A Poignant Tribute

Early in the morning of Friday, August 15, 2014, less than a week after the fatal shooting the previous Saturday of African-American teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson Missouri, rapper J. Cole ( Jermaine Lamarr Cole) posted his tribute song “Be Free” to the online audio platform SoundCloud, where users can upload tracks and share them through social media.

A little more than six hours later it had become the most talked about song on Twitter, and by afternoon it had gone viral, having been listened to over 250,000 times.

We are profoundly moved by the way the raw emotions aroused by the shooting have been sublimated and poignantly expressed in J. Cole’s song. Listen to the painful vulnerability in his breaking voice as he repeats the refrain, “All we want to do is take the chains off, All we want to do is be free.”

This certainly gives the lie to the stereotype of rap as simply loud, angry, racist gangster stuff saturated with references to misogyny and physical violence. (The complete lyrics, by the way, are available online.)

As you listen below, notice how the lyrics are greatly enhanced by the musical underpinning–an unchanging four-measure phrase stated some forty times, using three basic chords presented with a limping syncopation.

The bass line, which oscillates between the pitches of F and E, the melody itself, and two of the three chords draw entirely upon on what is called “the Phrygian mode”—a scale going back many centuries to Medieval practice.

You can try it out yourself by playing only the white piano keys from E to E. One of its distinctive features is the half-step between the first two notes, from E to F. This sound has been used by many composers to suggest the stark and the timeless.


Here is something else that might surprise you: it can be instructive to compare J. Cole’s “Be free” to two other modern examples of Phrygian- inspired music.

One is the first movement of Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms; the other, the prayer intoned by Mahatmas Gandhi in the Philip Glass opera Satyagraha.

The Stravinsky, sung in Latin, uses Psalm 39, verses 12 and 13— an expression of human frailty and mortality in the face of Almighty power: “Hear my prayer, O Lord, and give ear unto my cry; hold not thy peace at my tears; for I am a stranger with thee, and a sojourner, as all my fathers were. O spare me that I may recover strength before I go hence, and be no more.”

Satyagraha (satya= truth; agraha= firmness) celebrates Gandhi’s mode of non-violent protest. The vocal of the prayer consists of an unchanging ascending Phrygian melody sung in Sanskrit, which expresses Gandhi’s firm resolve as well as a connection to the Eternal on the eve of an Indian coal miner protest march he was to lead in the South Africa of 1913.



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2 Responses to A Poignant Tribute

  1. Judy Krings says:

    Riveting and fascinating. I do not know much about music, and your blogs always enlighten me. This one brought tears to my eyes and educated my heart and soul. Bless you both and thank you from E to shining E!

  2. MELPO DE FOTIS says:


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