Juneteenth commemorates the end of slavery in the United States — June 19, the day in 1865 when Texas was the final Confederate state to be notified of the Union victory and, thus, the freeing of all slaves in the U.S. To state what is probably obvious, for many Black Americans, the day holds much more significance this year due to the recent national reckoning on race, with protests in every state in the wake of the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks, Ahmaud Arbery and too many others.
Also known as Freedom Day and Emancipation Day, Juneteenth has been recognized in some states as an official holiday, while major companies like Twitter, Target, Nike and the National Football League — not to mention much of the music industry — have declared it as a company holiday. Activists, who have spent years advocating for awareness of Juneteenth, are pushing to make it a national holiday.
With the current state of the world, many have turned to music to heal and uplift — while Variety earlier posted a playlist of recent Protest Songs, here are some songs and albums that either came out today — some of which are politically charged, and some of which aren’t — or are recent songs that are relevant to Juneteenth.
Alicia Keys, “Perfect Way to Die”
Just like many musicians who are trying to make sense of innocent lives dying from police violence, Grammy-winner Alicia Keys has answered the call to release her moving single “Perfect Way to Die.” Inspired by the killings of Mike Brown and Sandra Bland, the piano driven ballad has her opening with powerful lyrics: “Simple walk to the corner store/ Momma never thought she would be getting a call from the coroner.” It captures the fire and energy of nationwide protests, where Keys tries to explain the “perfect” death by chronicling a mother coping with the lost of her son, even though she doesn’t have the answers herself. “Another king and queen lost,” she sings.
“Sometimes I don’t have the words and music is the only thing that can speak,” she explained on Instagram. “I hope this speaks to you. I hope one day this song won’t be so relevant. Let’s NEVER stop fighting for justice.”
H.E.R., “I Can’t Breathe”
Last week, H.E.R. debuted “I Can’t Breathe” during her iHeartRadio Living Room concert, and on Juneteenth, she shares the official version. The extended song includes H.E.R. delivering a speech on white people staying silent on racism.
“This is the American pride/
It’s justifying a genocide
Romanticizing the theft and bloodshed
That made America the land of the free
To take a Black life, land of the free
To bring a gun to a peaceful fight for civil rights
You are desensitized to pulling triggers on innocent lives”
Noname, “Song 33”
Noname vowed to quit rap to choose a career path that was more fulfilling. But her outspokenness about “top selling rappers” who have been silent during growing tensions in America, noting that those rappers’ “whole discographies be about Black plight and they nowhere to be found” may have gotten her into a rap feud with J. Cole. After Cole released “Snow on Tha Bluff,” which appears to be aimed at Noname for being more “woke” about the issues Black people face, she responded with “Song 33.” Over a Madlib-produced beat, the one-minute song touches on the death of 19-year-old BLM activist Oluwatoyin “Toyin” Salau, the need to protect Black trans people after the deaths of Riah Milton in Ohio and Dominique “Rem’Mie” Fells in Pennsylvania, and why Cole chose to write about her instead of George Floyd and the hanging deaths of two Black men in California. In a short burst of sharp commentary on race and identity, Noname, who calls herself the new vanguard, has arrived.
Public Enemy, “State of the Union (STFU)”
After a bizarre back-and-forth between Chuck D and Flava Flav over a Bernie Sanders rally in March that resulted in the latter being publicly ejected from the group (and which they later said was a joke?), it looks like Flava Flav isn’t fired from Public Enemy for his political views after all. “State of the Union (STFU)” — produced by the mighty DJ Premier — is vintage PE track that calls back to how motivating it was to hear rap groups go against the system. Public Enemy has a long history of fighting the powers that be, and “State of the Union (STFU)” is another gut check at all of President Donald Trump’s unpresidential behavior.
“Our collective voices keep getting louder. The rest of the planet is on our side. But it’s not enough to talk about change. You have to show up and demand change,” says Chuck D in press release. “Folks gotta vote like their lives depend on it, ‘cause it does.”
