Music

J. Cole Owed The Movement — And Black Women — More Than ‘Snow On Tha Bluff’

Last night, J. Cole released “Snow On The Bluff,” an of-the-times confessional on which the North Carolina MC let the world know what’s on his heart. Unfortunately, many listeners wish he hadn’t. He used a sparse beat to offer his thoughts on the difficulties of learning about systemic oppression, and admit that he’s unsure if he’s using his platform correctly.

His indecision is understandable, but what’s unacceptable is that he spent most of the track criticizing an anonymous person who sounds an awful lot like Noname, an artist who’s been inspiringly decisive about her desire for revolution. The 28-year-old has started a book club highlighting seminal radical texts and exposes the interwoven dynamics of systemic oppression every day on her Twitter account.

Earlier this week, she was verbally undercut and gaslit by Boots Riley during a Haymarket Books-sponsored This Is An Uprising conversation. Now, Cole is accusing her of “conveying she’s holier” than thou, questioning the tone of her rhetoric. Cole’s idol Tupac once started a 1993 speech by noting that he was asked not to curse, then saying “f*ck that” because “it’s bad out there, it ain’t pretty…so let’s be real.” The crowd applauded him. But when a Black woman culls that same 400-years-simmering flame, she’s chastised.

The flagrant misogyny of “Snow On The Bluff” undercut whatever conversation Cole was trying to start within the Black community. The tone-deaf track showed Cole’s novice understanding of radical politics when he could have been uplifting Black women. Noname replied to the record by tweeting “Queen Tone” last night, seemingly joking Cole’s criticisms off. But it wouldn’t be surprising if the sentiment hurt her during a week that’s already been tough for Black women.

Earlier this week, Oluwatoyin Salau, a 19-year-old activist from Florida, was found dead days after publicly tweeting that she was sexually assaulted. So many Black women on Twitter grieved her loss and lamented that they felt in danger from both the state and Black men like Aaron Glee, who has been arrested for the crime. Salau was fighting for the liberation of people who didn’t have the courage to fight for her. But instead of releasing a song highlighting the tragedy of her loss, or affirming the people demonstrating for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Tony McDade, Cole channeled his inner Fox News anchor and policed a messenger instead of promoting their message.

Cole has a penchant for penning explicative, observational verses about artists like Kanye West, his friend Wale, and the entire community of young “SoundCloud rappers” that, perhaps because of his earnest public persona, aren’t framed by fans as malevolent disses as much as tough love. It’s an ambiguous niche that he’s cultivated throughout the years, and it seems like Noname was the latest person in his crosshairs. Though Cole didn’t mention her (perhaps as a play on “Noname”), he rhymed about “a young lady out there, she way smarter than me / I scrolled through her timeline in these wild times, and I started to read,” leading many people to speculate that he was talking about Noname. He also said the following:

“She strike me as somebody blessed enough to grow up in conscious environment
With parents that know ’bout the struggle for liberation and in turn they provide her with
A perspective and awareness of the system and unfairness that afflicts ’em
And the clearest understandin’ of what we gotta do to get free”

With those bars, Cole committed one of the deadliest sins of being loud: being wrong. Noname has been open about not coming into the rap game with a radical praxis. Her original name was Noname Gypsy, and when people informed her that gypsy was a racial slur against Romanian people, she dropped the term from her name. He noted that his mindset was, “f*ck a retweet,” but Noname credits Twitter with opening her eyes. In June 2019, she tweeted that “capitalism isn’t evil,” and got “dragged” by Twitter users who informed her that a system predicated on a necessity for poor people was indeed wicked. The reaction to her tweet sparked her to start reading radical texts. A month later she started a book club, and she’s since become one of the most ardent abolitionist voices on Twitter.

When she was called out for her errant capitalism comment, she didn’t complain, she didn’t lash out or ask “how you gon’ lead, when you attackin’ the very same n****s that really do need the sh*t that you sayin’?” like Cole did. She absorbed the criticism and took it upon herself to create an avenue for others to grow along with her. It’s disappointing to see Cole use his “average” IQ as a reason that he can’t be similarly stirred by firm critique. After a night of seeing people’s response to the record, he simply doubled down, tweeting that he “stood behind every word of the song.” There’s a legitimate criticism that some scholarly text is hard to decipher (Noname recently expressed it herself), but asking to be taught by activists and scholars “like children” at 35 exemplifies some men’s everlasting need to be coddled, even in a life or death plight.

Cole also rhymed that “lowkey I be thinkin’ she talkin’ ’bout me” when Noname tweets about the need for abolition. As a rich entertainer who’s a key cog of the consumerism that sustains capitalism, she definitely is. But it should also be noted that the term could just as easily apply to rappers like Gunna, Lil Baby, or Roddy Ricch, who have all been “top-selling rappers” this year. Like some of his peers (Lil Baby, YG) Cole could’ve offset his fixture in the establishment by releasing a record that galvanized people and affirmed Black women instead of stifled them. His devout defenders are arguing that he was aiming to start a conversation, and he has. But unfortunately, the topic is when are Black men going to let Black women be?

J. Cole is acting as a mouthpiece for men that reductively lament when sexually-liberated artists like Megan Thee Stallion or Cardi B don’t present themselves as “conscious” in their music. But when they are progressive and outspoken like Noname, they apparently have to tone down the revolutionary fervor to an acceptable level. These men try to apply patriarchal standards to women vying to uproot patriarchy. And instead of using his influence over Black men to quell the divide, Cole deepened it.

Misogyny is real, and the intersection of Blackness and womanhood means that whether we want to accept it or not, Black men are very much a part of Black women’s oppression on a daily basis. They shouldn’t be expected to lead with love when they feel so little love reciprocated. Cole, who has defended the abusive XXXTentacion, 6ix9ine, and Kodak Black, and made the respectability politic-filled song “No Role Modelz,” may never understand that. And he doesn’t have to. As renowned activist Angela Davis recently explained, there’s no need to clamor for universal solidarity amongst Black people. Noname’s aim is radical solidarity, and a seat isn’t automatic at that table.

Cole has fashioned himself a leader of his generation, with songs like “Be Free” in the wake of the 2014 Ferguson uprising. Like Kendrick Lamar, who has been curiously quiet during this time, Cole has said that Tupac is one of his favorite rappers. This perilous moment is his time to similarly rouse the Black people who support him, but he managed to drop the ball on Pac’s birthday with “Snow On The Bluff.” Who knows what place a 49-year-old Tupac would take in the modern movement, but there’s one thing we can be sure he’d be doing: uplifting Black women instead of regulating them.

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