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Friday, May 17, 2024

In loving memory of Trayvon: The art of the memorial track

There’s something poignant about Wyclef’s “Justice (If You’re 17),” a cautionary tale hidden behind the breezy Caribbean stylings of the former Fugees front man. The unremarkable combination of simple guitar riffs and drums unfolding at that leisurely island pace are easy to get lost in, until the singer’s distinctive warble reemerges from the haze with lyrics written from the life of any young minority:

“If you seventeen / and you wearin a hoodie / you’re on the phone / talking with your shortie… / Make no mistake there’s one like you, in every city, you know the story.”

If you’re in “the right neighborhood at the wrong time,” as he suggests, the typical could easily transform into something resembling that night in Sanford, Florida: ““he gon’ creep up, from behind / have you leave earth / before your time.”

Mirrored musically by the unexpected appearance of sharp, disjointed bass reverberations, Wyclef’s warning is both old and new, his refrain (“watch out for the neighborhood watcher”) the same old song to a different tune—one anchored in reality.

A tribute from the politically active singer who once harbored presidential aspirations of his native Haiti is welcome, but is by no means as startling as the one offered up by one of Florida preeminent gun-and-sex-talking sons, Plies.

Known for songs like “Bust it Baby Pt. 2, ”Ride D*ck So Good” and collaborations with the likes of Akon and T-Pain, Plies hits a deeper emotional note with “We Are Trayvon.”

Over Filthy Beatz production that could be just as easily commandeered with accounts of sexual escapades, Plies takes his storytelling abilities out of the bedroom, using couplets rhyming good/bad, black/white, wrong/right, all the while keeping the tribute in context of Trayvon (not to mention that all proceeds made off the song will also be donated to the Justice for Trayvon Martin Foundation).

An accompanying video, complete with hoodies, Skittles and iced teas, sets an emotional backdrop for Plies’ bark. Shots of two friends, one black and one white, are altered when the black teen slowly fades away. The energy of scenes on the basketball court is replaced by static, as empty shots show his white friend resigned to dribbling a ball alone. A chorus of “You’ll forever live on,” connects the moment together.

With ad-libs before and after his verses like “Heard you was a little beast on the football field / now you get to play on the all-gold football field / with wings on your back,” the rapper, once a college football recruit, shows a vulnerability usually hidden behind his gold fronts and the eight-percent tint of his sport cars. It lacks the nuances of Wyclef’s indirect warning, but “We Are Trayvon” hammers home the loss of life just as heavily as the factors behind it—the fact that Trayvon was here, and now he isn’t.

I had an interesting conversation recently about the concept of a memorial/tribute.

The talking points: depending on what and how they commemorate their subject, memorials/monuments can run the gamut from the breathtaking and uplifting (the Statue of Liberty) to the jarring and resonant (say what you will about Maya Lin’s controversial design, but I never saw anything deflate a group of rambunctious eighth graders quite like that granite “wall of shame” did on our class field trip to D.C.).

The same things happen musically. You can enjoy listening to “We Are the World” without thinking much of the poverty and hunger it was meant to combat. Despite the seductiveness of their sound and stories, songs like Nas’ chronicles of street life and Wyclef Jean and Plies’ odes to Trayvon strike deeper chords. Trayvon’s death (as well as those like his under similar circumstances) has sparked vital national conversations about race, self-defense, justice, and individual rights.

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The list can go on. While discourse will continue from an unfortunate point of departure, music helps to contextualize politicization in emotion for the future.

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