In ‘Song 33’, Chicago rapper Noname criticises J. Cole for taking attention away from the Black Lives Matter movement. The Madlib-produced song, a little over one minute long, also comments on police abolition and the killings of Gerorge Floyd, Toyin Salau, Riah Milton and Dominique Fells. There has been much discussion of Noname and Cole's disagreements, but rather than creating a “distracting” rivalry, as Noname argues, it is important the focus remains on the Black Lives Matter movement and the change it can create.
This dialogue between Noname and J. Cole started when, in a since deleted tweet, Noname wrote “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 up a tweet.”
This prompted J. Cole to respond with "Snow on Tha Bluff", in which he explains “low key I be thinking she talking ‘bout me”. Although the track is considered and self-critical, his observation that “there’s something about the queen’s tone that’s bothering me” drew criticism and accusations of misogyny.
On Thursday, Noname released ‘Song 33’ in response to J. Cole:
“He really ‘bout to write about me when the world is in smokes?Noname in 'Song 33'
When it’s people in trees?
When George begging for his mother saying he couldn’t breathe,
You thought to write about me?”
Noname’s distinctive, jazzy flow and Madlib’s samples are present, but they are overshadowed by the subject matter. Noname’s lyrics do justice to the tragedies she invokes:
“Why Toyin' body don’t embody all the life she wanted?Noname in 'Song 33'
A baby just 19
I know Dream all black
I see her everything immortalized in tweets
Even her criticism of J. Cole, which has gained much of the attention, seems forgettable in the song alongside the refrain:
“One girl missing, another one go missing”.Noname in 'Song 33'
The framing of this as some kind of hip-hop beef is distracting and disrespectful. Although Cole’s initial rap could be seen as self-centred and divisive, and Noname could be accused of contributing to the spectacle (she boasts “I’m the new vanguard”), both are on the same side in the fight against oppression. Cole shared Noname’s song on Twitter and explained “I love and honor her as a leader in these times. … I appreciate her and others like her because they challenge my beliefs and I feel that in these times that’s important."
Noname has been outspoken since the death of George Floyd. She has founded a book club to promote authors of colour, called for the abolition of prisons, police and “the colonial state”, and advocated mutual aid. On Twitter she has frequently encouraged people to read the works of radical black activists such as Angela Davis and Ruth Wilson Gilmore.
J. Cole, on the other hand, has admitted “I haven’t done a lot of reading and I don’t feel well equipped as a leader in these times”. Although this raises questions as to why he felt the need to criticise Noname’s leadership, he has been a quiet supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement. His lyrics have often addressed racism in the past, he attended protests in his hometown in the wake of George Floyd’s death, and he has supported Minneapolis City Council’s decision to disband their police department.
On Sunday, in fact, Noname confessed, "I am not proud of myself for responding with Song 33", and that "my ego got the best of me." Rather than taking the song down, she explained that "I'll be donating my portion of the songs earnings to various mutual aid funds." While this doesn't detract from the song's obvious merits or failures, it shows exactly what the priorities are during this time.
In contrast, after releasing 'Snow on Tha Bluff', J. Cole wrote, "I stand behind every word of the song that dropped last night."
Noname and J. Cole both have a right to their opinions, and both have powerfully but reasonably articulated them. This isn’t a pantomime. This is an important dialogue about how to resist the police-uniformed knee that knelt on George Floyd’s neck for eight minutes.