The People’s Culture: Commentary on the BET Awards

By Felipe Vera and David Martinez

During the virtual 2020 BET Awards, several musicians performed depicting the mass uprisings which followed the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. From lighting Molotov cocktails to destroying cop cars, these performances underline resistance to the immense police violence carried out against Black people and the working class across the US. But while some have a clear pro-people message, like Anderson .Paak’s ‘Lockdown,’ others are merely vehicles for liberal bourgeois propaganda, as seen in DaBaby’s performance of “Rockstar.”

In Anderson .Paak and Jay Rock’s “Lockdown,” Paak is shown bloodied and bruised across his face while rapping about police violence and protests. Paak sings about being hit with rubber bullets, indicating his character is on the front lines of combative protests. Paak makes a pro-people, almost Marxist analysis, questioning the criminalization of looting when unemployment is skyrocketing.

“And won’t you tell me ’bout the lootin’? What’s that really all about?
‘Cause they throw away black lives like paper towels
Plus unemployment rate, what, forty million now?”

During his verse, guest rapper Jay Rock lights a Molotov cocktail which he throws at the end of the video, lighting a globe on fire. Jay Rock speaks to the reality of what it will take to achieve liberation, asking the listener,

“Ready for the revolution, who ready to ride?
It won’t be televised
So tell me, who ready to die?”

DaBaby began his performance of “Rockstar” with a policeman kneeling on his neck, later rapping on top of a demolished cop car as he hits it with a bat in front of several protesters raising their fists. However “Rockstar,” a commercial hit written prior to the uprisings, is not a protest anthem, and is even counter-revolutionary, despite an updated first verse in the wake of the rebellions.

The lyrics in “Rockstar” are the thread-worn territory of commercial rap – which have purposely elevated capitalist aspirations above all while downplaying hip-hop’s working class origins. DaBaby’s ‘rebellion’ is to own a ‘brand new lamborghini’ that can outrun the cops, yet he still proudly compares himself to the police, singing, “With the pistol on my hip like I’m a cop.”

At another point, a Black cop is shown taking off his riot gear, raising his fist and siding with protesters that he and other cops were about to collide with. While defections may occur, this reinforces the liberal notion that individually, police just have to change their outlook and approach, which erases the function of their existence, which is to protect the interests of the rich.

“Rockstar” ends with a capitulationist appeal to liberal pacifism after having deceived the audience that DaBaby is down with rebellion – the final message is a child holding a sign reading “More Love,” reducing racism, politics, and class struggle to a question of merely needing to be nicer to each other. It’s “Love Trumps Hate” repackaged for a rap audience.

DaBaby merely put a trendier, rebellious surface to his already successful song which had no revolutionary content to begin with. In contrast, Paak’s ‘Lockdown’ was written in a fit of inspiration over the past month, with the clear intention of celebrating the people’s militancy and upholding the revolutionary potential represented by the anti-police rebellions.

Paak’s chorus emphasizes that despite the attempts to ‘lockdown’ the people in a state of fear due to the Coronavirus, “the people are rising” against the greater enemy: a system that disposes of Black lives ‘like paper towels.’ Paak ends his song encouraging the people to continue fighting, not to seek ‘more love.’ As his infectious groove fades out, he tells us, “we ain’t gotta stop ’cause they tell us to…”