“What about your recording artists who are ‘everything’?,” asks English literature scholar Ruth Ellen Kocher after a week of following protests and marches in Ferguson, Missouri. “Have they said a word about the murder of a kid with their music loaded on his iPod?” A less reported reaction to the slaying of unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown and the suppression of the resulting demonstration is a desire for popular culture’s prominent figures to take a public stand on what’s transpired.
Historically, Black pop culture has served as megaphone for the social and civic concerns of the African-American community. Since the turn of the 21st century though, the Black community has lost a number public cultural figures who typified the artist-activist aesthetic—Ossie Davis, James Brown, Abbey Lincoln, Amiri Baraka, Maya Angelou, Ruby Dee. Who is filling the void they’ve left behind?
While the relative absence of immediate public commentary from global icons such as Oprah Winfrey, Will Smith, Jay Z, Beyoncé or Kanye West—nor ascendant stars like Nicki Minaj, Drake or Kendrick Lamar— has drawn the attention of fans across social media platforms (venues which may be creating unreasonable expectations for knee-jerk responses), it should be noted that local Missouri entertainment figures and those with existing ties to the Midwest have been, from the outset, vocal witnesses to and supporters of the demonstrators seeking an investigation into Michael Brown’s killing.
Common took time between promotional announcements for his new album to express solidarity with the people of Ferguson, tweeting, “To the people of Ferguson, I FEEL YOU. And I will ride with you for justice! #changemustcome #MikeBrown.” St. Louis native Nelly stressed the need to seek an organized and orderly approach to the demands for justice in Missouri: “It’s frustrating sometimes because we want a different outcome, but we’re not taking a different approach.” Nelly travelled to Ferguson clad in a white “#mikebrown” tee to demonstrate with the public, and has taken the initiative to start a scholarship in Michael Brown’s memory.
Abroad, Janelle Monáe—born three hours from Ferguson in Kansas City—used her introduction to her song “Cold War” (itself a rallying call for resistance) to spread awareness of the unrest in her home country. “We’re tired of it,” Monáe shouted before impelling to crowd at the Flow Festival in Helsinki to jump up and down so that the vibrations could be felt back in the United States. She’d later post a picture with her band in the now ubiquitous “hands up, don’t shoot” pose, communicating solidarity with the protesters in Ferguson.
To this list, one can add outspoken artists like Talib Kweli, Questlove, Big Boi, Frank Ocean, Jean Grae, Rapsody and others who have added their voices to the global chorus of both condolence and demand for action. J. Cole, in an act that may inspire a trend, released the sparse and raspy track “Be Free”—whose refrain (“all we want to do is take the chains off”) sounds tinged with a tearful frustration. (The track also samples the testimony of Dorian Johnson, the young man who claims he was with Michael Brown when officer Darren Wilson approached them.) Cole has since traveled to Ferguson to engage with residents and pay his respects at the site where Brown’s body laid bleeding into the street.
A question that remains, though, is whether or not it actually matters if entertainment’s megastars appear reluctant to speak out publicly during moments when national tragedy shakes the African-American community. Notably, Dave Chappelle once mocked the idea that people need the voices of celebrities to complete our public reflections—using MTV’s decision to reach out to Ja Rule for live commentary during the September 11 attacks as an example.. Regardless of whether or not it makes sense, these followings are real—as real as the likelihood of future tragedy in America.
“There will be more Mike Browns and there will be an even greater need for the voices of hip-hoppers in the spotlight to speak out,” says Toni Blackman, a hip-hop cultural ambassador. Blackman serves on the working committee for Harry Belafonte’s Sankofa.org, empowering popular artists to form and express informed opinion on today’s concerns. For Blackmon, the nature of celebrity and fanship demands that entertainers acknowledge the power of their voices.
“It matters because these people have fans and followers, many of whom are highly impressionable people—both young and old,” she says. “Even when an artist chooses silence, he or she is making a political statement.”
Sean “Diddy” Combs, one Black media mogul who’s chosen to speak publicly on the Brown tragedy, took to Instagram two days ago with a video message directed at the president. “Obama, get on a plane,” Combs said, while turning his camera back and forth between his face and televised coverage of the St. Louis County police’s suppression of protesters. “It’s serious. These are your people, baby.”
In making this plea, Combs unwittingly highlights the dilemma of the contemporary Black popular activist. Obama the one-time community organizer is not “Obama” anymore. His audience—like those of the Black entertainers who’ve risen to the top of the industry—has grown far wider than the African-American community in which he initially rose to prominence. The President has spoken of not wanting to “tip the scales” of the judicial process by visiting Ferguson, but beneath that statement, the political scars of his last foray into a controversial law enforcement matter (scholar Skip Gates’s arrest at his Cambridge home) are visible.
Fair or not, the President has now tasted the backlash he may face from segments of the White voting population who view any support of an African-American victim as White House racial bias. And if the President appears reluctant to take a strong stance in support of the people of Ferguson, can we be surprised if pop icons—who depend, commercially, on the White segments of their audiences as much as, if not more than, the Black segments—are exhibiting a similar reluctance?
Harry Belafonte may be right in suggesting we have more Black entertainers in positions of national and international influence than ever before. But as the possibilities grow, so do the stakes—of what good may be done and of what spoils may be lost by sticking out one’s neck.