Commentary | When business interest trumps social justice

Speaking about police brutality in corporate hip hop

About two weeks ago, I finally put out my song featuring Kendrick Lamar (yes, I’m a McGill student and I have a song with Kendrick Lamar). The song, titled “Heaven Help Dem,” is a complex ode to social justice, a tribute to victims of police brutality, and an exploration of urban violence. Most of the press coverage I’ve received focused on the lyrics, Lamar’s appearance, the message, and the overarching themes addressed in the song.

I expected a lot to come from the release of this song. Amid the phone calls and emails from press, record labels, supporters, new fans, and marketers from all over the world, something else happened that I never expected – a deliberate attempt to derail the song’s popularity by censoring and suppressing my work. The video was going viral with over 105,000 views on YouTube, and the song generated nearly 20,000 listens on SoundCloud within a week, but it was flagged by Universal Music as violating copyright. This was even though I was the one who created, produced, and paid for the song.

Let me demystify the magic of the music industry for you a little bit. Hip hop artists pay for other artists to feature in their videos, and most of the time they never meet in person to produce the songs. I paid for a feature with Lamar in 2011 with the plan of releasing the song in 2014. The official release was delayed and scheduled for January 19 – Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

About two weeks ago, I finally put out my song featuring Kendrick Lamar.

Before posting the video and releasing the song, I extended a courtesy to Lamar’s management team and sent them a copy of the song weeks in advance of the release date. With minimal communication and no objection from Lamar’s team, I proceeded with my release as planned. Their lawyers never got back to me, nor did their public relations department, and their management stalled. I was dealing with a corporate machine so gargantuan and unresponsive that I got a phone call only when my song and video went viral in a way they were not prepared for. I finally managed to contact someone on the phone, but I was shut out of any real dialogue, refused a refund, and told to remove the video I created and invested in, even as plans for the process of releasing the song had already begun. I wasn’t asked – I was told.

During that conversation I straight-up asked the other party, “So if you were representing me, if you were my manager in this situation, what would you advise me to do?” An awkward silence of three seconds broke into an unconvincing, self-serving, and fumbling retort: “I would tell you to remove it, so we can keep good relations. Leaving it up is bad business – we’ll see what we can do for you in few weeks.”

Bad business? Aborting my release plan after it had been in motion for two weeks because you’re backing out of our original deal was good business? Or was using hip hop as a vehicle to address police brutality and urban violence bad business?

Was using hip hop as a vehicle to address police brutality and urban violence bad business?

The incredible irony of the situation is that the song was uncontroversial. It was very positively received by critics and fans alike. It was written to generate empathy, not hate, and to bring more people into the conversation.

In a Billboard article, Lamar took a nuanced stance about urban violence and police brutality, and I put out a statement in support: “How can we love an artist for being complex and true with their words and then hate them for being complex and true in their words? […] No matter the colour, we all need a seat at the table of humanity,” I wrote.

So what was the problem? Ego? Corporate control? Did I somehow infringe on Lamar’s artistic expression by using his own words (that I paid for) within a totally appropriate context? Why was I asked to censor myself to suit someone else’s agenda? Was I messing with his new Billboard magazine and mainstream oriented rebranding?

Government does not hold the monopoly over the censorship of free speech. Corporations, managers, and their officers have that power too.

I have my own theory. Government does not hold the monopoly over the censorship of free speech. Corporations, managers, and their officers have that power too. A department of this specific business may be run by people who have forgotten what hip hop is all about. It seems materialism, misogyny, racism, homophobia, gun culture, drug culture, and violence are perfectly cool to these corporate entities; but they lose their shit when you try to bring people together with a thoughtful and uplifting song. There was never any disrespect intended on my part – I can’t say I feel the same about the other party.

The true problem with all of this, however, is that I’m forced to talk about the mundane workings of corporate mechanisms, rather than the problems of institutional racism, police brutality, and poverty-related crime, which I fully address in the song. Some people have said that they feel as though I’ve put words in Lamar’s mouth concerning police violence by adding names to the list of victims that was on the original track, and by releasing the song when I did. I find this claim strange seeing as I never hid the date of the song’s recording, nor did I force Lamar to participate in a song about police brutality and urban violence. I also waited until after the unrest in the U.S. to release the song.
Having respect for Lamar’s work, and having him feature on a song with such an important message, I would like to believe that he still stands behind the content of “Heaven Help Dem.” The sad reality is that this song is incredibly relevant and current – people are waking up to issues of injustice, and it’s forcing the media to wake up as well.

In the description box beneath the video, I had written, “‘Heaven Help Dem’ means I hope there is a higher power, or that we can find that higher power within to treat each other better […] we have to continue to grow respect for each other in our communities while militantly demanding respect from others. Past oppression, urban violence, and police brutality are deeply linked – they are painfully inseparable.”
Lamar’s management team knew the song was about police brutality. They knew the song was being released. And they knew I had no malicious intentions to diminish Lamar or his brand. What they did not know was the extent of the song’s impact would be. Now that they do, I hope I can get back to making music before, after, and in between classes. I hope that the censorship imposed via the networks that took down “Heaven Help Dem” will cease, and that the original postings will be reinstated. I hope art will be allowed to challenge the harmful structures in our society.


Jonathan Emile is a U3 Philosophy and Political Science student To contact him, please email commentary@mcgildaily.com.


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