Last Friday, six days after Michael Brown was shot and killed in Ferguson, J. Cole released a song in response to the tragedy, called “Be Free.” “That coulda been me, easily,” he said in a corresponding statement. “It could have been my best friend. I’m tired of being desensitized to the murder of black men. I don’t give a fuck if it’s by police or peers. This shit is not normal.” On the song, which samples Brown’s friend Dorian Johnson’s chilling eyewitness account of the shooting, Cole is quiet, wavering, and maudlin. That it is true anguish causing his voice to crack is not in doubt. But there’s still a discomfort about it; it’s a too-neat, too-quickly-delivered package of sorrow.
There’s something about J. Cole’s particular strain of rap earnestness that’s always felt cloying, almost unearned. (Generally in this regard, I defer to the esteemed Professor Serrano, the nation’s foremost J. Cole hater.) And so, yes, I was predisposed to dismiss this as another bout of misplaced emotion. That he chose to address the tragedy was a tough and honorable choice; it’s just that the track itself felt, in true Coleian fashion, mad corny.
But Cole didn’t just drop off the track and call it a day. He went to Ferguson — not with a video guy, but with his buddies, unshaven and in sweats — and he paid his respects to Brown and met the congregated people. In an interview with Complex, he explained that he wasn’t planning on talking with the media, but that he has a buddy who worked at the magazine, so, OK, what the hell. And for a few minutes, he spoke, candidly and affectingly and with humor, about how hard this was hitting him. “Do you think that artists owe their fans … some form of activism?” he’s asked. “No,” he says. “Artists owe whatever they feel. Whatever hits you in your spine, that’s what you owe.”
He explains that, “a week ago, I wasn’t in this place,” and that he’d gotten used to attempting to shut out incidents like the killings of Oscar Grant and Eric Garner; he says that reading Greg Howard’s excellent essay “America Is Not for Black People” pushed him over the edge. “Last week it was the same ol’, ‘damn, this is fucked up.’ This week it’s like, ‘What can we do?’” He was walking us publicly through his processing of the horrific crime, and it was one that surely mirrored the processing that so many other Americans went through. “Cole was surrounded by hundreds of people,” Complex wrote, “who were elated to see that someone of note made time for them. This, of course, is at a time when the president is only now just announcing that the attorney general will be visiting Ferguson. It was before the governor could make it down, too.”
That a rapper can have a positive impact by speaking out on a situation like this is evident here. Cole made a fan out of me; he wasn’t afraid to show up in Ferguson and speak his thoughts, as fragmented and weary as they might be.1 And the question of a rapper’s responsibility in these situations is an important and interesting one. As BuzzFeed pointed out earlier this week, so far, despite a track record of vocal activism, our rap megastars have stayed quiet on Ferguson. Do they owe us otherwise?
For the record: I still want Shea to keep making fun of him.
“I expect him to do that,” Killer Mike says of J. Cole, from the back of an SUV parked in midtown east while sharing a blunt with his wife. “A black kid from North Carolina who grew up listening to OutKast? I absolutely fucking do! And I’m very proud of him for doing that.” It’s Tuesday, and the forever-outspoken Killer Mike is in New York to play a one-off Run the Jewels show — and so who better to talk to about rappers and Ferguson? A mesmerizing mix of on-switch volubility and hushed politeness, Mike could probably give you a good quote about mops vs. Swiffers. But on this, he’s particularly revved up. “I expect every black man in rap to do it, again and again. And we do do it, and we’re all gonna keep doing it, because our fingers are on the pulse of what’s going on on a base level.”
Mike has been sharing his thoughts regularly since the killing of Michael Brown, first with a tender ode on Instagram to Brown’s parents (“These two people are … humans that produced a child and loved that child and that child was slaughtered”), and then in a Billboard op-ed that positioned the issue away from black and white into a question of basic human decency: “American men laying lifeless like deer. Slaughtered hogs in the street.”
In the car, in a rising voice, Mike elaborates. “My first statement was — I’m hurt,” he says. “Children dead in the middle of the streets of America by government sanction is supposed to be the most unfathomable shit in any American’s life. But I’ve been forced to fathom this because I’ve been a black male all my life. My second statement was, I’m angry. And I’m not angry as a black man, not angry as a member of the working class. I’m angry as an American. I would just like to have the full American experience, without having to fight so damn hard for it. I want everything that this country promises me, and I will not expect a dollar less on that debt.”
Mike’s adamant about taking it on himself, about expecting it from others. But there’s a nuance about an overall sense of responsibility. “I’m appalled that regular Americans are apathetic. I’m appalled that people choose to use the word ‘thug’ as a code word for ‘n-----.’ I’m appalled at everyday citizens. I’m not appalled at entertainers. I’m not appalled at athletes. Because athletes and entertainers are gonna do what the consciousness of the people that pay them tell them to do. It’s a lot easier to make ‘What’s Going On’ in the wake of the Vietnam War ending. It’s a lot easier to support ending apartheid in South Africa, as Public Enemy, when the general public was already there. So when will we, as a public, get so fed up that we, like J. Cole, go to St. Louis? When will we, as an American constituency, tell our politicians enough’s enough? Enough mayors supporting murderous police departments. Enough police chiefs having to give excuses for murderous police officers.”
