In recent years, there has been a growing fear among some black music scholars, critics, practitioners, and partakers that its power as a significant expressive outlet for the community has been eroded. Commercialization, globalization, capitalism, media mania, and a voracious music industry have resulted in a trend that glorifies “booties,” “bling,” “beef,” and “Benjamins.”
From its roots in West Africa, art and music have always been an integral part of black life. Over time, wherever the Diaspora spread, the music remained functional, responding to the needs of the people to tell stories, recite histories, complement worship, aid work and labor, enhance celebration, and urge action against the evolving manifestations of oppression and racism.
African American artists like Mahalia Jackson, Nina Simone, Miles Davis, James Brown, and Marvin Gaye created compelling beautiful music that commented on the experience of blackness in a tense racialized environment. From the late 1970s and into the 1990s hip hop artists like Afrika Bambaataa, Grandmaster Flash, Public Enemy, Eric B and Rakim, NWA, Black Star, and Dead Prez continued the tradition.
Today, the pressure to contend with mainstream popular music has pushed much of the socially conscious hip-hop underground. And yet the same conditions that inspired earlier mainstream artists to provide social commentary still exist. So it has been refreshing to see three mainstream artists emerge with songs that take the music back to its functional roots.
When Michael Brown was killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri on August 9, 2014, the black community reacted not only to what they perceived to be the unjust treatment of an unarmed young black man, but also to the message that was sent by the overwhelmingly white, heavily militarized police force about the value of black life in general. The fact that Brown’s body was left in the street for over four hours was a clear signal to the community of a deep problem that continues to plague race relations in the United States.
The Brown case was not an isolated case; rather, it was a culmination of decades of perceived injustice. With Michael Brown, young people and the community at large had had enough. They took to the streets and spoke out against the status quo that seemed to offer them nothing more than a precarious future as second-class citizens.
This moment produced three significant musical responses from major hip hop artists. The Game collaborated with numerous artists including Diddy, Rick Ross, Wale, Fabolous, Swizz Beatz, and TGT to produced a song titled “Don’t Shoot,” an intense narrative that allows each artist to explain their position, and draws on the iconic “hands-up” imagery that signifies this recent protest and transforms the symbol of surrender to a twenty-first century equivalent of the black power fist.
Lauryn Hill rededicated her 2013 song “Black Rage” to Ferguson. The piece is classic Lauryn Hill, an honest and clever reaction to what she sees as a perpetual power dynamic that subordinates black people in the United States.
The third response is from J. Cole, who visited Ferguson and spoke with protesters. His track, “Be Free,” is a wailing dedication to a community that aspires for freedom.
In each case, these Black artists choose interesting backdrops to enhance their messages. “Don’t Shoot” uses children’s voices in the chorus to convey the cross-generational and widespread impact of the moment. Lauryn Hill appropriates a song from The Sound of Music, infusing this familiar tune with irony and sarcasm as she replaces the harmless refrain “these are a few of my favorite things” with the loaded phrase “Black rage was founded on these types of things.” Utilizing a different approach, J. Cole samples actual footage from an interview with an eyewitness, which makes his heart-felt offering deliberately embedded in the Brown case.
I was curious about how well these black artists had followed in the footsteps of their predecessors to deliver memorable commentaries about critical historical moments in African American history so I asked young music fans, peers of the Ferguson protestors, what they thought. Did these musical responses appeal to a generation that has grown up with commercialized music? How well did these artists rise to the occasion? Did the musical responses align with the movement and with the sentiments of young Americans?
According to one of these respondents, Elijah Manning III, “hip-hop was created to give a voice to the voiceless and this was a perfect opportunity to find our way back to the roots.” Here are excerpts from the responses of young black and white music fans between the ages of 18 and 30.
“Don’t’ Shoot” by The Game, featuring Rick Ross, Diddy and 2 Chainz, Fabolous, Wale, DJ Khaled, Swizz Beatz, Yo Gotti, Currensy, Problem, King Pharaoh and TGT
Unsurprisingly, perhaps because most of these artists are mainstream artists who are not known for social commentary and whom serious connoisseurs might refer to as commercial rappers as opposed to legitimate MCs, “Don’t Shoot” generated the most division in terms of its effectiveness.
Several fans were pleasantly surprised:
- Shale Ramien: “One line in particular sticks out to me, ‘God didn’t put us on this earth to get murdered, it’s murder.’ I can hear kids singing it…I almost envision every individual who has been shot looking down on the offenders and singing this to them. What is eerie about it is at the beginning of the song, you cannot hear anger, only reflection and awareness.”
