Like most people who rap for a living, J. Cole, 29, never experienced the worst of Ferguson, Mo. He never smelled the awful musk of tear gas, or feared for his life in a McDonald's parking lot. His connection to Michael Brown, the unarmed 18-year-old slain in the St. Louis suburb by a police officer 10 days ago, stops at his brown skin and love of hip-hop. But still he wrote a song.
"Be Free," recorded and released less than a week after Brown's death, is a punch in the gut: all mournful keyboards and pained, cracking vocals. Cole sings as if the loss of Brown's life is personal and momentous, like his own humanity has been bound up, gagged, and set on the brink. The song's anguish manages to read as authentic, and it has resonated as such with many onlookers who have watched what's happening in Ferguson from live streams and Twitter feeds and struggled to find words.
"Are we all alone? Fighting on our own?" he pleads, in between real, heartbreaking audio excerpts of the testimony of Brown's friend, Dorian Johnson. "All we want to do is take the chains off, all we want to do is take the chains off, man."
Protest songs in the wake of a crisis, from Woody Guthrie and the Dust Bowl, to Creedence Clearwater Revival and Vietnam, are an American tradition. As an art form, they distill the anger and confusion of unjust circumstances into cathartic, relatable bursts: disaffection in digest. In hip-hop, protest songs have most often been concerned with civil rights — a logical function of a music that was invented and is still, mostly, ruled by historically disadvantaged people.
In the late '80s, Public Enemy and NWA defined themselves in part by raging against an earlier wave of police brutality against black people. In 2005, Lil Wayne and Mos Def recorded some of the most pointed and potent songs of their prolific careers in response to the Bush administration's indifference to Hurricane Katrina survivors. And in 2013, Jay Z made a habit of dedicating his song "Forever Young" to slain black teenager Trayvon Martin.
"Be Free," though still climbing its way toward 1 million Soundcloud plays, is so far the highest profile song to be recorded in response to Ferguson, which has boiled over into a parable of racial tension and police militarization. Some in the hip-hop community have beckoned for the genre's heavyweights to be more vocal and hands on about what's happening there, to help put their anger and frustration into words and song.
Killer Mike, Talib Kweli, and Young Jeezy are among a number of politically minded rappers who have borne the brunt of the community's response to Ferguson, offering sharp reflections and cogent critiques. On Monday, nine days after Brown was killed, Diddy weighed in with a direct query to President Obama. But there has been no word to date from Jay Z, or Kanye West, or Nas, or Lil Wayne — each of who has reaped noteworthy art from righteous indignation in the past.
In a recent interview with Complex, Cole explained that he wrote "Be Free," and took a subsequent trip to Ferguson because he identified with Mike Brown, who he said could have been him or one of his friends. But he also spoke at length about why he almost didn't make the song, or pay much attention to the news of Brown's death at all.
"[When I heard about Brown] I was like 'Damn, again? That's fucked up,'" Cole said. "And I was ashamed that that was my reaction. Because we always have that reaction. For years that's how we be feelin'. It's so regular that we're just like 'Damn, that's fucked up. Again?'"
He continued: "I didn't watch the video [of Staten Island native Eric Garner being strangled by police in July] because I didn't want to see it no more. I don't want to see black men get killed. I saw the Oscar Grant video. I don't want to watch that. We run from it because it hurts."
For Cole, the crisis in Ferguson offered freedom from apathy, a chance to re-sensitize himself to a human rights issue that had grown too big to ignore. Outrage was also heard from Frank Ocean, Mac Miller, and Janelle Monae, none of whom are old enough to have contributed artistically to the conversation around Katrina, or Sean Bell, or Amadou Diallo, or Rodney King. For them, too, the fight is fresh again.
But less than one month after Eric Garner was killed, and just two years after Trayvon Martin, it's possible that some artists, who have seen this movie more times than they would like to remember, who marched and cried and rapped until their throats were sore, have been afflicted with the same numbness that Cole described feeling when he first heard news of Brown.
"Damn, that's fucked up. Again?" And little more is mustered.
Jay Z and Kanye West and Lil Wayne and Nas may soon wake up to the situation in Ferguson, which is erupting even now in the face of the National Guard and a ruthlessly enforced curfew. But it may be time that we stop looking for these old veterans to suit up in pressing times, to stop asking them to charge forth once more into the breach. The baton, by this point, has been passed to a new generation of hip-hop stars, and with it comes an old burden.