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Hip-Hop Takes On Michael Brown, Ferguson With J.Cole’s “Be Free”

As angry protests rage on in Ferguson, Missouri, it seems like Trayvon Martin all over again. Another unarmed young black teenager, Michael Brown (18), has been shot and killed – this time by the police, and possibly in cold blood. Witnesses say his hands were up. He was shot at least six times – twice to the head, autopsy reports say. Protests with placards reading, “Hands up! Don’t Shoot!” have an almost eerie ring to them. They do not just depict the horror of a teenager being murdered by those meant to serve and protect, they also question the validity of justice and the valuation of black male life in America. Young black males have always been an endangered demographic in this country– from way back to slavery times where black men were routinely hung from trees and left as strange fruit, to the civil rights era when marching protestors were met with water hoses and police dogs, to now, when young black teens are simply shot in the head – even in the face of the Barack Obama era.

The figure and image of the black male has traditionally been a threatening one to white America. It causes an immense amount of fear which has historically drudged up atrocious violence. One need only look at the lynchings, shootings and beatings of Emmitt Till, Martin Luther King, Rodney King, Trayvon Martin and now Michael Brown to testify to the deep-rooted fear that lurks behind these actions. It is little wonder that so many black males turn to hip-hop to express their outrage, pain and let their voice be heard. (Not so ironically, Michael Brown was an aspiring rapper). Remember, hip-hop started as a revolution – a political and musical revolt against economic poverty, societal racism, and police brutality. Remember N.W.A’s “F**k Da Police?” There’s a reason that song happened. Today, another black child lies dead, his future brutally ripped from him. Many, especially the marchers in Ferguson, shout, “How?” “Why?” and more painfully, “Why my child?” Signs blaring, “Black Life Matters!” “R.I.P. Mike Brown,” “I Am A Man,” “I Am Emmitt Till,” “No Killercops in Our Community,” and “We Need Answers For Michael Brown Jr.” spring from the hands and faces of angry, stunned and sorrowful protestors.

Hip-hop is also asking “Why?” But more importantly, the hip-hop community is encouraging strategic and philanthropic action. Top rappers T.I. and Nelly (a St. Louis native) have been the first to pledge $15,000/year in tuition scholarships to teenagers of the Brown family’s choosing. Rappers Talib Kweli, Wiz Khalifa, Young Jeezy, Frank Ocean, Childish Gambino, and David Banner have weighed in on the battle via Twitter, on CNN, through powerful essays, on T-shirts, and in live concerts, showing their support for the Brown family and criticizing racist police brutality. Rapper Killer Mike posted a particularly poignant essay on Instagram calling attention to the humanity of the victims (usually overlooked):


“These two people are parents. They are humans that produced a child and loved that child and that child was slaughtered like Game and left face down as public spectacle while his blood drained down the street…

“Look at the pain of this mother; look into her eyes… Don’t debate. Don’t insert your agenda. Save me the bullsh*t Black On Black Crime speech and look at these [two] Noble creatures called humans and look at what govt-sanctioned murder has done… I don’t care that ballplayers and rappers are what they [should] be. I care that we as humans care as much about one another more.”

Michael Brown’s Parents on CNN


Thousands of hip-hop heads are using the hashtag #IfTheyGunnedMeDown to criticize the stereotyping of African-American males today. A St. Louis radio station, HOT 104.1 FM, even opened a platform dedicated to Ferguson residents to air their frustrations, grievances and emotions.

“Ferguson, call and tell us what we can do to get your neighborhood back,” DJ Boogie D said on the radio, according to Al-Jazeera America. “The calls are flooding in.”

Musically, just days after the shooting, rapper J.Cole took to the airwaves with the emotional protest song, “Be Free”. With his voice cracking over the keyboards he sings, “All we want to do is take the chains off / all we want to do is be free”. He then yells in anguish, “Can you tell me why? Every time I step outside I see my n***as die? / I’m letting you know / That it ain’t no gun that they make that can kill my soul.” It’s a somber, silencing song – one that makes you stop and think. It also features an excerpt from an eyewitness of the crime who speaks plainly on what really happened to Michael Brown:

“Once my friend felt that shot… he put his hands in the earth, and he started to get down. But the officer still approached with his weapon drawn and he fired seven more shots, and my friend died…”

J.Cole’s “Be Free”



“Be Free” ricocheted across the net, going viral within six hours after it was released. It is the first protest song mourning Michael Brown’s death.

As the National Guard clashes with rioting protesters in Ferguson, and as the true travesty of Michael Brown’s death sinks into America’s consciousness, I expect more voices from the hip-hop community will begin speak on behalf of the freedom of black people – a freedom from racist violence, freedom from police brutality and a freedom from societal injustice.

Michael Brown allegedly died with his hands up. Now, a divided country must look into its own conflicted soul, at its own hands for answers. After all… all we should do is take the chains off.


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About the Author

on MUSIC IS MY OXYGEN WEEKLY.

Mic check 1,2,1,2. Not the words you expect to bust out of Orange County, California, but that's where Deborah Jane found her funk. Daughter of Guyanese immigrants, Deborah grew up in an all-white suburb where she was one of the only black kids in her school. (Fun fact: She didn't make her first black friend until attending Stanford University). Hip-hop gave her a voice and helped her discover her roots. Now she is an emcee and writer who both spits raps and writes editorials, TV shows and films - especially hip-hop musicals!

At Stanford, she wrote and produced an award-winning hip-hop musical, Strange Fruit: The Hip-Hopera (www.strangefruithiphopera.com) - now in development as a feature film. Deborah also launched her hip-hip theatre webseries, The HOTT (www.youtube.com/TheHOTTtv), published in Urban Cusp Magazine. Currently, she is penning her first hip-hop album, Do You Love Me Deborah Jane? And do you? She truly hopes you all love her.

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