“No, my prophecy will come bright, charging full at the eastern rays of the sun!”
– spoken by Cassandra in Agamemnon by Aeschylus, as translated by George Theodoridis
On 24 March 2020, the singer Jeffrey Lewis posted a video of the song “Keep It Chill! (In The East Vill)” to his YouTube channel. It was a solo piece on acoustic guitar written in response to the COVID-19 outbreak reaching New York and the subsequent shutdown. Just over three months later, many of the worries and fears he enumerated in the lyrics have become eerily prescient.
In the third verse, Lewis predicted that rats are ‘gonna run out of things to eat’ because there’s ‘no one in the street’ and ‘it won’t take long ‘till they’re a billion strong.’ There were more sightings of rats after the implementation of the lockdown in both New Orleans and New York, and the reopening of outdoor restaurants and other eateries in the Big Apple has brought a surge in visible rat activity.
The verse continues with the lines ‘They’re sure the food they’re missing’s/now stored in out kitchens,/so look out, here they come!’. In the UK, a report by Aviva found that there had been a 42% increase in rat infestations for JG Pest Control between January to March 2020 (Q1) and April to June 2020 (Q2), a 120% increase in rodent-related callouts between Q2 2019 and Q2 2020, and that residential rodent cases for the first half of 2020 was equivalent to 90% of cases in the whole of 2019.
Lewis finishes the prediction with the lines ‘So each virus life we save/is gonna die in a mighty rat tidal wave’, which has not happened yet, thank goodness, and may never happen. Recently, however, the first case of tick-borne babesiosis was diagnosed in England. Babesiosis is a disease ticks acquire after they have fed off infected cattle, rodents or deer and then pass onto humans with bites. At present, there is no evidence to suggest this case was because of rodents, but the aforementioned increased human proximity to rats will likely lead to the spread of other diseases.
In the second verse, Lewis forecast that ‘the teeming hordes that can’t take no more is gonna loot the stores and then they’re coming for us’. Following the police killing of the African American George Floyd on 25 May 2020, there was widespread civil unrest that included, but was not limited to, looting, although the vast majority of it was peaceful Black Lives Matter protests. The section is concluded with the line ‘there’s blood that’s gonna spill’, and (graphic content warning) blood did spill, but from police brutality rather than rival looters.
In the fourth verse, Lewis refers to President Donald Trump as the ‘orange clown who runs DC’ and provides a list of actions he expects the leader to take. This begins with the President seeing ‘there’s perfect cause to declare martial laws’. Although he has not, in fact, declared martial law in response to the civil unrest, he has taken it upon himself to use a military general for a photo opportunity, threatened to deploy the National Guard, and sent federal agents in unmarked vehicles to detain protestors. So, while martial law itself has not been invoked, everything but martial law has been.
Later in the verse, Lewis sings that ‘all his Klu Klux kranks/patrol the streets with tanks/saying “Behave and you’ll be spared!”’. The use of ‘Klu Klux kranks’ to make reference to the Klan carries with it the connotations of racism the police have been accused of, and their anonymity, hiding under the hood, also anticipates the anonymity used by the officers in unmarked vehicles.
Lewis follows the ‘perfect cause to declare martial laws’ with ‘and pause elections indefinitely’. On 30 July 2020, the President tweeted: ‘Delay the Election until people can properly, securely and safely vote???’, saying it will be the most ‘inaccurate and fraudulent’ election in history because of ‘universal mail-in voting’. Although later in the verse, Lewis opines that ‘you can’t send mail out’, the coronavirus outbreak means that a lot of people will be choosing to post their ballots. In Nevada, for example, lawmakers are looking to provide every registered voter with a mail-in ballot, much to Trump’s chagrin. The President has dangled this proposition of a rescheduled poll, and although the constitution clearly states that only congress has the power to authorise it, it would not be surprising if he attempted to carry out such a threat.
Another thing Lewis expects Trump to do is ‘call the banks’ and say ‘let’s all join ranks/unless their money might get shared’. The $2.2 trillion stimulus package passed in the senate on 25 March 2020 included a provision of $500bn for businesses in what was criticised as a ‘corporate slush fund’, as well as $400bn in loans for small businesses to be made available through banks and credit unions, which resulted in ‘larger companies with connections to major national or regional banks’ getting ‘priority treatment’. It did, however, include sending cheques to individuals, so Lewis’s fear that ‘you won’t get no bailout’ proved to be unfounded, but not far off, given the unprecedented increase in unemployment and the lapsing of rent protections paving the way for mass evictions.
Lewis also worries that “if the internet’s not a memory yet/it’ll get surveilled outright at will’. On 29 May 2020, President Trump signed an executive order targeting Twitter after it fact-checked one of his tweets. A lawsuit against it has been brought by the Center for Democracy and Technology, claiming the order could ‘discourage other platforms from exercising their free speech rights’. Add Trump’s intention to ban TikTok from the US to the mix, and the internet is not just being surveilled, but the wild west of the world wide web is becoming increasingly regulated.
Despite all of this, Lewis ends the song on a happy note, claiming there is a chance humanity will take ‘total warning about global warming’, that the shutdown will ‘slow greenhouse gases’ and ‘makes things greener and the whole world cleaner’. He also says there could be a ‘full-on call for healthcare for all/and better safety nets rolled out’. The hope is that these calls are answered and, unlike Cassandra, the warnings are heeded, because Lewis’s future-telling hit-rate of ill omens in one song is frighteningly high, so there is grounds for optimism that his harbingers of happier times will be too.