The Roots, “False Media”

False Media (lyrics from songmeanings.net; song available here)
The Roots

America’s lost somewhere inside of Littleton
Eleven million children are on Ritalin
That’s why I don’t rhyme for the sake of riddlin’
False media: we don’t need it, do we?
Pilgrims slaves Indian Mexican
It looks real fucked-up for your next of kin
That’s why I don’t rhyme for the sake of riddlin’
False media

If I can’t work to make it, I’ll rob and take it
Either that or me and my children are starving and naked
Rather be a criminal pro
Than to follow the matrix
Hey, it’s me.. a monster y’all done created
I’ve been inaugurated
Keep the bright lights out of our faces
You can’t shake it
It ain’t no way to swallow the hatred
Aim.. fire… holla ’bout a dollar
Nothin’ is sacred
We gon’ pimp the shit out of nature
Send our troops to get my paper
Tell ’em stay away from them skyscrapers
Ain’t long ‘fore you get y’all acres
I’ma show ’em who’s the global gangster
Sentence me to four more years, thank ya
I’ma make you feel a little bit safer
Because it ain’t over
See that’s how we get your fear to control you
But ain’t nobody under more control than a soldier
And how could you expect a kid to keep his composure
When all sorts of thoughts fought for exposure again?

America’s lost somewhere inside of Littleton
Eleven million children are on Ritalin
That’s why I don’t rhyme for the sake of riddlin’
False media, we don’t need it, do we?
Pilgrims slaves Indian Mexican
It looks real fucked-up for your next of kin
That’s why I don’t rhyme for the sake of riddlin’
False media: we don’t need it, do we? (repeats several times in different ways)

Comment:

It’s been a while since I’ve listened closely to any hip-hop or rap, and The Roots are exceptionally literate – “Game Theory” (the song) is over my head currently, I’m not sure who the speakers in that song are addressing at what moment and why. “False Media” is the first song on the album Game Theory and I think accessible enough (“I don’t rhyme for the sake of riddlin”): our interest is the view of politics and media espoused.

The most notable line is before the song even begins in earnest: “I don’t think old men ought to provoke wars for young men to fight.” There’s a litany of Leftist complaints within the main body of lyrics: poverty and opportunity (“me and my children are starving and naked”), conformity at the expense of identity (“to follow the matrix”), power that isn’t accountable (“I’ve been inaugurated… lights”), hate (“It ain’t no way to swallow the hatred”), environmentalism (“We gon’ pimp the shit out of nature”), greed (“Send our troops to get my paper”), imperialism (“I’ma show ’em who’s the global gangster”), jingoism (“Tell ’em stay away from them skyscrapers”), the injustice of justice as a system (“Sentence me to four more years, thank ya”). The complaints – some of which are far more serious than many things in our political discourse currently, and yet still not taken seriously despite a host of radical academics and NPR and all sorts of crap meant to make us go on guilt trips – end with these lines:

See that’s how we get your fear to control you
But ain’t nobody under more control than a soldier
And how could you expect a kid to keep his composure
When all sorts of thoughts fought for exposure again?

The build-up to the full import of these lines begins with all of us being “lost inside of Littleton.” That “we” in the first refrain definitely contains the “I” who rhymes: the implication is that we don’t need false media because we can assume unity. There are other radical thinkers who do not think minorities can assume themselves to be an accepted part of something; the tragedy here is that there is a basis for hope – note “Pilgrims” in the list of the (in their case, once) persecuted – and that basis has been eclipsed by “false media.”

So what is false media about? “If I can’t work, I’ll rob and take it” – this might as well have been from the movie “I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang,” based on a true story. “Starving and naked” recalls the many images of African children in poverty that are inescapable. “Matrix” moves us entirely into a movie setting; the monster that can’t stand light sounds like Frankenstein – we don’t see individuals anymore, we piece them together from media, from information about them lying about in the world. This creates something strange: the lyrics move from “I/me/my” as an actor to “I/our/you:” we’re all pieced together from media, everyone’s responsible for this mess, including our speaker (“I’ve been inaugurated”). We note that our speaker, before his “inauguration,” declared himself willing to rob to feed himself and his children (note that he doesn’t say “family”), and that descended into “be[ing] a criminal pro” for the sake of being an individual: power is the only way we understand survival or freedom or even ourselves.

How does power involve false media? We have to read a bit into this:

Keep the bright lights out of our faces
You can’t shake it
It ain’t no way to swallow the hatred
Aim.. fire… holla ’bout a dollar
Nothin’ is sacred

The monster – an actual construction from information – can’t handle truth. The power is ours: we create illusions and mask our own prejudices. We use the fact we have to survive – that we would do anything to survive – to justify what we would otherwise call hate. The trick is to recognize that this is a passive form of hate: yeah, most people aren’t skinheads. But does one need to be a skinhead to not care that the people next door are tearing each other to shreds? “Nothin’ is sacred,” but our speaker is more balanced than I am: “you can’t shake it:” this might be a necessity of political life.

Still. The next movement is to “we/our/my,” with “my paper” being the end. The implicit hate drives a search for comfort in the world, for identity raises some thorny questions. Again, who’s to blame? You can try and read this as a simple indictment of the Bush administration, but it doesn’t work: the speaker calls himself the “global gangster,” and makes it clear this is happening because all of us have a problematic conception to begin with. We think crime is divorced from us and try not to think of it at all except in cliched, trite ways – i.e. “prisons should be horrible so people want to stay out of them.” This is a hugely problematic attitude for a people who claim to be self-governing: you can’t just set prison budgets to zero and not look at the bills and the paperwork: if we were truly a democracy, every single person would know what goes on in a prison and hold themselves accountable for what went on in there. We would all be caretakers of justice, because that’s implicit in creating a government from the words “We the People.” “False media” – again – allows us to cut ourselves into parts and divorce ourselves from who we proclaim ourselves to be. There’s violence inherent in false media. To go back to the lines that matter most:

See that’s how we get your fear to control you
But ain’t nobody under more control than a soldier
And how could you expect a kid to keep his composure
When all sorts of thoughts fought for exposure again?

We’re finally in a position to see what this fully means: “it ain’t over” spoken from the mouth of the sentenced prefaces it, and what’s curious is that it’s not a threat. It’s an explanation and a genuine question. The speaker says he figured out fear, but someone else is in the position of being not only more in control, but completely out-of-control of his own life – the soldier. How does one know false media is false? Just look at how a soldier could make no sense: he’s a kid, and yet he’s fully composed. But what about “all sorts of thoughts” within fighting for their exposure? What about simply growing up and being independent?

2 Comments

  1. Wow, nice breakdown and analysis of the lyrics. I have always been a fan of The Roots, but sadly I don’t have any of their albums. Shame on me right?

    I think they have a new album coming out or already out. I might just have to check it out!

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