“Public Enemy tells it like it is,” adds Flavor Flav. “It’s time for him to GO.”
Anderson.Paak was one of thousands of Los Angelenos flocking to downtown L.A. earlier this month to protest against social injustice and the LAPD. On “Lockdown,” .Paak details the looting and LAPD’s violence on protesters. He sings like he’s recalling the story to one of his friends, telling them what they missed and maybe giving them FOMO for not breaking quarantine to protest. “You should’ve been downtown, the people are raising/ We thought it was a lockdown/ They opened the fire, the bullets were flying/ Who said it was a lockdown?,” he sings on the chorus.
.Paak chose the imagery for his protest single carefully, listing all the names who died from police violence with the words “rest in power” on the front. On the back cover, he shows a sign of unity from the creatives in the L.A. community: Andra Day, Dominic Fike, Dumbfoundead, Jay Rock, Sir, and Syd stand in solidarity with him, masks off.
Swae Lee, “Reality Check”
Swae Lee, one half of the duo Rae Sremmurd, has become a mainstay solo artist — and a 2019 Variety Hitmaker — in recent years, developing his fanbase with a rock star mentality. Swae Lee has seen massive success thanks to his Post Malone collaboration “Sunflower,” and his angelic voice continues to rock parties with singles like “Someone Said” and “Back 2 Back Maybach.” On “Reality Check,” Swae Lee pump-fakes on speaking on COVID-19 or protests, but instead, he’s checking whether his ex is doing better than him. Over booming bass, Swae Lee contemplates this in a dream-like state, crooning sexy lyrics for the Tinder singles stuck at home.
Kyle, the Ventura, California rapper behind 2016’s “iSpy” with Lil Yachty, admits he’s influenced by his idol Kid Cudi when it comes to his melodic rapping and becoming vulnerable. Lately, he has been the light for many to unwind with sun-kissed, pop-rap jams. “Bouncin’,” produced by Hit-Boy, is another relatable anthem about feeling high on life — although he unexpectedly gets political, too: “I don’t play for no team or my own team like I’m mother—ing Kaepernick.”
Also check out: Amber Mark covering Eddie Kendricks’ “My People…Hold On”; J. Cole’s politically charged “Snow on Tha Bluff”; YG’s Black Lives Matter protest song “FTP”; all of Run the Jewels’ RTJ4, and Lil Baby’s “The Bigger Picture.”
Wale, “The Imperfect Storm“
Out of J. Cole, Kendrick Lamar, and Drake, rap fans rarely consider Wale as their Black leader to speak up during unprecedented times. But looking at Wale’s recent track record — like the video for “Sue Me” that puts a spin on racial inequalities — proves he’s been in the forefront, addressing these issues in real time. On Thursday, Wale announced a surprise EP called “The Imperfect Storm,” a six-track offering that was inspired by nationwide protests and how the news deteriorates every day.
The single “June 5th / QueenZnGodZ” is Wale taking on a serious tone on the first half, sharing his daily consumption of tweets and trending topics just like everyone else. Lyrics like “I tried to watch the news, but I’m lashing out/My daughter seen a murder on cellular phone/And that was not on purpose, was ordering troops” and “they beating white people down, just to show us what’s coming/or to show us we nothing/or show us we only welcome when we are singing or ballin’/N—a shut up and dribble/or should I perform for them because they hold the money?” will surely get the timeline talking. The second half is straight-from-the-heart Wale, dedicating “/ QueenZnGodZ” to all the Black women out there.
Teyana Taylor, “The Album”
Teyana Taylor embodied magnificence on the cover of “The Album” by channeling the iconic singer-actress-diva Grace Jones. As weeks went by after she shared her artwork on social media, Taylor continued to use her platform to shed light on the Black Lives Matter movement.