Ever since Ferguson exploded, there’s been no shortage of chatter. On Instagram, Diddy called on Obama for action, and T.I. (and his thesaurus) saluted the civil action while calling for peace. It gets weird. Some folks — like Jesse Williams, a.k.a. the dude from The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2 — have been tucking away milquetoast public personas for a while now, and continue to be outspoken here. And it gets preposterous: As soon as the irrelevant Benzino shows up in Ferguson to #leadbyaction, the Internet’s gotta throw up a shrug for a while.
What’s the point? Is this helping? On Twitter, fans have sought a response from hip-hop, for obvious reasons: If you claim to represent underprivileged youth when it’s commercially beneficial, then it’s only right to do so when it feels politically dangerous. But have the responses carried weight? Have they clarified anything? Made anyone feel stronger? Honestly, I don’t know.
Some, like Cole, have taken the time to share their raw internal dialogue, for better and for worse. On Tumblr, Frank Ocean posted a photo of Missouri governor Jay Nixon, writing, “You see that black woman standing up there? I wonder if she was called to stand behind the governor because she’s black. I wonder if i’m supposed to think Missouri’s gov’t is pro-black because of her being stood up there with those other black men being all black and everything.” On Twitter, his pal Tyler, the Creator claimed, “BLACK PEOPLE ARE CURRENTLY MAD RIGHT NOW BUT IN 2 WEEKS WILL BE OVER IT CAUSE THEY REALLY DONT CARE, COOL HASHTAG THO RIGHT?”
To date, the most widely shouted-down response came from B.o.B., who, in a series of deleted Tweets, crudely attempted to shift the conversation to black-on-black crime: “So Antwon will shoot 12 ppl in a week and y’all be like ‘FREE TWON’,” he wrote. “A cop shoot a nigga and y’all riot … ok … #facts.”
He followed that up with a song, “New Black,” outlining his point of view: “All this energy that we’re putting into protesting, we should put it into our community, put it into starting businesses, put it into your kids.” Killer Mike also had something to say about that.
“That’s a stupid thing to say. B.o.B. isn’t stupid. That’s my brother, I love him to death. But for everyone who wants to talk about black-on-black crime: You can talk about that shit the day before this, you can talk about that shit the day after this, you can do something every day. If you concerned about Chicago, go support Ameena Matthews right now. Instead of interjecting that into a conversation that is about a taxpayer-paid government official murdering without due process an American citizen. If that isn’t clearly defined, it gets convoluted. I’m not willing to have these philosophical talks about bullshit. That was exciting when I was 17.”
If there’s one voice that’s been most conspicuously absent, it’d have to be that of Kanye West. So far, other than retweeting Russell Simmons (“Police sensitivity training ,diversity initiatives, body cameras for police and a fucking arrest. Would be a good start #ferguson”), Kanye hasn’t engaged. Ye’s never been afraid of talking his shit when it comes to situations like this — this is the man who buffered a fluffy Adam Levine chorus around the words, “AND I KNOW THE GOVERNMENT ADMINISTERED AIDS” — but there did seem to be a moment with last year’s Yeezus when he was moving into a different, but equally brash, direction. It was “New Slaves,” in particular:
See they’ll confuse us with some bullshit
Like the New World Order
Meanwhile the DEA
Teamed up with the CCA
They tryna lock n----s up
They tryna make new slaves
See that’s that privately owned prison
Get your piece today
They prolly all in the Hamptons
Braggin’ ’bout what they made
It was a powerful indictment of America’s privatized prison system, but the rest of Yeezus wasn’t current-event rap. For his guts and pride, Kanye’s a folk hero to millions; if any rapper were to attempt to corral himself a political platform, we’d want it to be him. But art isn’t made linearly — we shouldn’t expect tragedy → stirring response. And it’d be silly waiting around for it to come on cue. “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” is arguably the greatest thing Kanye’s ever done because it was a spontaneous rush. Watch it again (and again and again): He’s nearly shaking.
It’s the same reason that for all the noble intent behind “Be Free,” it was J. Cole’s off-the-cuff interview that captures the hurt and confusion he was trying to project. What kind of response do we want from our rappers? What kind of response are we owed? I honestly don’t know. Just some version of their truth.
“My friends that are rich rappers,” Killer Mike says, “T.I., Big Boi — I’m proud of them for what they’ve done. I’m more proud of a kid named Tef Poe, who’s a local rapper in St. Louis with a lot more to lose. And he’s on the ground level and he’s there taking film and making sure people know what’s going on. The grassroots-level video that I’m getting from people like Tef shows black kids, white kids, Buddhist monks, Holocaust survivors! The newscasters, that’s not what they show. But that’s what gives me optimism. And absolutely, there’s nothing wrong with expecting [action] from rappers — the day after you expect it of yourself.”
But you don’t waste your time pointing fingers, or monitoring who is or isn’t speaking out, I said. You don’t worry about that.
“I don’t waste my time — no, why? I don’t vote for rappers. I vote for politicians. You vote for a mayor, a mayor appoints a police chief, a police chief oversees a police department. Why are you misdirecting your anger at a rapper? You should be directing your anger and the culture of blue silence that allows these abuses to take place.”
He pauses. “If your kid curses at the dinner table, by all means, that’s a fucking rapper’s fault.” He laughs big. “Or your grandparents.”