Rapper J. Cole responds to Michael Brown slaying with a song, ‘Be Free’


Rapper J. Cole during a recent performance at DAR Constitution Hall. (Kyle Gustafson/For The Washington Post)

Rapper J. Cole responded to the fatal police shooting in Ferguson, Mo. of Michael Brown with a song he rushed online Friday. In announcing the song, called “Be Free,” Cole said in a strongly-worded blog post : “That coulda been me, easily. It could have been my best friend. I’m tired of being desensitized to the murder of black men.”

“Rest in Peace to Michael Brown and to every young black man murdered in America, whether by the hands of white or black,” reads the text accompanying the song on SoundCloud. “I pray that one day the world will be filled with peace and rid of injustice. Only then will we all Be Free.”

Reactions to the song have been generally positive. Time called it “one of Cole’s rawest, most emotional recordings to date.” Billboard said it was “gut-wrenching” and noted that “Be Free” became “the most-talked about track on Twitter in the U.S.,” landing it the No. 1 spot on Billboard’s  Trending 140 chart Friday morning. The song also won Twitter praise from rapper Talib Kweli, who has been vocal about Brown’s death and the police response to the unrest in Ferguson.

But some people took issue with J. Cole’s cover art, which originally featured a photo of Brown lying dead in the middle of a Ferguson street. Brown’s body remained in the street for hours after he was killed.

The cover art has since been updated to a photo of Brown’s mother, Lesley McSpadden being comforted by her husband, following the death of her son. The new cover art was posted to the Instagram account of J. Cole’s record label, Dreamville, with this message:  “We were unaware of Mike Brown’s mother’s request to not use that picture. Art has been changed out of respect for her wishes.”

This isn’t the first time controversy has surrounded one of Cole’s songs. Last year, the rapper apologized for using “autistic” as a lyrical insult during a guest appearance on a Drake song.

As Vibe notes, it’s also not the first time Cole has used music to protest police-involved shootings. The music video for his song “Crooked Smile” was dedicated to Aiyana Stanley-Jones, a 7-year-old who was fatally shot by a police officer in 2010 during a nighttime raid in her Detroit home. This post has been updated since it was first published.

Bethonie Butler is a producer and a reporter on The Post’s engagement team. She oversees online comments and has also contributed to The Style Blog and She The People.
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