A song born when pain is still fresh

Somber protest song ‘Be Free’ spreads around world in matter of hours


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In 1970, it took a few weeks for Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young to record and release the song “Ohio” in response to the shooting of unarmed college students at Kent State University.

On Friday, just days after the death of Michael Brown and the subsequent civil unrest in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Mo., J. Cole’s somber protest song “Be Free” spread around the world in a matter of hours, fueled by social media and the hip-hop world’s intense online discourse about Mr. Brown, an 18-year-old who was fatally shot by a police officer last Saturday.

Mr. Cole, a 29-year-old rapper from North Carolina, posted the song early Friday to the online audio platform SoundCloud, which lets users upload tracks and easily share them through social media. By late afternoon, it had been listened to more than 250,000 times, and, with feelings still raw over the situation in Ferguson, it began to quickly ricochet around the Internet.

“All we want to do is take the chains off,” Mr. Cole sings in the track, his voice breaking over mournful keyboards. “All we want to do is be free.”

J. Cole’s “Be Free” was released, publicized and commented on with remarkable speed; according to Billboard, it had become the most talked-about track on Twitter by 10 a.m. Friday, a little more than six hours after it was released. Ann Powers, NPR’s music critic, called it “the first fully formed protest song I’ve heard addressing the death of Mike Brown” and said it was “evocative of Nina Simone.”

Mr. Cole’s song punctuated what was already a strong reaction in hip-hop circles, with artists, fans and critics going online to express themselves and debate the issue. And it followed the hip-hop world’s pitched reaction to the shooting of Trayvon Martin in 2012, which drew musical responses by Public Enemy, Dead Prez, Mos Def and others.

“In the many, many instances where tragedies like this have happened,” said Matthew Trammell, an associate editor at The Fader, a music and fashion magazine, “people in hip-hop immediately feel a responsibility to use the platform they have to raise a certain perspective that is not the default.”

On Instagram, the rapper Killer Mike posted a picture of Mr. Brown’s mother and stepfather along with an impassioned note of sympathy that was noted by BuzzFeed, BET and many other outlets. On Tuesday, Wiz Khalifa and Young Jeezy performed in St. Louis wearing “R.I.P. Mike Brown” T-shirts. Young Jeezy also posted a picture of himself at a looted Ferguson convenience store, writing: “The answer is not tearing down our own neighborhoods and communities, the answer is goin[g] to the source of the problem in numbers.”

Tef Poe, a St. Louis rapper, drew wide attention this week for a barrage of online posts, while at the same time thousands of people on Twitter used the hashtag #IfTheyGunnedMeDown to criticize the stereotyping of young African-Americans by law enforcement and the media.

Mr. Brown was an aspiring rapper himself, posting his own songs to SoundCloud, a streaming platform that is popular among young listeners and artists — particularly in dance and hip-hop — for its YouTube-like ease in uploading and sharing audio. Mr. Brown’s songs were even subject to insta-analysis by The Riverfront Times, a St. Louis weekly, which at first characterized his lyrics as “gangster,” but later removed that word after criticism.

In a blog post unveiling his own track, Mr. Cole wrote candidly about Mr. Brown’s death and the feelings it inspired in him. “That coulda been me, easily,” he wrote. “It could have been my best friend. I’m tired of being desensitized to the murder of black men.”

The lyrics to the song allude to Trayvon Martin’s death, with Mr. Cole singing, “I will stand my ground.” But Fader’s Mr. Trammell noted that “Be Free” is not a straightforward protest song, avoiding political commentary in favor of an emotional, “fatigued” response to Mr. Brown’s death and all that it represents.

“For hip-hop artists, a lot of whom have come from places or circumstances where occurrences like this are not uncommon, they feel a very personal reaction to it,” Mr. Trammell said. “It’s not about political affiliations or thoughts about the police or the president. It’s that these are the same kinds of people in the same kinds of places they grew up in.”

Mr. Cole declined Friday to be interviewed about “Be Free.” A spokeswoman said, “He’d like the song to stand on its own.”

United States - North America - Missouri - St. Louis - Trayvon Martin - Wiz Khalifa - Michael Brown - J. Cole - Nina Simone - Yasiin - Young Jeezy


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