On Monday (Jan. 20), people from all across the nation lifted their voices in commemoration of the birthday of renowned civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr.
In honor of the late King’s revolutionary legacy, a number of notable Black entertainment figures congregated at the historic Riverside Church in Harlem for the fifth annual MLK Now panel. The gathering was hosted by director Ryan Coogler, who was joined on stage by Dreamville honcho J. Cole and NFL player Marshawn Lynch at one point during the event, as part of a panel for a thought-provoking conversation on a myriad of topics concerning racial inequality in America.
At some point during their discussion, the conversation verged to how each man respectively used their platforms to foster discussion around racial issues. Coogler asked Cole about his reasoning behind the Fayetteville hip-hop prodigy’s decision to don an orange prison jumpsuit on stage while on tour for his acclaimed 4 Your Eyez Only LP.
Speaking to Coogler, Cole explained that the move came after a close friend gifted him a copy of civil rights lawyer, advocate, legal scholar and author Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.
“Everything we saw and see just put into factual evidence of what was happening,” Cole said of Alexander’s best-selling novel.
Coincidentally, the book came at a time where Cole was also no longer satisfied with solely detailing his personal tribulations through his music.
“So much of my career, my art was, like, storytelling from my own perspective. I would always give you little branches of somebody else's perspective, but so much of it was my personal journey, my personal growth, my personal flaws, this, that, and the third,” he explained. “And it was a time period when I was like, that was not interesting to me.”
Cole said the book, along with his return to his home state of North Carolina, “was the one little piece to the equation” that helped put into perspective some of the socioeconomic entrapments that his friends faced.
“I had a whole different perspective of the landscape and the situations [that] the revolving door had some of them in,” he told Coogler.
Further into their conversation, Coogler asked Cole and Lynch about their thoughts on young, Black talent being exploited around the 3:23:00 mark, especially in light of many young musicians struggling with substance addiction. Addressing Cole directly, Coogler asked the rapper, “Do you think it’s ethical for companies to sign kids that rap about addiction, to reap benefits off of their music and not get them help?”
Cole responded, “The clear answer is no but the next answer is capitalism. So, is capitalism ethical?” He then asked, “How much responsibility and ethics can you expect a faceless, soulless company to have when nobody’s accountable? A company can do unethical things and even commit a crime and nobody has to stand for that.”
Elsewhere in the discussion, J. Cole and Marshawn Lynch spoke on the racial pay disparity, community involvement, and their philanthropic efforts in addition to commentary from actor Andre Holland, Democratic politician Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and acclaimed author and writer Ta-Nehisi Coates among others who spoke at the five-hour-long event.
You can listen to J. Cole, Ryan Coogler and Marshawn Lynch’s conversation in full, which starts around the 3:06:00 minute mark.
(Photo: David Wolff - Patrick/Redferns)