In Missouri, artists broadcasting pain through hip hop

The situation in Ferguson, Mo., has inspired hip hop artists like MC Keen and J. Cole to create music on the tension they see between the community and law enforcement. (Lee Powell/The Washington Post)

It didn’t take long for the lyrics to begin flowing from this city’s hip-hop scene to the streets.

In the past 11 days, several tracks referencing the death of Michael Brown have surfaced, a spontaneous, organic and visceral reflection of what has been happening in Ferguson, Mo., since the 18-year-old African American was shot by a white police officer. The music — at least 10 songs, almost one a day — covers a range of emotions: anger and outrage, sadness and grief, and outright rebellion.

For the little-known but vibrant community of independent artists here, it’s an expression of simmering frustrations that existed long before Brown was killed, they say.

If rap is the black community’s CNN, as hip-hop pioneer Chuck D famously said, then the artists here have been working overtime to broadcast news from the small suburb of Ferguson, the nation’s latest crisis point in the ongoing struggles around race and justice.

There is the slow and mournful auto-tuned track over which rapper Seneca Da Product croons, “Tie a teddy on the telephone pole,” to honor “my kid Mike.”

MC Keem put together a music video he calls “Front Line” and raps with intensity against scenes from the nightly street protests.

“Got the world watching. They can feel the tension of an angered generation,” he spits out. “F--- a politician.”

Some of the music already is playing on the radio and much of it is being shared through social media.

Keem, whose given name is Hakeem Love, wrote the lyrics to his song last week as part of an outpouring of emotion for his home town.

“Artists capture moments,” the 30-year-old said.

Aside from the music, hip-hop producers, rap artists and DJs are organizing marches, buying food for protesters and planning political action, including drafting and raising money for a write-in candidate to challenge the county prosecutor in an upcoming election. Their actions are underscored by the soundtrack emerging from these days of unrest, music that documents the demonstrators’ version of events.

“You got us thinking that you killed that boy for nothin’ tho,” Keem raps.

The music, which includes a few songs from nationally known artists who have come to Ferguson to participate in the protests, is in many ways distinctly of this place. A slow Midwestern lilt runs through the music of St. Louis, which made its mark more than a decade ago when Nelly and Chingy, two home-town rap artists, became stars.

The artists encourage their fans, many of whom are listening to the tracks in Ferguson’s streets, to protest peacefully even as they sympathize with the community’s lingering anger.

“I call it the hip-hop intelligentsia,” said Chris King, editor of the St. Louis American newspaper.

The raw aftermath of Brown’s death was a moment for some artists to brandish their names, using the attention as an opportunity to promote themselves, but others have flexed new muscles as community organizers. Keem, whose biggest hit was the club record “Thick Wit It” — a pure party single about full-figured women — has found a more conscious streak.

He and local music producer Ronnie Notch, 30, were picking up cases of water this week to take to the site near Family Dollar on West Florissant Avenue, the staging area for the nightly protests.

“Some people are really working on songs, but let’s stop our music for a second and think about what would be best for the community,” Notch said. “We’re taking off work. We’re not in studio, we’re not doing events. We’re not making money.”

Notch, who says he has produced beats for UGK, Kurupt and MTV, has begun meeting with other community leaders to plan a voter-registration drive in Ferguson and helped put together a protest march Wednesday in Clayton, Mo., the area’s county seat and headquarters of the county attorney, who is responsible for prosecuting the officer who shot Brown.

Notch and other organizers — upset with the criminal justice system’s handling of Brown’s death — have drafted a write-in candidate to run for the position in the November election. They also have started a group to advocate for ending protests after nightfall in an attempt to redirect the protesters’ energy to political action.

Rapper Tef Poe, one of the area’s most popular independent artists, has been marching with demonstrators every night. For him, the situation is personal.

“When it happened, my younger brother called me,” he said. “He was on the phone crying. He said, ‘They killed Mike.’ They had mutual friends.”

Poe said he sees the potential for serious community action. He has been involved in failed attempts to bring local police forces and communities closer together and backed an effort to put the St. Louis police force under control of local elected officials. Recently, Poe said he has begun meeting with a Florida group that formed after the death of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager who has killed by a volunteer night watchman in that state in 2012.

“We just all sit in a room and throw darts at the board and see what’s going to stick,” said Poe, 27. “I’m on the sustainability tip. What’s the long game?”

The activism is refreshing, said Tricia Rose, a professor of Africana studies at Brown University and author of “The Hip Hop Wars,” who has been a scholar and critic of hip hop. She called the crisis in Ferguson a potential turning point “for local artists to see themselves as having a mandate for developing a creative space where hip hop is not a product, hip hop is a nourishing community jewel.”

The misogyny, macho bravado and consumerism that cloak much of the hip-hop industry has taken a back seat for the moment. Some big industry names have joined in. J. Cole, a well-known rapper from North Carolina, was among the first to release a record. His song, “Be Free,” is a weepy anthem that cuts to an interview with a witness describing Brown’s shooting.

“It ain’t no drink out there that can numb my soul. . . . All we want to do is break the chains off. . . . All we want to do is be free,” Cole says. “Can you tell me why every time I step outside I see my [boys] die?”

Cole emerged from a community meeting in street clothes, none of the routine bling or designer labels that mark the hip-hop culture. His approach was contrasted to that of Nelly, who has been criticized for being disconnected from the community here. He came to a protest with an entourage and suggested that demonstrators should come up with a plan rather than marching. Notch and others noted they have one.

Even the local urban radio stations, Hot 104.1 and Old School 95.5, have joined in. After Brown died, the programming director Boogie D stopped playing music for nearly 14 hours on both stations and allowed community members to call in. For more than a week, it dropped its typical playlist in favor of the tributes to Brown.

“People want to hear the tributes, gospel and more socially conscious hip hop,” said Arthur “A Plus” Willis, a prime-time disc jokey.

The favored tributes have come from artists with roots in St. Louis. That’s not surprising, Rose said.

“Localized grass-roots hip hop still is a place for telling honest stories, and it’s a brilliant context for young people to help each other with this crisis,” she said.

The moment caused some introspection for Poe about the messages coming from the industry writ large.

“I’ve been thinking about the Mike Brown situation and the different types of music we all make and the messages we’re putting out there,” he said. In recent days, he has asked himself: “What are my intentions? What am I here for? What do I want from the music industry as an artist?”

He is aware that young Brown was an aspiring lyricist.

“I’m from here,” Poe said. “I’ve walked the same streets that Mike Brown walked. We have a similar story. Like him, as a young kid, I wanted to be an entertainer.”

Krissah Thompson began writing for The Washington Post in 2001. She has been a business reporter, covered presidential campaigns and written about civil rights and race. More recently, she has covered the first lady's office, politics and culture.
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