“There’s this beat in my head that I can’t kick. It shakes. It rattles. It pumps like a heart about to burst. It’s a visceral response when reading “Backseat Freestyle” by Jasmine Salter. The language transports, engages, and is energized with wit and explosive lyricism. This language speaks, too; it’s saying something important, necessary. I’m listening. We all should.”
— Ira Sukrungruang, Folio Contest Judge
By Jasmine Salters
And those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music.
Goddamn I feel amazing, damn I'm in the matrix My mind is living on cloud nine and this nine is never on vacation.
Start up that Maserati and VROOM VROOM! I'm racing …
—Kendrick Lamar, “Backseat Freestyle”
It’s a typical night in the sense that the comedy helps ease the tragedy. Exhilaration meets the everyday. I’m high in the backseat of a cop car, squished in the middle seat between a white woman officer whose loaded gun keeps grazing my side and another shackled twenty-something Black woman who won’t stop shaking. I’m thinking in flashbacks and song lyrics, metaphors and mathematics. In my head I’m hearing Chance the Rapper’s “All Night,” a funky hip-house track that had been playing at the festival.
All night, I been drinking all night
I been drinking all night, I been drinking, ay ay
All night, I been drinking all night
I been drinking all night, I been drinking, hey
It’s the last Sunday in August, 2017, around ten o’clock. We got bagged outside of Afropunk, an annual alternative music festival in Brooklyn turned two-day haven for tens of thousands of Black folk seeking solace from the violence and isolation of white spaces. The shackled twenty-something Black woman next to me, I’ll call her Latavia, had been smoking a blunt with some friends, and I was heading to my Lyft with my sister Danielle. She’s two years and four days older. Sagittariuses. She calls me Jas. I can’t get Danielle’s voice out of my head, yelling like it might change something. You can’t be serious. I don’t believe this. You can’t be serious.
We’re two stepping in the clouds—smoke from lit blunts, artisanal cigarettes, and the sage some beautiful woman in bright African prints is swirling in the parking lot. We are supposed to be on our way to my friend’s after-party, but got caught up in the music, end up dancing outside one of the exits, calling and responding along with Raphael Saadiq, who’s performing the Lucy Pearl and Tony! Toni! Toné! jams we used to listen to back in the day with our forever two-stepping, line-dancing mom. Danielle takes lead:
I wanna dance tonight … dance tonight
I wanna toast tonight … toast tonight
I'll spend my money tonight … spend your money
I'll spend my money tonight … spend your money
Inside the gates: thousands of Black folk, all genders, sexes, and shades, covered in body paint, body chains, dashikis, tattoos, tribal prints, and band tees, electric sliding, pelvic thrusting, passing blessings and blunts. A temporary utopia. The two of us are walking to our ride when a squad of cop cars pulls up. A half dozen or so officers swarm the sidewalks, and everyone around us scatters like roaches at the click of a light switch. Danielle grabs my arm and we move out of the way. Someone grabs my other arm. They got me.
We’re driving along the BQE (Brooklyn-Queens Expressway), passing projects and coffee shops, check cashing joints and steakhouses. Outside the park gates is like the rest of Brooklyn, and every other major city: on one side, neglected, nondescript brick-faced public housing high rises and on the other, the rapidly-gentrifying Brooklyn Navy Yard, home to skylit office buildings, a rooftop vineyard with group yoga and movie nights, and the movie studio they used to shoot HBO’s Girls.
I can feel the vibration of Latavia’s leg shaking, like I’m sitting on top of a dryer on the wrong setting. She’s trembling and wiggling around in the seat like she has to pee, complaining about the cuffs being too tight and needing a tampon. Me, I remain silent and still, keep looking straight ahead through the rear view mirror. No sudden moves. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. (I’ve watched so much Law & Order I even hear the dun-dun sound.) Passenger seat cop, a young white guy who looks no older than us, is still asking me and Latavia if we were together (I already said no) and why we thought it was okay to smoke weed in public (I already told him I wasn’t smoking, I didn’t mention that I was already high).
