In This Episode
DeRay, Kaya, De’Ara, and Sam dive into recent overlooked news including wrongful incarceration, California’s prison factories, Rhode Island’s school reopening plan, and penitentiary demographic predictions. Then, DeRay chats with Rodney Carmichael and Sidney Madden from the new NPR show “Louder Than a Riot”, to look at the links between hip-hop and mass incarceration.
DeRay [00:00:02] Hey, this is DeRay. And welcome to Pod Save the People. In this episode, it’s me, Sam, Kaya and De’Ara talking about the underreported news of the past week. And then I sit down with Rodney Carmichael in Sydney Madden from the new NPR show, “Louder Than a Riot” that looks at the link between hip hop and mass incarceration. I learned a ton. My advice for this week is advice that I gave, I’m sure give it a while ago cause it’s something I tell myself all the time is do the work and the rest will follow. Do the work and the rest will follow. Do the work and the rest will follow. Let’s go.
De’Ara [00:00:31] Hello family. Welcome to another episode of Pod Save the People.
De’Ara [00:00:35] I’m De’Ara Balenger. You can find me @DeAraBalenger on Twitter and Instagram.
Sam [00:00:40] And I’m Sam Sinyangwe @Samswey on Twitter.
Kaya [00:00:42] I’m Kaya Henderson @HendersonKaya on Twitter.
DeRay [00:00:46] And I’m DeRay @deray on Twitter.
De’Ara [00:00:49] All right, folks, there is no shortage of things to talk about, but we think top of the menu for today is the vice presidential debate that took place with Kamala Harris, Vice President Pence and the fly, all were on stage.
Kaya [00:01:06] And the fly.
De’Ara [00:01:08] For of of a really intense conversation on policy, which was fascinating because we didn’t have that conversation for the presidential debate that happened just a couple weeks ago, even though it seems like years ago.
De’Ara [00:01:25] So I thought Kamala came out very strong.
De’Ara [00:01:29] I thought she.
Kaya [00:01:30] I mean, I’m rooting for everybody black. No two ways about it. However, wanted her to be stronger. I didn’t feel like she was hitting her points head on. I felt like Mike Pence looked reasonable and thoughtful and he could have been lying. And every word he said could have been a lie. But he said it convincingly. He said it in a way that looked far more vice presidential than I thought she did. And I know, like, I’m about to get kicked out of my book club and kicked out every black girl thing I’m in. But I just got to say, I like I actually felt like I was expecting her to in here and crush it hard. And I feel like he played a little mind game on her. And and I felt like she was not as strong as I, I wanted her to be.
De’Ara [00:02:15] I think it’s also hard to be strong and it’s hard to be. It’s like it’s it’s not like normal circumstances.
De’Ara [00:02:20] Right. It’s not like.
Kaya [00:02:21] I get that, but this is, but look. This is the big stage. Right.
Kaya [00:02:24] Like, this is where it counts is where you got to come with everything that you’ve got. And I maybe it’s just me. I wanted more. I thought there was going to be more. And I was a little disappointed.
Kaya [00:02:33] I think it is hard, Kaya, because they have done a good job for their base of making the lies seem like boldness. Like that they are just bold and they are just like they’re willing to say the thing nobody else is saying. You know, I think that’s a lie. And then it’s like Kamala and Joe have to, like, not sound angry. Like I feel like I feel like I can feel them working so hard not to be angry.
Kaya [00:02:59] That was evident.
DeRay [00:03:00] Not to be glib.
Kaya [00:03:02] Yes.
DeRay [00:03:02] Not to be like f you. Not like, I can feel the restraint.
Kaya [00:03:06] Yes.
DeRay [00:03:06] And the hard part is that, like you feeling the restraint actually means that they don’t always get to be their best selves, like they are like most interesting and like the best stories and darara because they are like counteracting the wildness coming from Pence and Trump.
Kaya [00:03:21] So, I mean, I think you’re absolutely right. Right. But I think that there’s two ways to go about it and take this with as big a grain of salt as you can possibly take it from somebody who has never.
DeRay [00:03:31] Kaya has been uninvited from all sorts of circles right now.
Kaya [00:03:32] And somebody who’s never been on that big of a stage with that amount of pressure. So I like this is armchair quarterbacking I admit it, but I feel like you could either, like, try to counter what they say and tell the truth or like hit your points. And I feel like she was so busy trying to restrain herself and figure out how to like countered the lie and whatnot, that, like the real points gained are like, here is my thing. Let me tell you why this let me tell you why that, and I feel like she had moments of that. But I wanted I wanted that to be crisper, I want her to just be crushing it on the things that Democrats have to be proud of or that she has to assert. And and so I wanted a little more like they’re gonna lie and say whatever they want to say, bam, cut that suff out and go hard with what you know to be good and right.
Sam [00:04:21] And I mean, it was definitely unfair. Like the, because Pence didn’t answer any of the questions. Right. Like it was unfair because she felt like rightly obligated to actually answer the questions that you’re being asked as like any politician should. And Pence just didn’t even play by those rules. He was just like, let me talk about what I wanted to talk about last question for this question. And then, like, let Kamala to actually answer the tough question that was really being asked, whether it was like, oh, the presidential nominees are really old and like maybe we should. Like, what does that mean for, you know, the line of succession? And, like, all like that’s a serious question. Pence was like, I’m not gonna answer it. And Kamala was like, we, you know, we probably should answer that question, you know, similarly a around taxes and releasing medical records like all of these things that are like real questions. You could tell that Pence just felt no obligation actually answer the questions just like pivoted and punted the question to Kamala. And then and then Kamala sort of got, the moderator was also being unfair and like asking those questions of Kamala, like in a way that like they allowed Pence to sort of dodge his way out of that. So I mean, it wasn’t fair. I think, you know, the the good news is that, you know, they really needed a miraculous performance to upset sort of the existing dynamics. It looks like Pence did not deliver a miraculous performance. Kamala was good. She was strong, like she held the line. And like the polling looks good after the debate, too. So, you know, again, take the polling with a grain of salt, make sure you vote like now if you can, and definitely by Election Day. But yeah, it was wild to see. Pence was definitely better than Trump, though. So, I mean, that’s not saying much, but it is what it is.
DeRay [00:05:58] Yeah I think you’re right. The only I thing I’d say too is that they said that I don’t know if you read this, but Buttigieg apparently was the Stand-In for Pence during the debate prep with with Kamala.
