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Fresher Fields Than Houston: Wilfred Owen, Z-Ro and the Apocalypse of Imperialism

by M.C. Zendejas
“One must wonder, however, whether this complicity characterizes imperialism as unchangeable, or merely recognizes that immediate change is impossible, that change is not a single event but a historical process. After all, if we are to dare to invent tomorrow’s utopia we must first start by acknowledging today’s dystopia, beginning with our place in it.”

At the age of twenty-five, exactly a week before armistice bells rang throughout Europe, British poet Wilfred Owen was killed in action during World War I.[1] Houston rapper Z-Ro was not much older when his 2006 album I’m Still Livin’ debuted as he served time in a Texas prison.[2] While the former wrote from the frontlines of a war where “instead of the undivided monopoly of Great Britain, we see a few imperialist powers contending for the right to share in this monopoly,”[3] the other writes in the oil capital of contemporary America, where much of the spoils gained in modern imperialist wars are refined and thereby made sellable, yet almost none of this profit is seen by the working class. It is in this way that, because of their differences across time and space, each artist extends the other’s project to a more totalized view and serves as an example of how the human experience is directly tied to politics, economics, sociology and history. While the oeuvres of Z-Ro and Wilfred Owen may initially be interpreted as “seemingly disparate phenomena,”[4] when taken together, they allow for a comprehensive look at the cost of imperialism across continents and generations, both at home and abroad, which leaves readers and listeners with a searing critique of the system, and a discomforting look at both Z-Ro and Wilfred Owen’s complicity, as well as our own.

Though neither artist directly mentions imperialism in their work, once readers historicize each, it becomes clear the material conditions[5] within which both Wilfred Owen and Z-Ro were active in are undoubtedly imperialistic. To do this, one must reach beyond Z-Ro’s city streets and Owen’s Flanders’ fields, as their work is in direct response to these conditions, and take the socio-historical, political-economic factors surrounding each text into account. Without recognizing that someone did not merely decide to “die as cattle”[6] at random, that no one chooses, of their own volition, to start “sleepin’ on the same bench for nine days,”[7] but rather that such choices are resultant of a political, and therefore cultural, system, we miss the forest for the trees as far as Owen and Z-Ro’s political and artistic projects are concerned. But before we can truly dive into either artists’ opus, we must first define the material conditions surrounding each of their works as imperialistic.

This poses a unique challenge in that, as aforementioned, Wilfred Owen never mentions imperialism in his work. Not directly, at least. In fact, he goes as far as to say his work isn’t concerned with matters pertaining to “deeds, or lands […] might, majesty, dominion, or power;”[8] and yet, whether he acknowledged it or not, the specters of each of these aspects of imperialism continue to haunt much, if not all, of Owen’s work. It is impossible to ignore all of these things and solely focus on “War, and the pity of War,”[9] as Owen sought to do, because neither war nor its pity occur in a vacuum.

After Owen is historicized, readers will understand that some men ceased “feeling / Even themselves or for themselves”[10] simply because Britain, for fear of Germany’s “strong economy, large population and powerful armed forces,” joined the Triple Entente,[11] and thus dragged its citizens into World War I. This, along with Britain’s previous feud with France over colonies in North Africa,[12] which also played a factor in their WWI involvement, characterize Owen’s world, which “Lie dark for ever under abysmal war,”[13] as well as the material conditions that begat such abysmal wars, by-definition imperialistic.

Owen’s visceral descriptions of the world around him saw a revolutionary potential come to partial-fruition during the protests against the Vietnam War, a period in which Owen’s work saw a posthumous revival that far outmatched any success he found in life.[14] It would thus seem that Owen’s work is able to be extrapolated to conditions beyond its spatiotemporal origins. Such extrapolation is possible because Owen’s work was written in direct response to imperialist conditions, and can therefore be said to be applicable—with certain material-historical differences considered—to any such conditions, including the war against Vietnam and, many would argue, those launched by contemporary America.[15]