Latavia tells them that she's only in town for the weekend, here for Afropunk with her best friend, who's probably somewhere freaking out with my sister (who has my cotton poncho in her bag with my vape, so I’m bare-armed and cold, covered in goosebumps). I didn't even know it was illegal, Latavia says. I wonder how old she is and if she is aware that she is further incriminating herself. Don’t know if she sees me, but I give her that "girl, you better shut the hell up" look. She keeps going. It’s legal in DC where I'm from, she says. I swear I’m in a Dave Chappelle skit.
I'm saying, a Black man would never dream of talking to the police high. That's a waste of weed. I'm serious. I mean, I'd be scared talking to the police when I'm sleepy. They'd fuck around and get the wrong idea.
This is my fault.
Part of me considers this payback for all the times I’ve openly blazed in public: on stoops, sidewalks and the middle of streets, outside of bodegas, subway entrances, libraries, parks, strip clubs, and fast food joints, inside of Ubers, warehouses, and 420-friendly establishments. Another part of me is mad at myself, angry at how happy I’d been. So caught up in the moment, the magic, I’d managed to let the precarity of my blackness fade, smothered it somewhere in the back of my mind with the smoke and music. Damn, I think, snickering lightly, you know that had to be some kind of joy for a nigga not to be fazed by the police.
The music’s back. Bass, trumpets, drums, chorus. Chance the Rapper. All that.
All you do is talk, I ain't got shit to say
Can't no one get in my car, I don't even valet
Long discussions, oh, you my cousin?
No you wasn't, you just want a ride
I swear I can hear my heart beating. Practically smell the weed and sage and coconut oil. Eyes closed, I’m back in the park. NAO (pronounced neigh-oh) is on stage singing “Fool to Love” and I’m right there singing along with her and the thousands of strangers around me who seem to know every word and feeling that I’m feeling, all of us finding our own beautiful, pathetic, cathartic resonance in the lyrics. Thousands of arms in the air, swaying like raven’s wings. Nothing can replicate this feeling. I’m staring up into the sky, thinking about somebody I shouldn’t be, glancing over at Danielle, who’s smiling with her shades on, and I’m telling her the words before NAO sings them so she can sing with us too. Yeah, we could've had it all, alllllllll / I was a fool to love youu.
You should give a fuck. You really should. But only about things that set your soul on fire.
Save your fucks for magical shit.
The cops are making bad jokes and I’m wondering if I ruined my sister’s first festival experience. Right before they pulled up, Danielle had told me that she was already ready for next year’s Afropunk, said she felt like she was in a different world. That’s when it hit me that this was her first time surrounded by so many unapologetically Black folk, seas of co-washed fros and goddess locs, extension braids and twist outs. Black bodies spontaneous and unburdened, free. I just felt at home.
Let me try to explain.
See, Danielle and I grew up under the same asphalt-shingled roof in Lakeview, New York—a small Black neighborhood on the south shore of Long Island, a few miles from Queens—but I somehow ended up the bohemian writer-type with the Audre Lorde and Angela Davis tattoos, vegetarian diet and Bed-Stuy address until it got too unaffordable. Danielle, on the other hand, is the traditionally successful one. Wall Street-like. Works in finance, makes more money than our entire family combined, does CrossFit (and has the body to show for it), drives a Maserati (a gift to herself, something beautiful to look at after eight or nine hours a day in an office full of the kind of white folk openly trying to make America great again). Honestly, Danielle’s always talking about how much she hates her job, but I felt like I was just hearing her for the first time at Afropunk. She kept raving about how good it felt to not give any fucks, how she couldn’t believe how much time she’d wasted caring about things that don’t matter. (I didn’t bother telling her that by talking about not giving any fucks she was essentially giving them, or that she sounded like the Solange song “F.U.B.U.” since I know she’s never heard it before because I’ve never played it for her.)