- Jeanette Rimbey: “I do not have to guess what message they are trying to spread. Their emotions are on the situation and how they would like to spread a message that these events must be stopped.”
- Mauria Tomlin: “Due to the song’s radio-ready sound, it is more likely to get more airplay that reaches more people, which would bring more people to awareness and possibly want to learn more about the situation.”
- Andrew Kauffman: “What makes this song so effective is having all of the prominent people in the hip-hop community coming together for one cause.”
- Maddison Hill: “I liked how they referenced people from the past like Emmett Till, and more recent cases like Trayvon Martin.”
- Cymonne New: “It’s effective because it’s packed with black history oppression through deep lyrics…[and] it has a nice hook and beat that people can rock back and forth to.”
- Elijah Manning: “You can hear Martins’ non violence mixed with Malcolm’s revolution all in one song.”
- Alexa Stone: “I think this collab has a lot of huge rap names that already have their own fan bases. Putting all these artists together kind of blows your mind, in a sense it’s like rap unity. When you see a song with a lot of hot artists you’re automatically going to assume this is probably a hot song, so I’m going to listen.”
However, there were some questions about the originality of the concept and the ability of this song to truly reach out with an effective message.
- Ebony Francis: “As someone who has followed the case and current events, the rappers are only repeating things I already know. The majority of the song seems like they are venting their personal opinions and frustrations, however I did notice slight calls for action including ‘don’t be silenced,’ ‘we gotta stick together,’ and ‘take a stand.’”
- Briana Tomlinson: “They’re repeating a message I’ve heard so many times.”
- Ajah Polk: “It has no depth. I feel the artists tried to use a catchy beat to carry the weight of the song.”
“Black Rage” by Lauryn Hill
Perhaps because she is older than the other artists under review, Hill, who is a veteran of socially conscious message music, did not generate as much of a response from the music fans I asked, although a few indicated their appreciation for her lyricism:
- Ebony Francis: “The Lauryn Hill song, which I deem most effective, really moves past the focus on Ferguson and Mike Brown, explaining the root of black rage and how we as a black people channel our fear, sadness, and anger, where this attitude towards America and society was founded and why it exists.”
- Cymonne New: “This is more about emotion and explaining to us as well as the other races where this originated, that black rage is justified and founded on what Blacks are still going through. Her lyrics are great.”
And yet, there is a sort of disconnect that occurs between Hill’s tough approach and young listeners, both black and white. These reservations may also have something to do with Hill’s unapologetically assertive persona.
- Alexa Stone: “I didn’t really feel it. Like I understand she was talking about the rage she felt but I didn’t feel it.”
- Andrew Kauffman: “It just didn’t have the same flow as the other songs did. I had to listen to it a few times and look up the lyrics to grasp the true meaning of the song. With that said, out of the three, this song was probably written the best. But the most poetic writing doesn’t always equal the most effective.”
- Elijah Manning: “I don’t hear a professional mix on the production of this song. It’s a great conceptual joint and the lyrics are powerful, but they aren’t spoken in the language of the Millennials. I think she is amazing but if you walked down the street in Ferguson and asked anyone who Lauryn was they would probably say: ‘Lauryn Who’.”
“Be Free” by J. Cole
As raw and sparse as this song is, it generated mostly positive reactions from fans who appreciate J. Cole’s innovation:
- Angela Pearson: “His reference to slavery evokes a lot of emotion and really makes the listener think. As an African-American I understand why J.Cole makes the slavery reference.”
- Mauria Tomlin: “The song uses a lot of symbolism and imagery referring to slavery. ‘All we wanna do is take the chains off.’ This gives the impression that regardless of the fact that Black people are out of slavery, Blacks are not free.”
- Megan Armstrong: “I think J. Cole’s lyrics can connect with a broader audience.”
- Andrew Kauffman: “He sings it so quietly, yet the message is so loud.”
- Chelsea Vaughn: “In his voice I hear pain as he identifies with being a black man. Throughout the song J. Cole asks questions, and he makes it personal as he includes interviews from those affected.”