Since Owen, oil has become the predominant natural resource sought in the “dark pits / Of war.”[16] A little over a third of this oil will be refined in Texas, whose 27 refineries make it the epicenter of the U.S. oil industry.[17] Many of these refineries are located in Z-Ro’s native Houston,[18] which is infamous for its lack of zoning laws. Along with rampant gentrification, this has resulted in the construction of toxic chemical plants and oil refineries in the backyards of predominantly marginalized communities, many of whom work these factories. These workers are then left to suffer the ecological and physical consequences of rendering imperialist plunder saleable.[19]

Because the system itself remains unchanged, such conditions are reminiscent of Owen’s Miners, where despite the fact that “The centuries will burn rich loads / With which we groaned, / […] they will not dream of us poor lads / lost in the ground.”[20] This preponderance of the oil industry, combined with the fact that Houston “is also one of the worst [cities in the country] for minorities when it comes to racial segregation and education and poverty gaps, according to an analysis by the Urban Institute,”[21] allows Z-Ro’s hometown to be conceptualized as the heart of imperialism, characterized by Lenin as the “highest stage of capitalism,” where we see a merging of finance and industrial capital coupled with the exportation of said capital.[22] This illustrates how, much like Owen’s, Z-Ro’s material conditions are by-definition imperialistic. We have, then, across time and space, one author writing from the literal frontlines of imperialism, surrounded by “granites which titanic wars had groined,”[23] and another rapping from its heart; and yet, despite their spatiotemporal differences, they both speak—one from a civilian standpoint, the other from a foot soldier’s perspective—to a variety of ways in which imperialism affects how one lives, starting with one’s relation to the state.

Z-Ro brings his work into conversation with Owen’s when he ties imperialist-driven nationalistic violence—similar to what Owen experienced with “The old Lie : Dulce et decorum est / Pro patria mori”[24]—to his experience as a black man in the heart of imperialism when saying “That’s why they proud to be an American, what about my Negro people, look how they stare at them with evil eyes, they hang a brother daily.”[25] In this way, we may see Z-Ro as extending Owen’s project to a more totalizing perspective that recognizes imperialist nationalism as dependent not only on war and death abroad, but exploitive, racist brutalization within the domestic sphere as well. This more encompassing view—which merges both the violence of “War, and the pity of War,”[26] with the violence of war-on-the-poor, and the majority black and brown individuals that comprise said socioeconomic structures—allows us to examine the various factors that drive such a system, as well as how said systems change—or don’t change— over time.

While the nature of imperialism can be said to have altered on a superficial level, the overall goal of securing hegemony remains the same. This quest for hegemony manifests in the type of diplomacy that sent Owen to cower beneath “the wailing of the high far-travelling shells;”[27] and its ideological-descendant can be seen in modern America’s current diplomatic stance, which continues to emphasize militant patriotism, resulting in a foreign policy that proclaims “Peace would do wrong to our undying dead.”[28] This sort of nationalism, which amounts to a type of hagiography of the state, is something Owen was castigated for speaking out against in a time when any “Father would sooner [his son] dead than in disgrace.”[29] But in Z-Ro’s America, where social media, independent investigative journalism and veteran testimonies have only left a few unconvinced that “They keep no check on armies’ decimation,”[30] awareness of this system has not only grown, but so has resistance to it.

In light of such resistance, there has been a corresponding increase in the deployment of various state forces, such as police, to repress these nascent movements before they can even form. The resulting over-policing of certain communities has been a breeding ground for brutality, where many still find their experience succinctly encapsulated when Z-Ro says “I ain’t killed nobody, but still rough is how they handle me.”[31] Thus, if the military can be seen as securing imperial interests abroad, the police can be seen as maintaining it at home. It is this tension with imperialist states’ abuse of power that almost immediately connects both artists’ work. This tension with state expressions of force is a particularly fascinating through-line to investigate in both oeuvres because Z-Ro’s work demands readers respect “the specificity and radical difference of the social and cultural past while disclosing the solidarity of its polemics and […] struggles with those of the present day”[32] by situating such tension amidst a systemic racism that Owen, by virtue of his socio-historical and therefore politico-economic conditions, simply could not bear witness to. There are, however, many factors of living under imperialism that both artists are clearly interested in commenting on.

