Hip-hop fans logging into Twitter or Instagram today likely found themselves gobsmacked as they unwittingly entered a whirlwind of debate. For some, it seemed as though “haters” were trying to “cancel” J. Cole for “tone-policing” Chicago rapper Noname with his new song “Snow On Tha Bluff.” For others, it looked like Cole was being fairly castigated for trying to silence Black women — another instance in a long history of them.
And for the rest, it was just a confusing mess, as major players in hip-hop from Chance The Rapper to Chika to Earl Sweatshirt to Talib Kweli got involved and argued their points. Uproxx’s Andre Gee weighed in with his take here on the site, but if you’re still not up-to-speed, here’s an explainer to catch you up.
Noname Calls Out Rappers’ Silence On George Floyd Protests
At the end of May, as protests against police brutality in the wake of police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor heated up, the outspoken Noname called rappers to task on Twitter, writing: “Poor black folks all over the country are putting their bodies on the line in protest for our collective safety and y’all favorite top selling rappers not even willing to put a tweet up. N****s whole discographies be about black plight and they no where to be found.” She has since deleted the tweet but it’s been credited as the spark that ignited the entire firestorm of controversy to follow.
J. Cole Releases “Snow On Tha Bluff”
Last night, J. Cole finally offered his take on the ongoing protests after peers such as Denzel Curry, Lil Baby, and YG each released songs calling out the police. However, Cole’s song turned out to be more of a personal reflection, with Jermaine questioning his role in speaking out on behalf of oppressed Black Americans: “Damn, why I feel faker than Snow on Tha Bluff?” he wonders. “Well, maybe ’cause deep down I know I ain’t doing enough.” However, on the way to that salient, relatable point, Cole also makes mention of a smart young woman on Twitter who spends time addressing the same issues.
“She mad at my n****s, she mad at our ignorance, she wear her heart on her sleeve,” he describes. “She mad at the celebrities — lowkey, I be thinkin’ she talkin’ ’bout me.” It’s this description that made some fans speculate that the woman he refers to is Noname and it’s what he says next that draws fire.
If J.Cole is sending shots at Noname, fuck him.
First of all, say her name.
Second of all, you told your audience to pray for 6ix9ine and caped for XXXtentacion but want to critique Noname? Noname?! Her tone is bothering you?!
— Charles Preston (@_CharlesPreston) June 17, 2020
After the release of “Snow On Tha Bluff,” as fans began to connect the dots to the anonymous young woman they identify as Noname, they began to also draw parallels to a long-running debate in the movement for Black liberation. “Now I ain’t no dummy to think I’m above criticism,” Cole admits, before committing to the sticking point, “So when I see something that’s valid, I listen / But sh*t, it’s something about the queen tone that’s botherin’ me.” This is where the accusations of “tone-policing” come in — where an observer addresses the perceived emotion behind the message rather than the message itself, demanding softer, more permissive language.
Fans were quick to call Cole out on this discrepancy as well as his question, “How you gon’ lead, when you attackin’ the very same n****s that really do need the shit that you sayin’?” Noname herself chimed in with an all-caps “QUEEN TONE!!” tweet. That tweet was eventually deleted as well.
Follow @noname . I love and honor her as a leader in these times. She has done and is doing the reading and the listening and the learning on the path that she truly believes is the correct one for our people. Meanwhile a nigga like me just be rapping.
— J. Cole (@JColeNC) June 17, 2020
In the morning, seeing the backlash, Cole tweeted a thread asserting that “I stand behind every word of the song that dropped last night.” He also called on fans to follow Noname, calling her “a leader in these times,” and downplaying his own leadership role as “I haven’t done a lot of reading.” He also doubled down on his assertion that “We may not agree with each other but we gotta be gentle with each other,” which only sparked another round of invective between the two “sides” of the ongoing debate.
They both my peoples but only one of them put out a whole song talking about how the other needs to reconsider their tone and attitude in order to save the world. It’s not constructive and undermines all the work Noname has done. It’s not BWs job to spoon feed us. We grown https://t.co/TjIrMyFzQd
— Chance The Rapper (@chancetherapper) June 17, 2020
Cole’s response also drew reactions from peers like Chance The Rapper, who called it “yet another L for men masking patriarchy and gaslighting as contructive criticism.” Meanwhile, Earl Sweatshirt deemed both the song and Cole’s response to the backlash against it “corny,” while even Cole’s own artist Ari Lennox obtusely checked him by showing support for Noname in an Instagram post.
lol before i get grouped in to anything let me state that first truth of many is that the shit was just corny.. it would b like on one of the nights following big floyds death if a white rapper (one that ppl like) made a "im uneducated on ur plight" track it just taste bad lol
— thebe kgositsile (@earlxsweat) June 17, 2020
Noname has spent the day on radio silence, perhaps preferring to let other voices speak in her defense for the time being. So, what’s next? Hopefully, the two rappers can hash out their differences in a forum where they can come to a mutual understanding. Meanwhile, their fans — and those observers who wondered what all the fuss was about — may be able to find some lessons. Perhaps the hubbub will draw attention to Noname’s book club, through which she shares vital resources for learning about and reforming the institutions that oppress everyone. And maybe, just maybe, we can all get back to focusing on finding solutions to the problems that plague us using empathy, understanding, and unity.