Thief Sicario's "Amerika"
by Pancho McFarland
Most of the myths told about the U.S. and who we are as a people result from a retelling of certain stories from the perspective of elites and upper classes. National origin myths and stories of “American” heroism such as the American Revolution, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, World War II and Vietnam encourage us to view U.S. history and ourselves as beneficent, strong, democratic, inclusive and simply good. Very little of the official history told in social science class, replayed at Thanksgiving, the Fourth of July, and Memorial Day and sung in “My Country Tis of Thee” and the National Anthem complicates these utopic, idyllic tales of our history and identity. Most of formal education and national culture drives home the message of “America the Good” and fails to examine the contradiction, hypocrisy and violence that is a central part of the story.
There are but a few places today where we can access a different, much more complex view of ourselves. Political street hop, or politically-engaged, hip hop from the streets of the inner-city, offers such a view. "Amerika,” the song and video from Chicano rap/street hop artist, Thief Sicario, takes a look at “American” identity from a poor, inner-city streetwise perspective. The song like much of the music from Realizm Rekords and Thief's compact disc, Education of a Felon, challenges our taken-for-granted notions of U.S. history and “American” identity. Because Thief, Krazy Race, owner of Realizm Rekords and street hop artist, and dozens of other Chicano rappers are dark-skinned, of Mexican descent, and from the inner-city working-class, they see the United States differently. They recognize that national history leaves little room for critique of itself from the marginalized in U.S. society. For us, much of U.S. history shows us as the disempowered, the attacked, the oppressed, the rebel, and the poor. Today, our barrios and other working-class communities feel the brunt of bad governmental policy and racism.
“Amerika” points out the hypocrisy and contradiction in the U.S. Imagining himself as “Amerika”, Thief raps “I am Amerika, I'm the contradiction/ I'm the system, the assailant, and his victim/ I am Amerika, land of lies and deceit/ where if you can't cheat, you're forced to meet defeat.” Instead of the stories of Honest Abe Lincoln and young George Washington not being able to tell a lie (remember he was the one who chopped down the cherry tree), Thief sees lying and deceitfulness as characteristic of our country. Further addressing contradictions, Thief raps, “I'm the Jew that changed his name, to join the Nazis/ I'm the Mexican immigrant workin' for border patrol/ the NRA member that supports gun control/ I'm the Hollywood sign, the hooker, the pimp/ the Sureno, the Latin King, the Blood, the Crip/ I'm the Statue of Liberty, Sitting Bull and Custer/ the radical feminist, on the cover of Hustler/ I am Amerika, I'm Capone and Ness/ the homophobe, at home in a dress.”
Thief’s lyrical flow and pointed commentary on the complexity of our country are indicative of the best of rap music. The musical production by Trafek is unique but familiar. It, like the best of hip hop musical production, stays true to the hip hop aesthetic of symphonically layering multiple musical sounds, sampling parts of other musical pieces and rearranging and reinterpreting them to make something new, and an emphasis on bass, drum and rhythm. At the same time, Trafek’s music is original; another cornerstone of hip hop aesthetics. His arrangements and beats would be familiar to hip hop heads yet no one would say that he bit (stole) someone else’s music or style. The video displays a hip hop aesthetic as well. It is a patchwork of photo stills related to the lyrical content. It is gritty and brave as it, like the lyrics, does not shy away from controversial subjects including racism, violence, the death penalty and political prisoners in U.S. jails. The imagery shocks and awakens; stills of familiar U.S. historical and pop cultural characters are newly positioned to aid us in a rethinking of ourselves and our country. Unlike most rap music videos with the rapper assuming most of the visual space, Thief’s own image is absent from the “Amerika” video. He, instead, highlights us all; the good, the bad, the ugly, the profane, and the beautiful. Most of all Thief’s lyrics and images disabuse us of the notion that America is a White, Christian, male nation. It is, as he raps, “the name of two entire continents.” Images of Black, native, Chicano and other people and cultural products (Aztec and Mayan pyramids, for example) help us recognize that “Amerika” is not just the power elite of the U.S. but includes all the inhabitants from Canada to the Tierra del Fuego.