DeRay [00:06:08] And I really do think they need a comedian. They need somebody who will stand up there and literally be like, no, and like like won’t be ground, won’t have a sense of integrity, doesn’t care like they need to practice against that, because even the wildest Pete is probably like a lot of integrity. Right.
Kaya [00:06:24] Totally.
DeRay [00:06:25] And like a lot of thoughtfulness and like a full complete thought as opposed to like, a no, that’s like yeah, no, I’m not going to answer that. Completely veering off to something else, you know.
De’Ara [00:06:33] But that’s what we had for Hillary, like Phillipe Reines who has been doing communications for her for a zillion years, who I adore, play Donald Trump and if you know, Phillipe or work with Phillipe. You know, he’s a perfect Donald Trump,.
Kaya [00:06:44] So then let’s get Phillipe in there.
De’Ara [00:06:45] I say that with all due respect, but I think it’s also this thing, Kaya, where it’s just like I want her to act just like do what you feel because I’m just like where did to get Hillary being all composed and being, you know what I mean?
Kaya [00:06:58] I wanted you to crush it. That’s what it is. At the end of day, I wanted her to crush it.
DeRay [00:07:02] And you’re a Hillary insider.
DeRay [00:07:02] And so when you say, where did it get Hillary? Okay, De’Ara.
De’Ara [00:07:06] I wanted her to just, like, go over there and pound her fist on that desk and just be like, lies!
De’Ara [00:07:10] You know? So I just feel like,.
Kaya [00:07:12] But you know. But you know who salvaged that for us was the fly.
Kaya [00:07:17] The fly came in and the fly.
Sam [00:07:17] Right. Right at the law enforcement question, you know,.
Kaya [00:07:24] The fly did with Senator Harris could not do.
De’Ara [00:07:27] I can’t. My favorite one was.
De’Ara [00:07:29] the meme was, it was something like the flies name with Tyronne. It was like you look you look Tyronnes’s on TV.
De’Ara [00:07:35] I mean, I died, died.
DeRay [00:07:38] Sam you said it was right in the law enforcement question.
Sam [00:07:41] Yeah. It was like Mike Pence was just opening his mouth to talk about white supremacy and law enforcement and all of this and then, like, the fly lands on his head. And I don’t even know what he said after that. Like, it just it was over at that point.
Kaya [00:07:52] Nobody knew what he said, because first you got up to move to fly off your TV because everyone thought it was their and then you realize it wasn’t your fly it was his fly and that the fly was staying around more than any fly in the history of all flyness in any one place. And then you are wondering, is the fly trapped in his hairspray? Like, what is going on?
Sam [00:08:16] I can never I cannot remember a fly ever.
De’Ara [00:08:20] All right. Swat that fly away. Let’s jump in, jump into some news here, some topics.
Sam [00:08:29] So my news is about a new study that just came out from the National Registry of Exonerations that looked into over 2400 cases of people who’d been exonerated after being convicted of crimes to find out, So what were the factors that led to them being falsely convicted? And what they found was that in 54 percent of all cases where somebody was later exonerated, there was some form of official misconduct involved. So misconduct on the part of the police or the prosecutors, and in 35 percent of all cases, it was police misconduct that was responsible and in particular, a range of things like witness tampering, coercing people in the context of interrogations, denying the release of exculpatory evidence, a whole host of tactics that it contributed to folks being wrongfully convicted and ending up being wrongfully incarcerated as a result. So I wanted to talk about this because we talk about policing and police violence. Um, and oftentimes that takes the form of cases where the police very directly harm somebody, physically harm somebody. What we’re seeing here is a way in which police abuse their role and their power in the system to coerce people into, in some cases, issuing a false confession. And in other cases, just leading people to end up being incarcerated and convicted of things that they didn’t do. So that’s what this study shows. I’m not aware of another study that’s this expansive, just looking at this breadth of cases, and again, this shows that the police officers and the prosecutors in these cases have a lot of power in these case in particular using that power to get folks incarcerated who are innocent.
DeRay [00:10:12] So, Sam, this this reminds me of two things. One is that when we think about the police officer Bill of Rights and the police union contracts, the police were so intentional about providing multiple layers of protection so they don’t get railroaded in interrogations. Like they just they were like interrogations can only happen at this time and they all have to be recorded. They can’t do this. They need to…
DeRay [00:10:33] They protected themselves against the very same interrogation techniques that we see leading to wrongful convictions happening. And like it is just a reminder that they know the system well enough to make sure that they are not victims of it while they victimize other people.
DeRay [00:10:48] The second thing, though, is, and Sam, you know this because in our organizing work outside of the pod, people sort of sometimes look at us like the police are like this ancillary being, like, you know, why do you talk about the police? You should be dealing with mass incarceration. And we’re like, no, the police are mass. There is no way to talk on mass incarceration without talking about the police. So when people think about misconduct and wrongful convictions and dada like people aren’t thinking like, oh, like the police probably had a part to do with this. It’s like, yeah, the police like the processes leading to mass incarceration. It’s not like all these bad people in air quotes out here doing things. It’s also like a bad system. And the third thing, actually three things, is that this remind me to have the danger of the way we talk about prosecutors is that the dominant narrative right now is like electing a prosecutor. If we elect the great prosecutor. But it’s like, yeah, once you get the person that doesn’t automatically change the practices of the office or the power of the office or put in safeguards in the office so that people’s lives are ruined. And like that has to be a part of the work to say, like, yeah, good people are fine, but a better system is better. And like this shows us that we got to actually do that.
De’Ara [00:11:56] And, DeRay, just building off of that point.
De’Ara [00:11:58] I think, you know, having been a prosecutor for a short time, even at the DUI or criminal misdemeanor level, it’s still like you need to get convictions, you need to get convictions, like the whole metrics were like by which prosecutor’s office is like measure success are convictions. What are the length of sentences you’re getting? So I think even the very nature of like how these prosecutors offices, how police are even operationalized, like the whole measure of success is to close a case. The tactics and the ethics involved in there, not so much attention paid to that, but the end result is what everybody focuses on. So I think the fact that I mean, this is wild, 72 percent of cases in which the person was wrongfully convicted of murder, there was official misconduct in 72 percent of those cases. That’s a real big percentage, everybody. So, yeah, I found this fascinating. And just from my own experience and the visibility I’ve had into how these offices are run, I just see it as being absolutely true.
