Ferguson, Mo., is so far a tragedy sans resolution, a spectacle without end. Two weeks ago Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown and left his body in the middle of the street for several hours, for his whole neighborhood to see, before medics pulled the white sheet over the corpse. That sort of trauma scars all who see it, and by now, we’ve all seen the images live and replayed via the networks and cable news.
As racial tensions escalated in this previously quiet town of 21,000 just beyond St. Louis, hip-hop is now, finally, finding the right words to cope with this latest piece of damning evidence that America is not for black people. Yesterday, Lauryn Hill emerged from troubled obscurity to release a dour, minor-key tribute to James Baldwin’s notion of black rage, set to the melody of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “My Favorite Things”: “Black rage is founded on draining and draining/Threatening your freedom, to stop your complaining/Poisoning your water, while they say it's raining." G-Unit went the militants’ route and released “Ahhh Shit,” a trap rallying cry in which Young Buck raps, “Ever since Mike Brown went down, my whole city like, ‘Fuck a cop! Run the red light, fuck a stop’!” Killer Mike wrote a letter, and then another. He and Talib Kweli both broke bad on live CNN.
Last Friday, J. Cole released his tribute to Michael Brown, “Be Free,” in which a heartbroken Cole shouts and then whimpers, once and again, that “all we wanna do is break the chains off, all we wanna do is be free.” A day later, Cole was on the ground in Ferguson, walking among protesters and speaking with local residents. Cole, Common, Talib Kweli, and yes, even Benzino have flocked to the scene, a congregation of compassion like nothing you’ll see from any other musical genre.
We appreciate this turnout, though it wasn’t quite expected. Since 2001, approximately, hip-hop purists and hip-hop haters alike have written about their frustrations with the occasionally silly, nonsense stylings of dance rap, street rap, and pop crossover—there was a time, you’ll hear it said, when rap meant something. To be sure, hip-hop has a proud history of protest and purposefully loud noises; earlier this week, we ran a slideshow catalog of rappers protesting police brutality. It’s a list heavily stacked with entries from 1988-1996, but also contains a respectable continuation of rebellious tradition from the likes of Mos Def, Killer Mike, T.I., and Lil Boosie
This is America, where one decade’s Amadou Diallo is the next decade’s Sean Bell. I must suppose that there will always be Michael Browns. The Rodney King beating and subsequent L.A. riots in 1992 inspired nearly a decade of hip-hop paranoia--mind you, this is all after Ice Cube’s Amerikkka’s Most Wanted and Death Certificate, and N.W.A’s Straight Outta Compton. Fast forward to a new century: to the Jena Six prosecution in 2007, the police murder of Sean Bell a year earlier; and now Ferguson is proving history to be a motherfucker. For real.
White supremacy is, ultimately, white America’s problem to solve, and it’s naive to think that asking rappers to “do...something” will result in greater accountability, significant change, or solutions. That’s hardly Lauryn Hill’s task, even if she and Nas do professionally dream of evacuating Attica.
I cannot tell you why J. Cole is in Ferguson, or what, exactly, he and Killer Mike and Kweli mean to accomplish beyond solidarity. What’s nonetheless apparent in the photography from the scene is that solidarity is welcome, and necessary. Hip-hop is providing right now like no other art form this generation has known; this is literally the music of the poor, the outcast, the downtrodden. And such is the upshot of a musical genre populated with marginalization, disenfranchisement, and life-saving bravado.
Justin Charity is a staff writer at Complex. Follow him on Twitter here.