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Rapper Fabolous' #ColdSummerChallenge offers outlet for black expression amid pandemic

“I think the challenge responses reflect how our communities deal with loss and grief,” a hip-hop and education expert said.
2019 Tycoon Music Festival
Rapper Fabolous performs at 2019 Tycoon Music Festival on June 8, 2019 in Atlanta.Prince Williams / WireImage file

When the rapper Fabolous posted the video for “Cold Summer” on his Instagram and YouTube on March 27, commenters made a peculiar observation: The song’s title and message felt prescient as the coronavirus forced most of the country into quarantine and a period of uncertainty.

Six days later, Fabolous invited his followers to express themselves leaving only a YouTube link from the song’s instrumental as the inspiration. The open call to creativity was the genesis of #ColdSummerChallenge.

The challenge started last month and is still drawing plenty of eyeballs as the impact the coronavirus is having on black communities is becoming clearer. A study published last Wednesday reported that of the 21,634 deaths nationally through April 13, 58 percent of them were from disproportionately black counties.

In mid-April, Fabolous said in an interview on “The Breakfast Club” radio show that when it became clear that the year was going to be completely consumed by the coronavirus, people noticed that “Cold Summer” was, in the vernacular, “starting to hit different.”

Indeed, in just a month, the challenge has made a significant impact; viral trends on social media generally help people cope with the fallout from loneliness, boredom and stress, but the forms of expression so far have largely excluded black men, said Kozza Babumba, a music industry veteran who manages BET’s online social media presence.

Babumba suggested that in hip-hop circles, Fabolous’s knack for creative use of social media contributed to his longevity. He said that because there were so few outlets for black men, Fabolous, whose first record came out in 2001, was able to fill a niche.

“When something big happened in black pop culture on social media, there used to be this joke around the industry: ‘Fab is gonna have a bar about this tonight,’” Bambumba told NBC News. “Now, that’s funny, but it’s because it’s true. He knows how to reach and expand his fanbase in a way that’s very of the moment especially when people are at home. And the simple fact is that a lot of them are black men.”

Christopher Emdin, a professor at the Teachers College of Columbia University who has written extensively on the intersection of hip-hop and education, is working on an online tool for educators to use hip-hop to teach the science of the coronavirus under the hashtag #ScienceGenius.

“I think the challenge responses reflect how our communities deal with loss and grief,” Emdin said in an email. “Some are more pointed direct responses, others are escapism, others are denial, others are self care. The wide range of responses reflects the wide range of healing approaches.”

Deante' Hitchcock preforms on stage during Wale: 'The Shine' Tour at Revolution Live on Sept. 30, 2019, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.Johnny Louis / Getty Images file

Often, men are subjected to a wave of misinformation on social media that gains traction when taken together with long-held anxieties that can stem from mistrust of systems, Emdin said. In order to make an impact, artists can, for instance, draw parallels between the government’s botched response on the coronavirus and other atrocities, he added.

Emden used the example of freestyle that the Atlanta rapper Deante’ Hitchcock performed on video for the challenge as an example of the kind of contribution that is needed to raise awareness among black men.

In his freestyle, Hitchcock emphasized the coronavirus’s impact on the economy and offered an open critique on mass incarceration and police brutality. In one creative twist, he said, “That’s why another godd--- dance track gotta hurt,” a syllabic formulation first employed by Kanye West in his 2010 song “So Appalled.” Hitchcock rapped:

You got Donald Trump tweeting bull---- like, ‘It gotta work’

While people is going through real s--- man, they outta work

That’s why another godd--- dance track gotta hurt

No disrespect to Drake I just been in a different place

But I will Toosie Slide over to [Lil Boosie’s] live

Ain’t nothing to do inside and

You know the government been boosting lies

We could have saved a lot more lives from the jump

So like YG and Nipsey, it’s f--- Donald Trump

“Work of that caliber directly speaking to Covid-19 and placing it in the context of other atrocities can raise awareness,” Emdin said.

Hitchcock remains concerned that many people aren’t heeding added safety measures like wearing masks and social distancing. He told NBC News that he wanted to tell his story in part because his mother and girlfriend are both nurses. He said he’s grateful to Fabolous for the inspiration in part because several of the plans Hitchcock and his team put in place to promote his highly anticipated album had to be put on hold indefinitely, but the #ColdSummerChallenge verse got him noticed by the singer Ella Mai, who he spoke with in recent days.

“It helped in some ways,” Hitchcock said of the process of writing for the challenge. “My catharsis doesn’t always necessarily come immediately and I’d rather see all the s--- that’s physically happening in the world come to an end. The process was cool but I can’t really feel 100 percent because everything that I’m talking about is still happening.”

John Burns, a Washington consultant who specializes in creating connections between the worlds of culture, entertainment and politics, said the challenge is an example of the kind of engagement needed in politics. He said entertainers are clamoring to do more to help protect their communities, but many are unsure what to do.

“You can’t think of too many times in the course of American history where black people have been so painfully and dramatically impacted by the legacy of 400 years of slavery and another century of Jim Crow,” said Burns, who added that he’s working on how best to use the energy seen in the challenge to help Joe Biden, the apparent Democratic presidential nominee, win in November. “These artists have the ability to convey a message to a broad spectrum of people who eat, breathe and sleep this culture.”

Women of all backgrounds also took part in the challenge, but the challenge pushed back against the false but commonly held narrative in political culture that young black men in particular don’t care to have their voices heard on matters of politics and race, said Cameron Trimble, a Washington political consultant and the founder of Hip-Politics, an organization focused on harnessing and mobilizing the political power of hip-hop.

“They care deeply, but the problem is that political groups aren’t coming back to this community with resources to say, ‘Here are the plans, here are the laws we want to change, and here’s who we want to get elected,’” Trimble said.

Jamila Lyiscott, author of “Black Appetite. White Food.: Issues of Race, Voice and Justice Within and Beyond the Classroom,” articulates a definition of oppression as being “trapped in someone else’s narrative with no power of authorship.”

Participation in the challenge “sets the foundation for me to work alongside those who wish to disrupt by authoring their own realities outside of the constraints imposed on us in society.”

She added: “What we’re challenging is dominant narratives. The freestyles are absolutely what it looks like to engage in that authorship in real time.”