By now the whole world should be familiar with the events occurring in Ferguson. I don’t have to tell you what a travesty the entire incident has been from beginning to verdict to the subsequent mayhem sweeping American streets today. I’d like to avoid a lengthy rant on the issue and simply look at the role that music has played following similar incidents.
Music has always been used as a natural reaction to social injustice and tragedies just like the one that has erupted out of a small town in Missouri. The reaction can be of incendiary anger, it can be of peaceful lament or it can be a simple demand. A demand for answers, accountability, justice, peace, equality, anything running counter to a status quo perceived as fundamentally wrong.
It has been a consistent theme running back almost as far as music has been made.
The 60s was undoubtedly the era in which the protest song was popularised, the Vietnam War and the subsequently enormous public outcry against it gave songwriters more than enough lyrical ammunition, stoked by the newly harnessed fires of television. In the case of Mike Brown and many others though, the sentiment is much more personal than an entire war. Music history is littered with responses to cases with similar infamy.
Little known is the initial catalyst behind Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, a single incident of police brutality against an unidentified victim witnessed by one of its writers, Obie Benson. One simple incident inspired the song, and eventually the accompanying album, that questioned an entire generation.
In 1975 Bob Dylan, a man who had made a career out of protest songs, released his infamous Hurricane. The song told the story of African American boxer Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter, a man who proclaimed his innocence of a triple murder he was nonetheless tried and convicted for. Dylan’s song not only brought the story of Carter to a global audience before the advent of the Internet and social media, but lent enough weight to public opinion to force a re-trial.
These kind of songs were not just limited to issues occurring in the United States. Former Genesis singer Peter Gabriel released Biko on the doorstep of the 80s as a tribute to South African anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko, who was beaten to death by his interrogators. Another example of an artist providing exposure to a situation that may otherwise have gone unnoticed by the Western world.
Racially charged issues began to find their way into contemporary music with more prevalence in the 80s. The struggle faced by African American people was met head on by Grandmaster Flash And The Furious Five with their 1982 hit The Message – a song highlighting the violence, impoverishment and disadvantage permeating their culture. The line in the chorus ‘Don’t push me, cause I’m close to the edge’ a frighteningly accurate premonition of events to come. African American people had been given a real voice, backed by a genre of music growing exponentially in popularity.
If the African American psyche was indeed on the precipice in the mid 80s, the Rodney King incident hurled them over it. Tensions already boiled below the surface with a generation wired beyond belief by the first wave of socially-charged, angry rap present in the work of Public Enemy and NWA’s Fuck The Police. When Rodney King, without provocation, was beaten almost to death by police officers and those officers were subsequently acquitted of using excessive force, the city of Los Angeles exploded in a violent series of riots.
The music industry, especially hip hop, exploded similarly in response. Artists such as Dr. Dre, Ice-T, Rage Against The Machine and 2Pac all addressed the riots in their songs. LA native Ice Cube arguably had the most to say, releasing The Predator, an entire album responding to the situation.
The way in which many artists responded though was often regarded as a precursor to more violence. Ice Cube’s Death Certificate, immediately preceding The Predator, contained a song Black Korea, which was accused of heightening tensions between Korean Americans and African Americans, never more so in the wake of the riots. For every Changes by 2Pac, there was a Cop Killer by Body Count.
This is not to point the finger at old Ice Cube, but when confronted with a negative outcome like the riots and the violence that has dogged rap music for years, artists have been reluctant to accept responsibility for the impact their music has on public opinion and attitude. That’s why, with civil unrest occurring across America after a grand jury elected not to indict Darren Wilson for the murder of Mike Brown, a situation with some awfully apparent parallels to the Rodney King beating, it is important to look at the role that music might play with this situation.
So far it has remained positive, with rapper J. Cole releasing Be Free, a heartfelt tribute to victim Mike Brown earlier in the year.
It’s a melancholic lament of the senseless death of Brown and the wider injustices faced by the African American community, laid over a simplistic piano bar and interspersed with eyewitness accounts of the incident. J. Cole isn’t my favourite rapper of all time, but this is really moving. There are no calls for violence or revenge against police officers as I’m sure there will be from at least a couple of studio gangstas following the disheartening verdict and these fruitless riots, only the mourning of a lost life, a grieving family and a people who still feel under the thumb of injustice, even in the 21st century.
Like Marvin Gaye on What’s Going On before it, the only thing this is provocative of is critical thought.
And that’s the impact that music should have.