- Briana Tomlinson: “When I first heard ‘Be Free,’ I got goose bumps because I instantly could imagine what it was like to be in Ferguson at that time…”
- Brandon Kiley: “There’s something about seeing or hearing the experiences that actually took place. I go back to the Ray Rice incident that’s been in the headlines over the past few months. That story took on a whole new life when the video evidence came out. It’s one thing to hear about a story, or to read about it. It’s completely different to hear the first-hand experiences of those that were there or to watch the events that actually took place.”
- Ajah Polk: “The song is a call to action and brings out emotion. It is a universal song that helps other races get an idea of how we feel, and the change we want to see happen in America.”
- Elijah Manning: “This is true artistic expression that documents a tragic situation that will change history as we knew it before this incident.”
The only challenge to this overwhelmingly positive review of J. Cole as an artist who has consistently straddled the popular/conscious divide was from one fan:
- Jeanette Rimbey: “J. Cole was a little too harsh and complicated for me to be able to relate to and to follow.”
This last comment points to a truth that cannot be overlooked. Powerful black music cannot always reach all audiences. Although my respondents are both black and white, there was a clear thread that emerged from some white listeners about the ability of this music to reach them as non-black individuals. For instance, Megan Armstrong is unable to connect with Lauryn Hill’s “Black Rage”: “To be completely truthful: it would be dishonest for me to say I can relate to what she’s saying. I am not a black woman.” Yet this “Ferguson music” is not just a definition of identity, it is also a commentary on society.
Some music fans seek musical space that does not challenge their own notions of unity. Commenting on “Don’t Shoot,” Margaret Konz, who identifies as Italian American, explains that “it segregates society by saying ‘we got to stick together, we all we got.’ It should be more inclusive and uniting, making everyone want to come together to fight for equality for all. The song is more focused on us vs. them, and that is the primary problem behind tragedies like these. The issue is not white vs. black. Instead, it should be about the fact we are all human, all people with stories and different upbringings, but our commonality is in our differences. We need to embrace diversity and learn from each other, and work together to do so.”
It is true that these songs are created out of a black music aesthetic where art functions for a specific community. However, powerful black music has the ability to transcend borders and reach those who are poised to empathize and seek answers to the wide social situations that impact all. While Konz cannot relate to “Don’t Shoot,” she finds J. Cole’s “Be Free” effective in reaching a wider audience that includes her: “He calls ALL people to action in the song as well, and actively asks listeners of all backgrounds ‘Don’t just stand around.’ By saying that ‘All we wanna do is be free,’ J. Cole makes the Michael Brown incident into a bigger issue. He’s asking for equality, justice, and liberation for all black people, not just the particular people who are affected by these tragedies. In this way, he focuses on the unfair treatment of blacks without segregating the issue to an ‘Us versus Them’ stance.”
Although Lauryn Hill’s “Black Rage” may not seek black and white unity, Brandon Kiley is drawn to it. He explains that her approach interests him the most: “How did we get here? What led to this? There’s always more to the story. In this case, the situation is about Michael Brown, the officer that shot him, and the issues that have been existing in Ferguson for quite some time, but it’s also about the way white Americans treat African-Americans. It’s about the imprisonment of the black population in America. It’s about ‘driving while black.’ It’s about all of these issues that I, as a white man, have never had to endure. I think this song does a good job of explaining the background of Ferguson, rather than simply reacting to it. Because I think that’s something that has gotten lost in much of the commentary.“
Without exception, all my African-American respondents expressed an affinity for the Mike Brown situation and to all three of these musical responses to Ferguson. Even though they differed in their personal preferences, none of them thought that the artists were off track or that their conceptions of “Us” and “Them” were uncomfortable. Describing J. Cole’s visit with young people in Ferguson, Elijah Manning explains, “they welcomed him and he was on camera conversing about African American youth and exchanging ideas with the residents of Ferguson.” That he would then create this piece of music that African Americans can identify with makes perfect sense. Indeed, the true value of Black music is not that it is made and sold to mainstream audiences around the world, but that it is a virtual refuge, a space that African-American artists and audiences can return to communicate vital truths about themselves.
To those who think hip-hop is dead, these three musical responses have shown that the genre—and its ability to handle critical issues related to the black community—is still very much alive. Whatever the personal preferences of the critics, the most enduring legacy of hip-hop as a global phenomenon is its ability to draw attention to the concerns of the oppressed and dispossessed, thereby reprising the values of our shared and common humanity. Although the reactions to “Ferguson Music” are mixed, taken as a whole, the three songs tell a story of history and experience, inspire action and activism, and reiterate the enduring aspiration of a people to be free.