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Noname uses ‘Song 33’ to remind us she has her own weight to carry

New song responds to J. Cole using ‘Snow on Tha Bluff’ to tell her how she can help him

In 1984, Essence magazine published a conversation between James Baldwin and Audre Lorde titled Revolutionary Hope. Baldwin began the conversation by addressing what he thought was the danger of being a black American. “To be a black American,” Baldwin explained, “is in some ways to be born with the desire to be white. It’s a part of the price you pay for being born here, and it affects every black person.”

“Du Bois believed in the American dream,” Baldwin tells Lorde. “So did Martin. So did Malcolm. So do I. So do you. That’s why we’re sitting here.”

“I don’t [believe in the American dream], honey,” Lorde responded. “Deep, deep, deep down I know that dream was never mine.”

Because Baldwin hadn’t conceived of the possibility that Lorde’s primary concern could be anything other than believing in a dream that never belonged to her, he was wholly unprepared for the direction Lorde took the conversation:

“We need to acknowledge those power differences between us and see where they lead us. An enormous amount of energy is being taken up with either denying the power differences between black men and women or fighting over power differences between black men and women or killing each other off behind them. I’m talking about black women’s blood flowing in the streets – and how do we get a 14-year-old boy to know I am not the legitimate target of his fury? The boot is on both of our necks. Let’s talk about getting it off. My blood will not wash out your horror.”

By the conversation’s end, Lorde’s framework of freedom made me realize how much black women hold space for black men, and that our insistence on the safety of power seldom creates these reciprocal spaces for black women. Two days ago, I listened to J. Cole’s new single, “Snow on Tha Bluff,” in which he expresses his insecurities about what he’s doing — or not doing — in response to the current sociopolitical climate in which the coronavirus and police are disproportionately killing poor black and brown people, and uprisings — in response to these killings — have taken center stage.

Writer, feminist, womanist, lesbian and civil rights activist Audre Lorde, 1983.

Jack Mitchell/Getty Images

Instead of delving deeper into the mirror, J. Cole averts his eyes to the screen of his cellphone, where he scrolls through the tweets of Noname, a Chicago rapper who founded a book club that partners with black- and brown-owned bookstores across the country. Noname started the book club after her followers held her accountable for tweets in which she attempted to defend capitalism. The club is a way to learn with others as she encounters new models for what freedom can look like.

On the song, J. Cole raps:

Instead of conveying you holier, come help get us up to speed
S—, it’s a reason it took like two hundred years for our ancestors just to get freed
These shackles be lockin’ the mental way more than the physical
I look at freedom like trees, can’t grow a forest like overnight
Hit the ghetto and slowly start plantin’ your seeds
F— is the point of you preaching your message to those that already believe what you believe?

Hearing J. Cole’s lyrics, I was reminded of my first encounter with Lorde in Revolutionary Hope, of how much I resented her and how threatened she made me feel. I didn’t have the language for those feelings, nor did I understand them, and J. Cole does here what I did then: turn the inward gaze outward, confusing the feelings that belong to us with the woman who represents them. And in this refracted gaze, Noname comes to represent all the things he wishes he were, but realizes he isn’t — committed, thoughtful and fearless.

Instead of admitting this, he created his own narrative about who she is and how she came to be. In J. Cole’s narrative, Noname’s “conscious” upbringing makes her exceptional, thus more fit to be a leader. To take it further, the song is “just a suggestion” for how Noname — and people like her — could blunt their blades for all the people who ain’t too sharp.

What’s telling in J. Cole’s imagined narrative is how her perspective isn’t one that she made a conscious decision to acquire, but something her parents gave. While J. Cole endows her with a crown she didn’t ask for — calling her “queen,” and telling his followers to follow her the morning after he released “Snow on Tha Bluff” — he can rest on his laurels returning to his court of sycophants telling him what he already knows isn’t true.

In response to “Snow on Tha Bluff,” Noname released “Song 33” on Thursday. The internet is calling the 1:09 track a diss song. But I prefer to refer to it as a “dismiss” song because she opts to focus her time on the deaths of 19-year-old Black Lives Matter activist Oluwatoyin Salau and 75-year-old Victoria “Vicki” Sims, the lynching of Robert Fuller, the killing of George Floyd and the killings of black transgender people by police as well as black men.

Eight years ago, I was a senior at Pace University, and my language of freedom and self-determination was informed by Malcolm X, Bobby Seale, H. Rap Brown, Eldridge Cleaver, Dick Gregory, Huey Newton, Baldwin and Carter G. Woodson. Of all the people on the list, Baldwin — so far as I’m aware — was the only black man in my intellectual pantheon who was gay. I knew Baldwin was gay, but because he rarely wrote about his sexuality in his nonfiction — which was all I read in those days — and framed his reading of the world through the lens of power, I regarded Baldwin as “one of the guys.”

So when I read Revolutionary Hope the first time — primarily for Baldwin — Lorde’s idea of freedom struck me as blasphemy. I remember thinking her decision to shift the focus from whiteness to the relationship between black men and women was a convenient pivot from the real issue, which was white men. When I read the question, “How do we get a 14-year-old boy to know I am not the legitimate target of his fury?” I didn’t read it as she asked it. I read it based on the helplessness the question made me feel. Though I thought what made me feel helpless was that she was blaming black men for being victims of a system, I realize now that the helplessness came from the fact that it wasn’t a question I ever thought I was responsible for.

In all my conversations, rants and reflections about black liberation, it never occurred to me to ask myself if I was possibly doing — or refusing to do — anything that prevented me from the freedom I said I wanted. The reason those introspective questions hadn’t occurred to me was because I wasn’t seeking my own freedom but safety in someone else’s power. And in my pursuit of that safety, I couldn’t accept responsibility for anything I did in pursuit of that power. Responsibility would mean holding myself accountable for my pursuit, but also for the people who paid a price for my pursuit — which in the case of Lorde’s question, was black women.

At its core, the power that I felt I was entitled to as a black man was the power to be above accountability. The power to be forgiven for my failures, applauded in my trials and celebrated in my triumphs. Being unaccountable was a power I truly believed was freedom, because the power would emancipate me from the responsibility that freedom demands — which is that I hold myself, more than anyone else, accountable for my actions. And part of that accountability meant reckoning with how limited my definition of freedom was and how many people were previously excluded from my definition — black women, gay black men, lesbian black women, transgender men and women, and anyone who reminded me there’s always more work to do.

So, whereas J. Cole spent 2:12 of the 3:55 on “Snow on Tha Bluff” making Noname “the legitimate target of his fury,” informing her how she can help him lift the weight of his own bruised ego, Noname uses “Song 33” to remind us that not only does she have her own weight to carry, but that the movement is bigger than any one of us.

Yahdon Israel is an educator, entrepreneur, editor, writer and founder of Literaryswag, a cultural movement that intersects literature and fashion to make books cool. He teaches creative writing at The New School and City College. He is the former editor-in-chief of Brooklyn Magazine. He has written for Avidly, The New Inquiry, LitHub, Poets and Writers and Vanity Fair.