This is a difficult time to be a music writer. When the world is falling apart outside your door it’s hard to feel like anything in entertainment matters. In some instances the anger and chaos of current events is channeled into song (like here) but there is a gamut of emotions that don’t always go addressed within the confines of a four-four time signature and visceral wordplay. Sometimes rage isn’t the dominant emotion. There is a legitimate fear for my family and children that “Fuck The police” doesn’t quite capture. That is where songs like Nikki Jean’s “Tommy’s Song(Hands Up)” complement my feelings and address the complexities of dealing with police brutality.
The singer and songwriter from St. Paul, Minnesota has flexed her lucid and airy vocals as a member of Philly based group Nouveau Riche, ?uestlove’s Randy Watson Project and on several tracks by Lupe Fiasco. She released her solo project Pennies in a Jar in 2011 followed by the EP, Champagne Water in 2014 which contains the cautionary police brutality ode, “Tommy’s Song (Hands Up).”
Recorded in 2013 after George Zimmerman was acquitted in the death of Florida teen Trayvon Martin, Nikki Jean paints a familiar picture of a shooting outside of a corner store where the immediate suspect is the nearest young black male. “They spotted him and they got em, they ran up and shot em just a half a mile a way/ just some kid with headphones rocking with hands deep in his pockets, never even heard ‘em say ‘Put your hands up! Put ‘em up high.”
As the father of a 13-year-old boy the song resonated with me immediately. The trickles of sweat on my brow the first time he went to the store unattended, literally standing on the steps of my house watching his lanky frame until he turned the corner, out of my purview. Telling him to hurry up but not to run home because someone might think he had stolen something. This song captured all of that trepidation and more.
I love my little brother just like I’m his second mother and he’ll always be a baby to me/ but now he’s 6’ 2 210 full grown black man, tell me what do you see?…I don’t live in fear but I’m well aware of what he deals with everyday/ It’s fuck the police but when you’re out in these streets, promise if you hear them say ‘put your hands up’ you’ll put ‘em up high.
“Tommy is a very real person, he is my baby brother and he’s 25 years old,” says Jean. “I love my brother. I want him to make it home safely, every time a black man is killed at the hands of police, I fear for the men in my life.”
In recent days my “text me when you get home” messages have increased in volume and I get everything Nikki Jean is saying. She knows that being alive is better than being right and even though following the rules doesn’t guarantee you will live (just ask Philando Castile who taught at the school Jean used to attend in Minnesota as a child) it increases your odds of coming home alive.
“In the crucial moments, even if you’ve done nothing wrong, even if the officer is completely in the wrong and you are being treated unfairly, my message is save your life the best you can. Come home safe to me.”
The world around me continues to unravel at the seams with the latest tragedies in Dallas punctuating an incredibly turbulent week. And sadly this song will continue to be relevant as an already volatile police force doubles down on their perceived victim status inevitably adding to the civilian body count. I find some solace in knowing that I am not alone in my emotions and that rage is not my only outlet. Art is still a refuge for our pain.