When I think about music, I think of passion. When I think about passion, I think of emotion. When I think about emotion, I think of love, hate, fear, joy, sadness, resilience, and a great many others. But most of all, I think of universality. The best songs, in my opinion, tell a story. They take us on a journey of love, of hate, of hurt, of forgiveness. They remind us that we are not alone. The specificity of a story often breeds the universality of the emotions it conjures.
There has been a long history of musicians using their platforms to tackle the social issues of their day. Bob Marley, Fela Kuti, James Brown, and a long list of other artists inspired people to rally around social causes through their music.
I am delighted to see that there are still artists who follow this tradition.
Wyclef Jean recently released a song, “Justice (If You’re 17),” as a tribute to Trayvon Martin, the boy who was recently shot dead in Florida. Continuing this extensive tradition of socially conscious musicians who use their art to comment on current events, Wyclef challenges us in the song to not only sympathize with Trayvon Martin, but to also identify with him:
“Make no mistake, there’s one like you on every block, in every country.”
Wyclef argues this was not an isolated incident at all — that this rush to fatal violence is a part of a larger issue of profiling and judgment. He takes a moment to remind us that racial profiling is more rampant than we would like, more universal than we would hope.
To make this moment, and this song, solely about Trayvon Martin would be to miss a moment of truth and introspection. We can all look at ourselves and determine how we have been wronged; however, it would be more powerful for us to all look at ourselves and reflect on how we have wronged others.
I do believe that Martin was unfairly profiled, but I also know that we live in a society – and world – that constantly judges people in a superficial manner. Getting beneath that level requires us to dig into ourselves and realize how we contribute to this cycle of judgment. It calls for us to analyze ourselves as not only victims, but also as perpetrators. As a Black male, I am angry about the Trayvon Martin case. But I am also angry about Black-on-Black crime and domestic violence. Just as I fight racism, I must fight sexism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and additional prejudices that affect other groups of people.
I am not in the business of comparing prejudices; rather, I am arguing that we can all do better. Wyclef’s song is powerful because it reminds us that we all can be influenced by prejudices, misconceptions, and biases in our interactions with other people, interactions that can be deadly. If want justice, we all have to hold ourselves to a higher standard.