For decades, African-American artists have been writing music that explicitly depicts the racism, and police brutality that they experience on a daily basis as a community.
In 1939, Billie Holiday’s song “Strange Fruit” brought attention to the racial discrimination and brutal lynchings of Black people across the United States. Twenty-five years later, Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” spoke about the discrimination that he and his community were still experiencing, and his hope for change in the future. This song eventually became an anthem, helping to rally on the latter pushes of the Civil Rights Movement.
In 1971, Marvin Gaye wrote about the social injustices that were still happening in the United States with “What’s Going On.” At first listen, this sensuous song sounds like a soothing, grooving love ballad, but the lyrics tell a very somber story about picket lines of protests, police brutality, and being told that racism doesn’t exist.
In 1988, N.W.A. took an even more direct approach to commenting on the police’s racial profiling and brutality with “F*ck Tha Police,” commenting on police institutions’ unchecked authority to kill minorities, and depicting how cops carry out racial profiling by aggressively searching cars solely on suspicion of criminal activity.
With the rise and spread of the Black Lives Matter movement, it finally feels like the veil covering up America’s social ills towards the Black community is slowly being removed. Our country is starting to wake up to how government policies, law enforcement tactics, and implicit cultural (and historical) bias have caused our people so much accumulated trauma. Artists have been talking about all of these disparities for a very long time, and now more than ever, it’s important to listen to what contemporary artists in our generation are saying; they are our modern storytellers and in some cases, the visionaries for future social change.
To that end, I’ve compiled a list of contemporary artists who speak truthfully on the Black experience — on its joys, its pains, its anger, and its hope — as well as to the effects of police brutality on the community. Listen to “Enough Is Enough: A Black Lives Matter Playlist” here, and follow along as I highlight the unique and powerful messages of the first eight tracks below.
Child Gambino – “This Is America”
We were utterly blown away by this song’s ability to change both key and scale mode and still remain functionally intact — read about our analysis of this as well as all of 2018’s hottest songs here. But “This Is America” is all about that video. Both the song and its accompanying video present a chilling look at the effects of America’s gun violence and racial discrimination problems. The video uses loads of symbolism to portray how there is more care given to guns and protecting gun rights than there is for victims of gun violence. The video also shows how Black art often portrays a world that is all happy and full of dancing while, meanwhile, the violence and race discrimination that is affecting Black communities in the real world is only being filmed on phones, but not addressed directly.
Leon Bridges – “Sweeter” (feat. Terrace Martin)
We also just wrote about Leon Bridges’ essential song “Sweeter” here on Flypaper. This is a song about hope for a day when Black people don’t feel judged for their skin color and don’t have to continuously see the same tragedies unfold day after day: “Hoping for a life more sweeter / Instead I’m just a story repeating / Why do I fear with skin dark as night? / Can’t feel peace with those judging eyes.” Bridges’ song also depicts the pain that the Black community feels when a life is taken too soon, a clear nod to George Floyd’s murder: “The tears of my mother rain, rain over me / My sisters and my brothers sing, sing over me / And I wish I had another day / but it’s just another day.” Regardless of someone’s past, a life lost is a tragedy.
Rapsody – “Power” (feat. Kendrick Lamar & Lance Skiiiwalker)
Rapsody’s song “Power” takes a look at who has the power and who doesn’t in today’s society, it talks about being proud to be Black, understanding the power of her platform to share wisdom, and not relinquishing her talent to serve the music industry. Some of the most powerful lines in this song are: “Badge makes police feel powerful in the hood,” which alludes to the police’s abuse Black communities, and: “Guns make us feel powerful, but they don’t do good,” which speaks on the issues of gun violence and domestic terrorism which are rampant in America.
H.E.R. – “I Can’t Breathe”
“I Can’t Breathe” calls attention to the injustice that the Black community faces with these lyrics: “All the corruption, injustice, the same crimes / Always a problem if we do or don’t fight / And we die, we don’t have the same rights.” She then asks the listener: “Will anyone fight for me?” This is a question that a lot of folks have been asking for for generations because the progress to eradicate racism is slow and resisted so fervently. But it’s a question even children at protests are asking today. Fairly frequently, Black people take on the tiresome task of having to explain that racism is still a problem in the United States, while responding to critiques about their approach to protesting and calling out injustice.