Among these factors is a kind of toxic masculinity, and the promise of glory that drives it, reflected in Z-Ro’s 2009 mixtape No Nutt No Glory. Olson further discusses how many believed the only way a man could “please his Meg”[33] was to pursue said “Path of Glory,”[34] which more closely resembles the “appearance of a titan’s grave”[35] given its destructive wake, a wake which is not confined to “one corner of a foreign field / But a span as wide as Europe,”[36] much like the warpath his division was fighting along. Such portrayals tie views of manhood and glory under imperialism to state-sanctioned violence, showing readers how man’s sense-of-self is systemically impacted.

 This already-fractured sense-of-self, in a commodity-driven society, results in many viewing war as nothing more than a chance to receive “jeweled hilts / For daggers in plaid socks,”[37] which shows that conceptualizations of masculinity under imperialism are not confined to glory but, like everything else under the highest stage of capitalism, also reflect an economic self-interest as well. This economic aspect to manhood is echoed across time and space when Z-Ro says a real man “brings the bacon home.”[38] While their economized view of manhood shows readers how a system which attempts to price-tag everything affects how one defines masculinity, further investigation of both oeuvres demonstrates how such a system affects one’s psychology in general.    

It becomes obvious that the violence needed to perpetuate imperialism is not without cost; many pay with their sanity. This goes for those enforcing corporate interests abroad who, as Owen did on a daily basis, wish for an end to the “bombs, […] ours or Theirs,”[39] or those in the domestic sphere who, despite the profit made from their government’s plundering, find it difficult “Trying to make a dollar out of a nickel and a dime”[40] due to the systemic racism imperialism thrives on, illuminated by Z-Ro when he expounds on how even “KFC and McDonalds don’t wanna hire me.”[41] Both conditions entail a precarious existence, acknowledged when Z-Ro observes “Damn, these city streets are full of yellow tape.”[42] It is in this way that imperialism puts not only its foot-soldiers, but also its citizens, in “constant danger.”[43] This near-constant “tease and doubt of shelling—”[44] be it literal, “a jacker, trying to get you at the light,”[45] an enemy combatant, or the state shelling one with evictions and bills they cannot pay—not only affects how someone interacts with their fellow man, who is rendered into nothing more than “gaps for filling,”[46] but also how they interact with themselves and their own emotional wellbeing.

If one wishes to maintain even a semblance of “The former happiness,”[47] before systemic machinations leave them in a state where “Sunlight seems a blood-smear; night comes blood-black,”[48] if one wishes to avoid the gnawing sensation of when “Memory fingers in their hair of murders,”[49] they must “cease feeling / Even themselves or for themselves,”[50] as “Dullness best solves”[51] the ceaseless worry of being “another murder case, in back of that black truck.”[52] However, such dissociation, useful as it is in times when there is “no sadness sadder than our hope,”[53] has its consequences. While much is made of the “shellshock,” now known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), that Owen suffered from upon returning from the warfront, popular conceptualizations of the disorder are almost universally-limited to warzones.

Despite the fact that it would certainly apply to the inner-cities of imperialism, where “eighty percent of my partners are dead, the rest in prison, all I see is the struggle, my tears drown my vision,”[54] diagnoses of PTSD hardly occur. This effectively means many are not getting the treatment they need as no one, not those provided training as Owen was by the British military, and especially not civilians such as Z-Ro, can “dodge bullets on the daily”[55] without feeling as though “Misery swelters. Surely we have perished / Sleeping, and walk hell.”[56] Echoing Owen’s feelings of hopelessness, Z-Ro notes that he’s “twenty-seven but I’m feelin’ seventy-one […] I wish I could move around, but I feel I can’t escape,”[57] giving listeners a bone-chilling, yet unapologetic, look into what it takes to uphold imperialist interests in a society that, while differing starkly from the one Owen went to war in, remains the same in its exploitive, brutal political-economic system.

 It is through their bodies of work that the “social origins of the narrative material”[58] leave readers and listeners with a “testimony to a modification of the experience of the subject in consumer […] monopoly capitalism,”[59] otherwise defined by Lenin as “imperialism.” However, readers and listeners who may be tempted to fight for change in such societies after encountering these artists will discover their predicament is not a Manichean one with a clearly-defined foe. Rather, what they are introduced to is a paradox only such totalizing systems can produce: a universalized complicity.

