Music As Protest

29 March 2017


Under overcast Sunday skies in Cleveland, police cars and protesters intermingle in a messy foray. Amongst the chaos, a singular chant rings out in a burning ritualistic reverberation:

‘Nigga, we gon’ be alright / We gon’ be alright.’

Rarely has a social movement generated as much controversy in America as Black Lives Matter (BLM) – the grassroots African-American movement against systemic racism and violence born in 2013. The movement has exploded into American social consciousness as a movement of both resistance and pride.

In all this, Kendrick Lamar’s ‘Alright’ unexpectedly became one of the most influential songs of 2015/6 as it became a representative protest song of the Black consciousness movement in the US.

For decades, even centuries, protests have used music as a medium to communicate its message. Revolutionary anthems such as the French ‘La Marseillaise’ or the Chinese ‘March of the Volunteers’ represent some of its earliest widespread forms. Causes represented by musical protest have varied from war, such as Chicago’s anti-Vietnam War song – ‘It Better End Soon’, to feminism with Russian band Pussy Riot being a particularly notorious example after their imprisonment for ‘hooliganism’.

However, the African American community in America has had a particularly long and rich history using music as a medium of protest. A relatively new genre of music, hip hop can trace its roots through distinctive bands such as De La Soul or A Tribe Called Quest. Jazz and blues music also found their origins from work songs, spirituals and protest music of Black liberation in the 19th century.

Music was also a key feature of civil rights protests during the ‘60s in America. Hymns such as We Shall Overcome gained fame as unofficial anthems of the movement at the time, continuing the tradition of soulful music inflaming passionate protest.

Therefore, it’s no surprise that hip hop has become part of the BLM movement in the last three years. Vice versa, music has and continues to be the Black community’s art of protest against the predominantly white establishment who are viewed as abusing their power over underprivileged black communities. Deriving from these formative ideas of anti-establishmentarianism and rebellion, it comes as no shock that hip hop and BLM reciprocated influences between each other. It was the hip hop and R&B community, which have stepped in as the creators of the ‘modern’ Black protest music, that have lit fires of unity in the BLM movement.

The concepts of BLM arrived into hip hop and began to become the anthems of the movement as it rose in popularity. Many artists drew on the vibrant landscape of ideas that the movement had brought forward: of conflict, Black identity and pride. Vic Mensa’s album, There’s a Lot Going On, was saturated with influences of the BLM movement, which Vic Mensa himself participated in by performing at a Chicago BLM art exhibition in April 2016.

Vic Mensa’s song, ’16 Shots’, sampled reports of Laquan McDonald’s death – an African American youth whose shooting by a white police officer caused public outcry as it was alleged that two clips were fired into the youth’s body. The song itself conveys anger once more boiling over from years of argued systemic discrimination and brutality from the law. This type of sample also appeared in J. Cole’s ‘Be Free’ in regards to the similar police shooting of Michael ‘Mike’ Brown, an eyewitness account of his death forming a haunting interlude between verses:

‘Can you tell me why / Every time I step outside I see my niggas die / I’m lettin’ you know / That there ain’t no gun they make that can kill my soul.’

Once BLM and its ideas came into the limelight, sparks of inspiration spread like wildfire. Jay-Z released ‘Spiritual’ as his wife Beyoncé came out with ‘Formation’ featuring Kendrick Lamar. Killer Mike dropped ‘Hands Up’ and ‘The Game’, as well as producing ‘Don’t Shoot’ – featuring 2 Chainz, DJ Khaled and Yo Gotti – a collaboration in the wake of Mike Brown’s death in Ferguson and the subsequent protests and violence.

The BLM movement, and the deaths that sparked it, rallied hip hop to a common cause. Just as the unison of artists spanning generations and genres rallied protesters to the message, hip hop brought people together as a community.

Others in the community however, such as Kanye West, Lil Wayne and A$AP Rocky made efforts to disassociate themselves from the movement. West and Wayne both argued controversially that there was “no such thing as racism”, though Wayne would later backtrack on this statement. On the other hand, Rocky questioned the necessity of his music being political “just because [he was] a Black man”. A$AP Rocky’s criticism of the movement as a “bandwagon” presents a valid point. Like him, there are many in the Black community who “can’t relate” to the movement, and for whom BLM is simply not their fight. Nonetheless, regardless of these divisions, a certain sense of unity remains.

Music as protest seems to surge in the Black community when grievances accumulate to a breaking point. From the anti-slavery spirituals, to the songs of the civil rights movement such as Mahlia Jackson’s ‘How I Got Over’, and now to hip hop singles such as Kendrick Lamar’s ‘Alright’ or YG’s ‘FDT’.

In the interplay of BLM and hip hop, we witness something historical once more. Music has been a kindling and unifier for peaceful and powerful rebellion. In turn, that revolt has been a spark for some incredibly inspired music, in a renaissance of Black music as protest.

“I think the Black Lives Matter movement is incredibly positive. It’s opened a lot of discussion and discourse about the problems in our society and communities and that’s important.” – Vic Mensa.

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