Kaya [00:12:57] I found it to be incredibly demoralizing. Right. Because it means that, like justice and the truth just don’t matter. Right now, this idea of closing cases above all else right, wrong or otherwise means you like nobody gets a fair shake.
Kaya [00:13:15] One guy who, another guy admitted to the murder, but they still sent this young man to jail and it was 15 years before he was exonerated. I mean, this is about ruining people’s lives. And then you say, oh, I’m sorry. Like, whose job is it? I guess I understand that the that the police and the prosecutors work together, supposedly in pursuit of doing what’s right for the public. But whose job is it to make sure that like you’re doing? Where’s the accountability for being correct and right and not just closing cases? I just this is not my field. I don’t know much about this, but it just seems that if you are I mean, you you are remotely caught up in this. You just like your chances of being convicted of something that you didn’t do are much higher than should be. When we talk about innocent until proven guilty and what like who in the system for people like you, De’Ara who know this thing, whose job is it to make sure that somebody is telling the truth?
De’Ara [00:14:20] I mean, it really it’s so individualized in terms of like what your values are like. I mean, even when I was prosecuting misdemeanor cases, like I made sure the public defender was doing their job, too. And then, I mean, was making sure that I did my job. But, like, that was me right out of law school, caring about somebody. Where, most of the folks who you know, unfortunately and this is my experience, but most of the folks who my colleagues in my office, they were really zealous about their process. You know, how they were prosecuting cases. It’s what’s wrong with the system in terms of like what?
De’Ara [00:14:52] Where do we trying to achieve and what’s at stake in a real exploration of that and a commitment to the truth. And to justice, and that’s not what we have in this country.
Kaya [00:15:03] Yeah,.
De’Ara [00:15:04] OK. So my my news is from the L.A. Times, it actually just came out. But it’s a story on how California prison factories were kept open during all of Covid, ressentially, even though there was a spread of Colbert at 19 across different prisons in California. And so it really focuses on an incarcerated woman. Her name is Robbie Hall, who was stitching masks for 12 hours a day in a sewing factory at a women’s prison in Chino in California. And for several weeks, Hall and other women churned out tons of mass. Thousands of mass. But we’re actually forbidden from wearing the mask themselves. And essentially, they. So these women and a host of others are actually seamstresses at the California Institution for Women and the fabric that they were actually using was coming from a nearby men’s prison where an outbreak, a Covid outbreak had happened. And it ended up killing 23 of those incarcerated men. And the boss from that prison was visiting both institutions so going back and forth. And keep in mind, like nobody’s wearing masks. And so Hall and others, you know, they’re stitching these mask every single day. Very, very worried about the fabric coming from this prison that had this high infection rate. But nevertheless, they kept working one because the prison factory was kept open. But also because they needed to make money. So they make up to. I think at 60 cents a day, 60 cents a day. Twelve hours a day. And the money that they make goes to like, you know, buying soap and other, you know, essentials that they wouldn’t otherwise have without working all these hours. I don’t even want to say long story short, because this story is like happening right now, like they are still living in these conditions, having to work in this prison factory. And so I know it’s interesting. I think everyone should take a look. The other thing that I learned from this is that manufacturing from prison factories in California makes about, I think, in one year in 2019 had made 23 million dollars. It’s an industry. It’s slavery, y’all. That’s what it is. It is heartbreaking.
De’Ara [00:17:22] But I think especially just considering the times that we’re living in, in this vice presidential debate, when Pence said that there was no systemic racism in this country. And the fact that we have, you know, prison factories where people are literally in slave living and existing in these type of conditions. And this isn’t something that everybody knows and everyone is actively trying to dismantle. I don’t know y’all, this one just really blew my mind.
Kaya [00:17:48] Not only did they keep the prison factories open, they told the prisoners that they would lose their jobs if they didn’t come to work, if they were, you know, afraid of Covid and wanted to take some personal precautions, they were told that they would lose their jobs if they missed work. And at the same time, they upped the quotas that the people had to produce. So it wasn’t just enough that the factories were open. They were demanding more and more and more from these folks who were working in a compromised position. And these people don’t have any rights to say, you know, because they’re incarcerated, to say, I don’t feel safe or I don’t want to do this. If this is how you put the money on your commissary, you are literally risking your life for a bar soup or for feminine products. And that’s the position that we put people in during incarceration, which is just untenable. And America’s capitalistic, I don’t know, whatever. I don’t even have a word for. Greed is not enough. Like, I don’t know this like our willingness to exploit anything and anybody to make money is fully on display in a situation like this one.
Kaya [00:19:05] My news is around an article in a New York Times called “How Rhode Island Reopened Schools.” And, you know, I’m the school’s lady. I’m all about it. But to me, this is more of a story about leadership than it is necessarily about schools. And the leader who I’m excited to highlight is Governor Gina Raimondo, who is the governor of Rhode Island. And, yes, Rhode Island is the smallest state in the union. And yes, there are only 200,000 schools, children in Rhode Island and all of that. But what Governor Raimondo did was decide that she was going to do school reopening in a very different way. In most cases and in most places, school reopening decisions were left to individual districts to decide what they wanted to do and how they wanted to do it. But in Rhode Island, Governor Raimondo centralized their school reopening plan and created a whole government approach to how schools would reopen. She first put public and private schools on a single calender to simplify re-opening. First of all, can you imagine if you are a parent who have who has kids in both systems or in multiple districts or whatever? That I never on the same schedule and now everybody’s gone back to school at the same time and there’s a clear reopening plan. Revolutionary. She opened 14 rapid testing locations exclusively for students and teaching staff. She set up a statewide contact tracing system just for schools. She called in the National Guard to assist with school testing and logistics. They man 24/7 Crisis Command Center and operations hub for schools where they manage school, walk-throughs and they deploy substitute nurses.