This complicity, we learn, is ultimately not optional. Should Owen have refused any orders to save himself visions of people “yelling out and stumbling / And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime,”[60] he’d have joined the over three-hundred British soldiers murdered by their own government for “cowardice.”[61] Should Z-Ro not wake up every day and echo the exploitive, individualistic system he feels trapped by when thinking “I just want my money; and not one of my fake ass homeboys gonna get nothin’ from me,”[62] he would run the risk of being houseless and hungry once again. One may argue that each artist had their options and made their choice, but such arguments fail to recognize the socio-historic conditions each was swept up by. When both artists are properly historicized in their ruthlessly-nationalist cultural environments, and all the propaganda said environments entail[63], it becomes clear that each is actually another victim of imperialism. Perhaps more disturbing, however, is that neither artist is content with simply illuminating their partaking in the system. Instead, they force readers and listeners to take a long hard look at how they themselves are also bound up in these same destructive relations. 

When asking “Why speak not they of comrades that went under,”[64] Owen not only causes readers to take a moment and consider the violence at the heart of everyday existence, but how, in their voiceless-ness, they too are active in this erasure, and thereby are active in the perpetuation of systemic violence. Much like how Z-Ro’s 1998 album title, Look What You Did to Me, causes listeners to uneasily acknowledge how their privilege, or lack thereof, is the direct result of manmade decisions with far-reaching repercussions, Owen also implicates his readers when describing wounded veterans in a hospital as “Pawing at us who dealt them war and madness.”[65] One must wonder, however, whether this complicity characterizes imperialism as unchangeable, or merely recognizes that immediate change is impossible, that change is not a single event but a historical process. After all, if we are to dare to invent tomorrow’s utopia we must first start by acknowledging today’s dystopia, beginning with our place in it.

Neither Z-Ro nor Wilfred Owen created their art in a vacuum. Rather, both artists’ oeuvres were in direct response to a socio-historical system shaped by politico-economic actions. As such, the implications of either artist on history and society cannot be fully realized until this historical context is accounted for. Upon doing so, it becomes clear both artists are speaking to various aspects of a single system that, though it has slightly altered over the course of decades, across continents even, remains unchanged at its brutal heart. When put in conversation with one another, each artist seems to account for something the other missed: be it domestic matters of systemic racism or international foreign policy concerns. What topics the two do have in common—the toxic masculinity created by imperialist conditions, the effects of the imperialist system on one’s psychology in general and how all this affects their relationship with the state and society at large—are not mere insights into imperialism, but the first steps to abolishing it.


Endnotes

Owen, Wilfred, C. Day Lewis. The Collected Poems of Wilfred Owen. New York, New York: New Directions Pub. Co., 1965.

“Z-Ro Bio.” Last.Fm, November 8, 2019. https://www.last.fm/music/Z-Ro/+wiki.

Lenin, Vladimir Ilʹich. Imperialism: the Highest Stage of Capitalism. Beijing, Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1965.

Jameson, Fredric. The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act. London, England: Routledge, 1981.

Z-Ro. Look What You Did to Me. CD. Z-Ro. Texas, 1998: Houston.

The National Archives. “Why Did Britain Go to War? Background.” The National Archives. The National Archives, January 27, 2004. https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/education/greatwar/g2/backgroundcs1.htm.

Ricketts, Harry. “Wilfred Owen: The ’60s Poet.” World War I Centenary. University of Oxford. Accessed October 4, 2020. http://ww1centenary.oucs.ox.ac.uk/aftermath/owen-the-60s-poet/.

Walton, Justin. “The U.S. States That Produce the Most Oil.” Investopedia. Investopedia, August 28, 2020. https://www.investopedia.com/articles/investing/100515/us-states-produce-most-oil.asp.

Refinery Maps. “Texas Oil & Gas Refinery Health & Safety Issues Map.” Texas Oil Refineries Map. Accessed September 4, 2020. https://www.refinerymaps.com/Texas.html.

Crawford, Julianne. “Environmental Racism in Houston’s Harrisburg/Manchester Neighborhood.” Future Bay Initiative. Future Bay Initiative, March 15, 2018. http://bay.stanford.edu/blog/2018/3/15/environmental-racism-in-houstons-harrisburgmanchester-neighborhood.

