The Song of Ferguson

J. Cole's tribute to Michael Brown implores, "All we wanna do is be free."
Ferguson, Missouri, August 16 (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

Yesterday artist J. Cole released a disconsolate homage to Michael Brown. Since its upload to the music-streaming site SoundCloud, "Be Free" has already been played almost half a million times.

In keeping with its soul as a real-time protest song, the recording is raw to the point you can hear papers shuffling, the turning pages of a musical score that would typically be edited out. Ben Sisario at The New York Times drew a parallel to Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young's "Ohio," which in 1970 took weeks to reach the public.

Better than describing the song, here it is.

As protest songs go, this is less a call to action than to empathy. Cole sounds exhausted. Accompanying the song's release, his only comment was a brief written passage in which he recalls the wide-eyed idealism of being in college, driven to change the world:

"There was a time in my life when I gave a fuck. Every chance I got I was screaming about it. ... But soon life hits you. ... We become distracted. We become numb. I became numb. But not anymore. That coulda been me, easily. It could have been my best friend. I’m tired of being desensitized to the murder of black men. I don’t give a fuck if it’s by police or peers. This shit is not normal."

Huy Mach/St.Louis Post/
AP/@killermikegto

"That coulda been me" resonates for Cole, but for most of the country the notion is abstract. So there's this song, the protests, as revitalization of will to consistently feel injustice when it's not so overt that it makes the front page, and when it doesn't feel like it could have been us. The protest song is about not going numb, not changing the subject

The rapper Killer Mike wrote this week in the caption of an Instagram at right: "Look at this mother and look at this father and tell me as a human being how [you] cannot feel empathy for them. ... Don't debate. Don't insert your agenda. Save me the bullshit Black On Black Crime speech and look at these noble creatures called humans."

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James Hamblin, MD, is a senior editor at The Atlantic. He writes the health column for the monthly magazine and hosts the video series If Our Bodies Could Talk.

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