In the opening sample of Kanye West’s 2013 hit song “Blood on the Leaves”, Nina Simone sings, “Strange fruit hangin’ from the poplar trees. Blood on the leaves.” In the original song by Billie Holiday, the “strange fruit” in question are lynched black bodies hanging from trees. Her song was one of protest and outrage at the racial injustices that claimed the lives of many African-Americans.
West’s outspokenness when it comes to race issues has drawn attention both in and out of the recording studio. After Hurricane Katrina, West memorably proclaimed that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” on live television.
However, while unrest builds across the country over police killings of unarmed black men and boys in Ferguson, Cleveland and New York, many have wondered why the usually ubiquitous hip-hop star has been all but silent.
In the Huffington Post, Janessa E. Robinson penned an open letter to the star, writing, “Despite criticism of your “Kanye rants,” people listen when you speak. Regardless of your delivery, many of us find value in your statements on classism and institutionalized racism. Your voice elicits responses from fans and critics alike. Having said that, Ferguson is happening. Where are you?”
Not all celebrities have been so quiet about their take on the racial unrest of late.
Legendary “Do The Right Thing” filmmaker and frequent social critic Spike Lee attended protests in the wake of the grand jury’s decision not to indict a NYPD officer in the death of Eric Garner. Meanwhile, Roc Nation rapper J.Cole was also spotted attending protests in New York City.
Sean “Diddy” Combs has been particularly vocal in the wake of the death of Eric Garner. He took to Instagram to express his disappointment in the grand jury’s decision: “I can’t take it anymore! It’s Enough, and enough is enough!”
During Reverend Al Sharpton’s press conference with Garner’s mother and widow on Wednesday, Sharpton said he was holding meetings with Combs in the coming days to garner his help in rallying support from the hip-hop community for an upcoming march in Washington D.C. to protest police violence.
For some black musicians, the silence of white artists who are sometimes accused of appropriating black culture was telling.
After tweeting a slew of messages expressing dismay over the grand jury decision, Azealia Banks blasted Australian rapper Iggy Azalea for her lack of action on the issue, saying: “Black Culture is cool, but black issues sure aren’t huh?”
The “Fancy” rapper fired back to her critics tweeting: “Theres more to sparking a change than trolling on social media,” before tweeting out a list of ways her followers could “help” Ferguson.
The social media spat furthered conversations about the role of musicians and entertainers in addressing political and social turmoil.
Questlove, the “Tonight Show” bandleader and drummer for The Roots, weighed in on Instagram Thursday to “urge and challenge musicians and artists alike to push themselves to be a voice of the times that we live in.”
As more demonstrations are planned for more cities in the days ahead, it remains to be seen whether mounting public outcry will result in more celebrities answering his challenge and taking a stand.