When Common and I wrote the song “Glory” for the stunning new film Selma, we drew inspiration from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his contemporaries who strived and sacrificed to achieve racial equality in the face of seemingly hopeless odds. As I watched the final version of Selma, I did so with the backdrop of the streets of many of our major cities filled with protesters, crying out for justice after yet another unarmed black person’s life was taken by the police with impunity. After the events of the past few weeks, in Ferguson, Mo.; Staten Island; Phoenix; and Cleveland, things feel eerily the same. While it is important to recognize and acknowledge racial progress through the years, it is also clear that we are far from King’s dream of equality and justice for all.
Slavery ended 150 years ago. The most egregious elements of Jim Crow were deemed illegal 50 years ago. But the problems of structural racism are old and ongoing. We still have a huge wealth gap rooted in decades of job, wage and housing discrimination. Voting restrictions that disproportionately affect the poor, minorities and youth are in place and growing. A persistent gap between black and white student achievement points to an education system that fails to provide a ladder of opportunity for everyone. African-American communities are being crushed by a criminal justice system that over-polices us, over-arrests us, over-incarcerates us and disproportionately takes the lives of our unarmed youth because of the simple fact that our skin, our blackness, conjures the myth of a hyper-violent negro.
I did an album with The Roots in 2010 called Wake Up! We wanted to use music to encourage young people who were politicized by the election of President Barack Obama to continue mobilizing. We covered songs from the 1960s and ’70s by artists like Nina Simone and Curtis Mayfield as inspiration and a blueprint. They marched. They wrote songs. They met with political leaders. They provided financial support. They risked arrest.
Today, I am part of a generation of artists who benefit from unprecedented access to our fans. Tools like Twitter and Facebook act as a megaphone, allowing us to speak directly and powerfully to millions of people. Yet our actions, or lack thereof, speak louder: 140 characters cannot excuse us of our obligation to stand up, sit in or march forward.
Obama recently told the young activists gathered in the Oval Office to “think big, but go gradual.” His words reminded me of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s reluctance to tackle voting rights, as depicted in Selma. Despite Johnson’s qualms, civil rights activists refused to wait for a more convenient political time. They took to the streets and used grass-roots organization and the moral force of their argument to create better conditions so the legislation could pass. We can’t wait for gradual and incremental change. Our government is a democracy, by the people and for the people. It is time for the people to wake up, stand up and demand change.
This article first appeared in the Dec. 20 issue of Billboard.