Newspaper article International New York Times

Killer Mike and J. Cole Bare Emotions

Newspaper article International New York Times

Killer Mike and J. Cole Bare Emotions

Article excerpt

In a reminder of hip-hop's politically potent past, two performers strike a chord by sharing their emotions on a shooting in Ferguson, Mo.

There are few arguments more tiresome than the one over hip- hop's political potential. It begins something like this: Hip-hop's turn away from the socially conscious dates back to the early to mid- 1990s, right around the time when Soundscan showed that hip-hop was truly integral to this country's pop music. Over time, as hip-hop became flush with success, the agitating in the form of sloganeering and the implicit politics of gangster rap that were once the norm became scarcer.

That has meant two decades of arguing between people who think hip-hop is a wasted political force and those who think it has no such obligations. There is no right side to this debate. Broad generalizations about the music's squandered transformative potential overlook the value of hip-hop's creep into every corner of American culture. Hip-hop's victories tend to blunt its more incendiary impulses. The genre does not do the heavy lifting it once did, and may not be equipped for it anymore, but that does not mean it is a neutral force.

Any commercial and cultural power as large as hip-hop is going to have a host of dissenters, even from within, and it is in that gray area that Killer Mike and J. Cole reside. These are rappers who have been adjacent to megafame but never achieved it themselves; artists who have long been ambivalent about making music that hews to the norms of mainstream hip-hop but do not fancy themselves total outsiders; concerned citizens who see advocacy as a part of their jobs, even if those around them are not much bothered with it.

And it is these two men who, when confronted with events in Ferguson, Mo., made the loudest noise -- not by making music, but by laying bare their innermost struggles. For Mr. Cole, it came in an interview soon after Michael Brown's death; for Killer Mike, it was an onstage speech the night a grand jury declined to indict Mr. Brown's killer, the police officer Darren Wilson.

In a year when racial issues roiled the country and popular music largely kept its eyes averted, these were brutal, vital, meaningful moments, unvarnished snatches of raw feeling. Yes, there were songs that grappled with the events in Ferguson -- Mr. Cole made one, the anguished "Be Free" -- but in the online clutter, songs can be easy to ignore. These off-script moments broke through, collapsing the wall of performed character and starting the sort of conversation once thought to be solely the purview of pop agitators.

Given that so much of the narrative around the events in Ferguson coalesced online -- via live streams and videos and photos on Vine and Instagram, all amplified by Twitter and Facebook -- it is natural that the most striking pop music encounters functioned in the same way.

On Aug. 17, eight days after Mr. Brown was killed, the city of Ferguson was bristling with anger, hurt and protests, and Mr. Cole got on a plane with some friends to see it all for himself.

"We ain't come down here to do no interviews," he told a reporter from Complex who had buttonholed him for a quick conversation, captured on video. "We came down here to feel it, 'cause this is history."

What followed were five minutes of raw, forthright conversation. Asked about his initial response to Mr. Brown's death, he said that he had reacted much as he had to other recent killings of young black men: with resigned frustration. But then he turned the gaze on himself: "I'm ashamed that I had that reaction, 'cause we always have that reaction, for years, that's how we be feeling. …

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