“The Album” comes at a critical moment for Taylor. The actress, dancer, model, and soon-to-be mother of a second child with husband Iman Shumpert has a chance to make an impactful statement, and joined by guests like Rick Ross, Erykah Badu, Quavo, Kehlani, Missy Elliott, Future, Big Sean and Lauryn Hill, “The Album” is broken up into five “studios” that spell out A, L, B, U, M. It’s significantly longer than 2018’s “K.T.S.E.” and a fuller listening experience. Pay special attention to “Still.” “We’ve been crying for love for a very, very long time,” Taylor says of the song. “Now, if we gotta kicking down some doors for y’all to finally start moving, we gotta keep that same energy.”
John Legend, “Bigger Love”
Swizz Beatz and Timbaland’s Verzuz series has brought many remarkable musical moments, Twitter memes, and online and offline conversations on who bested who. On June 13, the Verzuz Twitter account shared an update on their upcoming battle: John Legend versus Alicia Keys. In a special edition for Juneteenth, the two icons will go head-to-head with their respective catalogues on Instagram Live.
The date of their Verzuz battle is also when Legend dropped his sixth studio album “Bigger Love.” In the video for Legend’s single, which was created while in quarantine, it shows loved ones texting and calling each other, keeping in touch despite the distance. There’s also no shortage of dancing – from nurses and doctors to everyday people on TikTok.
Legend shared the intention behind creating “Bigger Love” on Instagram. “The songs are inspired by the loves of my life: my wife, my family and the rich tradition of Black music that has made me the artist I am,” he wrote.
While the album was finished prior to the pandemic and the recent protests, Legend stresses that even though everything feels painful right now, it is “important for us to continue to show the world the fullness of what it is to be Black and human.”
In the summer of 2019, Brooklyn rapper Skyzoo started to conceptualize an EP that changed the perception of how fathers are represented in hip-hop. He believed the majority of songs in the space speak to fatherhood in a negative way. After about a week of recording, “Milestones” was created in honor of Father’s Day, where each song talks about his life growing up with his father who was always around. Those father-son moments, he says, shaped him into the father he is today.
Named after his son Miles, “Milestones” features Cuba Gooding Jr. and Laurence Fishburne on the cover from “Boyz N The Hood.” If you haven’t seen the movie yet, their father-son dynamic as they navigate the violence plaguing their community in South Central Los Angeles in the ‘90s relates to our current climate. “The reality of families being left without a father is deafening,” Skyzoo writes on Bandcamp. “Due to all of the social injustices that are ringing louder than ever, we’re seeing the impact of fathers being stripped away from their loved ones… the timing is eerily spot on.”
Tee Grizzley, “The Smartest“
Tee Grizzley was one of the first rappers to release a song in response to the George Floyd protests. “Mr. Officer,” featuring Detroit singer Queen Naija and members of the Detroit Youth Choir, addresses police violence with Grizzley sounding outraged at the thought of losing a family member close to him. “What if that was your brother? What if that was your dad? What if that was your son? What if that was all you had?” he raps.
With “Mr. Officer” comes a new project by Grizzley called “The Smartest.” The Detroit rapper remains consistent with his releases, adding bigger guests this time around like Big Sean, Meek Mill, and Lil Baby.
More Deluxe Editions
In 2020, deluxe editions have become more than just last-minute add-ons. The strategy to re-release a rapper’s album with additional tracks for streaming works for someone like Lil Baby, who’s My Turn returns to No. 1 on the Billboard 200 after three months. Other albums by Lil Uzi Vert (Eternal Atake) and Nav (Good Intentions) have tacked on entirely new projects – Lil Uzi Vert vs. the World 2 and Brown Boy 2, which were sequels to their buzzworthy free projects available online. The idea is the more songs you give, the more satisfied your fanbase will be.
On Juneteenth, A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie, the self-proclaimed King of New York, revisits Artist 2.0 with more songs, including the teaser single “Bleed.” In a similar move, Pi’erre Bourne, who’s worked with Drake, Playboi Carti, and others, added 15 new tracks to his debut album The Life of Pi’erre 4 for a total of 31. And finally, Detroit rapper 42 Dugg adds nine new songs to his excellent March album, Young & Turnt, Vol. 2, with new features by Dej Loaf and Moneybagg Yo.