The nightmare of black life in the United States, particularly how police can kill black people and get away with murder, is vividly presented on this song in the form of a “Twilight Zone” episode.
With sirens and sound motifs from the classic television show, Killer Mike and El-P open the track with an introduction from creator Rod Serling. It is the introduction from “The Obsolete Man.”
“You walk into this room at your own risk, because it leads to the future, not a future that will be but one that might be. This is not a new world, it is simply an extension of what began in the old one,” Serling states.
It is a perfect setup for Killer Mike, who launches into a verse about a crowd from the neighborhood that has gathered in anger. Another one of their youth was robbed of his future. But they live in a community that authorities treat as disposable. There will be riots and looting tonight because the community will not stand for this anymore.
El-P follows with a conversation with a ghost. The spirit represents the legacy of slavery. The person talking to the ghost feels the chains falling off. “Fear’s been law for so long that rage feels like therapy,” and tonight, “Nobody gets no more sleep till we teach them remembering.”
Clearly inspired by the uprising in Ferguson, Missouri, El-P returns to the scene, where a young black man’s life was robbed from him. The community is crying. There is pain. Police gather. Then, the thousands of black people, who police kill each year, rise. Their spirits freeze an army of riot police, making them shudder. The souls of the dead empower to defy police and rebel.
Killer Mike comes in with a verse about the moment when any protest went from nonviolent to much more militant resistance. It contains the most explicit nod to Ferguson, as CNN’s Don Lemon is blasted for talking about smelling weed in the air. He is the avatar for all media personalities, who cover events like this, and ignore the systemic racism and economic injustice that fuels these moments.
Whether the spirits of those taken from the community are truly walking among the people in the song or not, it does not matter. What Killer Mike and El-P present is a moral lesson about what society can expect from communities where authorities are allowed to get away with taking lives because those lives do not matter to officials in power.
Lead singer of TV On The Radio, Tunde Adebimpe, appears on the track, repeating, “What have you done?” and later saying, “What are you making us do?”
Just like a “Twilight Zone” episode, a moral lesson comes at the end. But it does not come from Sterling. It comes from civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air. Certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard.”
During an interview for Billboard, El-P called “Thieves” “one of the hardest songs” the duo has ever pulled off.
“It was a time that we had to really push ourselves to create a narrative together, in an intertwining way that was about something really heavy, that honored not only our perspectives but also honored the weight of the topic. We worked really fucking hard on nailing that, so that we could walk away from that being like, ‘We feel good about putting this out there.’ Because we knew had something potentially special there.”
Run the Jewels prefers not to be referred to as a political hip-hop group. They both have profound respect for Public Enemy, but it appears they do not want to be saddled with the responsibility that may come with being a protest music act, like it may put them in a position where they can no longer make “dope rap” music that is about themselves and their ability to create.
Nevertheless, “Thieves,” as well as other tracks on the album, “Run The Jewels 3,” confront disinvestment in communities and systemic oppression through their own personal experiences. The result is still “dope rap” music, but it is “dope rap” that makes a statement on our world.
Listen to “Thieves (Screamed The Ghost)”: