In response to the Baltimore riots, many suburbanite friends have said to me, “I don’t understand. Why would someone loot and burn their own town? It makes no sense.” Outside of generational poverty, as a member of a privileged middle or upper class, this type of seemingly sudden outrage is difficult to understand. When asked this, instead of entering into a complicated and often frustrating discussion of the socio-historical context of Baltimore and how that has shaped the current emotional environment of the city, I refer the questioner to a song.
It’s not that the song explains the riots in Baltimore. It doesn’t.
It’s not that the song represents the mind of every rioter. It doesn’t.
Rather, the song represents a mentality I know is common within communities who live under the weight of generational poverty and racial oppression. It is a mindset I believe was present during the riots on both Saturday and Monday. It is a mindset that has not found peace and is likely to flare again.
The song I’m referring to is “FourFive Seconds.” It was premiered by Rhianna, Kanye, and Paul McCartney at the 2015 Grammys.
Before I explain my interpretation of the song, watch the video. Then we can break it down.
Let’s now look at the lyrics one set at a time and comment, as we would if we were examining classic poetry or scripture.
I think I’ve had enoughI might get a little drunkI say what’s on my mindI might do a little time
The song starts with a girl on edge. She’s fed up. She’s exhausted. She wants to push it all away, because there is this hidden side to her, and she knows if she lets it out she’s going to get into trouble. In the video Rihanna (representing the youth of generational poverty) rolls her eyes to play this down. She’s relating. “We all feel this way right?”
‘Cause all of my kindnessIs taken for weakness
The song quickly takes a dark turn as she explains the source of her feelings.
Whether or not the youth has been “kind” is mute. She believes she has. That’s all that’s important. And more relevant is that she believes this kindness has led to her being taken advantage of. Her kindness has opened her up to abuse.
Pause for a minute and take this in. The youth believes she has tried. She has attempted to play by the rules. She has been kind. That kindness has not been returned. Rather it has led to her feeling continued failure. Where has this left her?
Now I’m FourFiveSeconds from wildin’
Now she reveals that her exhaustion is much deeper than she first let on. She’s living on the verge of rage. She is four to five seconds for losing her mind and going wild.
And we got three more days ’til FridayI’m just trying to make it back home by Monday mornin’
What’s fascinating is that she recognizes the danger of her state of mind. She knows that during the week, while she is at work or in school, she can’t give in to her feelings of rage. She needs to make it until Friday, when society’s expectations of her laze. Then she can release the ball of anger inside of her. As long as she is back in line by Monday, she’s okay. She’s survived another week.
I swear I wish somebody would tell meOoh, that’s all I want
And what she wants is for someone to approve this. She wants someone to tell her this is okay. “Behave for five days. Then you can have the weekend to release all the pressure you feel. Just make it back by Monday.” She needs someone to approve her emotional state. To tell her it’s alright to feel this way, to have this knot of rage in her chest, to be at all times four to five seconds away from an explosion.
Woke up an optimistSun was shinin’, I’m positiveThen I heard you was talkin’ trashHold me back, I’m ’bout to spaz
In the second verse we see the hidden rage in action. The youth woke up thinking it was going to be a good day, but one slight and he needs to be constrained. Why? Because the rage is already there. It is all he can do to shove it deep into his chest, to hide it. But the lid is loose. The gate is weak. The lock to the bars holding in his real feelings was broken long ago. The smallest offense and everything will pour out.
I’m FourFiveSeconds from wildin’And we got three more days ’til FridayI’m tryna make it back home by Monday mornin’I swear I wish somebody would tell meOoh, that’s all I wantAnd I know that you’re up tonightThinkin’, “How could I be so selfish?”But you called ’bout a thousand timesWondering where I’ve been
The bridge is filled with painful tension.
She knows what you are thinking. She knows you perceive her state of mind as wrong and selfish, and on one hand, she agree. She recognizes loosing her mind is not okay and an act of selfishness.
At the same time, the youth feels your lack of trust in her fuels and justifies her rage. You keep calling because you don’t trust her to keep it in check. You don’t believe she’s capable. You don’t believe in her.
Now I know that you’re up tonightThinkin’ “How could I be so reckless?”But I just can’t apologizeI hope you can understand
Because you don’t believe in her, she isn’t going to apologize. This is her. It is who she is – a youth on the edge. Again, how she got this way is mute. Here she is. She can’t apologize for it any more than she can apologize for breathing.
Rihanna poignantly wipes a tears away at this point in the video and walks away from the camera. It’s a tragic moment of surrender, a confession that she doesn’t like what she’s doing, she mourns how it effects you, but a reinforcement that this is how it is going to be.
If I go to jail tonightPromise you’ll pay my bail
Even in the difficult rejection of you (society) and how you want the youth to be, he hopes that you will be here to catch him in the aftermath. He knows there will be consequences. He isn’t stupid. He knows. He also knows these won’t deter his explosion, so he wants a commitment from you that you won’t abandon him after the inevitable happens.
See they want to buy my prideBut that just ain’t up for sale
And here lies the spark. What is it that will set him off? What is it that will push him past his four-five second reserve? An insult to his pride.
Again, like with his kindness, whether or not you believe the oppression is real is mute. He feels it. He knows it is real. He sees it every day. He feels his pride is all that he has left. That’s it. Everything else has been stripped from him, so if you try to buy his pride with threats of consequences, if you try to cage him or keep him in line by demanding he behave in a specific way, he will be forced to act. His pride is all he has left. He can’t tolerate it being slighted.
See all of my kindnessIs taken for weaknessNow I’m FourFiveSeconds from wildin’And we got three more days ’til FridayI’m tryna make it back home by Monday mornin’I swear I wish somebody would tell meOoh, that’s all I wantFourFiveSeconds from wildin’And we got three more days ’til FridayI’m just tryna make it back home by Monday mornin’I swear I wish somebody would tell meThat’s all I want
In light of the images of young men and teens throwing rocks at police officers this weekend, Kanye’s throwing motion during this verse is particularly heart breaking. As is Rihanna’s final tearful look at on the words, “I wish somebody would tell me.”
Now, watch the video again.
As you do, imagine yourself to be young man who has grown up under the heavy weight of generational poverty. You feel all your efforts to display kindness have been crushed. All that is left is your pride. You seek hope by joining a peaceful protest march, a march reminiscent of past activists culture admires and approves of. But then, half way through, a drunken O’s fan yells something obscene or offensive toward you. You were already four to five seconds from going wild.
Three days later you are coming home from school. You know this is the time for you to behave. You know there are bigger consequences on week days. The expectations are higher. You’ve survived the first day. As you get off the bus, there are cops in riot gear. You were already four to five seconds from going wild. Twenty minutes later, you’re throwing rocks.
Does living on the edge excuse behavior?
But my goal with this article is not to justify. It is simply to help bring understanding. When you feel everything has been taken from you by the world, that you can’t succeed, that all you have is your pride… When at all times you are four to five seconds from loosing your mind, then a riot isn’t so unbelievable.
One might even ponder why it doesn’t happen more often.