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Love And Desperation: Two Musicians Respond To Ferguson

St. Louis rapper Tef Poe.
Courtesy of the Artist

Two leaders in the St. Louis music community released Ferguson-related songs this month. Tef Poe’s War Cry levels harsh criticism at political leaders while Brian Owens' Love, Love addresses the hope for community understanding.

Sample Lyrics:

Tef Poe’s War Cry: Ferguson is Barack Obama’s Katrina.

Brian Owens' Love, Love: We need love love love - let's talk about it - love is all we need.

The songs approach the problems that have gained attention since Ferguson Police officer Darren Wilson killed 18-year-old Michael Brown in August from radically different perspectives. But taken together, the songs portray a city frustrated, critical and cautiously hopeful. Tef Poe and Brian Owens have both spoken about the death of Michael Brown and the subsequent protests’ effects on Ferguson and the larger St. Louis area. Both musicians have played benefit shows. Poe performed at a benefit at Plush for Michael Brown’s family. Owens performed at “#HealFerguson,” a concert held to benefit the Ferguson Youth Initiative.

War Cry was released with a “prologue” explaining the song’s content and genesis. Although the prologue is four paragraphs long, Poe sums up the song’s creation in a sentence.

“This record was made out of a sense of desperation,” wrote Poe. In the both the prologue and the song Poe strongly criticizes local officials and police comparing them to slave owners. 

***Note strong language follows.

“Dotson is a m*****f***ing slave catcher, Mayor Slay is a slave master, Ron Johnson is a m*****f***ing house n*****,” Poe raps in one portion of the song.

The song is loaded with emotion and vitriol. For Poe, the stakes are high. He views the song as a chance to address the public through an artistic and unified expression of his dissatisfaction with the subsequent handling of Michael Brown’s shooting. 

“If I never record another rap record in my lifetime then so be it. I did this for St. Louis and the countless victims of police brutality,” Poe writes at the end of his prologue.

The song received some criticism on social media for being too violent. Poe responded, highlighting the difference between his words and the actual violence of police actions.

Tef Poe responds to criticism of his lyrics
Tef Poe responds to criticism of his lyrics

For Brian Owens, the song Love, Love has a different goal.

“It’s a song that for me is a directive,” said Owens, “it’s about us as a community trying to get to this place where ultimately we relate to one another out of love.”

Owens released the song with an accompanying video on YouTube. The video opens with audio from news coverage of Michael Brown’s death and shots of Ferguson including the looted and fenced off QuikTrip. As the song begins, the accompanying images cover the set up and performance of Love, Love at the #Heal Ferguson event. Owens first started working on the song five years ago, but only remade it as a duet with vocalist Nao Yoshioka. Although it wasn’t written as a direct response to Michael Brown’s death Owens believes the song is fitting for hard times.

“I think the universality of the message and the timelessness of the message of it speaks to many different situations,” Owens said. “We just happen to find ourselves at a time right now where the voice in that song is needed all the more.”

Owens hopes the song will act as a soundtrack for community progress in the future.

“I live in Ferguson and, regardless of what happens with the verdict, I’ll be in Ferguson. I think sometimes that if and when we don’t like what people do, we tend to withhold love and really that’s the opposite of what we should do.”

Owens is currently working with Peter Martin and local group the 442’s to produce a song cycle, The City Suites, directly addressing the issues facing Ferguson residents. The project will consist of a three-song suite. Owens expects to release the music in the next two weeks.

***Correction: An earlier version of this article said #HealFerguson benefited Normandy High School.  The concert benefited Ferguson Youth Initiative.