I’m on the record as being pro celebrities using their platforms to amplify important social issues. But even I have to admit there can be a downside to celebs speaking out: sometimes, they disappoint you.
Let me tell you how I know.
This week, North Carolina rapper J. Cole released a new song, and while it was ostensibly about engaging with activism as a public figure, he spent at least half of it rapping about an unnamed young woman who he believes has been talking down to him and his friends—and three guesses how I feel about a powerful dude telling a young woman to watch her tone.
Here’s the backstory: a few weeks ago, Chicago rapper Noname posted a now-deleted tweet calling out big-name artists who have been curiously silent about the protests and uprisings happening in America. “Poor black folks all over the country are putting their bodies on the line in protest for our collective safety and y’all favorite top selling rappers not even willing to put a tweet up,” she wrote. “N-----s whole discographies be about black plight and they no where to be found.”
Plenty of rappers have been speaking up, including Snoop Dogg, Killer Mike and Chance the Rapper, but the two who you’d think would be front and centre based on their discographies—J. Cole and Kendrick Lamar—have been pretty quiet, so many hip hop fans assumed that’s who Noname was talking about. And it seems J. Cole thought the same thing. I figured we already learned that assuming can get you in trouble, but apparently Cole didn’t realize. So, when he dropped a surprise single on Tuesday, a solid 50% of its lines talked about her behaviour instead of his own actions—or lack thereof.
I mean, he literally starts the song by talking about Noname, rapping, “There’s a young lady out there she way smarter than me/I scrolled through her timeline in these wild times and I started to read/She mad at these crackers, she mad at these capitalists, mad at these murder police/She mad at my n----s, she mad at our ignorance, she wear her heart on her sleeve/She mad at the celebrities, low key I be thinkin she talking bout me/Now I ain’t no dummy to think I’m above criticism so when I see something that’s valid I listen/But shit, it’s something about the queen tone that’s bothering me.” Then, he goes on to say she’s “attacking” people, that she’s “holier than thou,” and that she’d be more effective if she just taught people with “time and love and patience.”
There is so much wrong with this framing, and not just the part about her tone. The idea that Noname should be gentle and patient in her critique is so wildly off-base, I can’t even tell you. (I mean, I obviously will tell you: For a supposedly progressive guy, Cole is buying into some seriously outdated ideas about femininity. He’s also perpetuating the super problematic Angry Black Woman trope. Not to mention, we don’t like it when white people tell BIPOC we can only speak out if we’re “polite,” so why is he doing it to a Black woman??)
I feel… let down. A lot of the time when I’m listening to hip hop, I’m also deciding how closely I’m going to pay attention to the lyrics. I can’t just think, “This song is a bop,” because there’s often also some baked-in misogyny. That doesn’t change the power of the genre, but it does make hip hop yet another space that isn’t always for me. Except when it comes to J. Cole. I’ve been a fan for a long time, in large part because of his social consciousness. In fact, these opinions are totally at odds with his discography, not to mention his past actions. He has been super engaged with this movement in the past; he protested in New York City after NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo killed Eric Garner and released a song honouring Michael Brown, the teenager killed by police in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014, before actually going to Ferguson to meet with protestors on the ground.
I haven’t done a lot of reading and I don’t feel well equipped as a leader in these times. But I do a lot of thinking. And I appreciate her and others like her because they challenge my beliefs and I feel that in these times that’s important.— J. Cole (@JColeNC) June 17, 2020
But clearly something changed between then and now, because on Wednesday morning, in a series of tweets where he also says he stands by “every word” of “Snow On Tha Bluff,” Cole revealed that he hasn’t “done a lot of reading” and doesn’t “feel well equipped as a leader in these times.” No lie, that actually hurt my heart. He hasn’t done the reading? I can’t even count the number of links and Google Drives and Instagram infographics I’ve seen in the past three weeks, and this guy hasn’t read even one thing about this movement? And he still felt confident criticizing Noname, who, as Jezebel writer Justice Namaste pointed out, “has been very public about her journey through learning about Black radicalism and anti-capitalism. Of all the people to critique for not doing enough to educate others, Cole decided to come for… a rapper who is so openly committed to learning in community that she literally started a book club to uplift the works of authors and theorists of color.”
I believe him though. If he really had done the reading—and if he was actually engaged in the current discourse about anti-Blackness, and the need to include Black cisgender and trans women in these conversations—he’d know his timing was atrocious. Activists and writers have been calling for Black women’s experiences to be included in larger conversations around police brutality for years. Kimberlé Crenshaw, the UCLA and Columbia Law School professor who coined the term intersectionality, started the #SayHerName social movement in 2015, after all. But these conversations have become increasingly mainstream in recent weeks, from writer Cate Young’s birthday memorial for Breonna Taylor, the young woman who police shot eight times after entering her Louisville home under a no-knock warrant, and whose killers have still not been charged, to online campaigns and IRL protests in honour of Dominique “Rem’mie” Fells and Riah Milton, two trans women who were brutally murdered within days of one another.
As Morgan Jerkins writes in Zora, “in a time where Black women are putting their bodies on the front lines of protests where people are being blinded by rubber bullets, beaten with batons, and tear-gassed in the face by police officers around the country, is this now the time to ask Black women to be more civil?”
I’ve mentioned in the past that I can’t help but notice which celebrities are speaking out right now… and which ones are not. I do think we need to remember that Black celebrities are experiencing pain and trauma just like “regular” Black people are experiencing, and even though they have far more privilege, they too deserve space to mourn. Still, when celebrities say something matters, people listen, and that’s why silence from the people I expected to speak up—like Cole, and like Lamar—has been disappointing. But as it turns out, Cole breaking his silence by coming for a Black woman is way worse.
Anyway, Noname responded with one minute and nine seconds of straight fire in which she demolished him, so I highly suggest you make that your Friday listen.
PS, today is Juneteenth
You may have heard that several companies, including Twitter and Nike, are making today a paid company holiday in the U.S., and senator Kamala Harris just co-sponsored a bill to make it a national holiday. Juneteenth commemorates the end of slavery in the U.S., but it doesn’t mark the day slavery ended, as many people think. Instead, it marks the day enslaved people in Texas found out they had actually been free for two-and-a-half years. In Jelani Cobb’s New Yorker column about the day, he says, “Juneteenth exists as a counterpoint to the Fourth of July; the latter heralds the arrival of American ideals, the former stresses just how hard it has been to live up to them.”
FYI, we have an Emancipation Day here, too—it’s August 1, which is the anniversary of the British Slavery Abolition Act. The act took effect on August 1, 1834 and abolished slavery in most British colonies, including Canada.
And Did You Hear About…
This profile of Perez Hilton. (Spoiler: he continues to be terrible.)
What Are You?, a short documentary about what it’s like to be mixed race by Toronto filmmaker Richard B. Pierre. It’s currently streaming as part of the Yorkton Film Festival and the San Francisco Film Festival. Check it out!
This fascinating/depressing read about porn’s racial reckoning.
The eBay executive who stalked and harassed a couple who covered the site negatively in their newsletter.
Meghan Markle is apparently using Jessica Mulroney’s behaviour toward Sasha Exeter as an excuse to end their friendship, which seems like damage control, tbh.
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