J. Cole & Ryan Coogler Show Why They Are 2 of the Most Important Voices Of Their Generation (Video)
“This is just two young Black men having intelligent dialogue,” summarized J. Cole at this week’s #MLKNOW event (January 18) in New York City. The heralded MC/producer was interviewed by filmmaker Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station, Creed). Together, the two artists engaged in a conversation about race, police brutality, and promoting change.
Coogler interviewed J. Cole following a performance of “Be Free” by Anika Noni Rose at the event. Asked about the 2014 song, Cole explained—at length—the circumstances that caused him to write it.
“When the Oscar Grant [murder] happened, I saw the video too. This was before I was on with music, and I’ll never forget that image. So when I heard about your film, when I seen it…I just want to let you know, bro—every time I see it, I break down crying, and I can’t control it. It’s really leakin’,” Cole told Coogler, also calling Fruitvale Station a ”classic.” He continued, “That same level of crying and breakin’ down that I experienced just from watching your film, is exactly what inspired that song, in a sense.”
Noting that “Be Free” emerged during the creation of last year’s 2014 Forest Hills Drive, Cole elaborated. “I was in the middle of finishing [the album]. I was kind of in an artistic [place]. [During album-making], I separate myself, I don’t really watch the news much. I’m not on social media. I just kind of detach myself. I’m in this mode where I got this message I want to give and this story I want to tell, and I stay in that zone. There had been stories [while I was recording in New York City]. The Eric Garner [murder] had happened. Around this time, a lot of things were happening, but to me, they were always happening.” J. Cole said he would have categorized himself as “numb to it” when Black people were murdered by police. “I almost didn’t want to hear about it, ’cause it was almost too real to handle. Video was out of this man gettin’ choked by police officers, and I just couldn’t bring myself to watch it, ’cause I just didn’t want to go to that place. It’s similar to comin’ up in Fayetteville—or anywhere—and hearin’ about someone you came up with, or anybody that’s Black gettin’ killed. We’re so used to it [that] we give it the ‘That’s messed up’ [reaction], but do we really dive in and discover how not-normal that is?” One month later, in August of 2014, things got more intense for J. Cole. “Fast forward, the Mike Brown [murder] happens. I just happen to catch it live, through social media, through the news. I allowed myself to follow it. I’m looking at stories of [witnesses explaining] that this boy didn’t do nothing; they shot him while he was running away, not facing them, and they killed him. So I’m watching this.” Approaching the news differently transformed Cole’s reaction. “I allowed myself to put myself in his shoes. We all know that as young Black men that moment when you’re dealing with a police officer—just like Oscar Grant—when you’re dealing with a police officer that’s on a power trip. And you can see, just from the mannerisms that it’s, ‘Oh, this can go bad real quick.’ You know that feeling. So instead of blocking it, I allowed myself to feel it—with the Mike Brown situation. I got so scared and I got so mad. So then, after reading—I think it was a Tanahasi Coates article that I read [that caused me to cry]—the same emotion that I got from watching Fruitvale [Station], is the same emotion that I got in my apartment reading that article.”
J. Cole said that his awakening to the issues made him pray to be a vessel for change. “I told God, ‘Yo, I would like to say something. I’m not gonna force it—if it don’t come, it don’t come, but if it comes, it comes. But I would like to be able to be a voice.’ Lo and behold, that night I was working on something totally different, bro—a whole ‘nother song. It just happened organically.” “Be Free” was born, but J. Cole reiterated that his experience and perspective are not exclusive. “The majority of people I know, like us, we go through life like that.”
Reacting, Ryan Coogler spoke about the level of awareness in Black music today, thanks to Cole and Kendrick Lamar. “If you were to run the clock by to the ’90s, it was harder to express that I’m having a hard time dealing with this. All my friends is either locked up or dead.” Of his own experiences, Ryan Coogler said that creating the opening night Creed guest list was a painful process. “I ran out of names, ’cause all my partners I grew up with that I want to see the movie are gone. It’s tough to put a shield up and deal with the lies.”
Speaking about the road ahead, J. Cole opened up. “I wonder how we have to do to stop that cycle; I have some ideas. It’s no concrete ideas. But I have a feeling—of course, it’s economic power,” Cole repeated reacting to something said offstage. He continued, “But before that, we have to turn our sights from outward, at the system—which is, of course, totally wrong, completely wrong. But we gotta turn our sights from looking outward, at the system, and how wrong it is, to [looking] inward—and how we’ve been affected by it.” J. Cole said that he was subject to “poison,” and others are as well. “We grew up watching ourselves be criminals on TV. We grew up watching ourselves be criminals in the movies. We grew up watching ourselves be gangsta rappers—video girls. We grew up with this. So it’s a level of self-reflection and honesty we gotta have. So it’s like, instead of marching on Washington—which we’ve been doing for a long time, we gotta march on the hood, and march on ourselves, and try to wake each other up.” J. Cole elaborated that without self-love, economic power was fruitless. He pointed to today’s status symbols and materialism. “We only feel we’re successful if we’re doing things white people have already done.”
“We gotta look inward, but at the same time, recognize which outside forces made us [this way],” responded Ryan Coogler. “I looked at the mathematics recently: I rob who I’m next to. All crime generally looks demographically segregated.” The celebrated filmmaker pointed out that white-on-white crime figures rival Black-on-Black. However, white violent crimes are never used as a social defense. “As long as we live in neighborhoods where it’s easier to get access to a gun or drugs than it is to get access to a job, you gonna have violence and these lifestyles.”
J. Cole then spoke next. “[The system] becomes so much more irrelevant once you power up yourself. We cliqued up, and we all know [what has been done to us], and we all be loving each other […] you cannot fix the outside without the inside.”
Following the discussion, the two artists embraced, gaining a standing ovation from some attendees.
#BonusBeat: Anika Noni Rose’s “Be Free” performance (J. Cole cover) from #MLKNOW: