To mainstream America, Officer Darren Wilson's shooting of an unarmed teenager in the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, has been overtaken by the clumsy show of strength that followed, where armored carriers and tear gas canisters pressed their militarized bootprint on the public psyche. The resultant press coverage resembled Civil Rights battles of the 1960s. The traumatizing video of police gunning down Kajiemi Powell in nearby St. Louis after he stole two bottles of soda followed suit, as if to prove the unrest had done little to upset the status quo. In raising mainstream concerns about the militarization of local police, all the riot squads have proven is that Ferguson law enforcement is terrible at public relations. After all, they didn't need tanks and tear gas to kill an unarmed teenager; they just needed a gun.
What is culture's role in times like these? This debate has played out on a secondary level online, while protesters focused on justice for Michael Brown. Some have been critical of rap music's role, in spite of the genre's long history of implicit and explicit law enforcement critique. Still, concern over the silence of the genre's biggest names resonates. In its rawest, most populist form, hip-hop still provides a space for artists to exorcise demons, both personal and political, in earnest. But in some corners, such direct artistic expressionism is seen as passé, a relic of a time when rap was embarrassingly sincere, lacking in bourgeois self-awareness.
Of course, artists addressing real-world events through music risk trivializing fraught subjects, or appearing opportunistic. Art that tackles a contentious, real-world event is hamstrung, too, by the existing pathos of a reality with which it can't possibly compete: the photo of an unarmed man in a t-shirt, hands in the air, confronted by several armed soldiers in combat gear; Michael Brown's mother, tearful, on CNN; the shaky videos capturing the adrenaline of a crowd in the face of spiraling tear gas canisters; the long stemmed roses that line the median where Michael Brown was murdered.