Bobby Sessions looks like he’s suffocating. His words are rushed and increasingly incomprehensible as he drops to his knees. He’s not asking for help; he’s just trying to tell you something. The hundreds of people around you are holding their fists high. You probably are too.
At each of his live shows, Sessions breaks mid-set for an a cappella performance of his song “Black America,” in which he recounts the 2014 choking death of Eric Garner at the hands of New York City police. Before he begins, he asks the audience to raise their fists in solidarity with his own cousin, James Harper, who was shot and killed by a Dallas cop seven years ago.
Sessions could become the next Texas rapper to capture the national spotlight. In February 2018, he signed a deal with Def Jam Recordings—the iconic hip-hop label that’s been home to artists like Run-DMC, the Beastie Boys, Jay-Z, and Kanye West—after being recruited by newly named CEO Paul Rosenberg. Last year, he had the title song on the soundtrack for The Hate U Give, a film adaptation of a best-selling young-adult novel about the aftermath of a police shooting of an unarmed African-American teen. The video for the song was shot in the South Dallas neighborhood where Harper was killed. On the track, Sessions raps:
Had enough of defeat from another police
Officer they offin’ us with no punishment
The Government will turn against you
Speak the truth before they cough and get you
With his music, Sessions looks to inspire his fans to manifest their desires, as when he wrote down the goal of being signed to Def Jam and taped it to his fridge for years before that became a reality. What he most wishes to manifest now, though, is the justice that he believes his cousin has long been denied.
On August 29, former Dallas police officer Brian Rowden was found not liable in a wrongful death civil lawsuit filed by Harper’s family. The next day, Sessions called on Dallas County district attorney John Creuzot via Twitter to reopen the criminal investigation, alleging a cover-up. He also tweeted police photos of Harper’s body, lying in the dirt with a cut below his left eye. In another tweet that has since been deleted, he wrote: “Many people did not know how bad the Emmett Till incident was until photos were shared. James Harper was beaten and killed for no lawful reason. The officer said he got tired and thought James had a gun so he killed him. My cousin was unarmed!!!” He provided a phone number for Creuzot’s office and encouraged his followers to join his protest by contacting the DA. The district attorney’s office did not respond to Texas Monthly’s request for a comment on the possibility of reopening an investigation into Harper’s death.
On that awful day back in 2012, Sessions was on a break from his job at Walmart when he learned on Twitter that an unarmed black man had been killed by police in South Dallas’s Dixon Circle community. Sessions’s grandmother’s house was in the neighborhood, and he still had family and friends living there. Still, it wasn’t until his mother texted him “Call me” that he learned it was his 31-year-old cousin who’d been killed. “It was one of the numbest feelings I’ve ever felt,” Sessions told me. “The way that hits you is just way deeper.”
The official police synopsis describes an incident that seemingly never should have happened. Officers, including Rowden, arrived at a house in Dixon Circle based on a false, anonymous tip that “four Latin males armed with weapons” had kidnapped a black male. After the cops pushed a window-mounted air conditioning unit into the house to get a better look inside, they saw four black men, including Harper, run out the rear of the house, with one of the men grabbing a handgun from a table as he fled.
Rowden pursued Harper on foot, leading to a physical altercation that resulted in Harper falling to the ground. The officer said later that he believed that Harper was reaching into his pocket for a weapon, so he shot him three times. Harper was unarmed.
A Dallas County grand jury declined to indict Rowden in 2013. Harper’s family claims the shooting involved failures of protocol, reckless decisions, and a cover-up. During the civil trial, the family’s legal team played a recording of a 911 call placed by an eyewitness during the incident that demonstrates Rowden’s three shots weren’t fired in rapid succession. “It feels like an execution when you look at the timing of the shooting,” says Jasmine Crockett, one of the family’s attorneys. “It just seems like he was not going to stop shooting until he knew that James was dead.” The civil trial was also the first time Rowden was questioned in court. Harper’s family believes that the 911 call and the new testimony by Rowden warrant reopening the criminal investigation.
Although Harper’s death rattled Dallas’s African-American community, there was no footage of the incident. It didn’t make the sort of national news that Eric Garner’s story later did. It’s been left to Sessions and his music to speak out publicly about his cousin’s death. At the time of the shooting, Sessions had only just begun performing in Deep Ellum clubs as a member of the Dallas hip-hop collective Brain Gang. “We were getting some traction, but we weren’t really making any money or any significant progress,” he says.
