Late in the morning of August 9th, 2014, Michael Brown left a convenience store in Ferguson, Missouri. Within minutes, the 18-year-old was shot dead by a police officer and his hometown was thrown into turmoil. Two days later in Nashville, Muddy Magnolias singers Jessy Wilson and Kallie North sat down to write a tribute to Brown, a black teenager whose death furthered a national debate over police brutality. Now, on the third anniversary of Brown’s death, the Muddy Magnolias, Wilson’s duo with Kallie North, have released “Ballad of Mike Brown.”
“‘Ballad of Mike Brown’ is not an argument, it’s a song. An artistic expression. A snapshot of what was felt at the time of his killing,” Wilson shares with Rolling Stone Country. “As exemplified by so many of the icons, from Bob Dylan to Curtis Mayfield, it’s the craft of songwriters to prompt, to quicken and to rouse.”
Three years on from its writing, “Ballad of Mike Brown” still feels raw. A rousing spiritual, it mixes the rhetorical contemplation of Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” with the visceral grotesquerie of Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit.” “We all got blood on our hands,” Wilson warns, evoking a centuries-long struggle and reminding the listener that, years after Brown’s death, the rest of the world is still watching America.
“I’m not equipped or scholarly enough to have this conversation to the depth that it needs to be had, but I am an artist and I’m carrying on a tradition of telling stories. As artists, one of our roles is to stimulate,” Wilson says. “I’m not interested in trying to judge how much of a saint or how much of a sinner Mike Brown was, because we’re all saints and we’re all sinners. The fact is that Mike Brown’s death was a catalyst for a very old conversation to be continued by young minds and fresh perspectives in my generation.”
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Since Brown’s shooting, which happened less than a month after Eric Garner’s death in New York City, that conversation around race and police has continued apace. Chicago teen Laquan McDonald and St. Paul, Minnesota, school worker Philando Castile were but two of the most high-profile deaths in the time since, while the Black Lives Matter movement has staged protests all over the country. Wilson says that tragedies like these feel like a failing of the institutions that are intended to act as safety nets for Americans. “It seems that for so many black people there is no safety net. To us, it feels like a trap,” she says.
It was just that sense of entrapment that led Ferguson protestors to begin the “hands up, don’t shoot” chant, inspired by the unarmed Brown allegedly throwing his hands up in the air in the final moments before he was killed. Wilson uses that line to chilling effect in the bridge of “Ballad of Mike Brown,” where she chants “Don’t shoot!” That phrase also finishes the song, left hanging there after the music has stopped.
The Muddy Magnolias filmed a black-and-white music video for “Ballad of Mike Brown” on August 1st at a gathering at Slim & Husky’s Pizza in the traditionally African-American North Nashville neighborhood. After the final “Don’t shoot!” rings out, the large crowd in the video stands in silence, their hands held high in the air.
“I love people. I love black people. The innocent ones, the guilty ones. The good ones, the bad ones. But I hate what the experience of black people has been in this country. An experience that results in tragedy and tears no matter what path you take,” says Wilson. “You can feel it everywhere you go. Whether you’re Colin Kaepernick or Mike Brown, you’re perceived to be the antagonist. Unless you just accept things as they are and don’t speak up. I want to be one of the ones that speaks up.”