When you know you gotta pay the cost
Play the game just to play the boss
So you thinking what you gained, you lost
But you know your shit is taking off, oh
When you driving in your tinted car
And you're criminal, just who you are
But you know you're gonna make it far, oh
I can almost hear Danielle boasting about my lack of fucks. I think I get it now, she’d said as we were leaving. When I asked her what she meant, she said, There are more people like you … who just don’t give a fuck. I’m laughing again, thinking about the seriousness in her tone and how wrong she is.
So after spending like two decades feeling out of place and unconsciously searching for belonging—in other people, music, books, drugs, the ivory tower, ain’t-shit men—my attitude has shifted, what Danielle calls my lack of fucks. Instead of trying to fit in and become the person others expected me to be, I learned to improvise, found in language a way to create my own reality and sense of agency in the world. Physical freedom versus psychological transcendence. Part of the process included freeing myself of the myths we’re taught to cling to like the dispossessed cling to life after death, for instance, democracy and equality and the police as those sworn to serve and protect. As a result, I find myself existing somewhere between living and staying alive. But right now, I’m just in another backseat thinking about life, wondering if it’s even possible to be carefree as a Black person in America. If we could survive without the rules and codes and curfews and fucks. No matter how loud the music, how fat the blunts, how fancy the cars, bags, degrees, once we step outside those gates, as Hov put it, still nigga.
All you do is talk, I ain’t got shit to say. Passenger cop is still yapping, talking about how lucky we are, how it’s just a misdemeanor, and how we’ll be out in a couple of hours. I roll my eyes at the word lucky when what I want to do is ask him what he means by it. And why exactly is it that I’m lucky? Because you let me live? Because I wasn’t smoking even though you arrested me…for smoking? Or maybe it’s because I had no drugs in my possession (thank God) or that I have a sister who can afford to make sure these charges are dropped? But you wouldn’t know that.
Just a misdemeanor, I hear Danielle yelling. You can’t be serious. You’re saying that like it's not going to impact their futures, she’d shouted at passenger cop as he put his cuffs around my wrists, before spewing something about the stigma attached to a drug arrest and limited employment opportunities. Instead of telling her how proud I was that she was standing up for me or making a joke about her sounding like she’d just watched 13th, I tried to protect her the only way I knew how. I begged her to just walk away. The only thing more frightening than a white cop with a loaded gun is the thought of my sister in a jail cell.
So out of everything I’m feeling, I’m mostly grateful. Grateful it’s me and not Danielle in these handcuffs. Grateful for the music. Grateful I’m alive. For a second I think I’m being melodramatic. People are dealing with far worse shit than this. Then I think of Sandra Bland. Just because you’re alive when you get there doesn’t mean you’ll make it home. The music’s back.
All I know about music is that not many people ever hear it.
—James Baldwin, “Sonny’s Blues”
There’s a part in the prologue of Invisible Man when the narrator’s underground smoking a reefer, listening to Louis Armstrong sing “(What Did I Do To Be So) Black and Blue,” and he descends into the breaks of the music, into these surreal and nightmarish dreams about the journey from slavery to freedom. In the first vision an old woman is singing a spiritual. The narrator sees her again later on and asks her what freedom means. The old woman explains that she is an ex-slave who both loved and hated her master because he was also the father of her sons, but she killed him with poison before her children had the chance to tear him into pieces.
