“For the past two weeks, the eyes of the nation have been on Ferguson, Missouri,” Common said at the MTV Video Music Awards on Sunday night (Aug. 24), unexpectedly puncturing the carefree atmosphere of the ceremony for about 90 seconds. The veteran rapper was tasked with addressing real-world horror on a night of ass-shaking performances and who-wore-it-best debates; wearing a mocha sweatshirt and a grim expression, Common spoke slowly and deliberately, a world-weary father in a room full of giddy kids. “The people in Ferguson and St. Louis, and communities across the country, have used their voices to call for justice and change — to let everyone know that each and every one of our lives matters,” Common said. He then led a moment of silence for Michael Brown and for “peace in this country and in the world,” which was observed by all in attendance at the Forum in Englewood, Calif., publicly acknowledged by few artists after the VMAs, and supposedly texted through by the Kardashians.
About an hour after Common appeared, Miley Cyrus won the Video of the Year award for “Wrecking Ball,” and sent a homeless runaway named Jesse Helt onstage to both accept the trophy in her place and plead for all of his onlookers to raise awareness about homeless youth in America. “A dream you dream alone is only a dream, but a dream we dream together is reality,” Helt ended his speech, quoting John Lennon and drawing thousands of cheers from the audience. The following few days found multiple pop superstars — Britney Spears, Ariana Grande and Madonna included — effusively praising Cyrus for her selflessness and asking their own fans to donate to My Friend’s Place, a drop-in center in Hollywood that helps homeless youth rebuild their lives. Each of those posts about the cause earned thousands of retweets. Even Kim Kardashian, part of the alleged text-through-moments-of-silence gang, tweeted on Wednesday afternoon, “Join the fight to end youth homelessness with ?@MileyCyrus? check out her campaign for My Friend¹s Place: ?http://www.prizeo.com/miley?.”
Cyrus’ decision to speak out about a social cause at the VMAs led to a powerful, understated moment at the ceremony that was rightly championed by pop purveyors, especially those critical of her twerk-happy performance at the VMAs a year ago. Common’s moment was also powerful and understated, but roundly ignored. It’s not because anyone has anything against Common or what he said; rather, it’s because it was about Ferguson.
The past month has seen a bizarre silence set in amongst mainstream music’s biggest personalities as absolute chaos was going down in the streets of Ferguson. Since the shooting death of Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old, on Aug. 9, the clashing of protestors and militarized police force in the once-sleepy Missouri city has dominated cable news, magazine covers, trending topics and any website with even a tangential relationship to political coverage. The President delivered two press conferences about Ferguson; Amnesty International sent a human rights delegation to Ferguson, the first time any U.S. city has received such aid. And while a handful of artists spoke out about the human rights violations going on in Ferguson, and a few even recorded new music to address the situation, pop music’s biggest superstars did not flinch.
It’s not that there was no protest music to digest among “Problem,” “Rude” and “Fancy”; it’s that none of our biggest artists even acknowledged a problem in Ferguson, took a moment to speak out in an interview or fire off a concerned message on social media. If you only followed pop’s brightest stars on Twitter, it’s almost like Ferguson didn’t happen at all.
Aside from a few exceptions — Lady Gaga dropped one “Praying for #Ferguson” tweet, Adam Lambert posted one tweet asking for the violence to end, Madonna posted an Instagram vaguely decrying “corrupt regimes,” John Legend wore a “Don’t Shoot” t-shirt, and smaller pop artists like Sky Ferreira and Cat Power did their parts — pop music allowed the news of tear-gassing and unlawful arrests in a U.S. city get lumped in with the international political conflicts (the bedlam of Israel and Palestine, U.S. troops re-entering Iraq, airstrikes in Syria) that few major pop celebrities care to comment on (Rihanna and Selena Gomez among the exceptions). It’s not that pop singers are callous: artists like Gaga, Katy Perry, Justin Bieber and Taylor Swift have raised millions of dollars for various philanthropic projects, and should be commended for those efforts more often. However, speaking out against world injustices requires a different kind of fortitude, a personal risk that carries no guaranteed happy outcome, compared to raising money for charity. In a way, the dichotomy of the two social-awareness breaks in the VMAs telecast — Common’s speech getting passed over, Miley’s act getting universally heralded — mirrors the split between Ferguson and ALS fund-raising over the past month. Pop stars found time to dump ice water on their heads (for, again, a worthy cause), but couldn’t find a moment to comment on the death of Michael Brown and its frightening aftermath.
