I always tell anyone who will listen that if I die at the hands of the police to not make me a martyr. I do not want a protest, or murals, or for my face to be in a history book next to the tagline “racism.” It makes me sick to imagine being on a BLM poster — yet I know the immortalization of the tragic Black death isn’t about the deceased. It’s about the living not having to live in fear. In many attempts to convince people to stop killing African Americans, we commodify our own deaths so our country will show us an ounce of empathy and protect us. This commodification of Black death is problematic because it is trauma porn, yet this performance is ingrained in the African American community because it is one of the last remaining ways African Americans know how to safely protest racial injustice. This tension was brought to the forefront of race discussion at the 2021 Grammys with Lil Baby’s performance.
The most selfless thing a Black person can do is allow a loved one’s name to be shouted during a protest in the name of change, just like Samaria Rice allowed for her 12-year-old son Tamir Rice, who police murdered in Cleveland, Ohio on Nov. 22, 2014. Tamir was immortalized by Black Lives Matter protestors as they shared his story across the country, but activists did not bring him justice. In December of last year, the Justice Department said it would not bring federal criminal charges against the two policemen who murdered Tamir Rice, Timothy Loehmann and partner Frank Garmback, citing insufficient evidence despite there being direct CCTV footage. So when Lil Baby performed “The Bigger Picture” at the Grammys last Sunday, reenacting Black Lives Matter protests and unlawful arrests, featuring activists such as Killer Mike and Tamika Mallory. Samaria Rice brought awareness to this commodification, calling the performance distasteful.
On Facebook, Rice shared a clip of Mallory’s portion of the Grammys performance with the caption, “Look at this clout chaser did she lose something in this fight I don’t think so. That’s the problem they take us for a joke, that’s why we never have justice cause of shit like this.” She followed up this post by highlighting how liberals have been gaining recognition and profiting off of the spectacle made out of the violent killings of African Americans. While I disagree with that claim, Rice is not wrong that someone is profiting off of the martyrdom, because Black trauma porn is being produced at an all-time high. The murder of Black people easily goes viral, to the extent that Black activists such as Mikki Kendall, the author of Hood Feminism: Notes from the Women That a Movement Forgot, asked for people to stop sharing videos or images of Black people being killed. When Black people are murdered, it becomes a spectacle, despite such murders being a regular occurrence.
Artists have made claims to justify why they reenact protests, arrests or police murder, such as Lil Baby’s statement on his intention of the performance, stating, “Nominations aside, actually performing ‘The Bigger Picture’ means the most to me. I paint pictures with my songs and wanted the performance to bring that picture to life. Just like with the song, this performance had to reflect the real. No sugar-coating.” This is a creative choice I completely understand. Some of my most impactful poetry pieces are about the evil of racism and how harsh this world is, no sugar coating. I am ruthless in my creative writing, having no filter and offering no apologies.
But too many people have died in vain. Many of the people for whom we march do not receive justice, just like Tamir Rice. Martyrdom is one of the largest sacrifices someone can make because it leads to the constant reprise of trauma for your family and overwrites your legacy to only be about death. In Rice’s final post criticizing the Grammys, she stated, “FUCK A GRAMMY WHEN MY SON IS DEAD,” and I honestly cannot blame her for this response. As an activist, I understand why we protest in the name of people. As a creative, I know why Lil Baby’s performance happened and why he and many others felt empowered by these performances, but do we ever think that we may be exploiting the murder of Black individuals in the name of justice and playing politics? I cannot imagine how painful it is to see the reenactment of the public mourning of your child, but I won’t advocate for Black people to stop the protests, performances or martyrdom because it’s all we know.
Aaliyah C. Daniels ‘23 is a columnist at the Collegian. She is an English major with an emphasis in creative writing, philosophy minor with a concreation in law and society, from Bronx, N.Y. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.