Of all the songs—“All We Got,” “Fuck tha Police,” “Life’s A Bitch,” “Bodak Yellow,” “Keep Ya Head Up,” “My Neck, My Back”—I’m reaching some sort of transcendence within a Kaytranada-produced juke jam calling out liars, users, and fake friends while calling for drinking, dancing, and truth-telling.
so back up, back up, I need space
now, I need you to slow down, it's not a race
now, I can't really hear what you gotta say now
shut up! Start dancing, ho
Instead of sitting in hibernation listening to Satchmo make poetry out of being invisible, I’m in the backseat of a cop car descending into the depths of the Grammy award-winning, gospel-singing, former weed-smoking Chicago prophet who penned the first draft of his breakout mixtape, 10 Day, during a ten-day high school suspension for smoking weed in 2011. Makes sense. “I wasn't really good at high school or getting good grades and shit,” Chance says about his suspension in a Pitchfork interview, “and at that point, I wasn't going to graduate. I was looking at my life and just like, 'Who am I supposed to be?'"
I mean, Chance’s voice is like its own instrument, skating and sliding between comedy and tragedy, the brightness and bravado of a trumpet meets the darkness and candor of a trombone—and yet there’s always this underlying sense of joy. The epitome of Black life, duality. And his phoenix-like ability to elevate otherwise somber realities into sounds of uplift and lightheartedness, to make you recognize the blessings in your lap no matter how tattered your jeans. Like he says on “Blessings”: I don't make songs for free, I make 'em for freedom.
All of this to say, boy got soul.
Soul: an expression of American diversity within unity, of blackness with whiteness, soul announces the presence of a creative struggle against the realities of existence.
We are real black characters with real character, not the stars of American racist spectacle. Blackness is not probable cause.
—Kiese Laymon, “Our Kind of Ridiculous: Yous, Me and Blackness as Probable Cause”
Squawk of a walkie-talkie. Just leaving that Afro-thing, the white cop driving says to the throaty voice at the other end. Afro-thing? I suck my teeth and roll my eyes again, feeling like this white man has just called me, my sister, the Black girl cuffed beside me, and the other 60,000 or so Black folk who’d attended Afropunk the n-word with an “er.” I’m wondering why all these cops showed up for one lit blunt, if they’d been responding to complaints from neighbors. There was a recent article in BK Reader, “Gentrifiers’ Insurrection Against Afropunk,” about a community board meeting scheduled by a group of Brooklyn residents to complain to Afropunk organizers about the noise and inconvenience of the festival. “If you want to try on real inconveniences in your Brooklyn neighborhood,” Richards Burroughs writes, “how about police profiling, getting arrested or getting a summons for small levels of marijuana possession…the same levels that cops tell gentrifiers to simply ‘put it out’ and let them walk away with on most other occasions.”
He ain’t lying. In 2016, over 18,000 people were arrested for weed in New York City. 85% of those people were Black or Latino—despite much data showing that white people smoke weed as much if not more than other racial and ethnic groups. The same with “stop and frisk.”
Burroughs also touches on another popular sentiment: that while Afropunk is an important and necessary outlet for Black folk, it has lost its roots. There have been more and more complaints over the years that Afropunk, like everything else, has succumbed to capitalism. What started as a 2003 documentary about Black kids who felt excluded from mainstream white punk spaces and then a free parking lot concert with a few hundred people has since morphed into an all-inclusive Afrocentric international movement with hundred-dollar festival tickets and main acts that aren’t even punk. Then there’s the argument that to be Black is to be punk, meaning that our very existence is a form of rebellion. I’ll add this: no matter how Black folk might feel about the varying expressions of blackness or the co-opting of Afropunk, every Black person who witnessed my arrest was united in the communal act that has become videotaping police incidents involving people who look like us, and, I believe, trying to make sure I stayed alive.
After I’m cuffed, the white woman officer escorts me to the middle of the street, tells me to spread my legs and arms. While sliding her hands up my maxi dress and between my thighs, she keeps asking if I have anything on me that might harm her. We both know if anyone is gonna get hurt out here, it’s gonna be me, I think to myself (with "It’s Gonna Be Me" playing in NSYNC auto tune). As much as I want to be the kind of person who could be on some Biggie pillow case to your face type shit, really, I’m just thinking about the number of bullets that would probably enter my body, my sister, and my mother, so I just keep saying no.