So why are so many of our favorite pop artists remaining mum on Ferguson? The idea that it is a “black” issue that has nothing to do with a white artist’s culture is absurd, since Ferguson is a human rights and American freedoms issue. Rather, the inertia might be caused by fear of criticism or mockery, as if any statement about the conflict in Ferguson will be met with a harsh wave of “they don’t know what they’re talking about” dismissals. Sure, political comments can have negative impacts for superstars — look at the Dixie Chicks, who alienated some of their country fans when they blasted George W. Bush, or Kanye West, who raised eyebrows when he… blasted George W. Bush.
On the other hand, standing up for a cause — even haphazardly, even in a way that doesn’t really produce much actual change — can become an endearing action for a musical artist. The past few weeks have seen J. Cole, a rapper with a sizable fan base but a number of detractors in the critical and hardcore hip-hop community, gather tons of positive press by simply going down to Ferguson and doing something. Cole had no personal history with the city of Ferguson prior to the death of Michael Brown, but he traveled down to talk to protestors days before the governor of Missouri did the same, and spent time making face-to-face connection with community members in a way that lots of outsiders noticed. Before heading to Ferguson, Cole released a tribute song to Brown titled “Be Free,” a downbeat song in which he sings that there “ain’t no gun they could make that could kill my soul.” The track has garnered 1.3 million plays in less than two weeks, and is easily the most played song in Cole’s Soundcloud account.
Cole has been joined by hip-hop and R&B artists like Killer Mike, Talib Kweli, T.I., Lauryn Hill, El-P, Frank Ocean, Chuck D, Questlove, Childish Gambino and Nelly in not only speaking out about Ferguson, but demonstrating how easy it is to do so. An impassioned Instagram post served as a microphone for Killer Mike, and Lauryn Hill, an artist that has released barely any new music over the past 15 years, decided that Ferguson deserved addressing, and released a new “sketch” of her previously released song “Black Rage.” It’s easier than ever for major artists to get topical music to the masses: post a song on Soundcloud, tweet the link, and you’re golden. The strategy worked for Cole, and it certainly worked for Hill, a reclusive artist with a checkered public image, whose “Black Rage (sketch)” now has 514,000 plays on the platform.
It’s also easier than ever for artists who are a little gun-shy about releasing straight-up protest music to at least get informed about a situation like the one in Ferguson, and to communicate with others about the plethora of issues via social media. Who exactly should artists have been afraid of? Record labels have never wielded the sort of capability to censor major artists or punish them for politically charged comments, and they certainly don’t possess more power in 2014 than they did before. As for the boogeyman qualities of brands and the fear of losing endorsement deals, companies are highly aware of popular opinion on a topic and what is perceived as “good taste.” Rick Ross lost a deal with Reebok after a lyric referencing date rape did not “live up to the values of [the] brand,” but if Selena Gomez posted a message offering support to the community of Ferguson following the death of Michael Brown, it’s highly unlikely that K-Mart would sever ties with the pop singer, for their own sake.
And that’s the most troubling thing about pop superstars shrugging off the situation in Ferguson: the killing of an unarmed teen in America is an event worth protesting, whether or not you believe the police showed excessive force in the following weeks or you think that too many of the protestors were prone to looting in the Ferguson area. Brown’s death and the harrowing situation that took place in its wake did not need to be politicized by pop’s elite, but did it not deserve to be mourned?
“Hip-hop has always been about truth, and it’s been a powerful instrument of social change,” Common told the VMAs crowd on Sunday night. He’s right, but in this instance, I wish he had been able to use the word “music” in place of “hip-hop.” Pop music has always been a medium used to escape, a way to allow a slick melody to carry you away from life’s troubles for four minutes. However, the genre also includes all of the artists with the biggest megaphones — Katy Perry has more Twitter followers than anyone in the world, including President Barack Obama — and, as a result, the best chance to inflict actual change. I’m not suggesting that pop stars need to start haranguing us about world issues. But in the case of Ferguson, even a little harsh feedback would have sounded better than nothing.