News broke on Monday that Oluwatoyin Salau, a 19-year-old Black Lives Matter activist, was found dead in Tallahassee days after she’d tweeted about being sexually assaulted by a Black man. On Tuesday a video of a young Black woman being thrown into a Dumpster by a group of Black men went viral, and later the same day a video of a Black man hitting a Black woman in the face with a skateboard spread across tens of thousands of Twitter feeds. Just a few weeks ago, yet another viral video showed a group of Black men attacking Iyanna Dior, a Black trans woman. Meanwhile, Breonna Taylor’s murderers are all still free. It’s been an exhausting time for Black women, and many have taken to social media to express their frustrations with fighting for a community that too often does not reciprocate the love and protection they give it.
Tuesday night, with spectacularly terrible timing, J. Cole dropped the surprise track “Snow on tha Bluff.” In the song, Cole talks about scrolling through the Twitter timeline of an unnamed woman. “She mad at my niggas, she mad at our ignorance, she wear her heart on her sleeve,” he raps. “She mad at the celebrities, low key I be thinkin’ she talkin’ ’bout me.” He goes on to concede, “It’s something about the queen tone that’s botherin’ me.”
Twitter immediately connected the dots, concluding that Cole had to be talking about scrolling through the timeline of Chicago rapper Noname. It’s been speculated that what triggered Cole was a since-deleted May 29 tweet from Noname: “poor black folks all over the country are putting their bodies on the line in protest for our collective safety and y’all favorite top selling rappers not even willing to put a tweet up. niggas whole discographies be about black plight and they no where to be found.”
In “Snow on tha Bluff,” which has already racked up more than two million plays on YouTube, Cole says that he’s not the intelligent man that many assume he is, and that he feels he’s not doing enough for the community. On Wednesday morning, he took to Twitter to let everyone know he’d meant every word he said. “I haven’t done a lot of reading and I don’t feel well equipped as a leader in these times,” he admitted. “But I do a lot of thinking.”
While he neither confirmed nor denied that the song was about Noname, he did mention her and encouraged people to follow her: “I love and honor her as a leader in these times,” he wrote. “She has done and is doing the reading and the listening and the learning on the path that she truly believes is the correct one for our people.”
However, in his song he’s less gracious: he frames Noname as someone born enlightened and too uppity to share her knowledge. “She strike me as somebody blessed enough to grow up in conscious environment,” he raps. “Just ’cause you woke and I’m not, that shit ain’t no reason to talk like you better than me.” The song undermines the work that Noname has been doing for the people over the past year.
On Monday, Noname participated in a livestreamed conversation with veteran rapper and activist Boots Riley, who cofounded the Coup and wrote and directed the 2018 film Sorry to Bother You. Their talk was mediated by scholar and author Khury Petersen-Smith and hosted by Haymarket Books, an independent nonprofit publisher based in Chicago. During the call, Noname explained that her radicalization began last year, when she got dragged on Twitter for tweeting something she paraphrased as “Capitalism isn’t evil; evil capitalists are evil. Capitalism is a tool.”
She’d spent a lot of time believing that Black capitalism and Black entrepreneurship were the ways to liberation for our people, so she was confused about why anyone would think otherwise. She began reading, she said, and “publicly learning.” This experience sparked her interest in starting Noname’s Book Club, to create a community where people could come together and work through radical ideas that were new to them.
Each month the book club chooses two texts written by authors of color, and Noname encourages book-club members to say “Fuck Amazon” and shop local. She says Noname’s Book Club has reached 12 cities, with one international chapter in London. The book club’s site says, “It is extremely important to us to share work we believe in with as many folks as possible.” One of its goals for this year is to raise enough money to send copies of each month’s books to prisons around the country. In August, the club will reach its first anniversary.
“Let’s have conversations in tandem to going to marches, protests, sit-ins, and whatever else we do with our physical bodies to resist,” Noname said during her conversation with Riley. “I say let’s sit in a circle and read these books together.”
Not only did Noname begin reading radical Black thought and theory, but she also began to see how this theory translated into real-life practice. Last summer she spent time working with Cooperation Jackson, a co-op in Jackson, Mississippi. “Cooperatives put capital (wealth) in the service of working people, rather than making working people subservient to capital,” the co-op explains on its site.
Noname has done the hard work of unlearning harmful ideas that we’ve all been socialized to believe, and she’s used her platform to share what she’s learned. On June 1 she tweeted, “allegiance to capitalism is allegiance to white supremacy.” It’s hardly ludicrous for her to expect Black artists with audiences ten times as large as hers to put in the same effort.
It is not Black women’s responsibility to police their tone for the benefit of people who disagree with them. Nor is it Black women’s responsibility to treat grown men “like children” in order to educate them—language that Cole literally uses on his new track (“I would say it’s more effective to treat people like children / Understandin’ the time and love and patience that’s needed to grow”).
“Snow on tha Bluff” adds nothing of value to the current movement. It feels more like Cole venting about his inadequacies. The thing is, the resources are out there; he just hasn’t gone after them. Let Noname be an example to all of us. It’s time for everyone to shut up and do the reading, do the work, and listen to Black women—without needing to be coddled first.
Not even an hour ago, Noname gave us all something to listen to: the response track “Song 33,” produced by Madlib. If Cole doesn’t stand down after this, he’ll be proving he doesn’t even want to learn. v