Kaya [00:20:49] They bought PPE in bulk for the state, which is great from a procurement perspective. You get lower prices. They created protocol guides for every district to follow. And the reason why this is all pretty revolutionary is because, in fact, the governor feels like this is an equity play. She says “the risk of children being left behind academically, mentally and potentially permanently is 100 percent certain. This is the front line of equity. Who do you think is going to be left behind and permanently hurt by this?” And when I think about what I see across the country, I see wealthy school districts where they are figuring out ways to get kids to engage in school in-person. I see private schools where they are going out of their way to make sure that kids are able to interact in person, at least for some portion of the time. And my worry is that I also see all of the statistics which say the parents who are most reluctant to send their kids to school for in-person learning are African-American and Latino parents. And so I worry one of my very good friends is on the board of a fancy private school, all boys, Catholic private school in New York. And they were at the board meeting touting that they are doing in-person and they’re doing distance learning. But since most of the African-American and Latino parents are reluctant to send their kids, they have made provision for all of those kids to attend through Zoom. And so what’s happening is the white kids are come into school every day. And African-American and Latino kids are at home. And so, as my friend who’s a board member started asking questions about, to the African-American and Latino kids, how do you feel? And they said, look, we feel isolated. We feel like we’re not getting the same things that the kids in person are getting. And so even though we, you know, our communities are disproportionately affected. And even though we are right to be super careful about sending our kids to school, we see this equity piece playing out yet again in terms of our kids being left behind. The reason why I think this is a leadership story is because I think Governor Raimondo saw a problem and decided to tackle it in a very different way. One of the things that she says in the article is “these districts aren’t going to be able to do this on their own. I’ve studied the failure of the federal government to lead in this crisis. And I didn’t want it to happen to our cities and our towns.” And I think the way big problems get solved is when you pull everybody together. And so the governor has pulled together the Department of Education and Department of Health, the National Guard and all kinds of other folks in the state to ensure that kids have some opportunity, you know, at least part time, have some opportunity to engage in classes.
Kaya [00:23:50] And the state has cases, right. There’s been a two percent positivity rate, but they haven’t had any outbreaks. And what they say is the plan is not to avoid cases altogether. In fact, that’s not realistic. But how the system handles it, you know, is what they’re trying to manage. And when you look at Covid data in schools, at least over the end of September, I was looking at a study where 200,000 kids in 47 states were assessed over the last two weeks in September. The infection rate for students was point one, three percent for students. Right. So that is less than a quarter of a percent for students testing positive and point to four percent among staff. And so, again, it’s not like there is not going to be any positive cases.
Kaya [00:24:39] But all around the world, all around the country, people are managing this in thoughtful ways. And when you are able to bring together everybody in a community to bring resources to bear against this issue, there is a way to be able to educate our young people and to keep them safe.
DeRay [00:24:57] Kaya, I took this in sort of, was thinking about what are the other stories that we hadn’t heard about that we hadn’t talked about in education to. And, you know, this is something that you would be dealing with right now if you were still, superintendent and I would be losing my mind about if I was the Human Capital guy, is I hadn’t even thought about how high school sports had become a battleground in this Covid conversation. So in 31 states, they have modifieds false sports competitions because of academic, but 14 states are carrying on as usual. And then in Virginia, North Carolina, Oregon, Nevada, California and D.C., all fall competitions have been postponed until late winter or spring.
DeRay [00:25:40] And there’s a USA Today article that talks about it. But I hadn’t even considered that there’s some parents in places who are so angry that about this whole sort of “hoax” of covered in air quotes that they’re calling it, that they refused to wear masks in the crowds, that they are like refusing to tell their players to wear masks. So it’s leading to these Covid upticks. And it’s like, y’all, we are trying to get back to normal, but we will never get back to normal if you keep breaking the rules or it’s like what happened. I have a friend who she coaches in Maine, actually she essentially coached. They don’t have a lot of people around them. So it’s like the players are playing, but it’s not really a whole lot of people allowed to be around them. And in her community, that is working. But there are other communities where people are really upset about it. Like, I want to see my child play. It’s like I think you want to see your child live, too, and. And, you know, those might be at odds in this moment about the pandemic. So I just hadn’t thought about fall sports as this battleground in a way that it actually is becoming. Across the country and shout out to the governor for leading cause. Lord knows there is not enough leadership happening. So my news was about this interview called “prisons into hospices.”
DeRay [00:26:48] And the takeaway was that, because of excessive sentences that were dealt out during the 70s, 80s and 90s is projected in the next 10 years, around 25 to 40 president people in New York state prisons will be elderly people. And like I said, just never again. This is like one of the things that, like the data helps us think about in ways that people haven’t considered is what does mercy look like? What does grace look like? What does what do our strategies look like for any incarceration when the prison population will be elderly? People like what? How do we start to contend with that from a policy perspective and I, you know, I haven’t heard this be a dominant part of the conversation about ending mass incarceration. But there is a question about like you’re at 80 years old. It’s like, what? Is that really helping our society that you aren’t like that? Even the loose argument doesn’t seem to hold. And I’ll tell you, I did. I’ve been to a lot of prisons around the world, and I was in Angola for I did a long visit to Angola and Angola, has a hospice program and the hospice program in Angola, In Louisiana is it’s a big program. It’s run by other men who are incarcerated. So when you are about to die, you get sort of linked up with the hospice crew. They are there with you in your final moments. They help move the body. They make the casket like there’s this whole sort of rhythm and ritual. And all I could think about was like one, how beautiful was it? People have community and compassion at the end of their days and just how sad it is that we have actually, like, built up a whole system around this as opposed to releasing people, as opposed to letting people be around their loved ones, be around their family members. But then dying in cages is something that we actually have allowed to be a public policy position. That’s actually a position. And I just hadn’t even thought about that. So I want to bring this here because, you know, as we always say in organizing like this is structural. It’s like it’s the parole board. It is a whole host of things that we need to change to actually make this better. But this will be something to contend with. And I was fascinated by it.
Sam [00:28:55] This is an issue that just keeps growing and growing and growing as like generations of people who were incarcerated under three strikes laws under a whole host of laws that imposed tough sentencing on a whole host of things like drug possession are now sort of aging in prison. And you see this. And then on the other hand, you see the research which shows that like after the age of around 40, like your odds of reoffending are like almost zero. So, like, there is no public safety rationale for incarcerating or separating from society, like anybody over the over like a certain age of like 50, 60 years old. There is very little possibility that anybody who is incarcerated past that age, who is released will like reoffending or or engage in recidivism. Right. So so the science is clear that there’s like no public safety rationale for any of this. The data is clear that this is getting to be a bigger and bigger problem as more and more people continue to serve longer and longer sentences that have been imposed over the past few decades. And at the same time, you have governors that have all kinds of power to pardon people. You have prison boards and Department of Corrections that can issue new policies are on compassionate release and make it easier for folks to get out after a certain age. So there are a whole host of solutions. It’s like an unwillingness and a lack of courage on the part of folks in power, on the part of governors, on the part of state legislators to actually operationalize what is clear. And that is that these folks shouldn’t be behind bars. They shouldn’t be incarcerated. They should be released immediately. They should be supported with their health care needs, with their needs as they age. But like incarceration is not an effective solution. It is incredibly costly. Like there’s no reason for us to continue down this path. It just takes courage on the part of governors, the part of legislators to put in place the types of policies that folks deserve.
