As the mastermind behind the Wu-Tang Clan, RZA is one of the most famous natives of Staten Island. We spoke to him about the death of fellow Staten Islander Eric Garner, police brutality, and the path to a better tomorrow.
RZA and the Wu-Tang Clan have been dutiful ambassadors from Staten Island — or Shaolin — for 20 years now. In late 1993, when they released their, to date, most-successful single "C.R.E.A.M.," from their first album "Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers," it was a snapshot of the Staten Island they grew up in. In the background of the video for the somber, darkly-rollicking track was a friend to the Wu-Tang — a young black man named Case who, according to RZA, was choked to death by a cop in the Park Hill projects shortly after the video came out. "This was 20 years ago, and he wasn't a white cop, he was a black cop and he choked Case til he died," RZA said. Police brutality, is nothing new, Inspektah Deck rapped about in the last verse of the same song:
To learn to overcome the heartaches and pain
We got stickup kids, corrupt cops, and crack rocks
And stray shots, all on the block that stays hot
Leave it up to me while I be livin' proof
To kick the truth to the young black youth
After a Grand Jury failed to indict the police officer who killed Eric Garner about a mile or two away from where RZA grew up, the now actor-producer-director-MC spoke with me about race in America, violence, power and how — after 20 years of squabbles, incarcerations, death and love — the Wu-Tang sound has evolved. Last month, the group released their latest album, "A Better Tomorrow," with a video featuring footage from the protests erupting after Eric Garner's death.
Jaime Lowe: Is this the Staten Island you grew up in?
RZA: Staten Island has changed a lot from the middle and late 80s. I remember we couldn't go to a place called Rose Bank and they [the white kids] couldn't go to Park Hill and all that kind of faded away over time. I went to Curtis high school and some of my best friends were white, we'd go to their house and have seltzer water, we only had kool-aid. The community grew together though, til they were cool together and you can see that with Wu-Tang.
Do you think Eric Garner's death is an issue of race?
RZA: It wasn't just a black, white thing, it was about authority and about empowering a man who didn't have power before and who overexerted his power. When it comes down to the race issue, it looked to me, the whole situation reminded me of the guys in my neighborhood who would get jumped, guys who didn't belong there. You would think that Staten Island would have grown past aggression.
Do you think the cops were acting aggressively?
RZA: Those gentlemen were wrong — the cop had a utility belt of options for different escalating scenarios. He had a stick, pepper spray, he had his physical training ... but to jump up on him? It looked like a gang fight, and that's totally wrong. The cops had other options — I've been pepper sprayed before, it's 100% efficient. You gonna chill out. It's a chill pill.
So the problem is that the situation escalated to chokehold and eventual death?
RZA: The real problem I have with it is that we got the guy [police officer Daniel Pantaleo] red-handed, in HD quality. And not just the one cop, all those cops should have been indicted. Those are the guys who give us the non-value of black life.
At this point is there misplaced trust in authority or feelings that the system won't work?
RZA: The system works but only in certain cases. When you run a red light, the camera light flashes and takes a picture of your plate. You will get a ticket, you will get charged. Because there's a picture, whether it shows your face or not. Here we have a man who was killed and there is a clear image of it, but there's no indictment.
So there's clearly an issue with competence, due process and maybe even equality?
RZA: When you see it on camera, when we get a grand jury — white, black, aliens, and not one person says 'indict'? No one sees the injustice? It's not that I fully blame the cops. I played a cop on TV, I spent a year walking around telling people: "I'm a cop." But it's becoming like the people in uniform have criminal personalities and criminal minds — and they're not embarrassed by it. They find no fault in what they're doing, a spade is a spade yo.
So it's systemic within the police departments?
RZA: Yes and no, I have so much respect for the police department, my first cousin works as a corrections officer, my brother-in-law is a cop, my father-in-law is a cop, my DJ worked for 17 years in the police force. Thanksgiving at my house is a cop convention. But even if it's one cop — which it's not; there are clearly more incidents of this nature — but if we don't say he was wrong, that's where the problem is.
RZA: This is happening everywhere. Public servants are paid to keep order and keep people safe, I been in the back of an ambulance and you're hoping these people will be doing their jobs, they take an oath and they should have a higher standard of conduct. The EMTs should have an higher standard of preserving life. That police officer should say "I made a big mistake and I'm willing to pay for it."
The video is an indictment in itself.
RZA: It's different when there's HD quality video going along with it. This generation is questioning a lot of what they're taught. A black man being targeted is nothing new. With Mike Brown, the video is questionable but it's beyond a shadow of a doubt with what happened with Eric Garner. Even with all our tech advances we are actually devolving. When Rodney King got done up by those cops, the video was grainy and they got away with it. But now? Now we have clean quality, up-close shots and the people who run the system are still saying no, there is no crime here.
And what was Eric Garner's crime in the first place?
RZA: Exactly, I can understand if there's serious danger, and it becomes a stand off. But is this not a stand off, he's selling cigarettes — a dollar a cigarette. If he's doing any kind of crime, it's a tax crime.
Death seems like a high price to pay for loosies, a lot of protestors and commenters say his crime was being black.
RZA: Racism is played out for me. I have seen the quality of people from every race, and the lack of quality from every race. Everybody do some bullshit, everybody do some goodness.
What about institutionalized racism?
RZA: I was doing some research because I was watching that movie "Lincoln" and you know he talked about how "under the law all men are equal" but if you're not under the law, the government has the right to treat you unequal. So if you're in jail, you have no rights.
Right, right, there's that stat: 1 in 3 black men will go to prison in their lifetime compared with 1 in 17 white men.
RZA: Exactly, slavery just meant that 3 to 5 million Americans were providing free labor for the entire country. After the civil war, they were freed but they filled the jails with blacks, and now they working again. Seven out of nine Wu-Tang members have been in jail [RZA has been arrested 15 times] and they've said, they get 50 cents a day for their work. Where's the profit going? They're building highways, running industries, and you come to find these institutions are privately owned business. It's same thing all over again.
Last month was the tenth anniversary of the death of your cousin Ol' Dirty Bastard.
RZA: I miss him the most around this time of year. We had two big cakes made for him at his birthday. He was in my dream two days ago, we was chillin, we got some 40 ounces and were chasing girls and we were chillin. I never thought I'd be doing these things without him.
I got this new piece of equipment the other day and he would have been the first one to come over and check it out and we'd be recording something together.
The new Wu album is titled "A Better Tomorrow." Do you think a better tomorrow is possible?
RZA: When I did this record, I did it with optimism, I wanted to inspire within the Wu and people outside the Wu. I wanted people to think differently