The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2015

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FEB 2015 Issue

Reflecting on Ferguson

In August, the musician Lauryn Hill dropped a raw, unedited version of her track “Black Rage” as a free download on SoundCloud. Hill wrote the song in 2012 and has been performing it at concerts ever since. On Twitter, Hill dedicated the song to “peace for MO,” a reference to the eruption of street protests and their violent suppression following the killing of Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson.

I played it back right away, standing still in the hallway and holding my phone up to my ear. Minutes earlier, I had been staring wide-eyed at the fiasco of the MTV Video Music Awards, in which Beyoncé delivered a 20-minute mash-up of every song on her eponymously titled album, including an extended sequence on a conveyor belt in front of a massive, LED-illuminated “FEMINIST” sign. This was the political message: Beyoncé is a feminist, didn’t you know? The disaster reached its pinnacle when Jay-Z came onstage with their child Blue Ivy and delivered a lifetime achievement award to his wife, “the greatest living entertainer.” Beyoncé thanked God, her child, her husband, and MTV.

It has been reported—and touted by the star herself in recent performances—that Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s combined net worth has broken the billion-dollar mark. In concerts, merchandise, and appearances alone, they earn more than $100 million annually. On her most recent tour, Beyoncé was pulling in around $2.5 million per tour stop. By contrast, in 2013 Lauryn Hill went to jail for tax evasion. She served in Danbury, Conneticut, at the same federal women’s prison made famous by Piper Kerman, the creator of “Orange is the New Black.” The track Hill dropped last August sounds like it was recorded in a living room; there’s the banter of children running around and her unmistakable voice, un-mixed, fading in and out of comprehensibility on top of the drum beat.

In the lyrics to “Black Rage,” Hill questions “the myth or illusion” of free enterprise and challenges how these narratives are used to confuse the many black people for whom business ownership and entrepreneurship are terribly unlikely, despite any amount of aspiration. These working-class people of color, to whom Hill addresses her song, are not pillars of wealth, fame, and family like Jay-Z and Beyoncé. The Carters’ is a different kind of black power than the sort Hill conjures in a soulful performance of “Black Rage” in Atlanta in 2012. Hill, dressed in baggy pants and a baseball cap pulled over a tight curl, delivers a fast-paced iteration of the track, her voice skipping over the adopted melody of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “My Favorite Things” like a stone flicked across a pond. After working her way through this virtuosic performance, Hill quiets the band and the back-up singers and begs the audience to listen closely as she sets out on a clearly articulated recitation of the lyrics.

In her unaccompanied speech, Hill’s finely enunciated voice strains to keep an even temper as it continually drives toward insistence, lifting on certain words she wishes to emphasize, like “beatings,” and “ceiling,” and “fear,” and the “is” in “life out of context is living ungodly.” At first listeners are hushed, but as the lyrical recitation goes on, the crowd begins to echo her with roaring agreement, call-backs, and shouts of encouragement. “Poison your water while they say it is raining / Then call you mad for complaining, complaining” draws out a heaving response. At the mention of children, a solitary female voice cries out, “You better teach Lauryn!” After the second of three verses, the crowd is intent on ending her soliloquy with shouts of their own. But Hill does not relent. “Wait, wait,” she persists, “and then it says—”

For a long while I would listen to Nina Simone on my headphones while bicycling to work in my studio. My playlist almost always included a live recording of “Mississippi Goddam” from the Legends collection, 1972. The song still makes me weep, a combination of sentiments mixed up in tears, the coordinates of an awkward identification I experience as a gay white man listening to anthems of the Civil Rights movement. When I listened intently to the song, I felt an unexpected grief, a strange longing for a revolutionary moment I had only ever imagined.

Not just longing—I felt an oblique sense of understanding. I am not talking about what was in my head—my thinking mind worked well to remind me that the American experience has always been extraordinarily different between the races, and that the treatment of black people in pre-Civil Rights Act America was markedly different from the bigotry and hatred gay people face today. I knew these differences, but I felt something much closer. So close, in fact, that I could crawl into the crevices of Simone’s voice and hide away in its acrid corners. Sheltered, I could sing along to the words only she could write and harmonize my queer chords with her African ones. I felt protected by Simone’s voice and reflected in her raw emotion. Her songs gave me courage and a sense of purpose. I wanted to work in a way that lived up to the standards she embodied—a relentless commitment to anger. The rage of injustice. The willful spirit at the back of every freedom bus that thrusts the rest forward, beyond their best expectations, obligated to history and to progeny never to be met.

In 1996, after appearing on the Howard Stern show, it was widely rumored that Lauryn Hill made a disparaging statement against white people in her audience. The details differed somewhat, but the gist of the rumor was that Hill said she’d rather her children starve than have white people buy her albums. I remember hearing about Hill’s statement when I was 20 or 21 years old and feeling pretty angry about it. I wondered what I had done to deserve such a blanket disavowal. My understanding of history was weak then, and as someone less than 26 years old, I was also helplessly narcissistic, immune to the possibility that there were others on the planet. I took these rumored statements personally. I felt cut out and told to stay home. I wasn’t needed for the revolution.

