Cars rolling up across the street. Footsteps approaching the front door. Fingers on the trigger, ready to shoot first and ask questions never. This is the scenario J. Cole and his friends experienced when they made the mistake of moving into a rich white neighborhood in North Carolina.
Fear. It always starts with fear. Fear of a black neighbor. Fear of the unfamiliar. The fear that led to a group of teenagers being assaulted by police at a pool party is the same fear behind a SWAT team raid on J. Cole’s home studio (The Sheltuh).
Fear and racism, the Molotov cocktail responsible for the death and mistreatment of so many black lives:
“So you have, predominately, African-Americans coming in and out of this house. Ubers coming, and every once in awhile you’ll see a group of us outside on the porch smoking weed. So the neighbors started getting real paranoid...One of the neighbors told the police we were growing weed or selling drugs out of this house. And there was a huge investigation, like a million-dollar investigation. They flew helicopters over, sent an entire SWAT team armed with weapons, broke down the door and searched the whole house. Thankfully nobody was in the house…They go downstairs and all they see is a studio, and obviously they felt stupid. It’s just crazy ironic because out of anybody, they picked the wrong person. J. Cole is the last person to do anything like that. He’s out here doing extremely positive things for the community and for young artists. Because of obvious racism from the neighbors, the police were called and a raid took place.” – Elite telling Complex the real-life story behind J. Cole’s “Neighbors”
How ironic would it have been if J. Cole had suffered the same fate as Aiyana Jones, the slain 7-year-old girl he made the "Crooked Smile" video for? How many of us would have been prepared to hear the news that our favorite rapper was murdered in his own home studio? These are the thoughts that cross my mind as I listen to “Neighbors” on repeat.
J. Cole’s state-sanctioned home visit is nothing new. It’s the story of Dejuan Yourse; it’s the story of Henry Louis Gates Jr.; it’s the story of any black person who constantly has to prove that they belong.
Part of the black experience is making other people feel comfortable. It’s a daily chore and a survival tactic. It’s a magic trick that is passed down to us by our parents so that we can safely move around the world.
But what happens when you've run out of tricks? What happens when you think you’ve escaped the clutches of racism only to be fatally mistaken? These are the questions that keep me up at night and make me think about Prince Jones.
In his groundbreaking novel Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates uses Jones’ tragic story to shatter the fallacy that wealth and status can save you from racist destruction.
For those who haven’t read the book, Prince Jones was a black Howard University student who was shot and killed by an undercover police officer on the way to his fiancée’s house.
As Coates observes, the most depressing part of Prince’s death was the cruel randomness of it all. This point is driven home by Coates’ conversation with Prince’s mother (Dr. Mabel Jones):
“‘There he was,’ she said, speaking of Solomon Northup [from '12 Years a Slave']. ‘He had means. He had a family. He was living like a human being. And one racist act took him back. And the same is true of me. I spent years developing a career, acquiring assets, engaging responsibilities. And one racist act. It’s all it takes.’” – Dr. Mabel Jones talking to Ta-Nehisi Coates about the death of her son, 'Between the World and Me'
One racist act. It can come in the form of a 'routine' traffic stop. It can come in the form of following a young black boy home because he's wearing a hoodie. It can come in the form of calling the cops on your black neighbors because you assume that they’re drug dealers.
One racist act. That’s all the difference there is between life and death for black Americans today.
Like Between the World and Me, J. Cole's 4 Your Eyez Only is a meditation on the beauty and fragility of blackness. It is a personal letter to his friend’s daughter about the ills of the world and the various challenges her father faced as a person of color.
"Neighbors" is J. Cole's Prince Jones moment. It's a painful reminder that no matter where you live, no matter what your accomplishments are, some people will always view your blackness as a threat and won’t hesitate to eradicate that threat if given the chance.
We may have gone from being slaves to owning land but one racist act can make it a short lease. So much for integration.
Photo Credit: Anthony Supreme