Mike Posner is a singer, songwriter, and producer that has worked with Maroon 5, Justin Bieber, Pharrell Williams, Big Sean, 2 Chainz, Wiz Khalifa, Nelly, TI, Snoop Dogg and others. He wrote this poignant piece for his blog.
Since the age of eight, most of my best friends have been black males. Making hip-hop music often landed me in Detroit ghettos because that’s where the other rappers lived. I was usually the only white person rapping in these cyphers. After graduated from high school I interned at a hip-hop radio station in Detroit where I was the only white intern. It was there I met Big Sean and became a part of his crew, Finally Famous, in which I am the only white member. Basically what I’m saying is, I’ve had extremely close friendships with many black males most of my life. From all of these friendships, this is what I’ve learned:
I have no idea what it’s like to be black in America.
One of my best friends is Jay John Henry. He lives in Detroit and he visits Los Angeles roughly once per year. Because he’s my friend for life and I love him, I always offer my guest room to him and let him drive one of my cars (yes, I have two cars…I’m ignorant, it’s your fault for buying my music so much :). This way he doesn’t have to spend a fortune on Ubers. I live in a nice neighborhood in LA and I drive a nice car. Last year I remember joking around with him and saying, “Don’t get pulled over in that thing, the cops aren’t going to like a young black man driving that car.” This year when I handed the car key to him I realized that the joke was not funny. I said to him, “You could actually die if you got pulled over in this car, huh?” Last year’s humor had been replaced by this year’s dark realities of Ferguson and Baltimore. Jay John answered me as if he expected me to know better. He looked me directly in the eyes and answered in a dead pan tone,
He’d assumed that all my years of being around black people had taught me what it was like to be a black man in America. He assumed I had more empathy that I did. So if Mike Posner, the kid who tried his best to be black as a teenager, who spent weekends in high school free-styling in Detroit’s ghettos, who had been a star student of Mark Anthony Neal’s at Duke University, has no idea what it was like to be black, then what about the white kids in Iowa who have literally never met a black man? Most of the people at my shows are white. So I assume that most of the people reading this are white. Again, what I’m writing to tell you is what my years of being friends with black males has taught me:
We have no idea what it’s like to be black in America.
Another one of my best friends in the world is Ray Caesar. Ray and I went to college together and Duke University; he literally lived next door to me in the dormitory Junior year. When I was recording my first mixtape, he was my biggest supporter. He helped me pass out mixtapes and his facebook page basically became a full time advertisement for my music. He’s one of those friends that if you hadn’t spoken to in 15 years and you called him, he would be there for you. At Duke University, and now at dental school in Texas, Ray had the opposite experience that I did growing up. He was usually the only black person in his classes and at parties. He recently wrote a beautiful email to me and a few of our other friends from Duke. Several of our white friends expressed that they thought the riots in Baltimore were “stupid” and not accomplishing anything. “Burning their own neighborhoods isn’t going to solve anything,” they wrote. This was Ray’s response:
I cannot express to you what it feels like waking up everyday
knowing that because of what you look like, many (and I’d venture to say the majority) have been conditioned by society to distrust your every action. Take a second and truly think how damaging that is to someone’s psyche. Put that to one side, and then imagine that the single authority given the power, training, and weapons to enforce our nation’s laws has these same views on your race – not everyone, but most, considering racial profiling is a legal police tactic. Again, mull that over and put it to one side. Now, realize that there is a decades long laundry list full of mistreatment, excessive force, brutality, and murder by one race of policemen against one race of “suspects” for lack of a better world… preceded only by the government sanctioned systematic physical and psychological imprisonment of your race (slavery). I had a brief conversation with Perez this week where I made a poor attempt at explaining what it’s like to be black in America… and sadly, the world. Below is part of our conversation: “I’ll be honest with you bro, I’m terrified. At least before, people didn’t believe it was true and it was swept under the rug – in 2015 we’ve got evidence, videos, photos, witnesses… and there is still 0 accountability. I look EXACTLY like every single one of these victims. I was blessed to have grown up in a much different neighborhood, but cops don’t know my address, they don’t know where I went to school, or my career path. Every single black male in my fam has had situations with police. I could be any one of these stories. It’s a helpless and nauseating feeling… ”
The message I’d like to convey is “What the f### else do you want them to do?” Witness corroboration has not put a policeman behind bars, complaining to HR at police headquarters is met with criticism and most cases are literally ignored since “cops take care of cops”. Wait your turn in court they said… peaceful protests only, violence isn’t the solution. Then a case comes out where there is PHOTO and VIDEO EVIDENCE of the murder of another black male by a white policeman, and absolutely nothing f###### happens. My question to you is: considering the lack of education, financial resources, and organization – WHAT ELSE DO YOU WANT THEM TO DO?!
I had a very serious conversation with my mother where I told her I was considering dropping out of dental school to try to make a difference with race relations in this country. I don’t see the value of pursuing any career path when in my heart I feel that my talents could be used to advance our society’s dialogue about issues like these. I’m being serious, I care that much about this s###. With every new case, I feel more and more like I’ve made the incorrect decision in completing a degree that only helps myself and my family.
This is obviously an issue that needs to be discussed in person instead of over email, but my central point to you is that we, the black community, have exhausted every single other option to try to rectify this issue. I obviously don’t find any value in tearing your community apart, burning your neighbors cars, or smashing the windows of your favorite corner store, but f### – violence has recently been the ONLY way to bring attention to these stories… without the riots, I guarantee a minuscule percentage of our population would ever know about Ferguson, or Baltimore, or ___, or ___, etc… Maybe in this twisted world of ours, violence is the only option that forces the world to pay attention. We have literally tried everything else. Don’t blame these kids for standing up for a cause, turn your attention to the system which has pushed them to this juncture.
I read an excerpt from a speech that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered on March 14, 1968, in Michigan where he said,
And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the negro poor has worsened over the last twelve or fifteen years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.
I find it remarkable how well those worlds still apply to our society. The first sentence, “a riot is the language of the unheard” inspired the following song: Mike Posner – Voice of the Unheard.
Three weeks after delivering that speech, Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered. Thirty-seven years after that, I’m writing these words on Delta flight 1876 from Los Angeles to Detroit. It’s easy for me to pretend like everything’s cool in my home in Hollywood, but the truth is, it’s scary how little has changed. Maybe the first step is for me to stop pretending there is equality when there is not, and admit:
I have no idea what it’s like to be black in America.