Pop Stars Were Too Quiet During the Ferguson Protests - What’s Changed in the Years Since?

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KEREM YUCEL/AFP via Getty Images

In 2014, demonstrations against police brutality were met with inaction from too much of the music world. Here's why this moment has been different.

On Saturday (June 6), Billie Eilish marched in a Black Lives Matter protest in Los Angeles: with her hoodie zipped up and green hair falling down to her face mask, the 18-year-old held up a sign that read, “STOP KILLING BLACK PEOPLE.” Eilish had posted photos of George Floyd on her Instagram account on May 28, providing links to Black Lives Matter resources and writing to her 7 million followers, “felt helpless all week about this... if you want to help and you don’t know how, swipe for some things you can do to SPEAK UP.” One day later, she posted screenshots of President Trump tweets that described “thugs” rioting in Minneapolis, and responded with, “Eat a huge f--king d--k and choke on it.”

Eilish, as everyone knows, is a superstar -- she swept the Big Four categories at the Grammy Awards this past January, and was headlining arenas just before the coronavirus pandemic struck. In a different era, an A-list pop artist cursing off the sitting president, marching with protestors and generally leaning into activist work as a white ally in the Black Lives Matter movement would be an anomaly; perhaps Eilish would be deemed too “politically outspoken” for mainstream audiences. But today’s pop stars have been thrust into a unique era of understanding and action, and what Eilish has done over the past two weeks has been happily commonplace.

Since the May 25 killing of George Floyd in Minnesota, the national protests against police brutality have been recognized and encouraged by the biggest stars in modern music, across racial divides and demographics. Along with Eilish, artists ranging from Harry Styles to Madonna to Kanye West to Halsey have taken to the streets to demand reform; Taylor Swift, The Weeknd, BTS and Doja Cat have been among the stars donating hefty sums to justice funds and racial equality organizations; and Beyonce, Rihanna, Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber, Lorde, Selena Gomez and several other household names have publicly spoken about the desperate need for systemic change.

The fact that activism has become such ordinary pop-star behavior at this specific moment reflects the ubiquitous nature of the protests themselves -- two weeks removed from Floyd’s senseless death, and a few months after the similarly tragic killings of Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, the general public refuses to let one day go by without widespread outrage and demonstration. Going back to business as usual has not been an option, as trending topics, magazine covers, 24-hour news coverage and plain-old strength in numbers make the power of this moment too great to ignore.

Yet it’s also worth acknowledging the remarkable change in behavior from the last time police brutality was being protested in the United States -- in Ferguson, a little under six years ago. If you don’t remember what the larger pop community’s response to Ferguson was like, don’t blame yourself. It was damn near imperceptible.

Following the police shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown Jr. on Aug. 9, 2014, the Missouri city became an epicenter of unrest against excessive use of force toward African-Americans. Ferguson dominated the news cycle for multiple weeks, and resulted in two separate press conferences from President Obama. Footage of the protests is eerily similar to what we’re seeing today: peaceful marches and homemade signs met with policemen in riot gear, tear gas horribly staining the night sky.

And while a handful of artists (including J. Cole, Killer Mike, Lauryn Hill and Common) joined the front lines and vociferously demanded justice alongside protestors, the majority of popular music artists -- white artists in particular -- did not. There were a few “Praying for Ferguson” tweets fired off, a couple of vague anti-violence Instagram posts, yet the radio silence far outweighed the calls to action, and there was more shoulder-shrugging at a human rights violation than artists standing up to fight it.

After witnessing the universal response to George Floyd’s murder, it’s hard to imagine that, six summers earlier, the large majority of popular music artists read about the death of Michael Brown Jr., watched the coverage of the protests, and decided not to comment on the situation.  August 2014 wasn’t that long ago -- a lot of the aforementioned artists who are protesting today had equally enormous platforms back then. What has caused such a dramatic shift?

Certainly the scale of the 2020 protests must be considered, with demonstrations in all 50 states, millions of participants and more international support providing a through-line for artists looking to take part in marches. The nature of George Floyd’s death, captured on video in full stomach-churning detail, also made turning away from the issue practically impossible this time.

And having President Trump in the Oval Office, fueling the division and raw anger of the nation instead of making any attempt at healing, has undoubtedly influenced more political dissent in the artistic community. Following Trump’s “when the looting starts the shooting starts” tweet about the protests, for instance, Swift did not stay silent -- “After stoking the fires of white supremacy and racism your entire presidency, you have the nerve to feign moral superiority before threatening violence?” she wrote on Twitter.

Yet the size of the protests, and the rage directed at our president, are symptoms of what has helped cause them to proliferate: a greater understanding of the issue of police brutality against black people, following a myriad of killings across the past decade infuriating enough to capture the public consciousness. Society as a whole has changed its stance on the urgency of this issue, particularly white Americans: a new CNN poll (per Slate) showed 84 percent of respondents (and 88 percent of white respondents) found that the current protests were justified, up from 67 percent of respondents who answered following a 2016 Black Lives Matter protest. Meanwhile, a Monmouth University poll from this month revealed that 76 percent of respondents felt that racial and ethnic discrimination in the United States is a “big problem,” up from 51 percent in a Jan. 2015 poll.

The protests have not only helped speed up a shift in public opinion but caused the spread of information related to police brutality, quickly disseminated by the social media that’s far more omnipresent than it was six years ago and adopted by many of the biggest names in music. The music industry participated in “Blackout Tuesday” on June 2 to protest racism and encourage greater education on the issue, but even before that, artists like Drake, Beyonce, Demi Lovato, Dua Lipa, Rihanna and Nicki Minaj had been posting about the protests, often on Instagram, and usually featuring links with further reading and resources for their millions of followers.

The result is a more enlightened, outspoken artist community, with a greater awareness of the issues and less hesitancy to speak out for what’s right. During the week of her Chromatica album release, Lady Gaga handed over her Instagram account to black organizations like the Community Justice Action Fund and March For Our Lives, while vowing to “post stories, content, and otherwise lift up the voices of the countless inspiring members and groups within the Black community.” After donating $500,000 to racial equality organizations, The Weeknd urged major labels and streaming services “to go big and public” with their own charitable efforts (some have responded more than others thus far). And Justin Bieber reflected on becoming a better ally and activist on social media: “My style, how I sing, dance, perform, and my fashion have all been influenced by black culture,” he wrote. "I am committed to using my platform from this day forward to learn, to speak up about racial injustice and systemic oppression, and to identify ways to be a part of much needed change."

These popular artists do not require a pat on the back for doing much more now than they did in 2014 -- there is more to be done, after all, more donations to make, more diversity to achieve in recording studios and C-suites, more systemic change within the music industry to push into reality. Yet as these nationwide protests have already compelled tangible policy change and community action, the popular music world has evolved along with the rest of the world. Police brutality and racial injustice can no longer be treated as issues reserved for only the most politically minded artists -- or for only black artists -- to comment on, react to and feel. These are human issues, and over the past two weeks, the pop world has understood that humanity.

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