Brain Gang was an umbrella of individual acts that, in time, became a launching pad for promising young artists. The collective’s de facto leader, Blue, The Misfit, went on to develop a collaborative relationship with Kendrick Lamar, and one of its producers, JUSTUS, signed with Interscope Records as a protégé of Dr. Dre. Sessions was the most lyrical of the group and focused his music on the power of positive thinking.
Following Harper’s death, Sessions still saw music as the path most likely to elevate him beyond his own struggles. “[That] incident happened at a time when I was still trying to figure out who I was as a young man,” says Sessions, now 27. He spread optimistic messages, preaching the concept of manifesting one’s reality via intentional thoughts. The title track of his 2015 album LOA (Law of Attraction) includes the lyrics “If you can see it in your mind, you can hold it in your hand.” Yet LOA also features the plaintive “Black America.” His second release, a 2017 EP titled Grateful, likewise contains a combination of inspirational messages and cries for social change.
Over the course of the seven-year legal saga since Harper’s death, Sessions has come to believe the justice system has failed his cousin, his family, and his community. He attended the proceedings of the recent civil trial and was astonished when Rowden stated in court that, if put in the exact same situation again, he would do nothing differently—especially considering that Dallas Police developed a new “foot pursuit policy” specifically as a result of Harper’s death. Since signing with Def Jam, Sessions’s lyrics have embraced a more bluntly political tone. With access to a larger audience, he had to decide what he wanted his new listeners to hear.
“Just because I built a platform on positivity and affirmations, I still have a responsibility, not just to my cousin, but to spread awareness for all the other families who don’t have somebody in [their] family with a platform so when it happens to them it just gets swept under the rug,” he says. His first Def Jam single, released last year, was “Like Me.” The song’s video opens with Sessions with a noose around his neck. It’s a strident track drawing connections between the days of slavery and lynchings and modern police shootings of black people.
Harper’s family’s request that Creuzot reopen a criminal investigation coincides with the beginning of court proceedings over the high-profile killing of Botham Jean, an unarmed African-American man shot in his own apartment when off-duty Dallas police officer Amber Guyger entered and mistook it for her apartment. Sessions, who grew up primarily in the Pleasant Grove neighborhood of Southeast Dallas before spending six years as a teenager in suburban Rowlett, says there’s little trust between the police and African-American residents of many Dallas neighborhoods, and incidents like Harper’s death leave black Dallasites living in fear of the people tasked with protecting them. He believes he has a role to play in spurring that change, and is intent on exposing racial profiling to whomever listens to his music.
His most recent work could be described as unapologetic. Part of a series of short projects he’s released under Def Jam called RVLTN, the chorus to his song “Politics” states, “[They] fire bullets at me when I keep my hands up, so I keep the middle finger when I’m in the handcuffs.” Another track, “Lights,” ends with a spoken voiceover:
We say Black Lives Matter, You respond with Blue Lives Matter.
I’m sure you have a son that’s a cop, a mother, a father.
I’m sure having that job to protect and serve the community means a lot to your family.
But my skin color? That’s not a job that I can clock out from or a career that I can retire from.
It’s me everyday. 24/7.
And you just compared your profession with my existence.
You see how disrespectful that is?
In a musical genre in which representing pride in your city, state, or coast to the larger world is common, Sessions hopes to use his platform to hold Dallas politicians and law enforcement accountable. In order for Dallasites to share in Sessions’s success—as tends to happen when one of their own makes waves nationally—they must acknowledge the problems facing communities like South Dallas, too.
The “RVLTN” series, which so far includes a “Chapter I” and “Chapter II,” will continue, and Sessions is at work on his official Def Jam debut album as well. He says he wants recently elected mayor Eric Johnson, who was the state representative of the area where Harper was killed at the time of the incident, as well as members of law enforcement, to join him in establishing a better relationship between police and the communities they serve. For Sessions, and for the residents of Dixon Circle, he says, that could start with a more thorough investigation into the death of James Harper.
“If you want to get people to trust and believe in what you’re doing and have young kids growing up wanting to be cops, we need to know that these people are not above the law.”