De’Ara [00:30:53] We have some deep cultural work to do in this country. Because I think at the end of the day, this really comes down to dignity and how we treat people and how we treat the elderly in this country who are free, who are not incarcerated, is deplorable. And what happens to them and how underfunded so many Office of Aging are. And just our general consciousness and approach to how we respect and care for the elderly. Now being incarcerated? It’s probably the most vulnerable population. It is probably akin to being on death row because in a sense it is. If you get to a certain age and you’re still incarcerated and you still and you and you aren’t suffering from illnesses potentially. In the article that I that I covered, one of the women who was working in the factory, 70 years old and had a walker. What is she doing there? What is she doing there?
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DeRay [00:39:13] NPR has a new dope limited run podcast called “Louder than a Riot,” “Louder Than a Riot” reveals the interconnected rise of hip hop and mass encarceration from Bobby Shmurda to Nippsey Hustle.
DeRay [00:39:23] Each episode explores an artists story to examine a different aspect of the criminal justice system that disappointingly impacts black people. Here’s my conversation with the hosts Rodney Carmichael and Sidney Madden. Let’s go. Sydney and Rodney.
DeRay [00:39:36] Thanks so much for joining us today on Pod Save the People.
Sidney Madden [00:39:38] Thank you.
Rodney Carmichael [00:39:39] Thank you for having us, man. This is, this is something.
DeRay [00:39:42] Can you talk about the story of how you got to Louder Than a Riot? Like, what was the? You know, I’m always interested in how people like begin podcast. Like what leads you to this space? What was the story like for both of you?
Rodney Carmichael [00:39:54] I mean, I think the story first starts with us coming to NPR. You know, we we’ve both been journalists for years, myself you know, I work more so in the print space and obviously online at a alt-weekly for a lot of years. And I was really craving the ability to go somewhere where I could work in different media, different forms of journalism. And so just coming to NPR was the first step in saying, man, maybe I could get a podcast started one day. You know, I think that’s probably always the dream when somebody comes to NPR. So that’s that was the beginning of it. You know, we both started NPR in twenty seventeen, you know, better beginning of 2018. We we already had this idea and we’re proposing it internally. That’s pretty much what it was.
Sidney Madden [00:40:42] I mean, to speak more to the evolution of the idea, like Rodney said, we both came to NPR in twenty seventeen. I was already a fan of like Rodney’s pen and his brain before that. And I knew linking up with him that we would be able to create a piece of storytelling and investigative work that goes beyond just headlines, does the story behind the story and gives you larger socio political context to a lot of things that people like to write off about hip hop.
Sidney Madden [00:41:11] So that confluence of ideas between hip hop and mass incarceration really came from us seeing how a lot of cases, high-Profile cases were treated as breaking news or isolated incidents. But, you know, we know none of these things happen in a vacuum. And we know from covering hip hop for so long that at its core, one of its you’d like unofficial building blocks is using music for resistance and rebellion and resilience. So we wanted to really pull on that thread a lot more and create a through line narratively.
DeRay [00:41:44] Well, here we are. And now you’ve got a podcast.
Sidney Madden [00:41:46] Here we are.
DeRay [00:41:46] I was just on.
DeRay [00:41:49] I was just in Apple podcasts today. And you all are like one of the featured ones right [00:41:53]there. [0.0s]
Rodney Carmichael [00:41:55] Ok. Ok.
Rodney Carmichael [00:41:56] You gotta. You gottta. You got to rate a review, man. We need all the help we can get.
Sidney Madden [00:42:01] Right. We got to do all those plugs..
DeRay [00:42:05] I love it. So tell us, what is the goal of “Louder Than A Riot?” So you sort of started to talk about a Sydney, but. But what does this podcast add to the, the space of podcasts or the conversation about resistance, the conversation about artists like what’s the work you aim to do or that you do?
Sidney Madden [00:42:20] I think you put it great when you talked about the conversation of resistance and how artists play into that. And I always think about the quote from Toni Cade Bambara, who says, you know, “the function of the artist is to make revolution irresistible.” And I think that’s what Hip-Hop has always done, like in its bones from day one. It’s been the reporters and the political pundits and the sociologists out on the street and, you know, delivering you real, unfiltered talk in the lyrics. Even way before there were any like studies or research projects about these communities that are so underserved and that live under the guise of criminality and the prison industrial complex. Even when they don’t talk about it, the music gives them the outlet to talk about it. And so I think one of the main goals of this podcast is to give the culture the mic and let it tell its own stories, which we do all throughout the series when we profile rappers who’ve come in contact with the criminal justice system, whether it be their incarcerated or they’ve melded a lot of their career around marrying resistance and their art together. Stuff like that. So giving those artists the moment to speak their truth in the light and doing it on a platform that allows them to be whole people is important. I think, respectively, that will give us more ammo for cultural conversations about what Hip-Hop can do and like what Hip-Hop is capable of and where Hip-Hop can take the conversation. And hopefully those cultural conversations lead to cultural shifts. And I know we’re living in a time of great reckoning and a lot of wave making and stuff, but this is not a moment. This is like all part of a longstanding movement. And we just want to. Stamp the flag of where hip hop stands within all of it.
Rodney Carmichael [00:44:14] We just want to want to make this thing real for people. You know, I think we hear so much about mass incarceration all the time and you hear the numbers. So on so many million, this and so and so many million that. And I think in a lot of ways it just becomes a bunch of numbers and stats to people. You know, I think when we gonna sit out looking at this thing, you know, some things were gonna surprise us to us in a sense, you know, even though we’ve we cover hip hop. I mean, when you really think about the fact that rap as a as a recorded genre of music jumps off in 79, 80, and at the same time that, you know, that kind of like this, this modern era of mass incarceration jumps off in the early 80s on the heels of Reagan, Reagan’s drug war and the fact that, you know, they, they are kind of running these parallel courses over the last 40 years. You start to see how in some ways they are in a really weird, kind of twisted conversation with each other, you know, because like, like Sydney says, hip hop is constantly commenting about and critiquing, rapping and raging against the machine, so to speak.
