Expressing grief online

The Baltimore Sun

The lilting, jazz-kissed melody, dedicated to the survivors of the massacre at Virginia Tech, has been downloaded more than 380,000 times in the past three weeks - a frequency typically generated by a Top 10 hit single.

The song was not written by a polished performer but by a British amateur artist named Kojo Best. He wrote the tune, then played it on an electric piano and posted his performance on YouTube.

Even as professional artists such as platinum-selling Texas rapper Lil' Flip and R&B-pop; star R. Kelly release their versions of songs dedicated to the survivors of the Virginia Tech killings, homemade musical tributes such as Best's have been mushrooming in the online video universe.

Already, more than 1,500 tributes have appeared on YouTube, many of which are photo montages backed with music and performance clips of amateur artists crooning original songs of grief and sympathy. Best's performance of "God Bless Your Family," which he wrote, is among the most popular on the site. It was posted April 16, the day Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 students and faculty members and then himself on the Blacksburg campus.

"The Virginia Tech video was probably the only video I did which was not intended to gain exposure," says Best, a 26-year-old musician in Coventry, England, who started posting clips on YouTube last year in hopes of gaining a wide audience and constructive criticism of his work. "My only aim with that song was that maybe one person who was affected by the tragedy would see it and be touched by it and comforted by it."

Musical statements on major events aren't new. The Vietnam War, Kent State, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the war in Iraq and the devastation of Hurricane Katrina all compelled musicians of various genres to put their feelings - and sometimes their political leanings - to song. But the Internet, particularly the video-sharing site YouTube, has created an instant platform for musical expression in the aftermath of emotional experiences.

Three days after Best's posting, Evan Mack, a classically trained musician from Cincinnati, posted a performance clip of a surging, self-penned ballad, "There's No Sunset in Virginia." On April 29, Patrick Connor, an amateur Seattle singer-songwriter, posted a rough, rock-inflected original song titled simply "Virginia."

"These tribute songs are a way to deal with the tragedy and move on. With the Internet giving this illusion of community, everyday people can share these expressions of grief," says Mick Quinn, author of Power and Grace: The Wisdom of Awakening, a book about collective consciousness, spirituality and the need to deal with grief. "One way to deal with the magnitude of these tragedies is through song."

In an age of celebrity reality shows and Internet-induced audience fragmentation, cultural analysts say that pop culture fans aren't necessarily waiting for a response from major artists.

"Now that the Internet has stripped away the mystique of pop stars, everyday people may be more skeptical about anything they would have to say, especially in connection with a tragedy like the Virginia Tech murders," says Marc Lamont Hill, assistant professor of urban education at Temple University.

The social network of the Internet has greatly propelled individual musical tributes.

"Peers are more likely to trust peers," says Charles Small, senior associate of the Westin Rinehart Group, a Washington-based branding agency. "The YouTube community is very pro-independent artists and advocates independent content and authenticity. It's a very powerful medium now."

Some major pop stars have sought their own relevancy in the flurry. This month, R. Kelly announced that on Monday he will release "Rise Up," a gospel-imbued ballad dedicated to the Virginia Tech survivors, available exclusively via online music sites. (A sample of the tune is available on Kelly's MySpace page, Net proceeds will benefit the Hokie Spirit Memorial Fund, which the school established to provide assistance to victims and their families, grief counseling, memorials and other expenses.

Barely two weeks after the killings, Lil' Flip quickly released a tribute single called "Time After Time." The rap, which generously samples from the 1984 Cyndi Lauper classic of the same name, was made available through, a file-sharing Web site. It has been downloaded about 5,800 times, but not everyone's a fan of it.

"With an artist like Lil' Flip, there's a real contradictory issue," says Temple's Hill. "You make hit albums where you rap about killing folks, then turn around and send a halfhearted shout-out to the victims of Virginia Tech? I'm not saying Lil' Flip can't feel sad about what happened. But with his image and music, that kind of tribute doesn't resonate with too many listeners."

Some have also questioned Kelly's credibility and intentions. The release of the Chicago native's Virginia Tech tribute single potentially builds momentum for his new album, Double Up, due in stores May 29. ("Rise Up" will not appear on the new CD.)

Kelly, who established a multi-platinum career with such randy hits as "Bump N' Grind" and "Your Body's Callin'," faces multiple child pornography charges for his role in a widely circulated 2002 videotape that allegedly shows him having sex with a 14-year-old girl. Just six years before the well-publicized scandal, Kelly scored a major crossover, Grammy-winning hit with the inspirational ballad "I Believe I Can Fly," which has since become a staple of gospel and graduation programs.

"Audiences are much smarter and savvier than they were 10 years ago," says Small, the branding executive. "Companies and artists have to be much smarter in the way they approach these issues. Otherwise, it just reeks of shameless self-promotion."

The last tribute-charity single to make an impact on the charts was "Candle in the Wind 1997," which Elton John wrote after his friend Diana, Princess of Wales, died in a car accident on Aug. 31, 1997. It spent 14 weeks atop Billboard's pop charts and sold 33 million copies worldwide. Proceeds from the single, a remake of John's 1973 hit song about Marilyn Monroe, benefited the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund.

"With that song, [John and songwriting partner Bernie Taupin]worked on it and there was a marketing push behind it," says Jon Caramanica, music editor of VIBE magazine. "With technology now, these type of songs are moving more quickly [toward release] than before. The system now is so wide open that it may make it harder to get that one tribute song that reaches everybody at the same time."

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