J. Cole Clearly Didn’t Read the Room With Black Women

The song he released doesn’t demonstrate the support we so need right now

Rapper J. Cole performs during halftime of the 68th NBA All-Star Game on February 17, 2019 in Charlotte, North Carolina. Photo: Jeff Hahne/Getty Images

Recently, a 19-year-old woman with twists around her head and a sweaty face spoke into a microphone during a Black Lives Matter protest in Tallahassee said, “I’m gonna die by my f — — — skin” as a way to exude pride in her Blackness in spite of how much she’s been profiled. In spite of the rounds of applause, she continues to speak about the White Tallahasseeans who target Black locals, including her brother, who was “run over.” Her name was Oluwatoyin Salau.

An activist, Salau tweeted just several days prior to this moment about a sexual assault before she had gone missing. This past Monday, her body was found on a road and the suspect now in custody is a Black man. Her untimely murder sent shockwaves throughout the internet. Salau was a dark-skinned Black woman who was also home insecure. She deserved more. But before we had enough time to grieve, there were other dark-skinned Black women who may not have died but suffered a social kind of death in that their humiliation became fodder on social media.

In Washington, D.C., a Black woman was tossed into a dumpster and cried amid the filth while a group of Black men laughed and recorded on their phones. In Harlem, where I live, another Black man smacked a girl with a skateboard for allegedly refusing his advances. She lied on the ground motionless while the attacker’s friends laughed.

This week isn’t over yet, and we’ve seen three examples of Black women’s autonomies, lives, and bodies be destroyed or violated. But the worst part of this soul-draining episode is that instead of us having heartfelt yet well-trodden discussions about misogynoir within our own community, a renowned rapper by the name of J. Cole decided to interject with a new song that exposed the recklessness with which Black men act and react without doing the necessary labor first.

In “Snow On Tha Bluff,” J. Cole raps about a woman who is more intelligent than him who is trying to spread consciousness to other Black people though not in the manner that he likes. He thinks she acts holier-than-thou (“Instead of conveying your holier than thou/come get us up to speed) and that she should be more gentle with those who may not know as much as her (“I would say it’s more effective to treat people like children”). Immediately upon its release, people speculated that J. Cole was talking about noname, the Chicagoan rapper, poet, and record producer who expends much time on Twitter educating others on capitalism and radical Black politics. Though J. Cole created a thread in an attempt to uplift noname and admit his shortcomings of being ignorant, his words much like his recent song have severely missed the mark. If noname is in fact the subject of J. Cole’s song, then it would be wise for him to catch up on the reading that he has admitted that he has not done.

In a time where Black women are putting their bodies on the front lines of protests… is this now the time to ask Black women to be more civil?

Noname has her own book club where she hosts events and sells merchandise by and for Black authors. She’s also 28 years old — several years younger than J. Cole. She has been doing the work through tweets and community programming to catch us up to speed. So this begs the question: Where has J. Cole been? This is the same rapper who defended XXXtentacion, the now deceased artist who was charged with “aggravated battery of a pregnant woman, domestic battery by strangulation, false imprisonment, and witness tampering.” This is the same man who rapped in “Lights Please,” that he posits himself as an educator for a woman who he sleeps with but considers unintelligent. This is his pattern but now more people are beginning to see that the emperor does not have new clothes.

In a time where Black women are putting their bodies on the front lines of protests where people are being blinded by rubber bullets, beaten with batons, and tear-gassed in the face by police officers around the country, is this now the time to ask Black women to be more civil? Would J. Cole petition for Black men to be more civil to white people whose feigned innocence and ignorance have wreaked havoc on our communities for centuries? His suggestion that people should be treated like children is absurd coming from a 35-year-old man. We should not be infantilizing adults. Adults, unlike children, have the willpower and the volition to choose their time however they want, and this includes reading and education. In the famous words of James Baldwin, “How much time do you want for your progress?” Black women have been overextending our mental and physical capacities to ensure that other people can see our humanity and how our freedom is inextricably connected to everyone else’s. It is not our responsibility to coax others when our politics and actions are between life and death.

J. Cole has been heralded by many as being a rapper who got a #1 album with no features. It’s a running joke in certain factions of Black Twitter that his fans will never let you forget this achievement. These are the same stans who attempted to gaslight me the night of his song’s release that I didn’t understand his message or that perhaps he was speaking from another perspective despite the fact that he uses first person in his song. It’s demonstrative of how much intellectual bandwidth men are given without having done the work. It’s demonstrative of how much women like myself are considered to be too unintelligent to assess a man’s brilliance. This is how misogyny reinforces itself even in casual conversation. Black women are silenced after having done the groundwork and even when we aren’t, we are bulldozed over by other people who do not have half the erudition that we do.

I do not know why J. Cole decided that this was the time to release this song but nevertheless I hope he takes the massive waves of criticism as valuable so that he can read more books, refrain from expecting anyone to nurse him like a child to be more aware of those unlike himself, and most of all, devote some time to self reflection. In the meantime, it’s okay to be silent. Black women have had much to mourn in this time alone. We are enraged and saddened by the mistreatment of our sisters. Do not fight for civility. Fight for us through whispers and screams, through contentment and lividness. Fight for us like we fight for you.

Morgan Jerkins is the Senior Editor at ZORA and a New York Times bestselling author. Her debut novel, “Caul Baby,” will be published by Harper in April 2021.

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