There are many people who have yet to be held adequately responsible in Ferguson, Missouri. America is starving for information from the higher-ups that allowed and condoned police brutality in Ferguson, and simultaneously calling for Michael Brown’s killer to be tried and punished accordingly. But amid this cry for justice and accountability is a stranger, less logical expectation of vocal activism and admonishment from the most visible members of the hip-hop community.
This misguided notion that hip-hop heavyweights aren’t doing enough was particularly apparent in the mass disappointment leveled at St. Louis rapper Nelly in the wake of the incident. Now, Nelly is not famous for his political activism or preoccupation with African-American issues. Nelly is “famous” for songs like “Hot in Herre” and “Air Force Ones.” While Nelly has made his name promoting Apple Bottom Jeans, not social justice, the fact of his blackness combined with his former zip code was apparently enough to make Nelly’s absence from Ferguson social media activism both apparent and abhorrent.
Nelly's initial silence was condemned and it was also packaged as part of a larger trend of accusations, as websites criticized “most of hip-hop” for responding “more to the Robin Williams death than Mike Brown’s.”
Of course, this call for hip-hop artists to speak out comes from a completely sincere and rational place. Hip-hop isn’t just a historically black genre; it’s a historically political one. Famous hip-hop activists from Tupac to Common have long stood up against systemic racism, cycles of poverty and violence, and police brutality. The hip-hop community’s allegedly inadequate response to the injustices taking place in Ferguson feels like a reverberation of accusations that the genre is wandering further and further away from its deeply political and radicalized roots.
It doesn’t take a hip-hop historian to realize that the message isn’t what it used to be. In 1989, Public Enemy told us to “fight the power” in an incendiary track that combined rap and black church service vocal stylings, peppered with civil rights allusions and revolutionary rhetoric. Today, the hottest hip-hop hook in America is from Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy,” and even overtly political tracks like Kanye West’s “New Slaves” inevitably descend into name-dropping, sexual objectification, and amped-up bravado.
Combine hip-hop’s apparent descent into apolitical commercialism with the inexplicable tragedy of Michael Brown’s death, and it’s not difficult to fathom why some fans are so disappointed in their favorite artists. After all, celebrities have hurried to take part in recent viral memes like the ALS Ice Bucket challenge, and have shared their remembrances of Robin Williams across various social media platforms.
It’s easy to see why, for example, Kanye West’s tweet regarding Robin Williams’ death served to highlight a perceived silence surrounding Michael Brown’s demise. After all, West famously spoke out against the government’s treatment of predominately African-American Hurricane Katrina victims back in 2005, declaring that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” on national television. This history of articulation, much like Nelly’s personal ties to the St. Louis area, could be interpreted as a reason why West ought to be weighing in as the assumed value of an African-American life in America is once again being examined and interrogated across the nation.
When a celebrity speaks out about an important issue, it increases visibility—this is a good thing. Nevertheless, the expectation that every African-American star or hip-hop hero must weigh in on Ferguson is a problematic one. Demanding that every beloved black celebrity respond to this issue would be like asking every white celebrity to take to social media whenever a white person, be they a criminal or a victim, makes the nightly news. The next time a mentally unstable white man opens fire on the public, you can be sure that the judgment of the world will fall firmly on that individual, not on Lena Dunham for failing to release a cogent and heartfelt press release.
Expecting every black celebrity with a hit single or an extensive Twitter following to address Ferguson implies that Michael Brown’s murder is a minority issue instead of a human rights one. Furthermore, demanding that any one person who is not directly implicated in the atrocity weigh in on it anyway distracts from the brave protesters, articulate journalists, and passionate public figures who are voluntarily taking on the responsibility of ensuring that Michael Brown’s prematurely silenced voice is heard.
We all ought to play our parts in holding cops and officials accountable while furthering the national debate; whether or not Rihanna chooses to publicly take a stand is entirely irrelevant. The notion of checking off a laundry list of visible black celebrities for social media responses and condemning those who have yet to speak out is not only counter-productive—it’s part of the problem.
On top of the inherent weirdness of demanding that every rapper take a stand on Ferguson, there’s the added fact that this backlash is almost entirely baseless. Members of the hip-hop community have actually been incredibly vocal on the topic of Michael Brown. The notorious Nelly himself led a “Hands up, don't shoot” chant at a charity event in Los Angeles over the weekend; he’s also spoken with Mike Brown’s family and is working with them to create a Mike Brown Scholarship Fund to help send kids to college—a dream that Brown himself was tragically close to realizing.
Meanwhile, Frank Ocean took to Tumblr to voice his reaction to the ongoing atrocities, commenting on a screenshot of a Missouri press conference: “You see that black woman standing up there?… I wonder if I’m supposed to think Missouri’s gov’t is pro-black because of her being stood up there with those other black men…I wonder if she was off the clock while she stood up there. If she was off the clock...then I wonder if she was getting paid for her time off like the guy who shot Michael 8 times. What’s that guy’s name by the way?”
In a similar vein, Rapper Killer Mike posted a photo of Michael Brown’s grieving parents on his Instagram, accompanied by a powerful essay in which he explained, “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.” On Friday J. Cole released “Be Free,” an ode to Brown that ends with the harrowing voice of eyewitness Dorian Johnson insisting “He turned around, put his hands in the air...He started to get down but the officer still approached with his weapon drawn and he fired several more shots, and my friend died.”
Talib Kweli, Juicy J, Erykah Badu, Common, and Young Jeezy have all taken to Twitter to voice their disgust with the crime and stand in solidarity; Jeezy and J. Cole are among the handful of celebrities who have visited Ferguson amid protests and riots.
Meanwhile, John Legend has taken up the mantle of most visible R&B activist, retweeting and authoring various opinions and insights. In a series of tweets last Thursday, Legend said, “I believe these cops are intentionally trying to inflame the situation. They want an excuse. Recall the local cop telling those ‘animals’ to ‘bring it’ on CNN…He wants a fight. Calling us ‘animals’ has been the language to justify slavery, Jim Crow and all manner of injustice. Dehumanization and racism go together.”
While the hip-hop community clearly has not been silent, it’s interesting to note that arguably the most vocal celebrity to emerge in the Ferguson debate isn’t a political rapper or activist artist but a Grey’s Anatomy heartthrob. Jesse Williams has been holding court on Tumblr and Twitter this past week, covering every aspect of Ferguson, from the initial incident to ongoing riots. Williams tweeted at CNN to “stop replaying completely irrelevant video: You are providing false context & running a marketing campaign for a murderer,” and he didn’t stop at that—he appeared on CNN to condemn the role that false media narratives play in the oppression of African Americans.
When we stop pointing fingers and assigning responsibility, it quickly becomes apparent that celebrity activism, with all its advantages and pitfalls, is alive and well in Ferguson, Missouri. Now it’s time to question the efficacy of this social media surge, and investigate whether this viral visibility can effect real life reform.