“Be more like Martin Luther King, Jr.”
If we were to sum up the methods employed for protesting throughout history, we would find a wide array of demonstrations, actions, and tactics. Some were peaceful; some were violent. History records the methods and the outcomes, and the further we get from each account, the easier it is to be objective. We see the resulting change, the increase of justice, the righting of wrongs as they play out over time, along with the need for protest in the first place.It’s always easier to lionize people from the past, but the collective output from hip hop in the present is nothing to ignore.
But when protesting in happening in our midst, it’s difficult to be objective. For the protest movement springing from Ferguson, Missouri, there is much debate over the methods being employed, which is why there is a hearkening back to the peaceful ways of Dr. King. The implication is that these protesters’ concerns would be listened to if only there weren’t rioting going on. Aside from the fact that there are plenty of protesting voices very much modeling the non-violent approach of Dr. King, this is one of the most unreasonable standards you could hold anyone to. If we require our philosophical opponents to reach the eloquent heights of greatness, or to have an army carrying out their non-violent vision, before we will open our ears, we are in essence closing them. Especially if we have no problem nodding along to the likes of Matt Walsh, a (hugely popular) blogger who leans heavily on snark and condescension that sharply contrasts the poetry and inspiration employed by the iconic civil rights hero. Agree with Walsh or not, his will not be the sort of seminal imagery we’ll be quoting to our grand kids: “It’s like if I slap you in the face for kicking me in the shins, except you tell me that you never kicked me in the shins, but I respond that you must be slapped anyway because sometimes some people are kicked in the shins, and sometimes the shin kickers look an awful lot like you.”
And a recent controversy surrounding the St. Louis Rams has revealed that peaceful-but-loud gestures are not in fact universally welcomed. During pre-grame introductions for a nationally televised game, a handful of Rams players exhibited a modest “hands up, don’t shoot” expression a week after the non-indictment of Darren Wilson was announced. The (mostly white) St. Louis Police Officers Association complained that the protest was inciting, while the city’s (mostly African-American) Ethical Society of Police commended the players’ actions.
Regardless of what you think of the Ferguson case itself, or the death of Eric Garner, the argument against protesting because it is disruptive is in fact an argument against protesting as a valid expression, period. If news anchors and jock radio hosts and Internet commenters and police representatives are arguing over your act of protest, then you’ve done it right. Martin Luther King, Jr. did not organize demonstrations geared toward preserving tranquil peace, but rather orchestrated a movement responsible for a non-violent but impossible-to-ignore unrest.
For months, protesters in Ferguson and across the nation have decried miscarried justice. This includes the force meted out by Darren Wilson, but equally so the tactics of the St. Louis prosecutor, along with the democratic political machine in Missouri that connects the prosecutor to the manager for the police union to the governor himself. The protest movement, loosely organized on a national scale, has prioritized body cameras for police officers as a legal response to prevent future tragedies. The presence of these cameras would ideally provide a deterrent for unnecessarily escalating altercations and remove ambiguity in the interest of officer accountability and officer credibility in the fallout from any shooting. President Obama has already pledged hundreds of thousands of federal dollars toward purchasing the cameras for police departments. That’s an objective achievement earned by the protest movement, one that could far outweigh the property damage on Ferguson’s streets by preserving human life on a national scale.
One of the most powerful forms of protest to develop since the Civil Rights Era has come in the form of hip hop music, a genre built largely from the heart of protest. While civil rights movements of the past have leaned on holy figures like King and narratives of “perfect victims” like Rosa Parks, hip hop was, by design, not so careful with its image. There was no pretense in its protest, no effort made to present black skin as more respectable or safe. It went the other direction, confronting the listener with exaggerated menace in a blend of the reductive Martin/Malcolm dichotomy (peace/aggression). Though hip hop has also been dismissed by many as illegitimate protest at every turn, its militant lyricism, finely woven into the art of poetry and instrumentation, has advanced the image and value of a disenfranchised black community in the minds of listeners worldwide to a stunning degree. Though there is still a fight against pinning today’s problems on the perceived dangers of a fictional genre, history will almost surely look kindly back at the hip hop movement when all is said and done.
A charge similar to “be like Martin Luther King, Jr.” gets leveled at hip hop today, from fans and critics who see a format co-opted by the market and no longer in touch with its roots in poor, disadvantaged communities. “F*** the Police” (NWA), “Fight the Power” (Public Enemy), and “Sound of Da Police” (KRS-One) are anthems of disillusionment from the past that speak to the unrest of today. Where, the lamenter asks, are the KRS-Ones of today’s hip hop generation? Where is the “Cop Killer” call to arms or the “Self Destruction” call for internal social change?
As hip hop has become increasingly popular, the forces of capitalism have undoubtedly done a number on its unified direction. The format has become broad enough to bolster the sounds of Katy Perry. One of its power players is Diplo, a collaborator with the likes of Justin Bieber and the ska-turned-pop/rap outfit No Doubt. Can hip hop, once exclusive to the street, maintain any kind of voice, now that it’s stretched around the globe’s pop landscape?
Beyond the call for fair trials and policy change, today’s protest movement laments that blackness is devalued in our society, a space hip hop was made for. The protests do not merely insist that Darren Wilson is guilty of murder. They rather use the state’s treatment of black shooting victims (alleged or not) as a window to show that black bodies are still not valued in the same way that white bodies are. On-the-ground protests have dovetailed with a wave of social media eruptions, all falling within the scope of #BlackLivesMatter.
