white fans and upper management who may be made uncomfortable by talk of black lives mattering and not being able to breathe. There may be the insistence that he/she/they “stick to the script” or “just shut up and play.” St. Louis police went so far as to ask those Rams players to apologize for their “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” gesture, yet we see virtually no remorse from law enforcement regarding Darren Wilson and other officers who have unnecessarily killed unarmed people of color. Yet with every non-indictment, with every new video fully contradicting police testimony, with every casket lowered into the ground far too soon, the outrage cannot be stifled any longer.

There’s a good chance though that these new silent gestures made by Rose, Bush, and others are the best we can hope for right now. And perhaps they will encourage more rap artists to stop sitting on their hands and raise them, whether it be in a clenched fist or in a plea to stop shooting us.

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