Before I left for Ferguson to cover the Michael Brown case for VIBE, I posted on Facebook that I was ashamed that I didn’t know much about the history of St. Louis. “When I think of the city,” I said, “the first thing that comes to mind is Nelly.”
I bought a book about the history of African-Americans in St. Louis on my Kindle just before the flight took off so I could have some kind of back story before I landed to report on the story of what was happening in Ferguson, right outside of St. Louis.
While waiting for my flight, I saw a bit of chatter online about Nelly and his response to the death of Michael Brown. He was in Finland at the time of the incident and did not respond immediately via social media. Then, on Thursday, a post appeared on Nelly’s Twitter account. It’s a picture of the rapper, holding a box of Honey Nut Cheerios, the cereal brand for which he serves as pitchman in print, radio, web and television ad campaigns.
It was bad timing—to say the least. His voice hadn’t been heard. But in the midst of so much turmoil in his hometown, his only public presence was a photo of him holding a box of cereal. Not a good look.
I tried to track down Nelly’s reps to see if I could try to interview him while I was in the St. Louis area. I couldn’t find the right info. But it turns out I didn’t need it.
When I landed in St. Louis, I came out of the gate and looked around for signs to lead me to ground transportation. I had my head up, scanning the signs. I realized I was walking in the wrong direction. I turned around—and walked directly into Nelly, flanked by a manager and security. I grabbed my cell phone out of my back pocket and hit Voice Memo.
“Hey Nelly,” I said. “I’m with VIBE. Can I talk to you?”
He looked uncomfortable for a hot second. His security guy came around to lead me away but Nelly stopped him.
“It’s cool,” he said. And then he started walking towards his gate. “Come walk with me.”
“You haven’t said anything about what’s going on,” I said.
“I just came from the radio station doing an interview,” he said.
“I mean before that. Like, the past week…”
“I wasn’t even in the country when this happened!” said Nelly. “I was in Finland. I’m supposed to jump on social media when I don’t even know what happened? I can’t do that.”
“People expect you to speak out, as a celebrity…”
“I’m not a celebrity right now…So I have to make sure I suppress that—“
“But you’re kind of always a celebrity,” I said.
“But I have to think first,” he said.
I walked with Nelly to his gate. And we talked. And everything he said made perfect sense. He didn’t want to rush to social media just to show he did. And he had spoken to the Brown family privately, which people in the Twitterverse didn’t know.
At one point, Nelly stopped walking when the conversation turned to the idea of injustice as it pertains to the death of Michael Brown.
“This is not an injustice,” he said. “It’s a murder. It’s an injustice if he doesn’t pay for it.”
After our conversation, I asked Nelly to speak on camera for VIBE. He didn’t want to do that. Speaking into my recorder was one thing. But he wasn’t sure that saying those same quotes into my iPhone camera was the best idea.
I nudged him into a nearby gift shop.
“C’mon, say what you just said into my phone!” I urged.
“Nah, not on camera…”
“You have to say something on camera” I said. “People don’t always read. But they always watch.”
Nelly rolled his eyes at me while I put him in position in front of St. Louis T-shirts and coffee mugs.
“Say what you just said to me on the recorder,” I said. “Go!”
I clicked on my Camera and I saw a slightly different Nelly emerge. He was in “this-your-boy-Nelly-mode,” performing a bit more than just spreading his message.
What I captured on video with Nelly was not much more than a shout-out. He said all the right things and was on-message without being too radical. It wasn’t the type of sound bite that would satisfy the folks that were criticizing him for not speaking up sooner via social media.
At first I was annoyed. I wanted Nelly to say on-camera the stuff he’d said into my recorder, criticizing the looters and talking about how the young people of St. Louis needed to stop acting on emotion and start planning instead.
Listening to my audio interview with Nelly is a lot different than watching the brief camera-time he gave me. And it’s really two different versions of Nelly that I interviewed in that airport. One was more direct and radical; he looked around the airport and spoke to me in hushed tones as he criticized some of the actions taken by his community in the aftermath of the death of Michael Brown. The on-camera Nelly was more reserved, speaking in generic tones about supporting the Brown family.
But who gets to decide what the appropriate response should be from Nelly? He didn’t have to stop for me at all. But he did.
And the folks that were pissed off that he was still shilling for Honey Nut Cheerios—it’s his job. Was he supposed to stop working to address the situation, while he’s in another country and has no first-hand knowledge of what’s going on?
Part of the issue is because Nelly is so closely identified with the city of St. Louis and is the biggest rap artist to come out of the area.
So when Eric Garner was killed in New York, were the masses calling for Jay-Z to tweet about it? Or Fabolous? Or 50 Cent? Or any other New York rappers?
Who has the right to determine how Nelly, or any other celebrity—or any person for that matter—should respond to a sensitive issue?
The idea that celebrities have to immediately and publicly let their feelings be known on a particular topic is tricky. There’s a thin line between showing true support, (like visiting the Brown family and establishing a scholarship in his name, which Nelly has done), and sending out an f-the-police Tweet and putting up a selfie with your hands up in the latest meme-protest.