Hip Hop and Ferguson

J. Cole in Ferguson

J. Cole in Ferguson

Resistance is deeply embedded in Hip Hop’s DNA. Hip Hop culture was born in the midst of the Black Liberation Movement, at a time of popular uprising, when people were doing their utmost to be free. No matter how much the forces of capitalism have done in their attempt to coopt it, at its heart Hip Hop culture is still a culture of resistance.

From the beginning the culture has been characterized by a willingness to document the ills of the community, the source of those ills outside the community, and the need “to fight the powers that be.” Anthems such as PE’s “Fight The Power” and “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos,” NWA’s “Fuck Tha Police,” and going further back, Grandmaster Flash’s The Message are emblematic of this tradition.

The events in Ferguson, and the reaction of the Hip Hop community have brought this to the fore.

While much of the Hip Hop royalty, if you will, has remained silent regarding the execution of teenager Michael Brown by Darren Wilson of the Ferguson MO, PD, many have expressed their outrage. Some already produced songs in protest.

J. Cole has been one of the most powerful in his support for the protestors in Ferguson. In response to the shooting, he wrote “Be Free,” a tribute to Michael Brown, in which he cries,

All we want to do is take these chains off
All we want to do is break the chains off
All we want to do is be free
All we want to do is be free
All we want to do is take these chains off
All we want to do is break the chains off
All we want to do is be free
All we want to do is be free


Soon after he could be found ‘building’ with brothers and sisters on the ground in Ferguson, trying to get a grasp of the situation and offering his support.

Lauren Hill contributed Black Rage, sung to the melody of “My Favorite Things”, with these searing lyrics:

Black rage is founded on two-thirds a person
Rapings and beatings and suffering that worsens
Black human packages tied up in strings
Black rage can come from all these kinds of things.”

And TI wrote “New National Anthem” which features this hook:

Home of the brave and free (It’s America)
Free just to murder me (land of the handgun)
Land of the beautiful (home of the shotgun)
Cursed by the hate we throw (You’re dead if you ain’t got one)
Is this the new national anthem? (It was like this before I got here baby, I ain’t do it)
Is this the new national anthem? (I ain’t start it, I’m just a part of it)

Jasiri X produced “212°“, an aggressive call to action, and from Tennessee, Nate DaGreat put out the more melancholy “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot“, written from the perspective of a young man who doesn’t understand why he’s just been shot by the police.

Nelly, a native of Ferguson, who created a scholarship in honor of the Brown family, spoke with Attorney General Holder, and told him that the police had lost the trust of the community. In a statement, he said, “[Holder] understood that the trust and communication in our city is broken, we need to stop the loss of lives of our young people and we discussed the importance of building bridges between city leaders and the community members.”

Killer Mike (whose father was a police officer) penned an op ed in which he warns America to stop these killings of black men at the hands of those that are supposed to be serving and protecting the public:

“I have searched all night and day for new and better words that could express my feelings and fear for the people of this country. I found no new words. I have no hope-filled insight to deliver. I only have this warning to all Americans: Whatever this country is willing to do to the least of us, it will one day do to us all. The police are paid by the public and carry a public trust, and they take an oath to protect us as citizens. The police have lost sight of that and must be reminded that we pay them to protect us, not to simply engage and cage us.”

Rod Starz of Rebel Diaz visited Ferguson with a contingent. They visited the family, and he came away with some observations for folks seeking to be supportive. Here’s one:

“The protesters that are resisting are the local youth. The resistance to police terror is not being led by “outside agitators.” That’s a BS media attempt to discredit the organic revolt that’s going down. Like Public Enemy once said, “Don’t Believe The Hype!” These are kids who have nothing to lose, and have had everything taken away from them. They have systematically been denied of their humanity and are reclaiming it on their own terms. What we saw firsthand was a whole community in resistance. The elders provide water and food to the young protesters, without judging the actions of the youth. Around the curfews some elders were asking youth on probation to make sure not to get arrested. There is however a need for more black and brown men from age 30-45 to be on the scene to show that OG love and support to the youth.”

Talib Kweli and Rosa Clemente. Photo from Democracy Now.

Talib Kweli, Hip Hop artist, and Rosa Clemente, long time Hip Hop activist, along with Jessica Care Moore, poet, also went to Ferguson to see for themselves how the people were organizing and protesting against police brutality. They returned with a harrowing story of police abuse in what Rosa describes as the most terrifying night of her life. On this particular evening they found themselves at the demonstration supporting the brothers and sisters there, in particular youth, and saw much of what was supposed to be the black leadership collaborating with the police, instead of giving guidance to the black youth that were the most energetic in their demands for justice. Here is Rosa’s description of the events:

Jessica, Talib and I grabbed hands and ran. Officers swooped in on us from all directions and locked us down. The threats, their eyes, postures, weaponry said it all: “We have the power, we don’t care how many cameras there are, we can do what we want and we will never have to be held accountable.”

I held Devin, one of the young brothers there with us, who struggled to control his breathing. He said, “I’m choking” and a cop told him to stop or he would shoot him. I told the young man, “Try not to move. Just lay still, I got you.” The gun was at his chest. I looked at the cop and said “Please, he is not doing anything.” I tried to record the incident, but the cop had his finger on the trigger. I could feel Talib’s hand on my back and Jessica behind me. We laid there until one Black officer said “Let them go, we got who we wanted.”

Talib would go on to have a interview with Don Lemon of CNN in which he would attempt to hold him, and the media at large, to account for what he considered to be inaccurate reporting. It was a challenge to which Lemon was clearly unaccustomed, and reflected the rage bubbling up from the people regarding not just the killing of Michael Brown, or even all the other murders of unarmed black people at the hands of police, but the daily indignity of harassment and disrespect experienced by black people every day.

Many in the Hip Hop community have remained silent in the face of all this. No word from Kanye, or Jay Z, or Nicki Minaj. Or any of the other so-called Hip Hop royalty. In addition, there’s the deafening silence from prominent white Hip Hop artists like Macklamore, Eminem, and Iggy Azalea. (In response, many in the community have loudly questioned whether they’re only interested in being “Black” when it’s safe.) In the face of the continuing efforts of cooptation of the culture by the corporations, this is really no surprise.

Hip Hop was born of the Wretched, as Fanon might have put it, but that was a long time ago. And Hip Hop now is quite mainstream: an entire industry making a few very rich. But the many that are still a part of the culture have not been silenced. Those who grew up on the music, in the culture, older heads now, and those still coming up, strive remain true to Hip Hop’s roots in resistance. And, in moments of upsurge, that’s what comes forth. That rage, that fire, that middle finger to the police, is front and center once again. It is something that the rulers have not been able to kill. Hip Hop is still the voice of the voiceless, not just in the US, but all around the world. It’s not something that will change any time soon. As long as there’s a reason to fight, the spirit of Hip Hop lives.

Chen Zhen is the nom du blog of an Afro-Caribbean educator in NYC who really, really likes Hip Hop but would have to listen to it even if he hated it, because his students love it.

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