After news broke this month of the death of the Cars singer Ric Ocasek, many of the micro-eulogies on Twitter and other social media platforms repeated the same refrain. “Rest in power,” wrote Lenny Kravitz. “Rest in power, Ric Ocasek,” echoed Jerry Horton, the guitarist for Papa Roach. And, in a tweet remembering both Ocasek and fellow ’80s rocker Eddie Money: “Rest in power, Ric and Eddie,” wrote the official Twitter account for the video game series Rock Band.
A few years ago, perhaps, the use of this phrase to eulogize seventysomething white musicians not known for their political activism, especially after deaths of natural causes, might have raised more eyebrows, especially when deployed by the company that made Guitar Hero. But in 2019, such uses of rest in power went by with little note, marking that familiar wash-rinse-repeat cycle wherein phrases once associated with black and queer communities enter the mainstream. And as usual, at the end of this co-opting churn, little of the language’s history remains.
What is that history? While the phrase rest in peace has been common for more than a century in English, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, and for more than a millennium in Latin (resquiescat in pace), the roots of rest in power are much more recent. It’s often impossible to definitively determine a phrase’s linguistic birthplace, but based on the digging of etymologist Barry Popik, the phrase seems to have originated in the graffiti community of Oakland, California. (The fact that Oakland was also the birthplace of the Black Panthers and a hub for the Black Power movement may or may not be a coincidence.) The first use of this remixed RIP that Popik found was on the newsgroup alt.graffiti on Feb. 18, 2000, to pay respect to local legend Mike “Dream” Francisco. The artist’s almost two-decade-long career at the vanguard of the San Francisco Bay Area’s graffiti scene was cut short when he was shot and killed during a robbery, and on the alt.graffiti boards, a contributor identified only as “SPANK” ended his remembrance with the words, “REST IN POWER PLAYA.”
Around 2005, the phrase began showing up in print, and in all three examples that Popik dug up, as with “Dream” Francisco, it was used in connection to the Bay Area, graffiti, young victims of violence, or all of the above. The first two instances both appeared in Bay Area newspapers, and both are descriptions of graffiti that emerged after 19-year-old Meleia Willis-Starbuck was shot and killed that year outside her Berkeley apartment. Willis-Starbuck was a student at Dartmouth College, back home for the summer, and in an op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle, a family friend wrote, “I’ve never seen a tree in Berkeley covered with picture of a 19-year-old girl I knew. … I’ve never seen ‘Rest in Power’ written as a substitute for ‘Rest in Peace,’ ” suggesting that even then in the Bay Area, the phrase was still new to many. But by the end of 2005, it had spread beyond Northern California: On Sept. 29, an article in the Canadian newspaper the Ottawa Citizen described a graffiti memorial for teenage Ottawa murder victim Jennifer Teague that portrayed “a smiling Ms. Teague beneath the words, ‘Rest in power’ ” and framed by “two black angels.”
It wasn’t long after Twitter began to gain popularity that “rest in power” started to pop up in tweets, often in connection with hip-hop figures and black musicians, but it wasn’t until two more teenage lives were cut short that the phrase entered the national lexicon. 2014 marked the year of two transformative deaths: The first was Michael Brown’s in August, and the second was Leelah Alcorn’s in December. The origin of Black Lives Matter and the movement built around it is still widely disputed, with some marking Trayvon Martin’s death in 2012 as the spark and others citing Brown’s in 2014. What is indisputable at this point is that the nationwide unrest that exploded in the aftermath of the six hours that Brown’s body lay on the hot Missouri pavement catapulted phrases like black lives matter, rest in power, and stay woke to a national stage.
Those six hours and the response to them can not only largely be held responsible for the introduction of rest in power to mainstream white America. They’re also fairly illustrative of where rest in power diverges from rest in peace in terms of message and application. And they hint at how strange it is that rest in power has become so ubiquitous. In its initial iteration, rest in power was almost exclusively used in reference to deaths that were unjust, which is perhaps why its strongest association is with the spate of killings of black people at the hands of police or vigilantes that rocked the nation from 2014 to 2017 and gave rise to the Black Lives Matter movement. Trayvon Martin’s parents only solidified that association with their 2017 biography of their son, titled Rest in Power: The Enduring Life of Trayvon Martin, which itself was adapted into the 2018 documentary series Rest in Power: The Trayvon Martin Story.
In this way, rest in power is not only a prayer for the deceased to enjoy eternal rest but also a call to be heeded by those they left behind, a way to signal that the fight is not over, that an unfair death will give rise to change. What rest in power offers mourners of Dream and Tupac Shakur and Sandra Bland over rest in peace is the chance for a senseless death to matter in a way that a life could not. It is the coda to the refrain of no justice, no peace, a phrase that was similarly vaulted to the national stage in the wake of Ferguson, whose roots also lie in the wake of racially motivated vigilante violence. In fact, the work of “Dream” Francisco was featured in an anti–police brutality show titled “No Justice, No Peace” in 1993 in Oakland.
The difference between the use of rest in power in 1993 and 2016 lies less in its employment than in its consumption. Activists watched as the open-air market that is Twitter spread the language they used among themselves to an audience much wider than their own communities. With the suicide of Alcorn, a 17-year-old transgender girl, rest in power became indelible in the American consciousness. In the aftermath of her death and the suicide note she wrote on Tumblr where she pleaded that her death “needs to mean something,” the Washington Post quoted a tweet wherein a user wrote, “My dear GIRL, baby SISTER #LeelahAlcorn. We will make your voice heard. Rest in power, beautiful.” Seemingly after that moment, the phrase became closely associated with Alcorn, appearing in digital eulogies and epitaphs for the teen. Social media indisputably raised the profile of deaths like these, but along with the higher visibility these platforms offered came the threat of the phrase’s overuse.
Which brings us to our current moment where, in just a week, rest in power was used in digital elegies for everyone from Ocasek to Cokie Roberts to the Notorious B.I.G. to Keith Lamont Scott to Ja’leyah-Jamar. In some ways, the phrase seems to have gone the way of woke and become a shorthand for multiple competing agendas. Rest in power now means that someone has died too soon, but too soon can mean anything from 17 to 75. It can mean that a death was somehow wrongful or unjust, whether in a systematic sense, as with the death of an unarmed black man at the hands of police, or in a more everyday way, as with the loss of someone to heart disease or cancer. It means that someone’s legacy will last beyond their own life, either through groundbreaking albums or falling in a too long lineage of murdered black trans women. As tends to happen when slang exits the communities it originated from, rest in power now encompasses much more than it was originally meant to. It can now mean everything, and so ultimately might mean nothing.