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COLUMN: Can Music Impact American Social Justice?

Sounding OFF is Salute Magazine’s weekly music column, authored by Music Editor Daniel Offner. The column is a weekly analysis of all things music. This week’s column focuses on social justice and how artists, such as Jay-Z, have become outspoken advocates for reform. 

A few weeks ago, we touched on some of the ways artists and musicians have been squabbling about social justice in the Middle East. This time, however, we look inward, at some of the modern musicians who have taken an active role in bringing about change and social justice in our own country.

In a riveting column for The Hollywood Reporter, posted yesterday, Roc Nation CEO Jay-Z discussed the power of a “collective voice” and how by coming together and exposing the flaws in the criminal justice system, people have the ability to influence change.

His outspokenness on matters of social justice and his desire to share the stories of young black men in America, such as Kalief Browder and Trayvon Martin, would lead the rapper/producer into the foray of documentary filmmaking.

The six-episode documentary series, Time: The Kalief Browder Story, premiered on Spike TV on March 1st and told the story of the 16-year-old student from the Bronx, who was sentenced to three years on Rikers Island, without ever being convicted of a crime.

“This young man at 16 was arrested—for something any suburban kid could have gotten away with—and held a Rikers Island for three years, mostly in inhumane solitary confinement,” Jay-Z states in his column. “The post-traumatic stress disorder he came out with led him to suicide two years ago, but not before he had the chance to talk about what happened to him.”

Before the documentary would air, former U.S. President Barack Obama, after hearing the tragic story of Kalief Browder, wrote an editorial in The Washington Post, stating that the country would take necessary steps to ban the use of solitary confinement for juvenile offenders in federal prisons.

Rikers, however, is not a federally operated facility. It is managed by the NYC Department of Corrections which oversees an average daily inmate population of approximately 9,790 individuals.

Earlier this year, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that he intends to close the prison facility, where Browder was tortured, starved and held without a trial, within the next 10 years. The proposal, however, would require that the city reduces the prison population in half, from 10,000 to 5,000, which de Blasio told the The New York Times, would be low enough for inmates to be removed from the 400-acre island and housed in jails elsewhere in the city.

Although the process may be a slow and arduous one, it marks a critical and necessary change to our criminal justice system.

“It is up to us to continue to amplify his story so that we can save a generation of kids from the same fate,” Jay-Z continues. “[Browder’s] is the kind of story that you can’t ignore, and people are starting to see what happened to him is not an isolated case. He’s just one example in a system that is broken. We need to be the ones who fix it.”

In addition to helping publicize Browder’s story, and effectively bringing about change to New York’s criminal justice system, Jay-Z has plans for a new documentary on the story of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed 17-year-old student who was shot and killed in Sanford, Florida, by neighborhood watchman, George Zimmerman.

Zimmerman, who claimed he acted in self-defence, was later acquitted of second-degree murder for his role in the 2012 shooting of the unarmed juvenile, prompting worldwide protest and outrage.

The new documentary, Rest In Power: The Trayvon Martin Story, looks to create a similar conversation, which Jay-Z hopes will open the door to possible reform that will help ensure the safety of American youth.

“It’s an honor to have the support of Trayvon’s family in telling the story,” Jay-Z said. “But social justice isn’t a political issue. It’s a human issue. It’s a story of empathy. When we are able to identify that we are all not perfect and have compassion for someone else, we can move forward as a society. Look around at what’s happening in your town and your city right now. Think small, and you can do much bigger things.”

Rest In Power: The Trayvon Martin Story, will debut as an unscripted, six-part series on Spike TV in January 2018, and is based on the works of NBC News analyst Lisa Bloom and Trayvon’s parents, Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin.

“We are humbled and excited to embark upon this new beginning with Shawn Carter, Harvey, and Paramount. We know this means a lot to this country. We continue to tell our story in order to unite people. We are very hopeful that this project will bring about a healthy and helpful conversation on the injustices that have divided society. That is also why we started the Trayvon Martin Foundation. We know as parents, that the third act of our son’s legacy is hope,” said Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin.

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