Free Gucci, Fuck Diplo, and the History of “Free _____”


Gucci Mane’s new album, The State vs. Radric Davis is in stores today, but the insanely prolific, remarkably consistent Atlanta rapper has been in jail since November 12th. This is Gucci’s second stint in jail for a parole violation this year. Both sentences stem from a 2005 incident in which Gucci attacked a promoter, served six months for the attack, and was released under the agreement that he would take rehabilitation classes and do some community service–which he’s now failed to do, and gone to jail for failing to do…twice.

And though this recent return to jail brought about another wave of “Free Gucci” T-shirts, mixtapes, and Facebook groups, there’s an equal amount of healthy, hands-up-in-the-air frustration with the guy. It’s impossible to turn Gucci Mane into any kind of victim of “the system” because the system’s given him second, third, and fourth chances to get his shit right.

But that didn’t stop last week’s team-up between Gucci’s label, 1017 Brick Squad, and Diplo’s Mad Decent to sell “Free Gucci” T-shirts–promo in turn for an upcoming, Diplo-produced remix mixtape. The “Free Gucci” shirt contains a moderately classy, Wall Street Journal style portrait of the rapper with the familiar, loaded message hovering atop. It’s currently available for twenty-five bucks. The remixes are on the way. A tweet from Diplo yesterday hinted at the line-up: Zomby, Flying Lotus, Memory Tapes (?!), and more. A track was leaked this morning.

Within hours of Diplo’s press release though, another shirt was pimped, capturing a different kind of internet consensus: “Fuck Diplo.” The shirt succinctly describes the objection many have to this remix project and the shirt in particular. Diplo’s frustrating, fascinating ability to transform populist trends into hipster-ized, pseudo-underground ones is one thing. But to adopt something as politically loaded as the “Free” movement for shits, giggles, and fashion (and some dough) is just offensive. Whether Gucci’s label co-signed it all or not.

The “Free” movement, conjures up everything from “Free Winona” to “Free Pimp C”, but its roots are in the slew of baffling events, arrests, and convictions of many prominent members of the left in the late sixties. So, how did “Free Angela” buttons become twenty-five dollar, jet-setting DJ-approved “Free Gucci” t-shirts? Let’s try to figure it out.

The Political “Free”

In February of 1968, a “Free Huey [Newton]” rally is held in Oakland and attended by 5000 or so people, in protest of Newton’s arrest for the murder of one patrolman and the wounding of another. Newton was also wounded. Who shot who remains unclear.

Also in 1968, Bobby Seale was sentenced to four years for “contempt of court,” after numerous outbursts infamously led to him bound and gagged in the courtroom. Seale was part of the “Chicago Eight,” all charged with “conspiracy” and “inciting to riot” during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. “Free Bobby” was one of the many chants and signs expressing outrage during the time.

John Sinclair, manager of the MC5 and leader of the White Panthers was arrested after selling “two joints” to an undercover cop in 1969. “Free John Sinclair” graffiti spread around Ann Arbor, MI, where Sinclair and the White Panthers resided. John Lennon would eventually take up Sinclair’s cause.

Angela Davis was part of the FBI’s Top Ten Most Wanted Fugitives after guns she purchased were used in the murder of a judge. The judge was taken hostage when Black Panthers entered the judge’s courtroom to aid the escape of an inmate. Davis was ultimately declared “not guilty,” but her eighteen months in jail spawned a “Free Angela” campaign that culminated in, among other things, stylish buttons accompanied by her iconic image.

The Celebrity Injustice “Free”

More than just a near-subliminal throwaway in the Beastie Boys’ gag-filled “Hey Ladies” video, “Free James Brown” was the result of Brown’s arrest in 1988 for failing to stop for police, assaulting a police officer, and having an unlicensed pistol. Brown served nearly three years of a six-year sentence. The protest–led by radio DJs hawking buttons that consciously aped “Free Angela”–was an awkward but still powerful mix of corporate radio schtick and social commentary (Brown of course, had his own real role in ’60s-era radicalism).