Kamasi Washington – “Fists of Fury”
“Fists of Fury” off of Washington’s album, Heaven and Earth, is a call to action for the Black community to stand up and combat injustice. Black people have been asking for justice politely, angrily, violently, calmly, and eloquently, for decades and all of these forms have been met with stiff resistance, extensive critique, or complete disinterest, with little to no resolution to the problems at hand. In unison, vocalists Patrice Quinn and Dwight Trible sing: “Our time as victims is over / We will no longer ask for justice / Instead we will take our retribution.” On his 2015 album, The Epic, Washington wrote music to help heal a broken world, in response to a lot of civil unrest occurring at the time. However, since 2015, not much has changed, so it is understandable that Washington’s music now carries with it an air frustration, if not anger (fury), toward the killings of unarmed Black people and systemic racism — it’s hard to heal a wound that keeps getting reopened.
D Smoke & SiR – “Let Go”
D Smoke and SiR released “Let Go” in the wake of George Floyd’s tragic passing. They speak on police brutality, distrust of the judicial system and racism, and wanting to express themselves whilst feeling trapped inside amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. The chorus goes: “If I shout but ain’t nobody around to hear it / How ‘bout when it echo? / I sing loud to talk to my inner child, he feel it / Your dreams made of Legos / I reach out despite the feeling they out to kill us.” D Smoke made an Instagram post mentioning that he is fed up with the tragic killings of unarmed Black people as well as how the lack of justice and the frequency of these events gives the impression that Black lives are expendable.
Anderson .Paak – “Lockdown” (feat. Jay Rock)
“Lockdown” was released on Juneteenth, the holiday celebrating the emancipation of people who had been enslaved in the United States on June 19, 1865. The song depicts his experiences at a Black Lives Matter protest: “Lil’ tear gas cleared the whole place out / I’ll be back with the hazmat for the next round / We were tryna protest then the fires broke out.” It’s ironic that in his story of his experience peacefully protesting against police violence, he is faced with police violence in the form of tear gas, rubber bullets, and intimidation. He also calls out people who are staying quiet while people are being killed, and people who have “opinions coming from a place of privilege” about protests or how people are expressing their feelings.
The Carters – “Black Effect”
The spoken word intro of The Carters’ “Black Effect” addresses love and most what’s needed most in the world right now, love of humanity. As the song continues, Jay-Z and Beyoncé talk about embracing Blackness by growing out natural hair: “Hmm, the fro that I grow got no perm in it,” and being confident in the features of your body: “Stunt with your curls, your lips, Sarah Baartman hips / Gotta hop into jeans as I hope into my whip yeah.” The song expresses their love for Black culture by intertwining numerous iconic people and contributions to the culture within their lyrics (Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Freedom Riders, Carmelo Anthony, Lebron James, Ebony Magazine, Essence Magazine, and Mos Def’s song “Umi Says”).
- Terrace Martin – “Pig Feet” (feat. Denzel Curry, Kamasi Washington, G Perico & Daylyt)
- Kendrick Lamar – “The Blacker the Berry”
- Solange – “Don’t Touch My Hair” (feat. Sampha)
- D’Angelo and The Vanguard – “The Charade”
- Noname – “Self”
- Kenneth Whalum – “Might Not Be OK” (feat. Big K.R.I.T.)
- Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah – “K.K.P.D.”
- Esperanza Spalding – “Black Gold”
- John Legend – “Penthouse Floor” (feat. Chance The Rapper)
- A Tribe Called Quest – “We the People”
- Common – “A Song for Assata” (feat. CeeLo Green)
- Beyoncé – “Freedom” (feat. Kendrick Lamar)
- Kirk Franklin – “Revolution”
- Tall Black Guy – “We Gotta Do Better” (feat. Paul Theodore Chandler & Deborah Bond)
- Gorden Campbell & Gene Noble – “Too Many Lost”
- Nate Smith – “Rhythm and Blues: The Peacemaker”
- Ambrose Akinmusire – “Hooded Procession (Read the Names Outloud)”
- Bobby Sparks – “Black Man Running From the Police” (feat. Simon Novsky, Mike “Blaque Dynamite” Mitchell & Todd Parsnow)
- H.E.R. – “I’m Not OK”
- Common – “Letter to the Free” (feat. Bilal)
- John Legend & Common – “Glory”
- Noname – “Blaxploitation”
- Ty Dolla $ign – “No Justice” (feat. Big TC)
- Beyoncé – “Black Parade”
- Usher – “I Cry”
Don’t stop here!
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