"Life is like a roller coaster. It has its ups and downs. But it's your choice to scream or enjoy the ride."
Grant Maker, Community Organizer, Aspiring Lawyer.
The backdrop to Kanye West’s “Saturday Night Live” performance was a lie. Projected behind the rapper, as he let loose with two rage-filled and politically fueled tracks, were the words “Not For Sale.”
Yeezy wouldn’t have graced the set if he wasn’t hawking a soon-to-be released LP. But his incendiary performance was peppered with damning truths: Angry and pointed condemnations of institutional racism and the prison industrial complex, which disproportionately jails young men of color to fill state budget holes and enrich private corporations.
In the final verse of “New Slaves,” a track released Friday with the coordinated projection of a video on 66 buildings worldwide, and the second performance in his “SNL” set, West raps:
Meanwhile the DEA
Teamed up with the CCA
They tryn’a lock niggas up
They tryn’a make new slaves
See that’s that private owned prison
Get your piece today
Condensed and reduced to flow in rhyming verse, West’s lyrics smack of the conspiratorial. But he is correct: The War on Drugs, abetted by and fueling the private prison industry, currently serves to incarcerate hundreds of thousands of black men in the United States, who provide dirt-cheap labor. Various industries — from call centers to weapons manufacturers to retail companies — rely on prison labor. Private prisons pay inmate workers as little as 25 cents an hour; prisoners who refuse to work are regularly held in isolation. These are the de facto “new slaves” of the prison industrial complex. The CCA (the Corrections Corp of America) is one of two major private prison corporations (along with the GEO Group) that share in a market worth $70 billion.
And West’s implication that the CCA and the DEA are “tryn’a” lock up black people, leaving racist intentionality aside, is supported by troubling statistics. While the entire U.S. population is only 13.6 percent black, 40 percent of its vast prison population (over 2.5 million) is black. In 2010, black males were incarcerated at the rate of 4,347 inmates per 100,000 U.S. residents of the same race and gender, compared to 678 inmates per 100,000 for white males. The disparities are striking, especially when the majority of those held in U.S. prisons are guilty of minor drug offenses. This brings us to Kanye’s reference to the DEA.
As attorney and author John W. Whitehead pointed out in a HuffPo comment piece last year, states specifically opted to make sentencing laws for minor drug offenses harsh in order to fill private prisons — prisons which promised to fill gaping holes in state budgets:
[W]ith an eye toward increasing its bottom line, CCA has floated a proposal to prison officials in 48 states offering to buy and manage public prisons at a substantial cost savings to the states. In exchange, and here’s the kicker, the prisons would have to contain at least 1,000 beds and states would have agree to maintain a 90 percent occupancy rate in the privately run prisons for at least 20 years. The problem with this scenario, as Roger Werholtz, former Kansas secretary of corrections, recognizes is that while states may be tempted by the quick infusion of cash, they “would be obligated to maintain these (occupancy) rates and subtle pressure would be applied to make sentencing laws more severe with a clear intent to drive up the population.” Unfortunately, that’s exactly what has happened. Among the laws aimed at increasing the prison population and growing the profit margins of special interest corporations like CCA are three-strike laws (mandating sentences of 25 years to life for multiple felony convictions) and “truth-in-sentencing” legislation (mandating that those sentenced to prison serve most or all of their time).
As has been well-documented, young black men are disproportionately targeted by police for marijuana arrests. In New York City, for example, nearly 90 percent of the people arrested for marijuana possession are blacks and Latinos. The logic is simple: If states rely on minor drug arrests to fill privately run prisons, and young black men are targeted in minor drug arrests, then states rely on young black men to fill private prisons.
Or, as Yeezy put it: “See that’s that private owned prison/Get your piece today.”
All the poets that you love listening to
love lying to you.
I’m not that egocentric to make you believe that I’m not one of them.
I lie all the time,
mostly up here.
See, I’ve been doing this for a little while
and I’m starting to understand things:
poetry is not about telling you the truth.
It’s about telling you the version of a story
that gets the most reaction,
the one that flows the best on the mic,
the one that has all the lines
that the audience is going to like.
See, maybe the truth
isn’t supposed to rhyme so well.
Maybe it doesn’t have to rise to a crescendo.
never sounded like sound bites
and name dropping.
I promised myself I wouldn’t write poems about poetry,
but I woke up at 3 AM the other morning
and started spitting out all these lies that I couldn’t roll off my tongue
and thought that maybe at this hour
I could write a poem about honesty
without having to choreograph the hook at the end.
I woke up at 3 AM
and I’m having trouble remembering how to spell the word “wouldn’t”.
Four years ago, I featured at a youth slam in Jersey City,
and tried to show some children how poetry is supposed to sound cool.
Jessica sat in the front row
thinking I could teach her about spoken word.
I lied to her, in metaphor, for a half hour
only to hear the silence of a fifth grade explosion;
Jessica explained it to her thirteen year old peers
how rough her father’s beard stubble felt when her was drinking
and how a foster family is just a fresh coat of paint over stucco
when you’ve been running against the wall.
She didn’t actually say all this.
Not like I can.
But I could hear the inhalation of truth
in between breaths of her poetry.
Her name is not really Jessica.
I don’t remember what it is.
But for a moment, I can make you care about her,
even if she’s not real.
Don’t ask me.
You wouldn’t know the difference anyway.
I don’t write poems about honesty.
I’ve written three poems this year to make me sound cute to girls,
but not one about the medication that I’m taking
because there are some things
that I don’t fucking talk about.
Why am I 33 years old and still trying to sound cute to girls?
A couple weeks ago,
two friends asked me how my roommate is doing.
I use the word “roommate”
instead of referring to her as the girl I’m afraid of falling in love with
because she is the most beautiful overturned school bus that I have ever seen
and I slow down sometimes to watch the trauma.
And because she knows me.
Like how she knows that I look in the mirror too much,
and I always eat the last peanut butter cup,
and I fuck girls with my poems,
and use the word “roommate” too loosely.
And the poet in me
should’ve told them she’s doing just fine,
but I hadn’t memorized all the lines yet.
My best friend is not doing fine,
and I can’t fix it.
The students in my class
like me because I say the word “bullshit” during my lectures
and let them out early.
They don’t see that fear has me losing focus on the bullet points
when I’m thinking about how many slit wrists I’ll return home to tonight.
My roommate’s not suicidal
But it sounds sexier than saying
that she closes her eyes sometimes
when she’s changing lanes.
Because it keeps me driving to work
instead of holding her all night and crying.
I need somebody to talk to
but poetry helps you meet people who want to fuck poets.
Who do you talk to when your best friend is biting off her cuticles,
while other girls are sharpening their nails?
I need to go to bed now.
I’m sorry I lied.
I’ll write the rest of this poem tomorrow,
when I can differentiate what’s none of your fucking business
and write poems with hooks that rhyme.
It doesn’t matter what you believe.
I’m tired of being the strong one all the time.