The sky is smacked against the expressway. I stand in the street with my hands behind my back watching everyone else watch me. Black people I don't know are on the sidewalk, cellphones pointing right at me. I feel a combination of shame, sadness, and comfort. How beautiful and sad, I think, that this is how we have been conditioned to watch over one another. The officer places me in the backseat of the police car, where Latavia’s already sitting, legs shaking, hands cuffed behind her back. I look up at Danielle through the passenger window. I can’t tell if it’s her worry or mine that I see on her face. As calmly as I can, I mouth, Don't worry, I'm fine. Once I sit down, woman cop nudges me over so she can sit beside me. The fuck?
Driver cop starts speeding and making reckless turns, woman cop slides into me. The music’s still playing. As I feel the weight of her gun, I wonder if I should make the music stop, if I should seem more afraid, remind them that they’re in control. I open my eyes to passenger seat cop looking at me through the rear view mirror. He looks away. I keep smiling, nodding to the soundtrack in my head. Shut up! Start dancing, ho.
Did you know Louis Armstrong was one of the first celebrities arrested for drug possession? In 1930, he and his drummer Vic Berton were bagged for smoking a joint in the parking lot of the Cotton Club—then considered the premier and most popular jazz club in Culver City and the greater Los Angeles metropolitan area. When asked about the incident, Armstrong stated: “While Vic and I were blasting this joint, having lots of laughs and feelin' good, enjoying each other's fine company, we were standing in this great big lot in front of some cars. Just then, two big healthy dicks (detectives, that is) come from behind a car, man, nonchalantly, and say to us, ‘We'll take the roach, boys.’” There were allegations that he’d been set-up by a competing club owner who’d paid the cops to have Armstrong arrested. According to Berton's brother, the two ended up spending the night "laughing it up" in a cell because "they were still high,” and after nine days in jail, they each received six-month jail sentences (which were later suspended) and a $1,000 fine. Even so, the greatest trumpet player in the world kept smoking regularly for the rest of his life, on some Nate Dogg smoke weed every day, while holding on to the belief that it’s “a wonderful world,” said smoking helped him to relieve stress and ease the chronic pain of racism. “It relaxes you, makes you forget all the bad things that happen to a Negro.” Dizzy Gillespie put it this way: “Armstrong refused to let anything, even anger about racism, steal the joy from his life.”
[Y]’all need to let everybody out of jail for selling weed before y’all start making it legal for people to sell and make capital off.
—Chance the Rapper, 2017 BET Awards
We’re booked at a precinct in Bushwick, searched, printed, photographed from different angles, given the option of keeping our socks and giving the cops our shoes, or keeping our shoes without the laces. Neither one of us has on socks. I tell them I want to keep my shoes, hand them to woman cop. She takes one of my chucks, rolls her eyes, and asks if I plan on helping. I can’t tell if this is a setup. Doesn’t me taking out my own laces defeat the purpose if the whole point’s to keep us from turning them into deadly weapons. Is she trying to provoke me?
It’s me, Latavia, passenger cop, and woman cop in a side room, two desks against a wall, some folding chairs, two or three small cells with benches like mini church pews, and a tiny bathroom stall that smells like it looks, of piss and neglect. Worse than a porta-potty at a music festival. Laceless, woman cop tells me to go in the bathroom and stand against the wall. I’m trying to figure out how this can be considered a bathroom when there’s no possible way to walk out of here feeling cleansed. And we’re not even in a real prison.
The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.
I walk a few steps and stand facing the tile. You don’t have to face the wall, you can look at me, she says, laughing, like I've watched a few too many episodes of Chicago PD. She tells me to take off my dress and flip my bra so she can check the underwire. I’m convinced there’s no hypothetical side effect of smoking weed half as psychologically destructive as being in this bathroom.