A squeaky-clean narrative for Mike Brown, a college-bound teen with no prior criminal record, went out the window the moment the Ferguson police chief released a video of Brown robbing a local store. In no way do I want to trivialize Brown’s humanity, but he is in some respects hip hop’s victim. He tinkered with rapping, releasing a song just a day before his life ended. While the robbery may or may not have actually played a part in Brown’s fatal encounter with Wilson, it would have taken less to convince much of America that he was a thug. Cherry-picked lyrics from his amateur rap releases and bogus images attributed to him were bound to spread through both mainstream and social media, as always happens. The protests have forged ahead, embracing the Brown family and seeing no need to exalt them as unassailable role models.
The comparisons of today’s hip hop to yesterday’s hip hop are as unfair as the Martin Luther King, Jr. comparisons. I’ll admit, I was personally underwhelmed by hip hop’s early response to the Ferguson protests. Hip hop’s biggest stars were mostly silent while a world of online and on-site activists mobilized overnight. However, my verdict was premature.
J. Cole was first out of the gate with “Be Free,” a song memorializing Mike Brown and “every young black man murdered in America, whether by the hands of white or black.” Cole’s approach was as anti-commercial as you could ask: The song was a free release, and Cole visited Ferguson in person, shunning media as best he could while there. Cole may have spoken for his peers when he explained his motivation behind the song, saying the Ferguson situation woke him up from a desensitized haze.
Police shootings aren’t new, but Ferguson became a tipping point for the national conversation. Was it so for hip hop? In the months that have followed, there has been a flurry of new songs and statements from the hip hop community for Ferguson. Killer Mike and Talib Kweli both appeared on CNN to give their perspective on the unrest. The latter wrote a personal essay connecting the civil rights movement of the past to the activity in Ferguson. The former penned a haunting story of a police encounter gone wrong with this fall’s “Early“:
And I apologize if it seems like I got out of line, sir
Cause I respect the badge and the gun
And I pray today ain’t the day that you drag me away
Right in front of my beautiful son
And he still put my hands in cuffs, put me in the truck
When my woman screamed, said “shut up”
Witness with the camera phone on
Saw the copper pull a gun and
Put it on my gorgeous queen
As I peered out the window
I could see my other kinfolk and
Hear my little boy as he screamed
As he ran toward the copper begged him not to hurt his momma
Cause he had her face down on the ground
And I’d be much too weak to ever speak what I seen
But my life changed with that sound…
T.I. released a song of his own accompanied by an open letter. Pusha T weighed in (with production from Kanye West) with a stanza on “Lunch Money.” Common orchestrated a moment of silence at both the MTV Video Awards and the BET Hip Hop Awards, bringing Mike Brown’s parents on stage with him for the latter, where they were warmly received by a crowd of hip hop’s Who’s Who.
It’s always easier to lionize people from the past, but the collective output from hip hop in the present is nothing to ignore. Rather than listening for duplicates of former heroes, we should pay attention to the present. While Dr. King is rightly remembered as the man who saved America, the strength of his vision and leadership wasn’t fully realized while he walked the earth. Most people weren’t inspired by King. He was intimidated by the government, his message ignored or rebuked by political and—sadly—religious leaders, his life ultimately stolen. If the next Martin Luther King, Jr. is marching in Ferguson, he most assuredly won’t be receiving the most likes on Facebook. Dr. King is an American saint, now. Jesus is fairly popular these days, but his antics branded him an enemy of the church and of the state during his earthly life. He was crucified in utter disgrace. He saw this coming, of course, noting that as good as everyone is at building a tomb in a prophet’s honor, they’re even better at killing the prophet in the first place.
These words from hip hop are still expanding and becoming more nuanced. In a moving speech delivered to concert attendees on the night of the no-indictment announcement, Killer Mike tearfully quoted Martin Luther King, Jr. while suggesting that the oppressive forces of today are more pronounced economically than racially. Lecrae—who vaulted to the top of the charts with the help of loyal, conservative Christians—has made his social media feed an open forum on issues of race and justice in recent days. Other Christian hip hop artists like Swoope and Trip Lee have tackled the matter head-on.
The truth-to-power heart of hip hop still beats. While mum on Ferguson to date, Jay Z has provoked the White House to beef with his lyrics. Yasiin Bey was force-fed in solidarity with Guantanamo Bay prisoners being denied their ability to hunger strike. Hip hop’s protest hasn’t gone anywhere and doesn’t appear to be disappearing.
The bigger question is this: As hip hop has changed, why hasn’t the complexion of its protesting voices? In a BET Cypher, David Banner asked pointedly, “Where were the white rappers when they mowed Mike Brown down?” When Taylor Swift dons hip hop garb for a music video, it doesn’t occur to anyone that she would owe anything to the tradition of protest. In a world where Miley Cyrus can tell her producer, “I want urban, I just want something that just feels Black,” why is Andy Mineo, a white face in hip hop, an outlier for humbly seeking to understand the Ferguson fallout and honor the voices of others?
Iggy Azalea has ascended to hip hop stardom, beating back (mostly unfair) criticism that she isn’t “authentic” enough for the genre. Azalea is an Australian-born model slinging street slang, complete with a mimicked accent, and her defenders insist she “belongs” due to her creative output, not her background. This is true enough, but as more and more pale faces inhabit the world of hip hop, it’s a shame if they don’t feel like they belong to any of the tradition’s guideposts, outside of record sales. To borrow from our own Bradford William Davis, it seems as though everybody wants to sound like a nigga, but when a black body hits the street, no one wants to be a nigger.
Protest is not solely an attempt to convince, but more broadly a desire to be heard. As I hope Christians can turn on their ears as communal grieving pours out around the nation, I also hope hip hop can be a vehicle for empathy and love. As the best producers, lyricists, and hook-singers study the methods of those they borrow from, I hope they also listen for the passion, the hurt, and the resolve of their hip hop brothers and sisters.