Silence is golden, but J. Cole proves speaking up on real issues can go platinum

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

Last week, superstar artist J. Cole’s third studio album, 2014 Forest Hills Drive, went platinum – becoming the first hip-hop album without a feature to achieve such an accomplishment since 1989.

In an era where streaming has become the choice mode of consumption for listeners, and in a genre in which albums sales are at a historic low, folks trekked down to their local album store (yeah . . . they still exist) or hopped on iTunes to buy over one million copies of the chart-topping album, raising the question, “What made the outcome of his sales so different?”

Well, the answer is simple, and it’s only partially due to the album’s content. That answer is this: people appreciate J. Cole, the person.

In an industry that seems content with recycling a narrative of violence, sex, and money, Cole has managed to distinguish himself not only through his lyrics, but through his actions – positioning himself seemingly on the front lines for justice in two of the most controversial and tragic events affecting the black community in recent years: the shooting death of Michael Brown at the hands of law enforcement in Ferguson and the killing of Eric Garner in New York in July of 2014.

Back in August, shortly after the death of the 18-year-old Brown, the Crooked Smile rapper made his way to the mourning town of Ferguson, Mo., to pay respect to the slain teen and meet with those who had been in the area protesting non-stop since the incident occurred. Walking through the streets, Cole made it clear that he hadn’t come to the city for the publicity, telling Complex during a brief interview that he had spent most of the day in silence. He understood that the moment wasn’t about him but about an oppressed community that had just been hit with its hardest blow.

The scene was sobering.

It was a showing of raw empathy you rarely see from someone in his position.

Again, in December of last year, Cole, along with thousands, took to the freezing streets of New York to protest the senseless death of Eric Garner, the Staten Island man who had been choked by officers attempting to arrest him for selling loose cigarettes, resulting in his death. Surrounded by thousands of marchers, he was almost unnoticeable. His conviction ran deeper than the thought of album sales or fame. He was just another person grieving the tragedy.

And that’s exactly why we love him.

In a community pressed with problems ranging from high rates of unemployment to police brutality, the support for J. Cole comes as a result of his willingness to be vocal about those issues negatively affecting black Americans.

For young African-American men, especially, Cole stands as a symbolic voice, echoing the anger and frustration that could only come from years of being ignored and oppressed.

And understandably so.

At a time when young black men are faced with the realization that they are 21 times more likely to be killed by law enforcement than their white counterparts, and days after men like Walter Scott are gunned down while having their backs turned towards officers, the community needs an influential voice in its corner. We need someone who is willing to take bold stances against injustices of all kinds, namely those injustices which exhibit a disregard for black lives.

And that’s what J. Cole has offered.

In contrast to his peers such as Young Thug, who, when asked about his reaction to the situation in Ferguson, gave an infuriating answer stating,

“Leave that up with the critics and the laws and all that other s**t, we having fun, we iced out, we having money. That’s how we doing it. . . ”

Cole has chosen to stay connected to the very community from which he came – and we recognize that.

And it’s not just within the black community. People of all racial groups recognize J. Cole’s passion, and they too showed their support by helping make his latest album the sales achievement that it was.

The album was great, but its success is credited to more than just the songs.

Hopefully, that success encourages other influential artists to speak out against injustices. Can you imagine what could change if Cole’s new Tidal cohorts leveraged their influence in more socially meaningful ways (and stopped trying to convince me that music is worth $20/month)?

Simply put, a world of change could happen.

But for now, I just want to thank J. Cole for taking a stand.

Brian C. Bush is a law student with an interest surrounding the interplay between race, gender, culture and the law. He can be reached on Twitter @BrianCB