On January 1, 2009, a young 4-year-old girl named Tatiana lost her father. He’d been murdered—another innocent victim of police brutality. A couple weeks later, Hip-hop artist Rukus wrote a letter to this young girl.
And in 30 minutes, the song “Dear Tatiana” developed into something he hoped would help her someday understand the reasons why.
Rukus read about the Oscar Grant story sometime after midnight. After watching the YouTube videos, sleep slowly slipped away from him. A quick phone call to his producer and a track by Kid Connect soon dropped through his speakers. Angry he wrote. Horrified he wrote. At around 4 a.m. he stuck with his first spoken flows. To personally connect with his sought out audience-of-one, he researched on Tatiana’s family—who they were, their names, and on some of the things she’d do with her father. At the time, he hadn’t even known her name.
I’ve listened to more than a handful of songs dedicated to Oscar Grant. But once I heard “Dear Tatiana” I was moved. I decided to interview Rukus and get his take on activism through creative expression. Via phone conversation, I learned a few things about Ruk. Namely, when he feels strongly about an issue, it’s impossible to get this conscious, poetic connoisseur to shut up.
Music can be a catalyst for social change—when its words catch media attention, sheds light on injustices, and move souls to activism.
It begins with one—like the time a fan decided to stop buying diamonds after hearing Ruk’s rhymes about the abuse enslaved diamond miners experience in some African countries. But today, change begins with a letter to a 4-year-old little girl.
CJF: What is the name of the piece (creative expression) that you wrote for Oscar Grant and what was your purpose behind it?
RUK: Dear Tatiana” is the name of the song, produced by Kid Connect. It’s an open letter to Oscar Grant’s 4-year-old daughter, Tatiana, and to her family. I thought to myself, how do you explain to a 4 year old that her father is dead? And how do I help her understand in the most non-violent gentle way? I wanted it to be more of a conversation than a song.
The situation angered me. People are gonna’ march. People are gonna’ protest. There’s gonna’ be a big court battle. Hopefully this guy will end up going to prison. But at the end of the day when the dust is settled, when the last person has marched and put down their picket sign, there’s still gonna’ be a young girl that doesn’t have a father.
CJF: What was it about Oscar Grant’s death that moved you to do this project?
RUK: There’s always another side of the story. You hear about people who go to jail. You hear about the people who are killed, the actions that cause it to happen and its consequences. But we rarely think about who is left behind.
The stereotype is that black men tend not to stay around or be in their children’s lives. I’m not saying [Oscar Grant] was perfect, but he loved his daughter. In a place where there is not much opportunity, he was trying to build himself a family, and make the most of what he had. Then Johannes Mehserle, abused his little power.
[Mehserle] changed the path of at least five lives: He killed Oscar Grant. Left a child fatherless. Left his fiance husband-less. His mother and father without their son—a city a in grief and anger—people protesting—wrong people turning it into a riot. You just shot an innocent man and that could never be reversed.
“At the end of the day when the dust is settled, when the last person has marched and put down their picket sign, there’s still gonna’ be a young girl that doesn’t have a father.”
CJF: Why did you choose to use the arts as your act of protest? And when did you start thinking differently about your rapping?
RUK: Music is my activism. I use to rap about what I heard. In college, I’d free style. “You know I got these hoes right here. I got this cash right here. I’m moving the Bentley…” Then I quit rapping for a year and a half. I started doing poetry and got into its whole artistry and manipulation of words. If you’re a dude, you start off writing a poem about some girl you like. How her eyes are like the sun across the mountains (laughs). But as you find your voice you start to write about the things that touch you. What touches me are people—people at a disadvantage in life, born into unfortunate circumstances, who don’t have any control over getting outside of certain situations without outside help.
I rap from that angle. It’s easy to keep recycling the talk of money, cash and girls…but how many people can talk in a fresh manner about issues relevant to the global society.
CJF: Many people have produced songs, written poetry, created artwork, etc., in honor of Oscar Grant. These creative visionaries, protest against the injustice of police brutality, discrimination, prejudice, racism, and white privilege. What are you protesting with this piece?
RUK: All of the above, that’s a given. However, another thing I’m protesting is self-hatred. In the black community, we kill each other. We kill self. We complain about when a white man shoots black man and we protest. But no one protests when a black man kills another black man.
I’m not deeply conscious all the time. I go to the club. I’ll holler at a chick if I think she’s a fine girl and is on point. If I see a nice car I want to hop in it. We’re human. But we gotta’ think outside ourselves. Things aren’t perfect [in this world]. I try to rap in my voice and for the people whose voices aren’t normally heard.
CJF: Do you believe that creative expression can influence social change?
RUK: A lot of people are at a tremendous disadvantage. Just because President Obama is in office doesn’t mean there’s no discrimination. We’re an imperialistic country. A lot of people live in poverty in other countries and here in America. As someone who is Nigerian, I know how it is in other African countries and in other third world countries.
I read about what George Clooney and Brad Pitt are doing for Darfur. They used their popularity as actors and leveraged that to get political and financial support to a war-torn country and that’s the same kind of thing that I want to do.
I’m not interested in being a millionaire. If my purpose on this earth is to affect and touch someone’s life, I’m more interested in those numbers.
CJF: What do you want the general public to take from your piece?
Three things: One, there is always someone left behind when acts of violence are committed. Two, Oscar Grant’s death was not in vain. He leaves a legacy of change and awareness. He serves as a martyr and now more people are aware of police brutality. And lastly, music does not have to be about violence, girls, money or cars. Art is meant to move you.
Listen to “Dear Tatiana”:
For those outside the San Francisco Bay Area news sphere: Early morning on New Year’s Day, 22-year-old Oscar Grant III was shot and killed in Oakland, California by a Bay Area Rapid Transit agency police officer. Grant was unarmed. The young black man’s arms shackled behind his back. His face—pressed down against the cement. Onlookers video-phoned the horrific spectacle as his life was taken from him.