I sit back in the cell next to Latavia, who’s still talking about needing a tampon and how ridiculous everything has been and how her best friend who has her cell phone won’t have any idea what to do and how she doesn’t understand how weed can be legal in D.C. and not New York. I want to tell Latavia that legalization and decriminalization alone aren’t enough if these new laws don’t account for the conscious and unconscious anti-Black bias of their enforcers and policies like racial profiling and arrest quotas, financial incentives and the collateral consequences of the war on drugs and mass incarceration on communities of color. I want to tell her that even in places where recreational weed is legal, Blacks are still getting disproportionately arrested, like the multiple DMV counties where arrest rates have drastically decreased while the Black arrest rate remains six to eight times that of whites. But mostly I want to ask Latavia if she thinks it’s crazy that there are tens of thousands of Black bodies behind bars for old nonviolent pot possession charges while wealthy white men are cashing in on legalization and the majority of Black folk either can’t afford or can’t pass a background check to claim their stake in the multibillion-dollar legal marijuana industry. But I only have music, no words or numbers, so I just nod.
When I look up from my laceless black chucks covered in glitter and dirt, I notice a camera staring directly at me. I wonder if they’re listening to our conversation. With my eyes focused on the lens, I tell my family that I love them. I don't know whether I'm being sarcastic or considerate.
Girl, don't do that, Latavia says. I think I've scared her.
I don't trust no one faking like a fan, asking for a pic
You should use your phone, call a Uber
You a goofy if you think I don't know you need a Lyft
—Chance the Rapper, “All Night”
The sidewalk shimmers with glass. I call Danielle as soon as I leave the station. She’s two blocks away at a little bar-restaurant with friendly white-looking foreigners laughing, drinking, and nodding to the R&B music playing off someone’s iPhone. Danielle and I call out to each other from half a block away, embrace in the middle of Flushing Avenue. She still smells of Burberry and Rémy Martin. Latavia uses my phone to call her friend while Danielle tells me how happy she is that we’re alive. I'm surprised by how calm she is. No yelling, cursing, or hyperventilating. No pulling anxiously at the tips of the fro she’s wearing out for the first time. No mother beside her or on the other end of her phone to worsen the guilt I’m supposed to be feeling as the family burden. Danielle tells me she was shocked herself, that she thinks it’s because I seemed so calm and unfazed. I don't tell her that my calmness was a combination of wanting to soothe her worry and the numbness of how simultaneously outrageous and unexceptional my arrest had been. I don't mention my thoughts of Sandra Bland or shoelace revenge or my message to the camera. Instead, I tell Danielle that it wasn’t too bad thanks to Chance the Rapper, whatever’s in my system, and it being me who got arrested and not her. I tell myself this isn’t lying, it’s being a sister.
Danielle doesn’t say anything. Before I can ask her what’s wrong, she blurts, I didn’t know if I should feel bad, but I was thinking the same thing. When I ask her what she’s talking about, she says, That it was you and not me who got arrested. I feel like an asshole though, if that’s any conciliation.
We both start laughing hysterically, that deep, bottom-of-the-gut laughter that leads to teary-eyed relief, before going inside of the bar-restaurant to get Danielle’s things. Some woman had offered to hold her bag in case she had to go into the station. My drugs are still in there when she gives the bag back. I ask Danielle if she still wants to go to that after party, not sure if she’ll think I’m crazy for trying to shake my ass after getting arrested. I feel like a Lucille Clifton poem:
with me that everyday
something has tried to kill me
and has failed
Without hesitating, Danielle says yes and orders another Lyft.
Jasmine Salters is a scholar, essayist, backpacker, and occasional lecturer partial to cross-genre writing that centers what moves, flourishes, and resists at the margin. Her essays, articles, and book reviews have appeared in publications such as Gawker, HuffPost, Public Books, and The Feminist Wire, among others. She is currently working on a collection of linked essays based on her award-winning dissertation, which centers the experiences of women of color in the commercial sex industry and the relationship between race, gender, intimacy, and capitalism. Tweet her at @backofftrack.