Editor's Note: You might know Bun B as the Texas-based rapper, professor, and activist who's one half of the legendary Houston duo UGK. He's also VICE's political correspondent, reporting on the ground from the campaign trail of the strangest presidential election in recent memory.
My friends and my family think I'm crazy. Why the hell would I be going to Cleveland, Ohio, for the 2016 Republican National Convention? I mean, let's keep it 100—there's already more than 15,000 journalists there from all over the world, several news outlets are offering around-the-clock coverage, and protests are being planned throughout the city. Who needs that drama? Plus, it's summertime—I could be chilling by the water sipping on a mojito or some fly shit like that.
But then again, why the fuck would I not go? We're in an extremely pivotal moment in our country's history. People in America are being senselessly killed in the streets by police officers. Police officers are being senselessly killed in the streets. The country is more visibly divided than ever, with extremists on both sides of the political spectrum pushing this country closer and closer to its boiling point. Donald Trump calls for unity, and at the same time talks about building literal and figurative walls, or denying people entry into the US based on their religious beliefs. So I'm gonna sit on my ass at one of the most important times of my life and do nothing? Bruh. You already know. Cleveland, here I come.
When I first hit the campaign trail, I thought it would be a few weeks of fun. Honestly, I thought we'd be in a different place right now. I thought we'd be seeing the usual suspects with the same old spiel. But as we all know, this election season has turned out to be anything but usual. The least likely candidate in the Republican primaries has ascended to the top of the pile, and his own party is still reeling from the shock of it all. Now, I'm determined to see it all the way through.
My first stop is an interview with the supergroup Prophets of Rage. This collective—composed of members of Public Enemy, Cypress Hill, and Rage Against the Machine—has played a few one-off shows, but on Tuesday, these guys are launching their nationwide tour just down the road from the Republican National Convention, at Cleveland's Agora Theater and Ballroom. Tom Morello, of Rage Against Machine, tells me the message of the new group is simple: "The world ain't gonna change itself. That's up to you."
I ask Chuck D, frontman for the legendary group Public Enemy, what's it like to be back on the front lines. "We never left the front line. As musicians, we have to be aware to point the people on the front line in the right direction. It's a serious time for some serious action," he tells me. "Tom Morello, guitarist for Rage Against the Machine and a well-known activist, describes Prophets of Rage as an 'elite task force of revolutionary musicians.'"
D tells me that Cypress and Public Enemy have heavily influenced the hip-hop side of Rage Against Machine—Cypress Hill rapper B-Real actually appears in the band's first-ever video, and the group has toured with Chuck D before. "When we wanted to bring these Rage Against the Machine songs, which were made for days like today, performing in front of the RNC, we wanted to be able to perform those songs with authentic voices," he says. "We wanted to be able to Rage-ify these records by Public Enemy and Cypress Hill to make one solid fist of hip-hop and rock 'n' roll power."
B-Real, a hip-hop legend, adds that he'd had the chance to work with Rage before, but it never materialized. "So when this came up, especially with the state of the world as it is, I thought it would be a great opportunity to say something different and use the platform the right way with artists I respect as musicians and as men for what they stand for," he says.
Photo by Jessica Lehrman
After the interview, we head downtown, closer to where the convention and surrounding fanfare are going down. As we arrive, it's super quiet—daily life in Cleveland has completely halted for this circus. I wasn't expecting the Purge or anything, but the media would have people believe that another Civil War was about to happen here. A local photographer tells me that the city is a ghost town this week because Cleveland residents don't want anything to do with the Republican National Convention. As far as I can tell, he's right—almost everyone who walks by has some kind of credentials hanging around their neck.
I start in one of the public squares, where I see three times as many photographers than there are people to shoot. It's almost like an outdoor press pit. Everyone is standing around looking for open-carry protesters or black activists to take pictures of, but instead all they find are Elect Jesus water bottles and food trucks. There's a very weird level of anxiety that comes from people who came to be in the shit and can't find it to save their lives.
All of the sudden a guy shows up in a T-shirt with "Tamir Rice Only" written in ink on the front. He is screaming into a megaphone that barely works, talking about being shot by a "pig," by which he means a dirty cop. Shouting into the megaphone, he claims that 85 percent of police departments have pigs in them. His speech is passionate, but slightly incoherent—people in the square are interested, but it's hard to keep up.
