“She mad at these crackers, she mad at these capitalists, mad at these murder police / She mad at my niggas, she mad at our ignorance, she wear her heart on her sleeve / She mad at the celebrities, low-key I be thinkin' she talkin' 'bout me,” J. Cole raps over muted melodies on his new song, “Snow on tha Bluff,” his surprise single that he dropped on Tuesday night.
On the spacey, downcast track, the North Carolina musician is finally entering the Black Lives Matter discourse to address some of the blowback he and other celebrities have received regarding their silence on the movement. Clocking in at almost four minutes, the emotionally charged confessional makes pointed jabs at a woman who he all but confirmed is fellow rapper and activist Noname. The Chicago rapper has been vocal on social media about Black liberation for years, and she recently decried the lack of support from prominent rappers in the wake of the protests following George Floyd’s killing in a since-deleted tweet: “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. niggas whole discographies be about black plight and they no where to be found.”
Presumably, Cole’s song — which immediately garnered widespread criticism — was in response to that tweet. Vulture staffer Zoe Haylock wrote that Cole refuses to own up to his insecurities and “spends over half of the song dragging an unnamed woman many assumed to be Noname.” Rapper Earl Sweatshirt tweeted the song was “corny” and “tasted bad.” Rapper Kari Faux also chimed in, tweeting that Cole “could’ve read a whole book” instead of releasing the bitter track.
In the song, Cole denounces Noname’s “queen tone” and takes issue with how she addressed his inaction: “Just 'cause you woke and I'm not, that shit ain't no reason to talk like you better than me.” But then he admits to feeling faker than the 2012 movie Snow on tha Bluff, a drama that appeared to be real due to its documentary style. He then raps, “Instead of conveying you holier, come help get us up to speed.”
This plea to help him learn seems innocent on the surface. Noname would be the perfect person to bestow her wealth of information onto J. Cole. She has a book club devoted to reading radical Black authors. She has considered stopping her live performances out of frustration that her message of resistance was getting lost on white crowds. She has never shied away from expressing her views on the intersection between capitalism and racism on Twitter.
But it is not her job to help Cole learn — nor should it be — which is why his ask is a problem. His demand is not only rooted in an unwillingness to learn by himself, but it also comes with the expectation that a Black woman should perform the invisible labor of teaching him. The onus of educating others is consistently thrust upon Black women, who feel a responsibility to teach non-Black people about racism, while also informing Black men about the combined racism and sexism Black women face, also known as misogynoir. We shouldn’t have to spend our time and energy doing this, but it is what the world — and now Cole — asks of us. It is difficult and emotionally draining work that we get no credit for doing.
Noname pointing out that celebrities like Cole should do more to support the cause — given that he’s rapped about the very issues he is ignoring — is not a callout or shaming. It is a call for accountability. Black women have always shown up to support the men in the revolution despite being left out of the conversation and spotlight. This is an extension of their unseen labor. The beginning of the Black Lives Matter movement is one example, as it was founded by three Black women organizers — Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza, and Opal Tometi — in response to the killing of Trayvon Martin in 2013. Since the movement’s inception, men have always been at the forefront, with women working tirelessly behind the scenes. It was true then with Trayvon, and it’s true now with George Floyd. He has become the global face of the protests while Black women like Breonna Taylor who was also killed by the of police have not received nearly the same amount of media coverage and the officers who killed her roam free. On top of that, Black trans women have an even higher risk of being killed in police custody.
His demand is not only rooted in an unwillingness to learn by himself, but it also comes with the expectation that a Black woman should perform the invisible labor of teaching him.
Many Black women have worked to end systemic oppression, while the men they are seeking justice for take advantage of them. In a disturbing coincidence, “Snow on tha Bluff” was released a day after Black Lives Matter activist Oluwatoyin "Toyin" Salau was found dead. She was an emerging voice in the Tallahassee protests and had tweeted that she was risking her life for men at protests after being sexually assaulted. Her labor toward the cause was not valued by these men. Cole’s decision to release this song a day after Salau’s killing feels reckless. On Wednesday morning, he tweeted a response to the backlash. After defending the song, he declared his respect for Noname, adding, “I haven’t done a lot of reading and I don’t feel well equipped as a leader in these times. But I do a lot of thinking.”
He may not feel he is a leader — but given his platform and influence, legions of fans see him as one. That’s the price and responsibility of being a celebrity. His assertion that he is ill-equipped is laughable. He is a 35-year-old man with a college degree who is perfectly capable of opening a book or using Google. In 2018, his net worth was around $35 million. He could easily be donating and encouraging his fans to open their wallets like his peers Drake and the Weeknd have. While it’s possible he has done so quietly, he has an obligation to encourage others to do the same publicly. He has all the resources and power to do the very thing he is asking of Noname, and still that seems exceedingly difficult for him. As Charles Holmes wrote for Rolling Stone, Cole would “like us to consider the possibility that expecting famous men to read (or perhaps even join a book club) before voicing their opinions is just too much to ask for.”
Noname’s tweet simply did what Black women have always done. She asked those with more power than herself to step up and fight for Black lives. In turn, J. Cole asked her to do more work by educating him as if she hadn’t done enough already. He asked this at a time when women like Noname, who are protesting and speaking out, are getting assaulted and killed while fighting for justice. As Noname’s friend and fellow Chicagoan Chance the Rapper aptly tweeted, Cole’s song was "yet another L for men masking patriarchy and gaslighting as constructive criticism."
It’s fine for men like Cole to admit they need to learn more. But placing the burden on Black women to teach them ignores the work they have already done. Don’t ask us to, as Cole raps, “fill [you] up with wisdom and some courage.” The resources are there at your disposal for you to learn yourself.
If Cole truly believes what he said on the song, that he isn’t above criticism and listens when he hears something valid, he should apply that advice to himself and look inward. Now is the time.●
Natalie Harmsen is a Canadian journalist whose work has appeared in Elle Canada, Chatelaine, and more. She is based in Toronto.