The slow and inhumane killing of George Floyd, coupled with the frustration of lockdown and mass unemployment, have created the conditions necessary for mass protest and – hopefully, finally – change.
A significant contribution to efforts to seek justice has come from the music community. #TheShowMustBePaused initiative was launched by US music industry executives Jamila Thomas and Brianna Agyemang, and sought to get their peers to reflect on the ways they can “protect and empower the black communities that have made them disproportionately wealthy in ways that are measurable and transparent” – their call for a social media “blackout” quickly became a global trend.
Offline meanwhile, in the crowds of protesters themselves, music has also been fuel for harmony and unity. In London, with the Notting Hill carnival cancelled, its artistry and irreverent spirit lives on in the mini-soundsystems that have cropped up after marches and even within crowds. Where words won’t suffice to express the anger and frustration of affected communities, songs give protest a language. This game-changing moment has inspired a new wave of protest songs and underlined the timelessness of others.
YG – FTP
The possibilities of defunding or abolishing police forces are leading a lot of conversations at the moment. Police killing after police killing has shown that reformation has its limits, and now it is time to – at the very least – reduce funding for police forces and reinvest in community-led alternatives, as Minneapolis recently announced it will do. With this in mind, YG’s FTP (standing for Fuck the Police), released last week, has become a new anthem of 2020’s Black Lives Matter protests. As well as being in a lineage with NWA, it follows YG’s 2016 track Fuck Donald Trump, sampled for Beyoncé’s Formation tour and still the pre-eminent protest song about the president. As on that track, FTP’s brazen lyrics speak directly to the inability for niceties and politeness to successfully combat racism.
Che Lingo – My Block
South London rapper Che Lingo’s My Block, released in February, has truly found its moment. The song was a heartfelt reaction to police officers snapping the neck of his friend Julian Cole as he was restrained outside a Bedford nightclub in 2013, leaving him permanently brain-damaged. Lingo’s melodies, in straightforward and dulcet Kendrick-inspired tones, have charged up the protests taking place in London. The idyllic video set on a grey concrete estate sees Lingo weave between a white-robed choir wearing balaclavas and a solid body of men and women dressed in all black as he raps: “Black don’t mean illegal, they don’t know me / When the blues see red there’s greyness.” The track is a reminder of how insubstantial citizenship can be for black Britons, and of the violent treatment we often receive at the hands of the state.
Keedron Bryant – I Just Wanna Live
The 12-year-old gospel singer who featured on US TV show Little Big Shots moved the world with a 50-second clip of himself singing this song written by his mother Johnetta Bryant. You can see and feel the tension in his voice as he simultaneously sings and pleads the title line, a cappella; it went viral, catching the eye of everyone from Obama to Ellen and Tina Lawson. It feels reminiscent of 1960s choirs, such as the Freedom Singers, who combined the harmonies of the Baptist church with chants from the civil rights protests. The video has been viewed more than 3m times and has inspired remakes from will.i.am and others.
Terrace Martin – Pig Feet
Last week, Terrace Martin dropped the coarse-toned rap-meets-rock-meets-jazz track Pig Feet. With verses by Denzel Curry, Daylyt and G Perico – plus Kamasi Washington on sax freakouts – the rappers rile up listeners in a no-nonsense, unadulterated anger-driven collaboration. Understanding of the song’s rough sound deepens when you realise that Treon Johnson, brother of Denzel Curry, died after being Tasered, pepper-sprayed and taken into custody by police in Hialeah, Florida. It opens with gunshots and a woman screaming that the police shot another unarmed black man – this isn’t a call for hope and peace, but gives space to express the anger experienced by communities.
Beyoncé – Formation
When Beyoncé brought a phalanx of dancers dressed as Black Panthers to the Super Bowl it was an iconic moment: seeing artists as huge and somewhat far removed as Beyoncé nod to radical black history in a quintessentially American space is validating and affirming. This was 2016, the same year as the presidential election and the Charlottesville protests – that the song is still ringing out at protests today shows we have not moved on at all since then.
Bashy – Black Boys
Without fail, at every British Black Lives Matter protest Bashy’s Black Boys has been blasting from the speakers, with groups of black men and boys rapping along to the melodic and spirited tune. The lyrics list black British icons from Lenny Henry to Ian Wright and Dizzee Rascal, giving people, in Bashy’s own words, an “inspirational song that people could always listen to and feel like they could go out and achieve whatever they want”. When the world constantly displays a complete disregard for black men, this song year after year reminds them of how far they have come and empowers them to do more. As music journalist Aniefiok Ekpoudom writes: “For someone like myself, who had a different accent and first language to my parents, but shared the same surname, Black Boys was an important moment in finding an identity of my own.”
Dua Saleh – Body Cast
Minneapolis native Dua Saleh gives a haunting and empowering take on police brutality in her sombre song Body Cast, released last week. It opens and closes with a woman fiercely defending her rights: “There is nothing going on here and you are violating my rights!” she scolds as a baby calls in the background. The video sees Saleh walking through empty train tracks folding and rolling with her words; images of burning buildings, speeding police cars and police with batons litter it, and add to the ominous and rebellious feel of the song.
Kendrick Lamar - Alright
When the signature Pharrell-produced vocal harmonies start up this track, it is impossible to not feel goosebumps. This song will be a protest anthem for black movements until justice is served, and then it will be used for a celebration. When Lamar performed it at the 2016 Grammys, he shuffled on stage in a line of black men with chains around their ankles and delivered the most powerful performance of the evening. By that point it had already been used as a chant for students protesting police brutality on campuses, and today, at protests around the world, it still flows through the streets and lights a fire in demonstrators. This song typifies both the reason why we are protesting and have the strength to carry on. “And we hate po-po / Wanna kill us dead in the street for sure, nigga / I’m at the preacher’s door / My knees gettin’ weak and my gun might blow” – a desperate series of images, until he lays a hand on our shoulders: “But we gon’ be alright.”