Rodney Carmichael [00:45:31] But also, you know, a lot of a lot of the forces that are working on, you know, rap as a as it becomes a commodity and and that type of thing, you start to see elements reflected in the music and in the culture that in some ways seem to feed back into the prison system and are we being overpoliced and all this kind of stuff. So we just felt like, you know, now we’re at this point where where hip hop is is the most consumed genre.
Rodney Carmichael [00:46:00] And America, obviously, as you know, has the highest incarceration rate in the world. And these two phenomena have kind of naturally grown up with each other. And there’s plenty of cross connection.
Rodney Carmichael [00:46:15] Let’s like make this thing more real by using hip hop as the lens and not only the lens, but by looking at rappers who have been, you know, impacted. We know that criminal justice system disproportionately impacts black America and other communities of color. So let’s use them and tell their stories to make this thing and its impact more real and not just a bunch of numbers and stats.
DeRay [00:46:37] So we’re recording this at a time where you have a couple of episodes out right now, I’d love to know and I and I say this as somebody who has a podcast. I’d love to know what you learned in the process. What was surprising to you as you’ve gone through recording these and like hearing people talk about things like putting together narratives for your work? Have you learned things that you didn’t know? Like.
DeRay [00:46:57] What’s it been like?
Rodney Carmichael [00:46:58] Journalism and the role that media has played in all of this. It’s easy to point fingers outward, point fingers at the criminal justice system, point fingers at the music industry, and is complicity in some of this. But media has probably played the biggest role in terms of perpetuating certain stereotypes and feeding the fear and paranoia that, you know, America has had for so long about black people. I mean, straight up, you know, and I think one of the really important, crucial things and, you know, I think as black journalists, we already have an understanding of this. Right. But when you’re operating in it, because, you know, I’ve had other beats in journalism as well, but I’ve been doing the music thing for a long time. So getting back into a space where, you know, we were doing criminal justice type stuff and being able to see how in a lot of ways, you know, media is having this this reckoning right now, too, along with so many other spaces in the country right now. The preferential treatment, I think that media tends to show to the criminal justice system and to people in positions of authority and having to be conscious of that to make sure that we didn’t replicate those same errors, those same biases or whatever. You know, it was one thing to feel like you kind of had a theoretical understanding of it, but it was a whole nother thing to put it into practice and to be working along with other journalists. You know, we sometimes had to challenge it and say, hey, we’re not going to give more preferential treatment to what this prosecutor is saying than what this artist who she prosecuted, convicted is saying. You know, we want to honor both sides of the story. We don’t want to make concessions to one side and not, you know, make those kind of concessions to the other side. And so just being able to kind of actively write some of the wrongs that we’ve seen are kind of understood that are in journalism on the ground or in the process of it, I think was kind of an experience for me.
[00:49:03] Just to jump off that I’ll say in terms of getting the reporting done, it was a lot of unpacking truth that you thought or self evident about America, like we know foundations of policing in America have a lot to do with the evolution of the slave catcher. Right. And how blackness in America in the eyes of the law is oftentimes synonymous with criminality. And the darker you are, the more devious your motives. And then we know the stats and the superlatives of hip hop being the most consumed genre and the US incarcerating more people per population than any other country. Like, you know, those stats. You know those superlatives. But then when you breakdown of how things get this way, how how three times the amount of people who are incarcerated and currently in prison, physically behind bars are actually living their lives on parole and probation. And how long that shadow of law goes when you live your life on parole and probation and the pitfalls of that and a lot of the hoops you have to jump through and the loopholes you need to find just to live your daily life, getting into the nitty gritty of that was really eye opening. Learning about the history and the manifestation of things like RICO laws, which were originally conceived to round up high functioning crime families and mob losses. And now they’re being used primarily to categorize whole swaths of communities and prosecute them as if they’re all part of one street gang. And then also learning to let people have their own epiphanies as the reporting goes along and not trying to oversell them on the premise. It’s all been something that’s been a crash course in true crime recording and social justice in dissecting music in a way that even I haven’t done before, even as journalist, as a music journalist. So every case in every theme that we touch upon, it’s been a moment of learning.
DeRay [00:51:02] I love it. How did how do you think the pandemic will influence or has influenced the way musicians sort of make their music or think about their own society? And like I know that the pandemic at this point is so, so closely tied to the protests. But do you think that this will have an impact on the way music is made?
Sidney Madden [00:51:21] We’re still we’re still living through it. So it’s hard to tell, on the other side, how the music industry and how and how the art of performance will change. But I, one thing that I have encouraging is some artists are taking more time to use their influence and use their platform for sources of education and advocacy, going back to the Covid outbreak as it ties into mass incarceration. We’ve seen a lot of outbreaks and a lot of neglect in prisons all across the country. And when it comes to providing those people who are imprisoned with the correct materials to protect themselves from this from this virus, I’ve noticed more artists tapping in and using this time to learn and share what they learn. And sometimes it’s fodder for debate. Sometimes it’s ill executed. But I think opening up the stage to more conversation and more education is really important. And you’ve had people who’ve done that even before that pandemic. And I’m thinking of people like Noname who has Noname book club, who which really started because she didn’t know enough about a topic. So she was like, OK, let me go back in and read and study up on this. And like that level of humility is what informed her to create the book club. And again, it happened before the pandemic. But what I’ve seen during the pandemic is it’s been a real unifier and a real source of solace and education. I think that’s one of the best examples of how an artist has changed their function and their practices during this motions, vaguely all of this.
DeRay [00:52:58] What are some of the stories that we can expect from from the two of you over the run of the podcast?
Rodney Carmichael [00:53:03] You know, it’s a narrative podcast.
Rodney Carmichael [00:53:05] And so once we get past this first episode where we’re really kind of setting the course and diving into, you know, this 40 year history from the early 80s to now, we start telling very specific individual stories. We start with former No Limit artist, Mac Phipps, who has been incarcerated for 20 years now. You know, for a murder that a lot of people, including himself, obviously say he did not commit. His case is oddly enough, very similar to C-Murder, Master P’s brother. They’re both nightclub shootings that happened, there, and they’re both cases in which, you know, there have been witnesses who recanted testimony and just very similar, you know, in terms of how it happened. Both happened in Louisiana. And so, yeah, we tell his story over the course of three episodes. And his story is really about the phenomenon of lyrics being used in trial which is a really shockingly like common thing that happens nowadays.
