Every generation in music has seen an artist rise above their comfort zone and stand for something that lends to the greater good of humanity. The artist becomes an active voice on current issues in times of need where many are asking questions about our future, the injustices surrounding us and where we stand as a people. In the 1990s, it was Tupac Shakur. In the 2000s, the unfiltered thoughts of Kanye West really pushed and pressed envelopes in the ways of popular and public thinking about government, politics, race relations, classism and equality. What set these artists apart was their bravery and their courage in speaking from the heart about things they believed in, whether it's popular opinion or not. They disregard the fear of whatever backlash may come in order to make a statement that helped shed some realness and light on situations everyday people feel. Not everybody is built for expression like that, and it doesn’t happen too often. But when it does, it seems like it freezes time.
J. Cole is the latest and most important voice in music right now.
Jermaine Cole is the ultimate voice at this time – there’s a particular way he’s using his platform in this time of need that is uniquely special. We've seen great artists specifically addressing the current issues going on in America, showing their support and speaking up. JAY Z took it to the Mayor’s office to try and fix some problems at the root. Macklemore and many more marched with protesters, standing up against the Darren Wilson non-indictment in Ferguson. We’ve seen Kendrick Lamar make some very artistic statements on live television, pushing the general ideas of self-worth and creativity – not being afraid to make an uplifting noise that speaks to the people.
But all of these actions are generally “safe” in the scheme of things. That doesn’t take away from the fact that it’s great to see the solidarity and activist spirit, but there’s something else going on with Cole’s approach. At the end of the day, an artist receives their status and accolades from being just that, an artist. So it’s only right that their best way to communicate to the most people is through that medium. Cole first exhibited this with “Be Free,” a bold, passionate, unpolished and raw recording comprised of his scratchy, rough singing voice, sharing his discontent with the injustices occurring in America in present-time. This is one of the first gestures that exhibited what Cole is truly about and here to do as an artist. Before this song was released, the peanut gallery of media and fans alike wondered when he was going to drop new material, whispering that he fell off and that Drake and Kendrick were the only kings of this new school kingdom.
Many artists would be propelled to shut up all the critics, in an attempt to outdo those “kings” lyrically under the guise of braggadocio-laced competition. But instead, Cole used that motivation to let “Be Free” speak for him. Then, several months later, Cole chose to use his Letterman performance, fresh off the release of 2014 Forest Hills Drive, as an opportunity to perform “Be Free” in front of his largest mainstream audience to date, speaking even more in-depth on his insights on America at the moment. As a commercial artist, an occupation where you make a living selling yourself and your product, to speak truth while the world is watching you, at the expense of capitalizing on your opportunity to promote self, is a huge thing. It’s such a selfless act, seldom seen nowadays, especially by a hip-hop artist, that it cannot go without being noted and recognized.
Similar to a Tupac or West, Cole's taking risks and speaking out against the system he's directly a part of and benefits from. In his latest Angie Martinez interview, Cole shares the belief that the biggest problem in America is capitalism and our greed; more specifically in the entertainment industry. Why does this speak volumes so much? People comment on this type of thing all the time, right? Sure, but it’s more unique when someone is directly a part of this system, benefiting from it right now, and yet he’s consciously aware of it and even apologetic at times for his own hypocrisy and role of human duality in it all. Despite all of that, it’s something he feels is right in his heat to speak on, so he’s taking on all the risk to make sure it’s heard.
This isn’t your safe “marching in solidarity” move or wearing an “I Can’t Breathe” t-shirt. This is the type of speaking out that will get you Lauryn Hill’d out of the game. This is the type of speaking out that is a publicist’s nightmare. This is the type of speaking out where the man signing your checks may feel betrayed, because you are speaking out against a system that defines the reason he’s wealthy. Yet Cole doesn’t shy away from it. And in the midst of all this, he doesn’t come off like a bitter, irrelevant someone just speaking out for attention. 2014 Forest Hills Drive just sold over 300,000 copies in its first week, with no radio singles, minimal promo and only an extended bike riding video to speak of. That’s power in influence.
Cole understands what is going on right now, so he is making sure that while all eyes are on him, his voice will be heard. He’s doing exactly what every true artists’ wish usually is; staying true to himself and his life's beliefs, while simultaneously winning within the system he’s speaking out against as the core problem with society. This isn’t an off-put Jay Electronica Twitter tirade. This is words, action and a complete follow-through.
My only hope is that Jermaine has sparked something in others in his position and they will follow suit.