Why I Think I’m Done Making Hard to Swallow Pills About Racism
A friend once told me that “sarcasm is always anger — always.” I don’t know that I agree about the doubly-emphasized always or that, even if its true, that anger is always a bad thing. But I will confess, three years ago, I started a project out of anger that took off in a way I never expected: Hope & Hard Pills.
I’d been writing about racial justice for several years and was exhausted with the amount of white opposition I’d confronted at the time.
The exhaustion wasn’t so much about the quantity of negative comments, but about the repetition of the same tired, nonsense rebuttals to my work. I used to tell my friends that white people really only had about six arguments against racial justice, but they all think they’re the first to come up with them.
So my frustration with white nonsense wasn’t so much one of shock that some people could ever say something so offensive, but more the type of frustration that comes from hearing someone listen to a sugary pop song on a loop all day.
I was annoyed with white strangers, but I was angry at the white people I once actually called friends and family. Their racist behavior toward me in the early days of my work played in my mind often, making me deeply resentful.
In the winter of 2018, I saw the already popular Hard to Swallow Pills meme as a medium where I could make fun of the overused white nonsense talking points I encountered nearly every day, and exorcise the anger I felt toward the white friends I couldn’t keep.
Three years, and thousands of subscribers later, I‘m feeling a shift. I don’t want to prioritize making hard-to-swallow pills about racism for three reasons.
1. To Decenter Whiteness.
I’ve been thinking about moving away from hard pills for well over a year, but I can pinpoint the watershed moment to a single conversation earlier this year.
I was preparing to release what would become my most popular streaming song to date, Red & Remix (feat. Propaganda), which tells the story of an instance my friends and I were profiled by the police. To boost the new release with the Spotify algorithm, I asked my people to stream the original version of the song.
One of my listeners, a Black woman, told me she would definitely stream the original version to help with the release of the remix, but that it was hard for her to listen to songs with tough subject matter.
Up to that point, Red & Blue represented a serious accomplishment: that I’d finally gotten the hang of writing conscious music that blended my hip-hop, soul, and reggae influences into a bounce that made you want to bop to it. But I hadn’t considered that Black people are tired of seeing and hearing about ourselves in pain.
Even Prop told me he felt triggered writing his verse for the remix.
Even I don’t want to listen to Red & Blue, especially not while I’m driving.
As I’ve reflected on my work this year, I understand why it took on the form it has these past years. I grew up in Stone Mountain, Georgia, where the legacy of the Confederacy is as prevalent as the denial of that reality. By the time I started speaking up about racism, I’d already formed deep ties with racism-denying white people, and felt the need to prove — in a sense — that systemic racism is real. My way of trying to prove my experience in this anti-Black world was by displaying the grief of Black people, especially my own. I even went as far as lugging around a 100-pound boulder with me for several months to demonstrate this to them.
But a couple of years into attending to the grief of Black America, I learned to stop watching those viral videos of police killings. I stopped watching slave narratives in films. I learned that too much immersion in Black pain — having it constantly reflected back to us — isn’t good for our mental health.
I used to summarize my work by saying “I am here to convey the grief of Black people.” And this year, I’ve had to reckon with the question of the audience:
To whom have I been conveying this grief?
Who has had need of these displays?
And the people for whom such displays may be useful (I say may because I doubt the efficacy of this approach more as time goes on), are not the people I find myself in relationship with anymore. I’m not in relationship with racism deniers anymore, nor do I want to be, and making content addressing them will attract them, all while not serving the people I’m actually in relationship with.
It’s been almost eight years since I started speaking up about racial justice. At this point, on the other side of the public execution of George Floyd and a global uprising for Black Lives, I feel the case has been made for the existence of systemic racism and the legitimacy of Black rage about it.
It’s no longer my priority to break through the denial and numbness that characterizes the white world’s posture towards these realities. I once thought of their refusal to concede the problem and repent as benign ignorance. I now see it as gaslighting. Arguing with a gaslighter is pointless.