Rodney Carmichael [00:54:16] You know, we talk to Eric Nielsen, who is one of the coauthors of “Book Rap on Trial,” where they really document how big of a tool this has become for prosecutors in the and to prosecute folks. And the thing is, they’re not just going after celebrity rappers. They’re using this tactic against regular, you know, Joe Schmo or whomever, the homeboy next door who, you know, writes lyrics in his in his notebook. You know, throws lyrics on on his IG page or whatever, they’re using that kind of stuff to prosecute. You know, hip hop is the only genre that is treated like this where whereas in a court of law, they say your lyrics are factual and can be used to determine your state of mind and your personality and your intent and motive and all of this kind of stuff.
Rodney Carmichael [00:55:09] So we spent three episodes on that. We read to the DJ D Gangsta Grillz raid that happened in 2007.
Rodney Carmichael [00:55:18] And we got I think we retell it in a way that that it has not been told before because we really focus on how that mixtape raid was really one of many examples of how our culture, not just in terms of Hip-Hop, but black folks in America from from jump, especially over the last 100, 120 years or so, our culture has been criminalized. You know, it happened in the jazz era. It happened in the blues era. In the Hip-Hop era. This crack down on mix tapes is is one of the ways in which it was a criminalizing of the culture.
Sidney Madden [00:55:57] Similarly to Mac Phipps, who is someone who starts off our series, we do a deep dove into the case of Bobby Shmurda, and he was of viral fame in 2014. And then it was all taken away from him when he was caught up in a RICO charge that, you know, had him at the top of the billboard charts in July and behind bars by December. And similar to what Rodney said about the cases of Mac Phipps and DJ Drama. This is a retelling of this story in it and reporting on the story that’s never been heard before because it pulls out the tendrils of the potency of authenticity in rap and like how far you go to show authenticity, music industry complicity and, and what people are willing to buy into and then what people are willing to dispose of and neglect when it’s not convenient for them anymore monetarily. And then we get into the legal issue of using RICO laws against whole swaths of young black and brown men. And what happened to Bobby and his crew, GS9 is not an isolated incident. It’s something that’s happened all over the country. And it’s a tactic to get one of those like big wins, like one of those huge, like, raid type of make-the-news moments. We do an aside there and we show you how it’s happened in other communities like the Bronx 120 and things like that. We tell you the story of Nipsy Hussle. But again, not the story you think you’re going to hear. It’s the story behind the story and more so of his musical legacy juxtaposed with his own community activism and how that is and what’s left behind once he is gone. And we tell that through the story of someone who is shot right next to him the day that he passed away and the strife that that person has undergone in enduring the fallout of what’s happened. We tell this story. We have a special report from one of our editors Shakita Pascal, who goes to Philly and shadows the Philly rapper and activist Isis Tha Saviour, who draws from her own experiences in prison and her own inhumane treatment to inform her art and to spread more awareness about prison conditions, especially grotesque prison conditions for women. We do all of these deep dives and all of these kind of, you know, proof is in the pudding of how these two things connect and intersect and intermingle and and push back with each other. And then we bring you up to present day and this moment that we’re all living through and talking about what are the realities of reform? What are the limits of reforming the prison industrial complex? And we tap in with some thought leaders and artists who talk about the possibility and the implementation of things like abolishing the prison industrial complex and where will we go from there? And what would hip hop’s role in that be? And then what would hip hop be if there wasn’t this like intrinsic oppressor, like, you know, law and order, like the criminal justice system weighing down on black and brown communities. And every step of the way you’re going to see that hip hop is really a microcosm for black America. So it’s going to show you a specific case that has to do with a rapper. A specific example that has to do within the culture and then show you, you know, the broader picture. The zoom out moment, the larger socio economic umbrella where this is all happening and how it’s all playing out and what black America at large is feeling about it.
DeRay [00:59:26] Well, there we go. This sounds like.
Sidney Madden [00:59:28] It’s a lot, it’s a lot.
DeRay [00:59:29] But a lot. Sometimes a lot is good, you know.
DeRay [00:59:31] And sometimes, one of the pieces of advice that one of my teachers gave me one day. She was like, DeRay sometimes more is just more. I was like, OK. But sometimes more is actually better. So this is one where I think that more is actually better.
Sidney Madden [00:59:47] The premise of this show can be a very overwhelming thing. It can be a very sprawling topic. But we show you narratively how this plays out in people’s lives over and over in all different parts of the country and all different areas of hip hop and all different decades. To break it down and make it maliable, digestible and conversational.
DeRay [01:00:07] What’s a piece of advice that you’ve gotten over the years that stuck with you?
Sidney Madden [01:00:10] The piece of advice is coming to the top of my mind, which I guess means it’s stuck with me is one from my high school teacher, to know there. You got to go there.
DeRay [01:00:20] Ok, ok
Sidney Madden [01:00:20] Don’t think you can read about a whole community and have their creative license to make a commentary about it.
Sidney Madden [01:00:28] It’s like you now live in it, you know, and I think that translates a lot to hip hop, too, because it’s like you can’t just talk about it. You got to be about it. You know, I feel like I’ve let that guide me into a lot of spaces with humility that allows me to learn. And, you know, like we’re we’re journalese, we’re storytellers. We like talking to people. We like giving people their moment to tell their story. So not being afraid to just step outside of your comfort zone and try to learn things from experience and not just like living in the comforts and the corners of removed academia.
Sidney Madden [01:01:05] Sometimes.
Rodney Carmichael [01:01:06] I’m thinking about I’m thinking about our early editor that I had one of my earlier publications.
Rodney Carmichael [01:01:12] I remember her stressing that is it’s always important to, in terms of our writing and what not, to write for where you want to see yourself in the future.
Rodney Carmichael [01:01:24] You know, like this publication might be a pitstop, but make sure that the level of work that you’re doing matches the level that you’re trying to get to. So, yeah, it’s not super poetic or anything like that. But I just remember being surprised because, you know, here she was, my editor at this publication. And in a sense, she was telling me, don’t get stuck here, don’t get stuck into the bag of, you know, what we do here. Make sure that journalistically and ethically and everything else that you’re holding yourself to a higher standard than the standard that’s gonna get you higher. You know what I’m saying? So I thought that was really, really important because, you know, we get in these jobs and you feel like, OK, you get there and it’s like, OK, let me feed this animal the way it eats. But but, you know, she was saying, you got to have your own stand. And and that’s that’s what’s going to get you where you’re trying to go.