Unlike the corporate rap music and videos that dominate airwaves and video music shows, “Amerika” does not rely on misogyny and greed for its imagery. The most common images in corporate, popular rap are scantily-clad gyrating women and Black men showing off the cars and jewelry that is their bounty for selling minstrel-like images of themselves to “American” consumers. Thief stays away from what Tricia Rose in The Hip Hop Wars calls the “gangsta- pimp-ho trinity” of corporate rap. He shows us a diverse range of personages that make up America. He causes us to think about ourselves in deeper ways than what we are used to in school, on tv or in corporate rap music. He asks us to see ourselves as more than just “America the Good” and more than just greedy, individualistic predators. We are all this y mas.
Additionally, Thief wants to make sure that the marginalized, the poor and the racialized are understood as part of Amerika. He begins the song with references to Mexican people’s indigeneity. His vision of America begins with the native Mexican and pre- Columbian ancestors of today’s Chicana/o/Mexican. “I'm Anahuac, the One World, the Aztec dancer.” Anahuac is the name that the Mexica/Aztec gave to America. Instead of starting our story with European “pilgrims,” Thief begins our history and identity with native peoples. He reinforces his view that American history begins with natives rapping “I'm the illegal immigrant, at the same time the native/ the rightful heir to this land, livin' on a reservation.” Amerika is the first people who are arguably the rightful owners of much of U.S. real estate and who are imprisoned and impoverished (mostly) on reservations. Amerika, taking the long historical view that Thief does in this song, is also the “illegal” Mexican and other immigrant whose history in this region is ancient. They are not recent invaders as much anti-immigrant rhetoric would have us believe but rightful heirs to a good deal of U.S. territory including most of the southwestern part of our country. Continuing his commentary on the racial makeup in our country Thief says later “I am Amerika, the oppressed internal nations/ the anarchist out to destroy civilization/ Guadalupe Hidalgo, forty acres and a mule/ the people who built pyramids, with primitive tools/ I am Amerika, the Mayan lord, the Anasazi.” Here Thief claims “Amerika” and “Amerikan” identity for native people (“oppressed internal nations”), Mexicans (“Guadalupe Hidalgo”, “the people who built pyramids…the Mayan lord, the Anasazi”), and Blacks (“forty acres and a mule”). At the same time, he comments upon the deceitfulness of those in power in the U.S. as he mentions the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (which ended the U.S. war with Mexico and ceded Mexico’s resource-rich northern territories including Texas and California) and the end of the Civil War promise to Black people of an opportunity to begin a decent life with “forty acres and a mule.”
Thief also presents a class critique. To Thief, Amerika is the oft-abused and exploited worker and poor. Amerika is “the factory worker, the welfare recipient.” Amerika includes those who because of poverty have to lead a life of crime such as gang members (“the Sureno the Latin King, the Blood the Crip”) and the incarcerated (those with a “third strike for getting caught with an herb [marijuana] pipe”). Amerika is immigrant workers trying to feed their families. Those “illegals” who simply come to work. Thief points out the irony and hypocrisy of a country that makes criminals out of entire groups of people (immigrants and Black and Brown youth). He raps that Amerika is the “Land of the Free with the most prisoners on the entire earth.”
His Amerika is not only the racially and economically oppressed. Amerika also consists of rebels who resist the economic and ideological domination imposed on us by the elite. While we are the poor, the incarcerated and the racialized, we also resist this status and resist our invisibility in official U.S. history, mythology and identity. We are “Amerika, the riot starter, the looter/ the hacker breakin' through to Pentagon computers/ I'm Pancho Villa, Che Guevara, Emiliano Zapata,/George Washington, Lincoln, and revolutionaries locked up.”
Pancho McFarland is an assistant professor of sociology at Chicago State University and author of Chicano Rap: Gender and Violence in the Postindustrial Barrio.