In the words of author Ta-Nehisi Coates, “Evil does its business in the shadows, ever-fearing not the heat of the Great Fire but the light.”
Polo G became a rap star in 2020 at the same time the Black Lives Matter movement gained traction because his music brings the quotidien evils of white supremacy into the national consciousness. Black Lives Matter is a movement dedicated to shining light upon evil. The movement gained traction via social media. People used their iPhone cameras and hashtags to capture and reveal state-sanctioned violence against Black people to the world. However, the shadows fight on. The shadows are a system of oppression: white supremacy feasts on them and grows. Because Polo G performed at Providence’s Strand Ballroom February 24th, I thought I would reflect on the music and social commentary that has crafted the star that he is today.
Brought up in the shadows of Chicago, Polo G is “from where we unheard and we can’t speak” (Polo G, Wishing for a Hero). He evokes the radical speech of Malcolm X in his songs and preaches about the value of his people: “R.I.P. Malcolm, I promise to conquer and fill them gaps” (Wishing for a Hero).
Before we discuss Polo G’s lyrical genius, I must warn you: his imagery is rife with violence. However, his violence is not that of fellow Chicago rapper King Von–misogynistic, romantic, what some assimilationist old heads might consider emblematic of “this new generation.” Instead, it serves a similar purpose to videos of police brutality: it paints a vivid, unavoidable picture of the violence we face daily as Black people. Sometimes I can’t watch the videos, so I understand if you stop reading here. But, I compel you to press on, for this is reality, and denial is evil’s most dangerous weapon. To be in denial of this is to live in the shadows.
War imagery is ubiquitous in the United States, as we saw the summer of 2020 when the national guard and police in riot gear clashed with protesters across the country. Polo G, however, reveals the more subtle war behind the tanks and shields. Redlining, poor education systems, and a host of other systems of oppression have plunged many Black communities into a war for survival. His own community, Chicago, engages in this war against white supremacist structures that negatively impact everyday life. The New York Times has published dozens of articles detailing the gun violence statistics on the South Side, but numbers are impersonal, and thus easy to dismiss.
Enter Polo G: in his song Epidemic, he says, “Remember every line from that obituary, poetry.” Polo G’s music is exactly that: a poetic obituary. His lyrical language clings to listeners’ ears and hearts, refusing to be dismissed. He describes his death-ridden environment as a “nightmare” in I Know, and his imagery describes the nightmare in rich detail: “I’m from Chicago where it’s normal to hear .40’s clappin, all you hear is them shots let off, that door slam, and them tires scratchin” (Effortless). While he calls the violence normal, he doesn’t let it disappear into generalizations; he gives us a sensory vignette that we can see and feel. He also manages to balance descriptions of events and people in his song Deep Wounds, singing, “Heard he went unidentified, them hollows chewed his face.” While the first clause of this line highlights the anonymity and disposability of Black lives in this country, the second is a gory reminder that despite their dehumanization, Black bodies remain an unerasable part of our society. Furthermore, in Wishing for a Hero, he captures the systemic nature of this violence, using the lingering power of puns to remind the world that white supremacy is at fault, not Black morality: “It’s all a set-up, no wonder why they call this b*tch a trap1“.
However, Polo G recognizes that uncovering the violence is not enough: “Cops kill us and we protest, what type of shit is that?” (Wishing for a Hero). George Floyd’s murder was over a year ago, yet Black Lives Matter protesters are still in the streets calling for justice for many other victims. People like former president Trump still refuse to condemn white supremacy. We’ve become numb to the suffering of Black bodies, and some people even enjoy it (the same people who treated lynchings as a public spectacle). Thus to combat dehumanization in its entirety, Black emotions must also matter. Polo G breaks the “emotionless thug” stereotype by presenting his mental health struggles to the world: “It don’t matter what this money and this fame can give, I’ve been hurtin’, tryna smile through the pain and tears.” (Wishing for a Hero). The trauma of his nightmare follows him on tours, private jets, and even into relationships. He raps, “Lovin’ me ain’t easy, if you leave, I don’t blame you Trauma got me f*cked up, so I’m mentally unstable” (I Know). The years of internalized violence inhibit his emotional availability, damaging his relationships as well as himself.
At this point, hope is on the brink of death. Both Polo G and the listener crave a solution, a way out of the physical and emotional pain. For Polo G, as the song Wishing for a Hero suggests, the solution is a hero. Unfortunately, growing up “It wasn’t no heroes so we looked up to the villains” (Finer Things). So what might this hero look like? Who embodies Black humanity in its entirety, from bodily autonomy to a full spectrum of emotions?
Luckily, we get two: Martin & Gina. This song references the iconic couple from the Black sit-com Martin, and it has all the language of a love story. When Polo G raps, “I get this feeling in my stomach when you next to me,” and “Love the way you smell I’m addicted to your fragrance, It’s somethin bout you but I really can’t explain it,” I feel like a fifth grader with a crush, or a protagonist in a Taylor Swift song; however, the most inspiring part of this song is that it retains Polo G’s identity. To borrow from A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie, this love is distinctly Thug Love. In this song, Polo G reclaims the word “thug,” so to speak: “I know what you chasing, you can only get this feeling from a thug, You can only get this feeling from a thug.” He continues, “Beauty and the Beast, pretty girl with a gangster.” In these lines, he embodies the titles society has given to him while still asserting his right to love. Martin and Gina are heroes because their love doesn’t succumb to racism, but instead thrives in its face. With this track, Polo G shows that no matter what you believe about him, you can’t take away the power of his love. Polo G is not alone in his belief in love: the former Boston Celtics’ (and now Knicks’) point guard Kemba Walker played in the 2020 Eastern Conference Finals with “Love Us” on the back of his jersey; scholars write works about radical Black love theory; and, most importantly, I see the power of Black love on my family’s faces every night at the dinner table. In Poetry is Not a Luxury, Audre Lorde writes, “Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought.” In Polo G’s music, he uses his poetic talent to challenge America to think new thoughts about what it means to be Black: the pain, the death, and the love.
1Trap is a double entendre here: a device used to ensnare and a reference to drug culture