The year is 2011 and I was on the precipice of a new frontier, college. Not yet capable of understanding this new world, I turned to Kanye Omari West, a man whose discography had already awarded him the social capital, the Platform, to inspire and lead the masses. I was a latecomer to this already established enterprise, one that positioned him at the forefront of pop culture, a bonafide representation of The Black Voice. The man took us to church; would frequent musical compositions with melodies that included soul beats and choir breaks; spoke of the issues facing his People; did not mince words nor catered to feelings. He did it so well, no one questioned his patented Pink Polo nor the backpack he’d frequent. He even checked presidents on national television, before it was cool.
He was himself, he was speaking for us, he was reaching the masses. He was what I aspired to be. At 17 years old I longed for the day that saw me exude a Kanye-like belief in myself, my abilities and especially the way I saw things: my Perspective. However, he was so far ahead of me at that time. In my mind he had already achieved success and I just couldn’t quite relate to him. I needed a buffer, someone not at his pinnacle, willing to lift as he ascended. But he had to be honest...unapologetic. Thorns and all.
- Enter Jermaine Cole -
His raw, gritty delivery on the Come Up’s “Simba” echoed the sentiments of a young black man, ready to take the world by storm...not really giving a fuck. I needed that. By the time “Looking for Trouble,” - ironically featuring Kanye - was ushered into the ethos (I heard it on Cole’s third mixtape Friday Night Lights, though I’m sure I heard it elsewhere before) that same grit, delivered with a refined wordplay, added character to his nuanced ignorance. I listened. And I followed. Because in the midst of his growth as an artist and as a man, Cole brought me along with him. Never shying away from topics of controversy, creating new layers to his messages with each successive project, sometimes even using himself as an example of what I shouldn’t do. He taught me that showing humility does not mean mincing words, but rather, it means acknowledging that we all have our shortcomings.
Like Kanye West, J. Cole’s unapologetic use of his talents to speak for the less fortunate saw the masses award him the Platform only few have enjoyed. It is a construction perfectly molded for controversy here in the social media age, where gods are made of men, thoughts and feelings often go unchecked, and talent serves as the key factor of validation for a celebrity's point-of-view. This makes it even more necessary for the artist to not only understand, but to exercise proper judgment when exploiting the Platform for personal gain, or otherwise.
A few weeks ago I was asked the following, “Do you think we need KOD?” Maybe I was caught off guard by the question, because I fumbled my way to an answer I thankfully cannot remember. To answer that question now, yes...because of the Platform. As was the case with his previous projects, from his mixtape days until now, KOD is proof positive that J. Cole has not forgotten those whose perspective he represents.
As a contrast, and almost occurring simultaneously, Kanye appears to be distancing himself from the perspectives of those who’ve given him that very Platform. Seemingly invalidating a lot of the very messages he propagated to the masses during his rise to the top, where he spoke for the voiceless from forgotten communities. In hindsight, at the onset of his current downfall, he was not looked at to correct and atone for his various missteps. Instead, he enjoyed the benefit of the possibility that he was going through, what some would call, “a phase.”
I remember asking a friend of mine what she thought of his declaration that slavery was a “choice.” Her response, “We need to stop idolizing these people just because they’re talented.”
It’s particularly disheartening because it was the talent of these two men that helped make sense of the complex issues I was facing as I grew into the man I am now. I gleefully contributed to the Platform they now both enjoy, almost as a “thank you” for their revelatory views and their ability to make those views enjoyable...allowing them to speak for me.
I am not sure how to battle this ideological proliferation of icons, nor am I attempting to. I am, however, willing to urge those who occupy the spotlight awarded to them by a collection of people they claim to represent, to use this power wisely. Leaving it up to them to choose whether to use it, or abuse it, and up to us to treat them accordingly.