Yesterday I spoke with Professor Mark Anthony Neal about the cultural aspects of protest. Asked about the relationship between music and civil unrest, Neal argued that the climate of today’s music industry makes it difficult for musicians with a political message to have a major impact on social movements.
“[This] is not necessarily a critique of them, but this is a generation of artists that are built around building brands. Brand can be controversial, just think about Kanye in this context, but your brand can’t be political in that kind of way. The political brand is seen as just that: a political brand. It doesn’t cross over.”
But last night, the tide changed when ‘I Am Mike Brown,’ penned and performed by G.A.G.E., leaked online. Unlike a Kanye West, known for his controversial commentary on social and political discourse, G.A.G.E. isn’t as famous, and is an unlikely character in an ongoing fight to understand Ferguson — and other instances like it. But he may be the voice we need to revamp political messaging in popular music.
I’m just sitting here dropping a little tear and knowledge,
because Mike Brown didn’t even live to see a day of college.
He would have started soon, now there’s an empty seat in class.
All because of these demons hiding behind a badge.”
Featuring sound bites from Brown’s distraught mother, it’s a reflective song with the potential to reintroduce political messaging to national radio audiences. I talked to the rapper about the origins of the song and its overwhelmingly positive perception.
What inspired you to write this song at this particular moment? Why not after Trayvon or Oscar Grant?
We actually did a video for Trayvon Martin; we directed a video for some other artists. And when Travyon was murdered it seemed like everybody was jumping on it, and making songs and posting on it. I never want to feel like I’m doing it just to get some shine or some light. We didn’t put it on iTunes or anything; we’re not trying to make money off of it. Soon we’ll open a link so people can donate to the family. But as of right now, I’m not trying to get any money off of anybody. I really just felt the story. I am really Mike Brown. I walk these streets. I get harassed by police at least once a week. I just felt it so much.
When I heard his mother talking about it, I really came to tears. I really wasn’t even going to release the song. A friend of mine actually leaked it. I was just going to vent that day. I recorded it in my house to vent, and I didn’t know it was going to get the response it was going to get.
Let’s talk about the popularity of the song. Usually songs with lyrics like these don’t get radio time, but this song is gaining momentum. On the part of the radio stations, do you think there’s a genuine interest to get this message out there, or are folks just capitalizing on a current event?
I actually have someone in the radio station who fought for this song. People were turning the radio stations down. Program directors and everything were turning it down. So these actual hosts went around their producers and program directors. I just think a lot of radio stations are tired of the same music that keeps coming out with no message. Everyone is reiterating the same thing — saying the same things, talking about the same subjects. This was a light to a lot of djs and radio shows that can say, “Ok, we actually have some music that we can play with some content and a message, so let’s run this.” I think a lot of people are affected by this. A lot of these radio station hosts have kids; they have a Mike Brown at home. That’s why I put it out: I am Mike Brown. We all are Mike Brown in some way.
This is not a race thing. It’s a power thing. These police get these badges and it’s a certain power it gives them. A lot of people are taking it as a race thing, but to me, I don’t take it as that.
To play devil’s advocate, you say in the song and just now that it’s not a race thing, it’s not a black and white thing, but about abusing the law. Do you think those two ideas are mutually exclusive? The two things are very much related.
It does definitely tie in because people characterize African Americans as dangerous. But there have been white kids killed by the police. It has happened. Many Hispanics are killed by police officers. So I do believe this is a race thing to an extent, but I didn’t want to go off that, because I want this song to reach white people, Hispanics, Asians — wherever you’re from. I didn’t want it to feel like this is a black power song. We need change in every community. This is out of control. When Mike Brown was slain, I’m sure somewhere in St. Louis a kid was kidnapped, or molested, or raped. There are so many more crime areas to be focused on, instead of kids in these communities who are just walking down the street.
The line that stood out to me was “We gotta stop rioting in these streets. We ain’t doing nothing but proving we animals to police.” Historically rioting is the sign of being completely fed up and disillusioned with an establishment meant to oppress people of color. If not rioting, how would you encourage people to show their outrage?
Go to these rallies. Write to your officials. You have to vote. People just think, “Ok, the presidential election is coming up, I need to vote for this.” There are people in smaller places who run for mayor and governor, and positions that can help us pass the message. In my honest opinion, when I saw the rioting, I didn’t see people fighting for a cause. I saw people running into stores selling weed. I could tell people had ulterior motives. It wasn’t like they were rioting at police stations. They’re rioting at companies that also have families and Mike Browns. The rallies, the marches, the candle vigils, all of that was part of the cause. When you’re destroying properties, all you’re doing is proving to these people that we’re animals, breaking into stores in our own communities. Eventually, somebody is going to have to clean that up, and now the community looks even more dirty and torn down. There’s no point in rioting; that is not going to solve anything. It won’t bring Mike Brown back. It won’t make the police apologize for killing Mike Brown. It’s not going to do anything but have more police out, armies, SWAT, shooting these people with rubber bullets in the face, and tear gassing people.
So with this platform that you have now and that you’re obviously going to build in the next few days, what is your next move?
Now my main objective is to get celebrities involved. They will help raise this money. People listen to these celebrities; people don’t know me from a can of paint. Many people don’t know that I was an artist signed to Dr. Dre for years. I’m just the guy who had a message to get across. If we get some of these celebrities involved, we can actually raise money to get to these families. It costs money to bury people. I buried half of my family; it costs so much money. I’m pretty sure they don’t have this assistance, so we have to do something.