While Stevie Wonder’s boycott of an entire state might have exerted real pressure in, say, 1976, in 2013 it’s almost entirely a symbolic act. But symbolic acts are often the first step toward kicking off concrete ones, and we should imagine what would happen if like-minded artists followed suit. Beyonc in 2013 might not be Stevie Wonder in ‘76, but she’s not far behind, and her husband is said to be a figure of some renown. Rihanna’s 8.4 million Instagram followers felt her outrage on Sunday, and some of them must live in Florida; Miley Cyrus, who tweeted a memorial late Saturday night, has been recently embroiled in her own racial controversy and might want to put her money where her mouth is, so to speak.
Questlove, who wrote about the Zimmerman verdict with characteristic eloquence, is one of the most ubiquitous and respected figures in contemporary music, and would surely make some phone calls. If these artists were to join in Wonder’s boycott, the bottom lines of club promoters and festival organizers and concert arenas would start to look different in a hurry.
And good luck finding a decent hip-hop show in Florida. Young Jeezy, Rick Ross, Ghostface Killah, Big Boi, Q-Tip, Ace Hood, Mac Miller, Nicki Minaj, Flo Rida and Chuck D are just a few names who’ve expressed sorrow and consternation at the Zimmerman verdict. A widespread hip-hop boycott of Florida would be hugely powerful, particularly given Miami’s emergence in the past decade as one of the music’s epicenters.
Rick Ross shooting videos in Venice Beach instead of South Beach, or sitting courtside at Nets games instead of Heat games: These images alone would jar the minds of a generation. Furthermore, rappers boycotting Florida might also offer a firm rebuke to one of the more despicable insinuations of right-wing discourse throughout the Martin case, that hip-hop “culture” justifies the murder of black children at the hands and guns of men who fear them.
This September, 46-year-old Michael Dunn will stand trial for shooting 17-year-old Jordan Davis to death at a Jacksonville gas station. Dunn has pleaded not guilty, claiming he feared for his life during an argument with Davis and his friends and that he saw a gun that was never found; some have reported he’ll invoke “Stand Your Ground” in his defense. The cause of the argument? The volume of the rap music on the teenagers’ car stereo. Hip-hop should not and must not be fashioned into probable cause for fearful adults to shoot unarmed kids. Hip-hop musicians can make this statement more effectively than anyone.
The brilliance of Wonder’s boycott is that it bypasses conversations of whether the Zimmerman verdict is “about” race (conversations Zimmerman’s defenders are all too eager to have, with voices raised) and becomes about laws themselves. George Zimmerman might not have gone free because of “Stand Your Ground,” but he did go free because he lives in a state where the definition of self-defense can favor the aggressor to almost psychotic extremes, and he went free because at least one juror explicitly believed in his right to “stand his ground.”
If some people refuse to believe that all those things are connected, and that all those things don’t protect fearful men with guns far more than they protect young black men without them, then that’s their right. It’s Stevie Wonder’s right to believe the opposite.
I’d like to see who takes which side, and who blinks first. I’d wager that pretty soon all those celebrating Zimmerman’s acquittal will be stuck listening to aging Neanderthal rockers and shucks-what-a-big-misunderstanding country stars and not a whole lot else, and even if some of them don’t mind, their kids will. And those kids might decide Standing Their Ground isn’t worth the fear and dull noise that surrounds them, that it’s time to just stop sleeping and move forward and make something different. And when they do a blind man shall lead them.
Jack Hamilton has written for TheAtlantic.com, NPR, Transition and other publications. This fall he will be a postdoctoral researcher at the Laboratory for Race and Popular Culture at the University of Colorado, Boulder.