The modern era of the “Free ___” meme is characterized by a contrarian, after-the-fact empathy with those few celebs that don’t skate by and are made examples of because of their fame. Genuine protest? Schtick? Hero worship? All of the above. It begins with “Free James Brown” and grows exponentially more absurd: From “Free Winona”to “Free Martha Stewart”to “Free Michael Vick”.

The Street Movement “Free”

“Free Pimp C” is the reason for every frivolous rap-related “Free” movement since. But the mantra that peppered Southern rap videos and songs from 2002 to 2005 when the late rapper/producer and one half of UGK was imprisoned for violating probation genuinely looked back to the sixties. “Free Pimp C” was an awareness campaign. Part nuanced political outrage and part provincial concern, Pimp’s UGK partner Bun B began the movement more as a way to constantly remind everybody that his friend was in jail than out of any belief that the campaign would shorten or free the “country rap tunes” pioneer. But contained within the slogan was an acknowledgement of a deeply unfair sentence: Eight years for a parole violation.

The Hood Cliche “Free”

“Free Pimp C” was a movement of regional rap solidarity, but it became a surprisingly lucrative one. Thus it evolved into one more rap side-hustle. Any rapper that ended up in jail, for however short a time, got a “Free” movement. G-Unit goon Tony Yayo was given not only a “Free Yayo” shirt–infamously worn by Eminem at the Grammy’s that year–but a follow-up “Yayo’s Home” shirt! Thing is, even this extended misreading of “Free Pimp C” remains powerful. Like so many weird aspects of hip-hop culture, it’s political by default–Eminem wearing the shirt at the Grammy’s served as a reminder (among other, less noble things) of the realities of jail. The “Free” movement–even in a heavily derivative form–is an acknowledgement of the systems that don’t care about the young and black and poor, no matter how kinda sorta famous they are.

The Hipster Trash “Free”

Gucci’s been to jail a few times now. A “Free Gucci” movement exists already. Diplo is neither spearheading a campaign nor making it more mainstream. Rather, Diplo’s doing what he’s always done well: Obnoxiously tweaking someone else’s cultural movement to fit his niche audience’s needs. The pragmatic sincerity of a giant font on a big-ass tall-T becomes a mock-regal, fashionable “Free Gucci” shirt.

An airy, Mariah Carey-sampling remix of “Danger’s Not a Stranger” (hear the original here) is the first taste of what the Free Gucci mixtape will sound like. Thing is, this oddball combination–Gucci and Mariah–already occurred twice this year, on official remixes for “Obsessed” and “H.A.T.E.U”.

On the former, Gucci hilarious grunts and wheezes over the entire song and on the latter, delivers a rather touching loverman verse alongside OJ Da Juiceman and Outkast’s Big Boi. The rest of Diplo-helmed remix album will presumably work this same way: Switching out the avant beats of Gucci collaborators for cooler, way more derivative, knowing po-mo production from Diplo and pals. One gets the sense that Gucci’s label thinks niche remixes are the way to sustain Gucci’s hype during his imprisonment but it’s a mistake.

This is all based around a guy, however hard-headed and self-destructive, who is in jail. A rapper whose new album wrestles with all of his fuck-ups and demons. On the cover of The State vs. Radric Davis, Gucci holds his head, a pained look on his face. Songs like “Bad Bad Bad” and “My Own Worst Enemy” soberly interrupt the barrage of turn-of-phrase obsessed coke raps with introspection. There’s a recurring skit wherein Gucci converses with a fellow inmate as they both take shits.

These are the kind of implicit details usually hovering behind the “Free” movement (someone is in jail, jail is bad, how they got there is questionable) and the ones that Mad Decent trivialize by putting their own vacant spin on them. “Free” as simple fashion and vanity label synergy, something–like baile funk, Baltimore club, or dancehall–to be picked-up and internalized with little consequence or connection to its real-world implications or context. Strangely, it’s the reactionary “Fuck Diplo” shirt has more in common with the twisting, turning “Free” movements than the “Free Gucci” shirt. There’s actual passion and a sense of righteous indignation behind its design.