On J. Cole’s “Be Free” and Hip-Hop In Times of Protest » VSB

Music, Pop Culture, Race & Politics

On J. Cole’s “Be Free” and Hip-Hop In Times of Protest

J. Cole (Robin Marchant/Getty Images)


One thing I have stopped doing over the years is looking at hip-hop artists to be a voice for our social conscious. Of course when things in Ferguson, Missouri started getting out of control I had a quick thought: “What’s Nelly going to do?” But I dismissed it as quick as it entered my head. No matter what he would do in his own backyard,it was a fool’s errand to think Nelly had answers. The important things we needed were going to come from people far more important than him. And besides the idea of Nelly doing something like going into a booth and recording a song in honor of Mike Brown and the Ferguson community sounds nice…on paper. But on headphones or speakers? A new Nelly song is currently fluctuating between the last and second-to-last thing I want in my life.

In general, I let go of the idea that rap is, what Chuck D once called, “black America’s CNN” a long time ago. That isn’t because I’m cynical. Rather, the opposite is true. As a fan and a critic, I have noticed how over the years, the hip-hop genre has become so robust, it can no longer be easily divided up into neat sub-categories like “conscious” and “gangsta” or “backpack” and “street.” These days, a lot of rappers can be woke and ball at the same time, spit bars about selling drugs and break down the systemic problems in America that put them on that path. “Keeping it real” has become a contrived lifestyle phrase to the point where any artist who says that’s what they’re doing is perceived by me as doing the opposite. Now when I look at rappers and their music, the only intangible quality I’m listening for is authenticity.

Authenticity is what I heard this morning when I pressed play and started streaming J. Cole’s new song, “Be Free.” Again, this was a moment in the Ferguson crisis that I wasn’t holding my breath for, a new song that would encapsulate my anger and frustration. If anything, looking at the artwork that accompanied it, I halfway expected this song to be a throwaway track he unearthed to score some points with fans of his who consider themselves purists and wish Rawkus Records was still around. That’s not a dig on J. Cole personally, more so, it’s my familiarity with how art works in times like this.

Yes, these events can inspire us to want to express ourselves using our gifts, but there’s also something to be said for tact, and speaking too soon. As Drake once said, “wait on it.” Stay silent and no one can accuse you of grandstanding. Besides, there are enough records out there that were already helping me cope with this, such as Young Jeezy’s The Recession, which is why my expectations that this new J. Cole song was going to be something I wanted to listen to more than once were low.

So far, I have counted myself listening to this song 12 times.

If you listen closely, there’s a noise in the background of the vamp from the rhodes that sounds like the ruffling of papers. I don’t know if those were from Cole flipping through pages of pre-written lyrics, but I’d like to think they are, and the words he’s reciting are written in all caps with a red pen. And before he even spits a word, there’s that deep breath he lets out, then he begins:


That’s written in all caps because “Be Free” is more than Cole venting out his emotions, he’s exhuming them. Also of note is Cole’s decision to add excerpts of an interview with Dorian Johnson, the friend who was with Michael Brown when he was killed. In a way, that addition is a timestamp, so that no matter how many years go by, no listener will ever forget what inspired Cole to record this song.

“Be Free,” will probably never go down as the next “We Are The World.” It is messy, like something that came out of a home or tour bus studio. Hell, J. Cole isn’t even rapping, and the song doesn’t even sound mastered. But I can’t stop listening to “Be Free” and as long as tragedies like what happened to Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouricontinue to happen, I’ll always be given a reason to listen to it again.

Jozen Cummings

Jozen Cummings is the author and creator of the popular relationship blog Until I Get Married, which is currently in development for a television series with Warner Bros. He hosts a weekly podcast with WNYC about Empire called the Empire Afterparty and he works at Twitter as an editorial associate. He lives in Harlem, graduated from Howard University, and grew up in Seaside, California. He cannot get you a blue check.

  • kid video

    Its kinda sad there’s never gonna be another “Self Destruction” or “We’re all in the Same Gang”.

    Money/Ego/Politics would never let it happen…plus God forbid any popular entertainer would make a political statement that would upset the status quo.

    Oh well…


    • Eric Henson

      Punch, the overlooked gem in TDE actually has a really good song he just released, not directly related to Ferguson, but it’s relevant in terms of it’s theme about the Watts Riots and COINTELPRO’s systematic way of assassinating black leaders.

      Punch – Prelude: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T3CVSU64EFg

    • Michelle

      Speaking of Public Enemy, a few days ago, I realized that it was absolutely phuckking amazing that this group managed to achieve “mainstream success”. Also, it is the same with Ice T’s “Cop Killa”. Sure, both musical events did receive push-back from the “powers that be”, but they still managed to come out.
      The same can be said about the film “The Drop Squad”.

    • Cornell Christian


  • Andrea

    #HipHopForRespect #DevinLives

  • HouseGuest

    What that body of Mike Brown is wearing in that picture is exactly what the kid in that video of the store robbery is wearing. That was Mike Brown that robbed that store clerk.

  • Suuq Madiq

    vulture? hmm. oh yeah Cntr+c = Culture, in a canned “hip hop” response to tragedy…Who gets the royalties? (ahem… too soon?)

  • Suuq Madiq

    Next up to the mic…. with a suit made out of Ferrari keys, is Will.I.am performing the crying cabbage patch…

  • Amber

    I was a bit leary about listening to this song but after this review I just listened and yeah…I love it and know exactly how he feels. It definitely feels sincere because this is his form of expression and nothing is wrong with that.

  • i definitely feel like this is authentic. i do think there is a need for people in our community to speak out, in addition to act, plan, organize, strategize, teach, defend, protect, etc. not saying i would look to specific artists to speak up, but if they are part of our community, i would expect them to react the same way we do (some ignore, some care remotely, some are impassioned enough to act).

    i have grown to really respect jasiri x as a rapper who captures these political moments.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w4mvb7LefAg this is “strange fruit”

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YKaJoEyYXyI this is “trayvon”, additionally, this was the 1st version i ever heard of “no church in the wild”.

  • Irnise Fennell

    Agreed. I listened to a lot yesterday! It was real. So real.

  • Jermaine Cole is a patron saint and y’all really cannot tell me anything different about the work my generation has been, is doing and will continue to do in the hip hop community. J.Cole has been reaching out to the community for YEARS and he doesn’t do it for the pat on the back, the cute little photo op for the world to see, etc.

    He’s out here giving his time, money, energy to people who need it.

    J.Cole is everything to me as a person and as an artist. I been telling y’all this though……

    EDIT: Keke Palmer is so damb fake. She went to Ferguson to “work” and here she is, here is what she came to Ferguson looking like in order to “help”.


    • BreakingChains

      Great comment. Your appearance can speak volumes about who you are, and what you’re about. Is she going to brunch? A block party? Now, I can’t say whether her “heart was in the right place” but her mind certainly was not…….

      • laddibugg

        if she threw on a pair of cute sneakers it would have been a different story. who marches in stilettos?

        • BreakingChains

          Even still…. a short, tight skirt? People are out there getting maced and roughed up. Police have dogs and heavy arms lol. And she has on a mini skirt and new poetic justice hair…….

  • I was skeptical as hell before I hit play on this track and my eyes have been watering ever since and I can’t stop playing it.

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