The new "collaboration" between David Bowie and legendary rap artists like Bun B of UGK and Mos Def isn't the latest mash-up or genre crossover. In a bout of activism, the rappers forfeited their rapping for a day last Friday to participate in a large-scale protest in Jena, Louisiana in the name of six black teenagers charged with beating a white schoolmate late last year. Out of the six cases, to which Bowie donated $10,000, only one of the defendants has been tried, with his convictions then overturned on the basis that the defendant, Mychal Bell, 16, should not have been tried as an adult. He remains incarcerated.
The outrage, though, does not come on the heels of a simple schoolyard tussle. It is instead a reaction to a series of racially charged happenings in the tiny Southern town. In the summer of 2006, after two of the so-called Jena 6 asked their principle for permission to sit under the "white tree" in front of the school, three nooses were found hanging from the very tree. Understandably heightening with racial tension, a school building was then the target of an unsolved arson. The events came to a head, though, after a black student, Robert Bailey Jr. was attacked by white students. In retaliation, white student Justin Barker, allegedly bragging about the events, was beaten by a group of black students. Six teens were arrested, and all but the youngest, a 14 year old, were charged as adults. (MTV has an excellent story with a more detailed recap.)
Since then, outrage has grown in response to the harsh, seemingly bigoted charges, culminating in Friday's protest. With the community and its leaders banding together, many traveled from miles away to participate in the day's events, including Reverend Jesse Jackson, Martin Luther King III, and Al Sharpton, as well as the aforementioned Mos Def and Bun B.
Noticeably absent, though, were some of the biggest names not only in hip-hop, but music as a whole. Signing over a big check is certainly admirable, but Bowie's missing appearance is like a deadbeat dad sending a $20 lodged in a birthday card once a year. The donation is of course appreciated, but imagine the increased solidarity and media attention if he were there. And where was Kanye West? If he can sell 957,000 records in one week, he could have surely rallied more supporters for The Jena 6.
As Mos Def was quoted: "Shame on everybody who's not here. I'm fuckin' mad. I'm disappointed to always be coming to these things and it's only one or two people... If you ain't gonna use your voice, then be quiet... I'm disappointed and ashamed."