Ever since the highly publicized deaths of Michael Brown & Eric Garner Black, unarmed Black victims of police brutality wrought at the hands of white officers, race discussions have been propelled back into the mainstream of popular culture. These murders & the subsequent non-indictment of responsible law enforcement officials sparked riots, protests & marches across the nation causing 2014 to bear an eery resemblance to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s & 60s.
Nonetheless the unremitting need for centralized leadership in the Black community once again became a part of the conversation. It highlighted an obvious void not properly filled since the likes of Martin Luther King Jr. Yet in a surprising but then again not so surprising occurrence, artists & entertainers seemingly became the public’s clear cut – or at least the most tweeted about – choice for leadership in a generation’s quest for social equality & justice.
While some entertainers were vocal & others remained noticeably silent on matters, as was the initial case with unspoken (no pun) ambassadors of global Black culture – Jay Z, Beyoncé, Rihanna & Kanye West – the people began to question whether or not the beloved public figures whom they’d revered and supported through the years would lend them some form of support or hope during trying times marked by grave injustice & social unrest.
The answer to this question came into focus, Friday August 15th, 2014 with “Be Free”, a song written & performed by Grammy nominated, Hip-Hop recording artist, J. Cole in memoriam of Mike Brown & ‘every young Black man murdered in America’. It wasn’t until the release of his third studio LP, 2014 Forest Hills Drive, however, that Cole’s viability as a potential leader in the move towards racial equality & social justice, was crystallized.
At a pivotal moment in American history, J. Cole’s authenticity, systematic approach to change, & rousing message of hope & inspiration, would render Cole not merely an entertainer – but a qualified humanitarian, thinker & activist capable of leading urban culture into an improved & soluble future for the 21st century, much like MLK Jr. did during Civil Rights. Let’s explore why…
A man of the people, J. Cole is simply put one of the ‘realest’ out. As renowned for his honest, raw lyricism as he is for establishing a connection with the everyday unassuming 20something listener with little more to their name than a college degree & high aspirations – millennial creatives comprise an overwhelming majority of Cole’s fanbase – J. Cole amplified these efforts with the release of 2014 Forest Hills Drive. And in doing so created an album that truly spoke to the spirit of the times & genuinely became a man of the people – one song, march, protest, and conversation at a time.
To drive home Forest Hills Drive’s much needed message of humility, social awareness & love, Cole would often meet up with fans for lunch or surprise games of pick-up football, even going so far as to host his album listening party at his home. This enabled Cole to share, know & advocate the concerns of his listeners – because he, in a sense was them. Not since Harry Belafonte, Bob Marley, or Tupac Shakur has an artist so effectively spoken out against racial & socio-political injustices with their art while also resonating with the people. MLK Jr. embodied a similar authenticity that enabled him to connect & captivate audiences with rousing speeches, but more importantly his actions which followed suit once the speech was over & through.
Systematic Approach to Change…
Though not political in nature, J. Cole’s rise to seminal leadership has been strategic nonetheless as the rapper’s place atop Hip Hop’s triangle offense – comprised of Cole, Drake & Kendrick Lamar – comes at a moment in which Hip-Hop & Black culture’s influence on American mainstream has reached unprecedented heights. As mentioned before, J. Cole’s lyricism, subject matter & entire artistic premise, though a definite byproduct of society still somehow remains an antidotal remedy to its present ills. A remedy conjured by Cole through keen observation, vision & immense creativity as demonstrated by Cole’s consistent elevation of urban culture & those who partake in it.
Whereas others have been ridiculed for falling shy in one area or another, with Kendrick Lamar being the most recent recipient of public backlash following disparaging comments made towards fans. Lamar cited lack of self-love in the Black community as the cause for events that took place in Ferguson. J. Cole, more than any of his contemporaries, calls for solidarity while remaining true to the competitive nature of Hip-Hop & inversely American pop culture. In so doing Cole has succinctly identified with the times & the people in it to call for & encourage change. Among MLK’s most vital tactics in yielding a brighter future via the Civil Rights movement were solidarity & carefully devised strategy.
Message in the Music…
In step with J. Cole’s unmatched authenticity & systematic approach to change, the 30 yr. old rapper was among the first artists to lend a hand of support to the people of Ferguson, MO & to NYC in the wake of Michael Brown & Eric Garner’s murders. As previously mentioned, Cole’s music and message of resounding hope in the face of seemingly hopeless situations, have proven a source of inspiration for fans & casual listeners alike…a sentiment shared now more than ever before following 2014 Forest Hills Drive. It’s with this album that the rapper skillfully chronicles the pains, joys, challenges & triumphs of the human experience, as did MLK, to invoke the type of self-reflection that inspires a generation & brings about social change. Yet another trait of MLK Jr.’s that the North Carolina rapper seems to inherently possess.
Martin Luther King Jr., was a ‘once-in-a-century type of leader’ as his widow, the late Coretta Scott King is quoted as having said. But if Black, urban culture and our present generation ever had a shot in this century of being guided to the actualization of “justice & liberty for all”, we would, without question, choose as our leader, J.Cole.