Local rapper Rexx Life Raj didn't initially want to re-release his 2019 song, "War." Several friends and fans reached out to him to tell him how perfectly the song captured the current moment amid the protests over police brutality, triggered by the murder of George Floyd by four police officers. In particular the chorus, "It's a war outside / And everybody actin' like they don't see it," resonated with people. The consensus was that protest footage would pair nicely with the song, making for a timely music video.
Raj was uncomfortable with one friend's suggestion of going out to protests and shooting footage for a video. Despite showing up to every protest in recent memory related to the numerous cases of unarmed black men being murdered by the police, he hadn't been able to attend the recent ones. With the pandemic happening, and his father struggling health-wise, he felt like he should steer clear of crowds and not put his dad's life at risk. He was also concerned about taking attention away from the message of the protests.
"It didn't feel right for me to do anything," Raj says. "It felt self-serving, even though it wouldn't be self-serving. The last thing I wanted was to seem like I was doing this to put eyes back on me when the struggle is much bigger. There's a lot of other stuff we should be paying attention to."
But the video was destined to come out. Another friend, Chase Fade, had filmed the Seattle protests and had the same thought: "'War' is the soundtrack for this moment." He took it upon himself to cut together a video with his footage. With limited usable footage, Fade only used 2:44 minutes of the 3:39-minute-long song, but it worked. Raj loved it, and barely made changes to the video Fade sent him. He released it on June 11.
The video beautifully juxtaposed the emotionless brutality of the police against the humanity and passion of the protesters, as they demanded equality. Set to the sound of Raj's contemplative, stream-of-conscious verses, the video evokes complex emotions—joy, anger, sadness, righteousness—all at the same time.
"I feel like that's the lived experience of people of color," Raj says. "You have all these different feelings that you're trying to get across. Everything is so nuanced. Everything is so layered that sometimes it's hard for you to verbalize. A lot of times it just comes out in pure anger and frustration. I think that's the culmination of what these protests was—a bunch of people feeling something that they know is wrong. And it's just like, we're tired of it."
The song, "War," was released in November 2019 off Raj's brilliant Father Figure 3: Somewhere Out There record, but was written in early 2019. Though the song captures the current moment, Raj's words weren't triggered by a particular event. He wasn't even imagining protests when he sang about "a war outside." He was commenting on a larger struggle of what it feels like being Black in America.
"I always feel like there's so much going on outside, especially within the Black community, and it goes unacknowledged," Raj says. "People don't even talk about it; it's like a war. We live in the hoods, in East Oakland, in West Oakland, in Richmond, in Vallejo—it's wild. You hear so many gunshots, you hear sirens all the time. It's like a literal war zone. That's where I'm coming from, with my experience of being a Black man and stepping outside."
He agrees though, that the song has taken on a life of its own, and that it works really well right now, as the protests have gone on for a month, with no end in sight and with real change coming as a result of the protesters' persistence. The song and video show that what is often expressed as anger goes much deeper.
"People's eyes are starting to open," Raj says. "In the Black community, we've been seeing it for what it is, but now with iPhones and camera phones, the world is getting to see what we've been seeing forever. My dad was in the Black Panther Party. This pro-Black shit has always been on my consciousness. When he was a kid, the police were beating and killing people. The only difference was that nobody had a phone. The phone gives you power. It's amazing that people can see what's going on now and are receptive to what black people are saying."
One of the biggest changes with these protests is that a lot more people have embraced the phrase "Black Lives Matter" for what it is: a fight for justice and equality. Even some corporations and politically conservative folks are starting to say it too, rather than fighting against it with tone-deaf replies of "All Lives Matter." The point is to create a better society for everyone, and fundamentally change the police's role in society. Right now, people are listening and open to change.
"It's Black people right now," Raj says, regarding who the police tend to abuse. "But in a minute, it could be anybody. We've seen it be different minorities. At this point, black lives matter because it's the theory that if you help the most oppressed people, then you free everybody. That's the point a lot of people are missing, but a lot of people are starting to get it."
War video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VL4VLUSfwg8