Schuetz, R.A. “Study Finds Houston Leads Most Cities in Racial, Economic and Poverty Disparities.” HoustonChronicle.com. Houston Chronicle, September 19, 2020. https://www.houstonchronicle.com/business/article/Study-finds-Houston-leads-most-cities-in-racial-15579190.php.

Z-Ro. Crooked Officer. CD. Z-Ro. Texas, 2004: Houston.

Z-Ro. Paid My Dues. CD. Z-Ro. Texas, 2008: Houston.

Z-Ro. City Streets. CD. Z-Ro. Texas, 2006: Houston.

Trueman, C. (2015, March 31). World War One executions. Retrieved October 14, 2020, from https://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/world-war-one/the-western-front-in-world-war-one/world-war-one-executions/

Z-Ro. Call My Phone. CD. Z-Ro. Texas, 2008: Houston.


[1] Owen, 23

[2] Last.fm, 1

[3] Lenin, Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism, 284

[4] Jameson, pg. 25. This signifies my paper will attempt to, in Jameson’s words, use “dialectical philosophy and Marxism […] to break out of the specialized compartments of the disciplines and to make connections among the seemingly disparate phenomena of social life […]”

[5] “Material conditions” can here be defined in the Marxist sense, comprising of the tangible aspects of how a society produces its necessities, and all that said tangible aspects help shape, from evolving political structures to patterns of thought.

[6] Owen, pg. 44

[7] Z-Ro, Look What, 1:47

[8] Owen, pg. 31

[9]Ibid.

[10] Owen, 37

[11] The UK’s national archives.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Owen, 111

[14] Ricketts, 1

[15] For further elucidation on the US as a modern imperialist state see: Greenwald’s The U.S.—Supported Coup in Bolivia Continues to Produce Repression and Tyranny, While Revealing How U.S. Media Propaganda Works, in The Intercept, July 23, 2020.

[16] Owen, 91

[17] Walton, 1

[18] Refinery Maps, 1

[19] Crawford, 1.

[20] Owen, 91-92

[21] Schuetz, 1

[22] Lenin, Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism

[23] Owen, 35

[24] Owen, 55

[25] Z-Ro, Crooked Officer, 1:34

[26] Owen, 31

[27] Owen, 129

[28] Owen, 77

[29] Owen, 74

[30] Owen, 37

[31] Z-Ro, Crooked Officer, :13

[32] Jameson, Pg. 2

[33] Owen, 67

[34] Owen, 108

[35] Ibid.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Owen, 67

[38] Z-Ro, Paid My Dues, 1:04

[39] Owen, 84.

[40] Z-Ro, City Streets, 1:08.

[41] Z-Ro, City Streets, 1:12.

[42] Z-Ro, City Streets, 3:33.

[43] Z-Ro, City Streets, 1:15

[44] Owen, 37.

[45] Z-Ro, City Streets, 2:47.

[46] Owen, 37.

[47] Owen, 93

[48] Owen, 69

[49] Ibid.

[50] Owen, 37.

[51] Ibid.

[52] Z-Ro, City Streets, 3:31.

[53] Owen, 93

[54] Z-Ro, City Streets, 3:11

[55] Z-Ro, City Streets, 3:27

[56] Owen, 69.

[57] Z-Ro, City Streets, 3:20-3:36

[58] Jameson, 110

[59] Jameson, 111

[60] Owen, 55

[61] Trueman, 1

[62] Z-Ro, Call My Phone, :20

[63] For further elucidation on this topic the author recommends Michael Parenti’s Inventing Reality.

[64] Owen, 52

[65] Owen, 69


About the Writer: M.C. Zendejas is an educator who studies for a fiction MFA at UMass Amherst. He is an inaugural recipient of the Hong Kim Czuprynski Fellowship as well as a fellow in the inaugural cohort of the Emerging Writers Fellowship given by Writers in the Schools (WITS). His work is featured in: Five2One Magazine, Liberation News, Acentos Review and elsewhere. You may find him on Twitter @mikeafff.

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