In a recent interview with The New Yorker, actor/rapper/comedian/singer/producer Donald Glover, AKA Childish Gambino, happened to note the tragic truth about a fellow rapper. Referencing the use of the viral hit “The Race” in the opening moments of the second season of his immensely popular show Atlanta, Glover expressed real regret that the song’s originator may never live to enjoy its success.
“Tay-K was sixteen and on the run for murder when he made this song. It’s a real Jesse James story,“ Glover told The New Yorker. “Look at this kid! He’s a baby! He never had a chance! Ya’ll are forgetting what rap is. Rap is ‘I don’t care what you think in society, wagging your finger at me for calling women ‘bitches’ when, for you to have two cars, I have to live in the projects.’… Young black kid in Texas with a murder on him. He’s definitely going to die, and it’s sad.”
The reaction wasn’t so much immediate as it was a slow-simmering air of discomfort that hovered over the discussion of the interview. There was enough to digest that it would take a while for the full effect of his words to register, long enough to avoid the typical knee-jerk reaction of outrage, but maybe too long to really process that discomfiting sensation that marred the otherwise jubilant discussion of Glover’s many idiosyncrasies.
Now, weeks later, maybe we can call that feeling by its name: Truth.
Because however those words were intended or received, Donald Glover told the truth about not just Tay-K and his situation, but the system that put Tay-K in that situation to begin with. Tay-K is very likely going to die if convicted. And it’s one of the saddest things in the world.
It’s sad for Tay-K, born Taymor Travon McIntyre, who, at just 17 years old, will stand trial as an adult on charges of capital murder in a state that still uses the death penalty to dispatch justice. His co-defendants are already starting to receive their sentences, and some of them will waste away their entire adult lives in the custody of the state.
It’s sad that Tay — the son of Compton Crips who’d moved to Arlington to start a new life — made a plan with six friends to break in to the home of 21-year-old Ethan Walker to steal drugs and money, a plan that went awry and resulted in Walker being shot to death during the teens’ ill-fated escape.
It’s sad that Tay, under house arrest until his arraignment, cut off his ankle monitor and went on the run. It’s sad that while on the run, instead of contemplating his future or trying to make amends, he shot a music video for “The Race,” boasting smugly about his fugitive status. It’s sad that while on the run, Tay allegedly attacked another man, Skip Pepe, knocking him unconscious and adding more charges to his growing list of offenses.
It’s sad that that list of offenses includes yet another capital murder charge, in which Tay was present during the murder of 23-year-old Mark Anthony Saldivar, who was shot by one of Tay’s companions. The police claim to have surveillance video of the shooting and proof Tay was in the backseat of the shooter’s SUV, making him an accomplice.
It’s sad for Ethan Walker and Mark Anthony Saldivar , who both had their lives cut tragically short, possibly as a result of a reckless young man’s actions.
It’s sad for the families of the victims, who are forced to grieve and mourn their loved ones. They have to find a way to muddle through the remainder of their existence without them, while news headlines and fan t-shirts tout the lost opportunity of the boy who may be responsible for their loss to begin with.
It’s sad for the fans — and not just the ones who ironically type “Free Tay-K” into their tweet compositions and heedlessly let such a rotten sentiment fly into the ether. It’s because somewhere along the way, hip-hop lost its conscience. The spectacle became paramount to the humanity behind the camera. The people behind the stoic masks of the dead-eyed ghouls that rappers have come to portray themselves as are being lost to the endless churn of the demands for “darker,” for more brutal, for more “real.”
We already see imitations and remixes on “The Race,” featuring scowling baby-faced rappers brandishing pistols and tough-talking in an effort to ride the wave for just a little bit more internet clout and attention, which is as likely to backfire as it is to bring them success.
It’s unbelievably, soul-chokingly sad that nearly two hundred and fifty years after the establishment of a nation under a Constitution that reads that “all men are created equal,” so many of us are still being treated unequally in the eyes of the law. Because a Tay-K doesn’t just happen overnight. A Tay-K is the end result of a school-to-prison pipeline that criminalizes Black and Latino youth before they can grow a beard, of racist and increasingly militarized policing, of a heavy-handed and unjust legal system, and of housing policy that shunts their families into “underserved,” impoverished neighborhoods that lack the resources or opportunities for residents to ever feel like they have a choice.
It’s sad that after the incarcerations of Bobby Shmurda and Chief Keef, that labels and blogs and newspapers and magazines publicized the story of yet another troubled youth without context or care for the psyche of just how he got that way. It’s sad because right now, some teen is seeing not the incredible burden that’s been placed onto Tay-K’s shoulders, not the tremendous loss that he may be responsible for, and not the potentially fatal consequences that may await him, but the fame and recognition and perceived adulation that comes with notoriety.
The story of Tay-K is nothing less than a quintessential American tragedy; this story could only ever have been told in this country, at the time, when schoolchildren are forced to abandon their lessons to protest for the right to learn in safety. Tay-K is the same age as many of those kids and instead of sitting in classes with them, he’s sitting in a cell, awaiting the final judgement over his short, tragic life, because he posed and menaced in a music video with the same types of weapons his peers are doing everything in their power to eliminate from the public sphere.
The saddest part of all is that there may not be a solution. There are plenty of lessons to take away from the tragedy of Tay-K, but I fear they may be ignored or washed out by the bright lights of the spectacle. Tay-K deserved more, but so did Ethan Walker and Skip Pepe, and Tay’s co-defendants and fans. The only way to keep the story from having the saddest ending of all is to fix our broken American system, so that tragedies like Tay-K stop happening with such regularity.