Still, he has 50 cameras filming him now as if he were holding an official press conference, only because he is the loudest voice in the park, standing at the highest point. It's amazing. It's sort of a metaphor for the political climate right now—the loudest voice wins.
About 30 feet away, a group with a working megaphone starts shouting about how they get pulled over all the time and haven't been shot yet. The guy speaking in the mouthpiece has a shirt on that says "Allah is Satan." Another one has a sign that says something about how every real Muslim is a jihadist. I ask a police officer standing nearby if he's conflicted about protecting those who spew such an unbelievable amount of hate. He gives me a look that lets me know it's not the first time he's had to do it and won't be the last.
Across the square, I see a Muslim man and a Jewish man standing together with semi-automatic weapons across their bodies. I take another loop around, and find a guy holding a sign that says, "Wanna Talk to a Racist?"
Then Alex Jones, the conspiratorial mastermind who runs InfoWars, shows up, marching into the square surrounded by a platoon of tight shirt-wearing goons. He pulls out his megaphone and starts calling people communists and terrorists. He tells people that they better get ready to get in line. And then somebody punches him. It's magnificent.
Suddenly, there are more than 100 cops in the square. The "Allah is Satan" guy is back, looking for attention and getting it. A group of Occupy protesters has arrived as well. What was a quiet, empty public square is now on the brink of chaos. The police de-escalation process is working, though, keeping the crowds at bay without worsening the situation. In a sea of "Fuck the Police" signs, they're showing some restraint—even when I have my own heated moment.
Eventually, I head to the Quicken Loans Arena, passing through several security checkpoints before I finally make it inside. I spot Eric Andre in line with a slice of pizza hanging in front of him on a string.
The setup in the stadium is impressive—like the best-looking festival buildout with the worst lineup in history. It's interesting to see how different states represent themselves: The Guam delegation with its ceremonial leis, the Kansas delegation decked out in Royals blue, a Louisiana delegate with a Mardi Gras hat on—and of course, the Texas delegation in all its ten-gallon glory. We hit the floor just as the roll-call vote to nominate the presidential candidate is about to start.
Reince Priebus, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, officially starts the convention. He's followed by House Speaker Paul Ryan, who's the official head of the convention, and reminds the delegates of the rules of nominations and nomination speeches. Then Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, one of the first high-profile backers of Trump, officially nominates his candidate, and the roll call commences, state by state, in alphabetical order. By the time they get to Arkansas, I pretty much get the gist.
I have a couple of drinks while I wait for Texas, my home-state delegation, to be called. Finally, Dan Patrick, the lieutenant governor and ranking crazy racist asshole, declares that Republicans from the great state of Texas—a state where Democrats are few and far between, and where every Texan has the back of every cop—would throw their support behind Trump, despite Senator Ted Cruz's win in the state's primary. It's a bit of a shocker, but I'm over this now. It's time to bounce.
Later, I head back to the Agora Theater to catch the Prophets of Rage performance. To say they killed it is an understatement. I haven't been in a mosh pit since high school, but on Tuesday night, I couldn't deny myself: My torn meniscus and I jumped my 43-year-old ass into the pit and went for it.
The release was liberating—absolutely cathartic. People of all colors and religious backgrounds pushing the shit out of one another for 90 minutes. Song starts. Music rises. The drop. Chaos ensues. Elbows fly. Heads butt. Half punches fly. Bodies slam into one another from random angles. How we don't break toes and ankles on every jump defies logic. The music ends. Wounds are nursed. People fight to catch their breath. Then we high five or hug that shit and go right back at it again.
It could be the perfect end to my evening. But it's not. Dripping with sweat, I throw my shirt and cap away, grab a POR shirt freshly copped from the merch booth, and keep moving. My last stop is a party thrown by a group called LGBTrump, which is perhaps unexpected, but I'm not surprised by anything at this point.
Outside, I hear some young Republicans nearby talking about a run in with the "BLM guys." Stand around any spot for five minutes in Cleveland this week, and you're bound to hear a story about Black Lives Matter—it seems like it's a badge of honor among Republicans here to be called a racist by someone in the movement. Soon, a group of young protesters walk up with a huge banner that says "Queers Against Racism!" I watch them for a few minutes, then realize it's almost midnight, and I've got much bigger fish to fry tomorrow. Time to call it a night.
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