As I reflect, at the end of this year, I can see that my public work has not evolved with my personal sense of mission. It’s time to bring the two back into congruence.
I want to stop making hard pills to swallow for non-Black people and start making pain medicine, and hope pills, for my people.
2. To Make My “Activism“ Sustainable
I’ll be quicker on this point.
First, let me say I’m encouraged by the many hard-working activists making brilliant social justice content online.
I’m exhausted with woke social media. I’m not saying it should stop. But the other morning, I opened my phone and my first email was a story from The Atlantic about fascism. Then I opened Twitter and the first tweet I saw was about climate disaster.
Anyone who has followed my work for a while knows that I’m deeply concerned about the trend of democratic backsliding in the world, especially America. I also suffer from — at times paralyzing — climate grief.
At the same time, I can’t even wrap my brain around all the outrageous news happening around the world and champion every cause someone drops into my inbox.
The non-stop attention to what’s fucked up in this world is evoking the kinds of cognitions — despair, powerlessness, etc. — that make it hard for anyone to take action. And I know I’m not the only one.
I don’t want to be just another social media account telling you what to be mad about or who to be mad at today. I want to become that spot online that you stop scrolling for because you know you’ll feel empowered, hopeful, or at least smiling.
In a world like ours at times like this, making people smile seems like activism to me. And even it isn’t “activism,” I don’t give a shit. I can’t live in a constant state of activation.
To this point: I have seen, firsthand, on the streets, just how much movement work implodes because the people doing the work aren’t well inside.
Vibes matter. Feelings matter. Our mental state matters. That’s my terrain for now.
3. Everyone has a role to play: mine is the artist
Years ago, a music professional asked a group of us musicians what need our music meets for our listeners.
I couldn’t answer the question back then.
But I’ve spent the past year asking that question of other artists I admire — artists like me who care about Black freedom, like Chronixx, Protoje, and Bob Marley. And what I see in the tradition of reggae music, the musical tradition passed to me from my father, is not just impassioned preachers, but musicians giving good vibes to people living under Babylon’s domination.
When Marley sings “One good thing about music, when it hits you feel no pain,” it hits different if you understand the social conditions of his target audience.
For the past several years, I’ve tried to serve people by giving them the information I’ve gleaned about nonviolent struggle. I don’t plan to ever stop doing that. It does give me hope and joy to learn about ordinary people picking fights with Babylon for freedom and winning. I’ll never stop telling those stories.
But I’ve also found a way that I can show up for people like me: deep-feeling people who care about the world and others and want to see it better.
I was once told that our life’s purpose is where our deep passion meets the world’s deep need. And searching for that intersection led me to start Hope & Hard Pills: my passion for social change, meeting the world’s deep need for insight into social change.
But the Black women in my life — namely, adrienne maree brown, Austin Channing Brown, Tina Strawn, Monique Melton, and others — have taught me that your deep joy must also be at that intersection.
My deep joy is music. And while it’s always been a part of what I’ve been doing, I’ve realized that there are depths yet to be explored.
So What Does All This Mean?
I’m realizing as I wrap this up that there’s no way to convey the depth of all I’m feeling and processing in one blog post and I’m not going to write a series. It feels like I have two more books in me.
I’m not going to stop writing and speaking and singing about nonviolent struggle and social change.
However, I am going to be leaning more into creating more thoughtful, positive, musical content that centers Black wellness, mental health, and experience alongside practical insight for social change.
This will probably mean less emails and possibly a name change to my email list. I’m playing around with one I may roll out soon.
But the quality of the work and my commitment to empower, inspire, and educate remain the same.
I remain committed to a robust understanding of hope that looks hard truth in the face and is inseparable from social action. But I don’t want to be known for dropping truth bombs on non-Black people. I want to make pain medicine.
A new world is possible.
It doesn’t have to be this way.