Blood in the Water: Attica & America

Before you read the post, go ahead and scroll to the end of the page and start the Nas video. I hope that the truth behind Attica makes him and a lot of other rap artists more relatable, relevant, and impactful.

If I Ruled the World

Trickin’ six digits on kicks and still holdin’
Trips to Paris, I civilized every savage
Gimme one shot I turn trife life to lavish
Political prisoner set free, stress free
No work release purple M3’s and jet skis
Feel the wind breeze in West Indies
I’d make Coretta Scott-King mayor o’the cities and reverse themes to Willies
It sounds foul but every girl I meet would go downtown
I’d open every cell in Attica send em to Africa

If I ruled the world, imagine that
I’d free all my sons, I love ’em love ’em baby
Black diamonds and pearls
Could it be, if you could be mine we’d both shine
If I ruled the world
Still livin’ for today, in these last days and times

–NAS– (June 1996)

(right to left: Rockefeller; Nixon; Hoover; and Mancusi, the prison warden)

I remixed an image from the Attica prison uprising which is featured in the book, Blood in the Water, by Heather Ann Thompson out of the University of Michigan. In the book she uncovers a large state department cover-up of a massacre that killed 39 men. Over 1,000 prisoners had taken part in a protest of opportunity to improve their basic living conditions and humanity. Most of the prisoners were from heavily policed inner cities like Harlem, or Brooklyn. Others were transfers from other overcrowded and unkempt prisons. After the prisoners issued a list of demands including steady parole board reviews, edible food, reliable healthcare, and more frequent showers; President Nixon communicated with then Governor of New York, Rockefeller, that he wanted the ‘black problem’ taken care of.

Rockefeller allowed state troopers, policemen, and prison guards from all surrounding counties enter a yard of 1300 unarmed multiracial prisoners and hostages with guns blazing. After the initial massacre, the state continued to participate in the routine intimidation and retaliation against prisoners. State and prison officials even go so far as to inform the public falsely that the prisoners are removing the genitals of white men and eating them. In reality, the prisoners are being subjected to the worst torture imaginable. My ReMix puts the people responsible for the continuance of that brutality in the place that history will cast them, as the real monsters.

Mass incarceration is the largest human rights problem in the 21st century. As a teenager, jamming to my Walkman, I never understood why Nas would free the people in Attica other than the fact that they had skin like me. I never fully appreciated his reference to french/white savages and the context he was gathering his knowledge. I just knew that he was cool and I wanted to fit in and be cool too.

As an adult I fully understand his masterful play on words and why he is one of the best rappers and social commentators of all-time. Nas puts words to the horror that is the daily life of incarcerated men and women while still giving them love and hope. He is continuing some of the oldest traditions of African oration.

Digital Media gives me an avenue to bring together these intersections of pop culture & history; books & rap. It is hard to truly appreciate the artistry behind black culture without fully appreciating black history and the black experience. Maybe digital media can serve as a bridge between academia and the people buying the music. Or maybe it will just serve as a bridge for me. All of the images come with the express consent of the author. I met her and she assured me that all images that she and her publicist have released are fully intended for re-use by the public because they are pictures taken by the State during the retaking of the prison and the negotiation.

Dedicated to: LD Barkley, 21, dead; in prison at Attica for driving without a license. And for being black and poor. I hope that you are living in a place where “you can smoke in the street without police harassment.” To the many more that I cannot name here and now, I pray for you always… “If I ruled the world….”

9 thoughts on “Blood in the Water: Attica & America”

  1. Excellent work! I have heard that lyric hundreds of times and a few times it was a speed bump in my mind because I didn’t know what he was referencing. Like most people, I never bothered to do my googles so I am thankful for this write up and you sharing it with me. Mass incarceration is without a doubt what Michelle Alexander calls the New Jim Crow. Throw melanated bodies into prisons, convince the public that they are wild, ravenous, criminals who do not serve humanity. Sounds a lot the rhetoric of scientific racism used to substantiate slavery.

    1. Thanks for participating and giving me feedback Fiya! I love your work and I hope that I can start embedding some links and hyping you up soon!

      As you can see we are still under construction but I’m coming!

  2. As a child growing up especially in New York, Nas was definitely a lyricist that I listened to consistently. Thinking back to the first time I heard ” If I ruled the world”, I just remember loving the song because Lauryn Hill and Nas flowed together effortlessly. Once you grow up, you tend to learn the significance of the music admired as a child and that’s when I realized there is a definite divide in our society. I didn’t have the opportunity to grow up in the south so my mind didn’t expand much on racism until I was closer to being an adult. Now that I’m in my mid-20s, and studying the criminal justice system in depth, it’s ridiculous to believe that there isn’t a problem with mass incarceration with black males. One can only hope digital media can serve as a bridge! Great job, this is very insightful!!!

    1. I would love to work with you! Criminal Justice is one of my many interests concerning the black community so working with people that specialize in depth is so helpful!

  3. Such depth! Your comparisons between Then & Now truly illustrates the falsehood of complete “progress” and the idea that civil rights are over for the misguided conceptions that they are. In America, freedom is not attained by residency alone–it begins in our own minds and environments. Even if one’s environment is a prison; that makes them no less qualified for basic freedoms and rights. Great article!

  4. I really enjoyed this synopsis on American history and the mass (and typically unfair) incarceration of black people. I love how you tied in the hip hop reference and provided understanding to the common lyrics that many of us have overlooked due to it being catchy and having a great melody. This has encouraged me to dig further and research more on Attica. Great write up!

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