If you’ve ever seen an episode of the famed horror/sci-fi show The Twilight Zone, you’ll know that it’s not always a monster or alien that provides the most spine-tingling fright. More often than not, it’s a spotlight being thrown on a cultural flaw or a small tweak of a societal norm that makes viewers twinge with uncomfortability. It’s when that feeling becomes so formidable and authentic that fear begins to blossom, as the honest and ugly truth rears it’s head in a straightforward and critical manner.
Therefore, it seems fitting that “Thieves! (Screamed the Ghost)”, a new track from Run the Jewels 3, begins with a sample of audio ripped straight from the intro of a Twilight Zone episode. In the song, El-P and Killer Mike paint a chilling portrait full of ghosts and zombies, yet it’s an outright reflection of modern society, highlighting the all-too-common deaths of African-American men at the hands of white police officers.
The audio taken from The Twilight Zone starts the song off with a simple message: the scenario being shown is a future possibility, though it is not one of alternate reality; it is an “extension” of the reality we are already living in. Before we even hear anything from Mike and El, it’s made evident that the situation is a very real possibility, and one that is bound to happen should society continue to follow the track that it’s on. That track, as it turns out, is one leading to total revolution, something the bombastic duo have referenced a number of times in their music. By making this directional flow so clear, the idea of us falling into a Twilight Zone scenario is no longer far-fetched, but comes into focus as a reality that seems just as alarming as it is imminent.
From there, Mike and El let off their respective verses, both of which deal with them speaking to ghosts. Mike’s verse takes on the idea of rioting and looting, a common discussion topic and theme that occurs in the aftermath of a shooting. While fires rage and violence take hold of the night, the oppressed people that take part feel the pain and anguish that fills the hearts of the victim’s family. Though they may not have known him, they know his struggle, because they too live it every day, and his metaphorical spirit, or his ghost, takes part in the new defiance. This verse represents where society currently stands, the keg of gunpowder that could erupt with one more event. While many major news outlets are quick to condemn the actions of rioters following such shootings, it’s the pent up frustration and anger of the oppressed that needs a release.
El takes it a step further in his verse. Also visited by a ghost, he discusses the ever-rising number of those who have fallen at the hands of the police. The ghost, possibly the same one that visited Mike, says that there’s now an army of those wrongly murdered, and that their memory and spirit that lives on through those rioting is their weapon. Yet, they are no longer content with taking part in the rioting; they’re going to teach EVERYBODY how to remember, especially those in the system that led to their demise. The last two lines of the verse sum up the feeling of contempt:
Fears been law for so long that rage feels like therapy/Nobody gets no more sleep til we teach them remembering.
In this, the ghost and El are voicing the beginning of the revolt. All those who have been held in fear and oppression are ready to lash out, and until the system is fixed, the voices of the dead will continue to cry out through the living. From here, the revolution is starting and we move into the future reality that’s being proposed in the song’s message.
After these first two verses, there’s a hook of sorts that features a cold, ghostly voice repeating the exclamation “thieves”. It’s easy here to see that the ghosts of the murdered are out for revenge. They’re back to avenge the lives that were stolen from them by the police, and this exclamation is their battle cry.
The third verse features El taking on the character of a news reporter who witnessed the start of the revolution. Interestingly, it wasn’t with the firing of a gun, but instead with the raising of the dead. At the spot of a recent police shooting (“Right at the spot where the blood’s still drying”), the zombies who were wronged by the establishment take their position to overthrow the riot police. The “army of armed men” are stricken by fear when they see what’s happening, and the dead surround them saying “Look what you’ve done, you designed it!”, leaving no doubt as to who they blame for their oppression and death.
Now that it’s all out war, Mike reappears for a fourth verse in which the living join the ranks of the undead with guns and bombs. They are on the hunt for those guilty of killing God’s children, the time of recompense has come. Mike taunts the opposition, saying there’s no escaping the new order and karma will find them. He finishes the verse with an intimidating promise to those in the establishment: “A pound of flesh is what you owe/Your debt is due, give up your ghost”. That debt is owed to society, and the guilty must pay for it with their own lives.
After an extended hook that continues to point the finger, the song ends with a clip of Martin Luther King, Jr. explaining that rioting is not something that should be so quickly condemned. It’s the result of conditions that stem from the belittling of certain members of society, and those conditions need to be dealt with if change is expected. The song finishes with his words, “A riot is the language of the unheard”. Those under the hard hand of the establishment have no other way of expressing their anguish, and a riot is their final resort. This harkens back to the idea in the first two verses about the ghosts taking part in the rioting. Those murdered by the establishment don’t have their own voices, but must work through those who can enact change in the real world. That is, of course, until they start coming back to life.
The story of “Thieves! (Screamed the Ghost)” is one straight out of a horror film, but one that accurately represents the state of American society and the racial tension that grows with every news cycle. Killer Mike and El-P have always been hugely vocal on the issue, but this track serves as a gut-wrenching reminder that people’s children continue to die, and the pain isn’t going anywhere. Though there won’t be any undead rising or ghost armies anytime soon, what it stands to represent is that the American people should be scared, but not by who they think. This isn’t an episode from The Twilight Zone (yet), it’s a horror lived by people everyday, and Mike and El won’t rest until they snap you into it or die trying.