Awhile back, we asked rapper and L.A. Weekly contributor James “Nocando” McCall if he could give us his take on the continued police killings of unarmed black people, as well as the Black Lives Matter movement that has arisen to protest them. Instead of an essay on the subject, Nocando decided to write a song. And it's a monster.
On “El Camino,” the rapper raises a lot of tough questions and doesn't settle for easy answers, placing police brutality in the context of a whole host of issues that continue to plague his community: economic stagnation, alcohol and drug abuse, PTSD, mass incarceration. Along the way, he touches on everything from O.J. Simpson and the '92 riots to Black Lives Matter and Macklemore's “White Privilege II.”
In a brief statement on SoundCloud, Nocando explained some of the inspiration behind the track:
It was also inspired by the riots that ruined my city when I was a child. It was inspired by my unexplainable ambivalence toward the black lives matter hashtag. Colin Kaepernick's sweet gesture, the growing pains of a people that realize that the authority isn't the authority because of a superior moral or intelligence but because of power. It's inspired by me and my friends, people who think like me.
We wanted to learn more, so we emailed him a few questions about it. Here are his responses (lightly edited for clarity):
You said the track is inspired by the book The Wretched of the Earth. For those not familiar, can you explain what that book is about?
It's a book written by a French born Algerian psychologist who had to treat French and Algerian soldiers in a conflict for Algeria's independence and colonization. The book justified violence for the oppressed people against the oppressor for the sake of their freedom, sanity and identity of the oppressed. It was a really hard read for me because I was so young when I read it and because you could tell that it was really hard times for the French and Algerian soldiers he referenced, as well as for Fanon himself. He was really conflicted and forced to make an ideological stand.
Who worked on the track with you, or is it self-produced?
I wrote the words and melody. The instrumental was produced by Jack Jr. One of the producers in my small production team.
How long did it take to write and record?
It took two sessions. Technically three. One night Jack Jr. made the beat in England. He sent it to me. I freestyled the reference/demo with cadence, structure and a few lines on a Friday night along with three other songs. Then I went in next Friday and finished it.
Where did the image of the El Camino come from?
The actual photo of the artwork is an el Camino in a yard on Vermont off of Gage in South Central. I've always loved El Caminos. That's such a classic hood car, man. An El Co on IROC rims!
The importance of it in my story is I always felt that we had to settle rather than get what we want. We settle for a system that doesn't care to rehabilitate and work with convicts, 'cause we think it's impractical. We settle for not overtly racist cops that shoot people out of fear, versus the old-school ones that just hated blacks, because we think it's impractical to have ones that give a fuck about people and are brave enough to de-escalate situations without killing people.
My shit is a little petty though. I thought because I was a teen dad, it was impractical to have that two-seater car, 'cause I needed four seats!
The line in the chorus: “That time you looked me in my eyes and lied to me, told me our dreams would come to true.” Is that addressed to someone in your past, or the “American Dream,” or a little of both?
I mean the American Dream. But if we'd like to be totally honest, it's kind of about a lot of people I put faith in to carry out their end of a bargain on a mutual future in my early 20s. My ex-lover, my ex-business partners, my ex-employer. When starting an endeavor of any sort, some people may say or imply that they've got your best interest at heart, but may be just looking out for their best interest. Keeping you satisfied just enough with gestures and little things while you're working to build their dream, with no real opportunity or growth or security for yourself or yours.
I've learned that I like relationships that promote growth of individuals to the most able and powerful, healthy, happy versions of themselves. I think that's how our government and schools and institutions should work as well, but sadly that's not the case.
There are a lot of hard-hitting lyrics in the song but “Black Lives Matter is just a popular phrase” might hit the hardest. Are you worried about any backlash or criticism for your admitted “unexplainable ambivalence” towards that movement?
No, because I know what I feel or do not feel is valid. I know my life matters, so why argue it or yell it. The people who hashtag that shit and yell it and wear the T-shirts can say it. Let them do that.
The track references the '92 riots and says “I don't want to protest and picket/I seen more change when the city's in flames.” Do you think there's anything we can learn from the '92 riots and apply to the present situation?
The riots did a good thing and some very bad things. The black community was a kid who was getting picked on and the cops where the bullies. The community flipped and the cops had to change how they dealt with people. There are still dick cops and bullies, but they know that if they take it too far or don't cover their asses that there are repercussions.
I think the worst things it did was: Fuck up race relations with Blacks and Koreans. Lower property value for homeowners. Get Republicans all up in arms about Latinos, 'cause they seen all them out here looting and burning shit on live TV alongside blacks.
Bro, the goddamn Boston Tea Party was fools burning shit down and looting tea, just 'cause of identity and independence — and 'cause British tea was cheaper. Riots are more American than basketball and Fox News. People say you're burning down your own community, you're stupid, blah blah blah. I think feeling powerful and effective and independent and free is more important for an individual than having a fucking Walmart in the hood.
“I bought a white Bronco because O.J. was my hero.” Are you speaking as a character in the track at that point or did you really look up to O.J.?
I was watching that shit in class when i should've been learning math. Nah but for real, I really bought a white Bronco (but I think Imma sell it soon). He's a hero like Deadpool or Punisher is a hero in the comics. I think that was the first time I seen a black man not get railroaded. Like it was an awakening. I know dudes who served two times what they would've if they were white. I know guys who spent more than a year in county jail fighting a case and were not guilty then got the case dropped and they just got let outta jail like “my bad” for wasting a chunk of your life. I've been drawn down on by cops for nothing before.
So in a way he is a hero, because watching that was when I got it. Like the only way for me to ever be treated fairly by the law is to make enough money to pay for the best lawyers I can get when I'm ever staring at the business end of the law.
For the record, do you have any beef with Macklemore, or were you just using “White Privilege II” as a particularly ironic example of racial inequality? (“Oh, I get it — white privilege is when people listen to your opinions for like nine minutes.”)
No, my beef isn't with Macklemore. I actually edged him out in a battle in Seattle back in the day. I respect anyone who can come from the same world that I come from and fought his or her way to that kind of success. I just thought it was funny that some people need a white translator to explain the idea of white privilege. I'm laughing right now thinking about it.
What do you see as the best possible outcome for this present moment of race relations in America? Is there any reason to be hopeful? Or do you fear that tensions between police and black communities aren't going to change — or will get worse?
The best possible outcome is everyone just being real. Black communities being real about our social issues. America being real about creating and perpetuating the majority of those issues for capitalistic reasons. And when it gets down to the nitty gritty, cops being real and pleading guilty and saying something like, “I was scared 'cause he was black and bigger than me and maybe subconsciously if not consciously I think that black men are unpredictable and have secret magic nigger strength and I took it too far.” That probably won't happen.
Things will change from the tension. It may not be the absolute positive change we're looking for, but if the police know that if they mistreat us and get caught that all hell will break loose, whether they are racist or not, they will think twice. If the government knows that if the guilty parties are not dealt with like the criminals they are that all hell will break loose, they may think twice before they let these scared little piggies walk free for killing men unjustly. Or not. I'm not really sure.
But for real, I made a song in a moment that was a primal yell from feelings of powerlessness and being misunderstood. I don't really have any real answers. I just know if I didn't get that shit off my chest, it would eat me up.