At the risk of revealing too much of my own musical predilections, I, like many British grime fans, clambered over myself to listen to rapper Dave’s new album, We’re All Alone in This Together. The South-London emcee, born David Orobosa Omoregie, the youngest of three sons to a now-deported Nigerian pastor and his nurse wife, is known for his clever wordplay and erudite socio-political observations; prior to focusing on his music career, Omoregie was due to study law, so his attention to language and canny knack for double-entendre ought to come as no surprise. Even so, I was taken by a line on the album’s first, semi-titular track, “We’re All Alone”: You see what happens when you got the fuckin’ game in a vice/We’re all alone.
The first bar comes as the conclusion to a boastful list of excesses – The flight is to Santorini/The car is a Lamborghini – but the second, We’re all alone, comes out almost half-spit; deflated, resigned, and angry as the thumping drum beat dissolves into a melodic piano riff. The meaning (or double-meaning) here is rather simple, but made no less poignant for it: it is lonely at the top, yes, but being at the top does not necessarily alleviate one’s loneliness.
As I continued to think about this issue’s title, Unequal, and related (loose) theme of inequality, Dave’s lyrics reminded me of both the multiplicitous axes on which inequality can be charted, as well as what it is that we talk about when we talk about such issues. We often discuss inequality in rather brutal, factual terms, bolstered by numerically-illustrated disparities that are both easily digestible and viscerally disturbing. In this vein, we know that the gender pay gap across all jobs in the UK was 15.5% in 2020, we know that Black Americans are 3.23 times more likely to be killed by police than their white counterparts, and we know that 22% of the British population lives in poverty after housing costs are considered, while 23% of the nation’s wealth is held by the top 1% (in the US, this number is about 30%). But while these numbers are startling, they are rather one-dimensional – yes, gender, race, and economic status (amongst other, comparable metrics) are important factors in our lives, but they are also entwined in our everyday, and are often confronted experientially and intersectionally. That is to say, it seems that collective discourse can often neglect that wage disparity, racism, poverty, et cetera, are not experienced as the simple ticking over of numbers as if on airport’s timetable, but together, and sometimes all at once, amidst – and exacerbated by – the already trying vagaries of life.
Magnifying this line of thought, one remembers how unwieldy these taxonomic brackets become when deployed in any kind of humanistic fashion: inequality of one sort or another is almost universal, while those affected most pointedly experience it in ways that are necessarily ever-expanding, through the debilitating burden of difference and need. Similarly, it is not reserved for the individual but bleeds across communities and generations, while its residue and aftermaths are complex and insidious. Fittingly, in the same song, Dave raps, What’s the point of bein’ rich when your family ain’t? This is in part why the title of this issue is Unequal and not Inequality: we’re interested in exploring what it means to be or feel unequal, in all of its human complexities.
But I want to return to Dave’s line and linger on this thought: We’re all alone. What doesn’t seem to be mentioned enough in the discourse surrounding inequality is the foundational metric at hand: the ability to live a contented life. To be sure, there is nothing inherently wrong with the abstract notion of inequality; we have no divine dictum stating that we all must be equal in every way, only for its own sake. Indeed, the “categories” of inequality are not merely denotations of difference, but markers of the terms on which people are denied the opportunity to pursue (in very American terms) life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We once again remember the manifold and inexact ways in which human beings suffer under the weight of inequality, as well as the universality with which all people, in one way or another, exist within the global systems that created the very terms in which we understand the world. From the perspective of this broadened approach, many of the world’s most damning failures sit not on the stratum necessarily of class, or gender, or race, but on that of the consistent and continuous assertion of both an “I” and a “You,” along with the tools to uphold as much, in conditions of increasing sparsity. It now feels like the tired mantra of socialist hacks and tongue-in-cheek memes, but there is a weighty truth concerning the all-encompassing conditions of late capitalism and the environments it births: The continual extraction of labor as deleterious to our planet and successive generations of young people with an alarming need to give up their time, energy, and funds for increasingly little in return, forever in competition for resources of all types. To boot, the conditions of the past eighteen months have made it perhaps as difficult as it has ever been within our lifetimes to organize, not only politically, but personally: to celebrate together, to grieve together, to laugh together, to hug together, to fight together, to fuck together, to live together, to die together. The vast majority of us, regardless of the taxonomic bracket with which we identify, seem to be living with an ever-lessening ability to guarantee secure living conditions through stable employment, on a planet that is well on its way to making living, securely or otherwise, a near-impossibility.
In “We’re All Alone,” the piano riff eventually fades, and Dave goes on to make peace with his conclusion: I tell my fans we’re all alone in this together/You can trust me, all the shit that you been feelin’, you’re feelin’ with me/We all took the wrong turns in different streets/We all cry the same tears on different cheeks. At the crux of the song lies the argument that we are indeed alone, but that the pain and difficulty of that aloneness fosters (a kind of) community. Extending this thinking into practice, the kind of community at hand dictates that we must still continue to work collectively for the rectification of gross inequalities, if not for collective, future value, then for the sake of helping those around us achieve standards of living which we all should be afforded. Likewise, we must not discard inequalities that are not our own – however they may present themselves – as the stuff of abstract politics, and not simply one’s burden preventing them from making the most of universally unforgiving circumstances. However, this thinking implores us to go beyond the somewhat arbitrary delineations of political affiliation, presumed status (or lack thereof), and a host of other assumptions we make concerning who has it better or worse than ourselves. Dave’s message to the listener is not an affirmation of the communal – he recognizes intrinsic differences in our collective experiences – but of the commonality of pain, and the ability for that pain to function as a unifying foundation for kindness, decency, and purpose.