Live Performance of the Week – Faith Evans On J. Cole’s “Be Free”


On last weekend’s BET’s “Black Girls Rock!” there were many stunning performances of amazing material we’ve heard on the radio past and present, including show-stopping performances by Jill Scott of her new “You Don’t Know” and a totally fun medley of ‘70s and ‘80s divas performing their greatest roller-skating hits, from Alicia Meyers to Kathy Sledge. Still, of all the performances there was one performance that stood out as wholly original and completely unexpected. The irony is that, on a show celebrating black womanhood, the most memorable performance was a sung rap cover written by one of the new millennium’s greatest young male voices in hip hop: Faith Evans‘ heart-wrenching take of J. Cole’s “Be Free.”

Now to fully appreciate what Evans did, it might be worth it to hear J. Cole’s bone-chilling sung rap version of it on David Letterman, a performance that’s already received some two million plus views on YouTube. His is a harrowing masculine soul cry. It’s also so singular – in the way Bob Dylan can be singular – that it seems impossible to cover. Yet, Faith Evans, widow of the late, great Biggie “Notorious B.I.G.” Smalls and R&B legend in her own right, brings a balming soul to this lyric, almost a salve to what ails Cole in his performance, as she co-signs his pain and articulates the pain of black girls who are also hurting and too often overlooked as the community fights for the lives of its men. Faith’s voice soothes even as it delivers every bit of the searing sting inherent in the song’s lyrics. By singing it, Evans also introduces it to audiences and generations who would never hear the J. Cole original and should hear and know that conscious hip hop is not only not dead, it’s delivering new Black American classics for the protest canon in the vein of “Mississippi Goddamn” and “A Change Is Gonna Come.” A single of “Be Free” by Evans or an Evans and Cole duet of this new standard is a necessity to ensure this very important song is given all the life it deserves with as many audiences as possible. Check it out for yourself and get free.

By L. Michael Gipson

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