DeRay [01:02:22] What do you say to people who are like, OK, I’ve done it? I protested, called, e mailed, I listened to the pod. I did all the things. And the world has not changed in the way that I wanted it to. People whose hope is being challenged at moments like this. What do you say to those people?
Rodney Carmichael [01:02:37] I mean, that’s a good question. I kind of feel like I’m probably there. You know, the whole cynical thing is like that’s kind of my wheelhouse now, not just because I’m a journalist, but also because of my age. You know? I feel like I’ve seen been on planet a little bit long enough to see the cyclical nature of things and the fact that just because we, we’re seeing it happen in a new way. Like, you know, now we got video or whatever we think is a new thing or a new phenomenon. And it’s just the same thing that’s been going on for forever and a day. I think that exposure and truth telling are just the best tools, man, the best tools for challenging the systemic ills and just the way things are. You know, when the status quo has always been shining a light. And so in that way, I’m not cynical. I mean, I feel like if I got to be on this earth and, you know, this is not just speaking to me, but speaking to whoever might feel like me a lot of time we got to be on this earth. We got to be doing something. Why not be shown in a light on the B.S.? You know what I mean? Because the thing is like the B.S. likes the dark. You know what I’m saying? The, the B.S. flourishes in the dark. All the you know, the systemic inequality and the structural racism and all of that stuff. It operates best when it’s hidden, you know, and we say things like, man, the system is broken. Only to realize, wow actually, the system is working exactly the way it was created to work when we start really digging into it and understanding things. You know, that’s , that’s I think, the thing about this podcast is also one of the things is we all have a sense. You know, we black people in America, we all have a sense that stuff is unequal in this country. And we got an understanding that it was unequal our parents and our grandparents, before them and on and on. It is, you know, unequal for us. And, you know, probably will continue to be on a lot of levels. But when you can actually start pinpointing things like Sidney talking about the RICO laws on this level or, you know, using lyrics on trial, but they don’t do that with any other genre. You know, the power of the prosecutor and plea deals in this country. And, you know, 97 percent of criminal cases go into plea deal instead of, you know, these people geting, you know, fair trials and you start to see the inner workings of the system. You know, it becomes eye opening. And it really becomes, I feel like easier to take a slice at a time and figure out, OK, how can we attack this? Or at least the knowledge, like just the knowledge of understanding. Because, you know, we all grew up hearing and maybe even being that person at times that just talk about the system broadly, you know, like the “man,” the system is against us.
Rodney Carmichael [01:05:37] But, you know, when you can start to pinpoint the inequities within the system specifically, I think it just makes a huge difference and it makes you listen and it makes you feel like, you know, what the fight is about.
Sidney Madden [01:05:51] And I mean, that’s exactly what Hip-Hop does. Like hip hop has always held up the mirror to America’s ills and to the the things that the news doesn’t want to show you about a lot of, you know, racial inequality, racial inequity in this country. And it delivers it in a package that’s, you know, unfiltered and also, like, inescapably cool.
Sidney Madden [01:06:16] You know. The thing that we’re trying to draw out with this show is these big systemic ills are not something that it’s so overwhelming you should just look away and just like trying to do, you just try to make it through the days like, no. The things that are helping you make it through the day are actually contextualizing and pushing back on those big ills that you think are bigger than you. Like we went from Rhyming In the Park to like not being on MTV to fast forward things like Triller and Tik Toc and Rap Caviare dictating billboard charts and multi-million dollar sponsorship deals and Super Bowl commercials and, you know, stuff like that. The curator of the culture have so much power, and I think it’s about empowering listeners on an individual level. Like, I hope that this show that we’re putting together and that we’re giving to people gives people more language to talk about things that are rapped above and not really talked about to talk about things like policy changes in state to state when it comes to no knock warrants or body cams or jurisdictions of raids, stuff like that. I hope it gives you more of a language and more of a lexicon that you feel is made for you, because it is like there’s so much power in just like bombarding someone to they can’t take it anymore to where they want to tune out. And this is really giving you the building blocks and setting the path where it’s like, no, this is actually still for you, like this is a conversation you are worthy of having. And this is a conversation that needs your voice in it. And this is just going to help someone approach subjects like mass incarceration, racial inequity in it in a way that feels natural to them, you know. And I love what you said, Rodney, about the bullshit being able to fester and grow in the dark. But it’s because, like, that’s where it doesn’t have to answer for itself. Right? That’s where it doesn’t have to form the words that proves how how racist and prejudice it is. You know, that’s when it doesn’t have to put its shoes on and do the real work of working through its own proclivities. And I think Hip-Hop has always been like, nah, we’re like blowing the roof off of this. We’re like pushing the veil, putting up the mirror. And, you know, we’re going to, like, scratch on those little grime marks because that’s how we’re all that’s how we’re going to get better.
DeRay [01:08:44] Cool. We can city our friends of the pod. Can’t wait to have you back. And I can’t wait. I’m particularly interested in the Bobby Shmurda episode.
Rodney Carmichael [01:08:51] Alright.
Sidney Madden [01:08:52] Oh, it’s going to be.
DeRay [01:08:52] I’m interested in the Nippsey episode so. So thanks for telling telling stories like this. You know, I do think about I think that there are so many stories that we have not figured out how to tell well, I think that people have so many questions. And I’m excited that you are filling. Filling a hole here.
Sidney Madden [01:09:10] Thank you so much.
Rodney Carmichael [01:09:12] Thank you, DeRay we appreciate you having us , man.
DeRay [01:09:17] Well, that’s it. Thanks so much for tuning in to Pod Save the People this week. Tell your friends to check it out. Make sure you rate it wherever you get your podcasts, whether it’s Apple podcasts or somewhere else. And we’ll see you next week. Pod Save the People is a production of Crooked Media. It’s produced by Brock Wilbur and mixed by Bill Lancz, our executive producers Jessica Cordova Kramer and myself. Special thanks to our weekly contributors, Kaya Henderson, De’Ara Balenger, and Sam Sinyangwe, and our special contributor Johnetta Elzie.