When Keeping It Woke Goes Wrong: How Much Do We Really Want Artists to Speak Out?

In a time when social consciousness is an imperative, we should be more selective as to who we give a voice to.

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Dec 22 2016, 6:16pm

This article originally appeared on Noisey Canada. 

In a year dominated by conversations about white privilege and police brutality—and bookended by the rise of US president-elect Donald Trump—artists of color have clearly felt a growing sense of obligation to use their influence to speak out. And largely, many have done so. Projects like Beyonce's Lemonade, Solange's A Seat At The Table, as well as Blood Orange's Freetown Sound, cited ad nauseum in discussions of politicized music, speak directly to the injustices that appear constantly in the news. Artists like Killer Mike and Chance the Rapper, both of whom have long-standing ties to politics, were instrumental in electoral campaigns and mobilizing votes. Other artists approached social activism through op-eds, monetary donations, and public protests on live television.

Still, the insistence from media and activists for popular figures to comment and take action has created a space where artists feel compelled to take a stance, whether or not they are prepared to contribute to the discussion in a productive way. We've seen the added impetus to speak out about politics go awry, whether in Lil Wayne's surprising inability to see racism and understand Black Lives Matter or when RZA suggested earlier this year that dressing better would absolve black youth from interaction with police. These incidents demonstrate that raised expectation of social awareness and responsibility from black artists who have never been asked to articulate their thoughts outside of music is not necessarily constructive.

Black Lives Matter, in particular, was a popular talking point in 2016, a go-to in part for its promise of controversy. To say "yes" to Black Lives Matter is to court the (often aggressive) anger of those unsympathetic to the movement, while to say "no" or a "but" can put a person in the "All Lives Matter" camp, where they are seen as betraying their community and devaluing the cause. A$AP Rocky would be the first of many to be tasked with asserting his stance after choice quotes from a controversial 2015 interview re-surfaced online. In particular, he chafed at the idea that the color of his skin required him to have a political opinion: "I don't wanna talk about no f—ing Ferguson and shit because I don't live over there! I live in fucking Soho and Beverly Hills. I can't relate.'"

As a result, he'd go on The Breakfast Club to clarify his statements, acknowledging in a regretful tone the interview was the fault of him misspeaking and being misquoted. Still, he voiced his frustration at being pulled onto a platform he felt unqualified to help in the way of a "J. Cole" or "Kendrick." "When you have a journalist asking you why you didn't speak about the Baltimore riots or how come you didn't speak about the Ferguson stuff and it's continuous you get agitated," he said. "I didn't ask for that kind of responsibility." And yet, when Charlamagne asked if he finally "woke up and realized what's going on," Rocky's response is emblematic of the begrudging nature on the part of artists for the demand for comment: "Nah, I think more so I got dragged into saying something ." Wayne, too, echoed similar sentiments in his aforementioned Nightline interview stating, rather bluntly, "I ain't no fucking politician."

Solange took a different stance on the subject. In an interview with the FADER, she spoke directly on the question of responsibility musicians have to speak on social issues. "When I interviewed Amandla [Stenberg] for Teen Vogue she said something like, 'We're all activists, even in just existing'... I don't think it's everyone's responsibility if it's not in their will. But I do feel conflicted when people feel like they may not have that calling, but they speak out against the movement. That, to me, is very problematic. I'd almost rather you just not speak at all... All that I ask is that people are sensitive to others' truths, even if it's not their own." Sensitivity, however, is informed by empathy, and to be black in the present time is to constantly feel and be reminded of the dangers waiting for us day to day. There is truth in purely existing as a successful black celebrity, in spite of the oppression that comes with your race, being a political act. We find solace through the art of these musicians. Their verses act as a balm, and it becomes an issue when their words outside of the music don't match our interpretations. As Solange asserts, those who wish to disengage do more harm by voicing negative opinions than by simply staying quiet. Perhaps it's not productive for us to dictate how we want artists to use their platforms. This conflict has spurred some to find a middle ground for what role celebrity can play in social justice causes.

In an interview with VMAN magazine, The Weeknd addressed this topic, saying, "I promised myself that I would never tweet or talk about politics and focus on the music, but I was just so bewildered that we lost more of our people to these senseless police shootings. I wish I could make music about politics... but when I step into the studio I step out of the real world, and it's therapeutic. It's an escape, but recently it's been very hard to ignore, and it's also been very distracting. Maybe you'll hear it in my voice, but it is not my forté." Instead, he's utilized his position through absence and choice moments. In May, he cancelled a performance on the Jimmy Kimmel show in response to a scheduled Trump appearance. He tweeted in support of Black Lives Matter following the senseless killings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling , and he quietly donated money to organizations supporting the BLM cause. Weeknd's comments reflect a frustration on the part of artists who feel they are obligated to say something, who maybe want to keep making fun music as a reprieve from political trauma rather than music that addresses it. But rather than allowing himself to be pulled in for a salacious quote or speak out of frustration he's used his agency to support on his terms. Actions will always speak louder than words.

More than ever it has become clear that there's a fine line to be walked as to who we look to for wisdom, a line that has become harder to make out as we consider the size of famous people's followings and the reach their voices have. Some voices should not be put on a pedestal, as evidenced by Kanye West's current political pursuits. By championing Donald Trump's boldness and resilience to political correctness, he's done a great deal of damage in making a hateful rhetoric digestible to his large following. In the same way one shouldn't be the voice of a whole movement just because of their skin color, we shouldn't give merit to someone just because of the strength of their platform. There needs to be accountability for idol worship and an emphasis on thinking critically about all voices as we risk creating more spaces where the ignorant or ill-informed can speak for a whole community.

Nevertheless, in facing what will be a long and hard road ahead a simple truth has more meaning than ever: Not everybody needs to be heard. Some of us need to shut the fuck up.

Jabbari Weekes is spreading fear and jeer this Christmas. Follow or slander him on Twitter.