These many voices rang out a discordant chorus in my head when I listened to Hill’s track play back through the tiny speakers of my phone. But behind these voices, I felt my body relax into her song. After a week of devastating news from the frontlines of racism in this country, somebody had said something I knew I could trust.

Why didn’t I go to Ferguson? After following the news religiously for days, around the time the tanks rolled in, I did seriously consider it—as I imagine a lot of people like me did, too. By “considered it,” I mean that you might have searched online for the names of any organizers in Ferguson, groups that were leading the protest or managing press relations and communications and telling far-flung advocates where to send pizzas. You found nothing, except the St. Louis chapter of Occupy and an illegitimate group that called itself the New Black Panthers. By “like me,” I mean New Yorkers and Angelenos, people who live on the liberal coasts, professionals with full-time jobs or freelancers who, by that definition, never have any time. I mean highly educated people, well-traveled liberals, black and white alike, who voted for Obama twice, the second time begrudgingly, and participated in some Occupy actions in 2011, or at least cheered when others did, signed countless online petitions, and ordered pizzas when pizzas were called for. Why didn’t you go?

I didn’t go because I was afraid I would be rejected by the people of Ferguson as a white, middle-class thrill-seeker, more interested in the admiration of his fellow artists and intellectuals than in the reality of this struggle, too careful to get really involved, to go to jail and jeopardize his precarious employment back on the coast. I was afraid that I was not wanted or perhaps worse, that I was, but that I would not stick it out as long as necessary, because in the end, I did not have to. For me, Ferguson would be a weekend or a week; for its citizens, this was life.

In the end, I felt the difference of my situation was too extreme to be reconciled. At the high point of the international Occupy movement, there were so many people involved from such different contexts and for very different reasons that it seemed there was no social, economic, or cultural difference that could structure an individual as fundamentally outside the movement. Even celebrity one-percenters were welcomed. But this struggle is different. An unarmed black teenager was killed by a white cop and the largely white police force, historically antagonistic to the predominantly black population, was not moving fast enough to bring justice. This was their moment, the people of Ferguson’s, their spotlight, and I did not want to steal it away from them, not even by virtue of my best intentions to join the revolution.

That was August. After the release of the grand jury’s decision not to indict Officer Darren Wilson, followed a week later by another court’s decision to not indict the NYPD officers involved in the killing of Eric Garner, a nationwide protest sparked. Ferguson was the shot heard round the world but no longer the only battlefield. The groundwork for a movement has now been laid, but what will bind its footmen across such incisive differences of race, class, and gender to make for an army?

This movement has recently begun to be called a “second wave” of the civil rights struggle. Second-wave feminism attempted to account for the differences among women in the movement along lines of class, race, and sexuality. What grew from this was a much broader understanding of feminism. In fact, the most cogent evidence of the success of this critique might be the shift in nomenclature from “women’s movement” to “feminism,” and a turn away from biological woman as the subject of the movement. Second-wave civil rights promises something similar. A movement made up of as many white people as black and brown in the struggle for social justice. The end to the prison-industrial complex and the militarization of the police brought about by a broad intersectional alliance. An analysis of class relations, sexism, misogyny, and homophobia even within those communities actively involved in the struggle for making black lives matter. Can we imagine a stronger, self-reflexively critical civil rights movement that addresses those issues that were overlooked in the 1960s while keeping a fidelity to this pivotal time in history?

In the 2013 documentary Beyoncé: Life Is But a Dream, the star likens herself to only one other singer, Nina Simone. “I think when [she] put out music, you loved her voice,” Beyoncé says in the program with no mention of Simone’s public role in the civil rights movement. “That’s what she wanted you to love. That’s what—that was her instrument.” It has been five months since Michael Brown was killed and nearly seven weeks since the non-indictments were announced. If Beyoncé wants to live up to her own words and the oversized lights of her LED “FEMINISM,” then it is time for her to speak. Simone risked everything to become a leader, and she lost much of it on the way. But look what was gained. Lauryn Hill understands what Beyonce cannot, that a voice cracked with rage does more to build a coalition than one that has been Auto-Tuned to perfect pitch. Our second-wave movement needs a loud voice if it is to be heard. No, it needs a chorus. We all must learn to sing out.


Ryan Kelly

RYAN KELLY is an artist, dancer, and writer currently in residence at the New Museum in New York City. Kelly studied visual art at UCLA and comparative literature at Fordham University. He was a Van Lier Fellow at the Whitney Museum’s Independent Study Program and a member of New York City Ballet from 1998 to 2002. For the past 12 years, he has engaged in a unique collaborative art practice with Brennan Gerard. For more information go to: Their shared work can be viewed at


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2015

All Issues