While they helped jump-start the 1960s, great protest songs had been few and far between in the past 50-odd years, apart from the occasional bolts of lightning like N.W.A’s “F— the Police” or Childish Gambino’s “This Is America.” But 2020 is different, and the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery at the hands of police and vigilantes have let loose a wave of righteous rage and protests that have galvanized the world. Below are just a few of the topical songs that have dropped in the past couple of weeks — and we’re eager to hear more.
LL Cool J “#BlackLivesMatter freestyle” Apart from an awesome veiled message in a Gap ad 20 years ago, LL Cool J has rarely been known for his political lyrics. But he went in last week when he spit the maddest, saddest, most frustrated, heartbroken verses of his career in a freestyle and posted it on Instagram. “Watching that man die slow left a hole/ He cried for his mama as the murder unfold/ If it wasn’t for those phones, Chauvin would be at home/ Feeling justified because of George’s skin tone.” After paying tribute to other black Americans questionably killed with little justice to their legacies, Cool J closes with, “Black Lives Matter — forever.”
Meek Mill, “Otherside of America” If any artist has first-hand knowledge of the flaws in the U.S. justice system, it’s North Philly’s Millie who spent five months in prison in a widely criticized 2017 ruling over technical violations from a years-old conviction, and has since become an activist for change. Produced by Butter Beats and Shroom, “Otherside of America” () starts with then-candidate Donald Trump’s “What the hell do you have to lose?” speech before Meek talks about the past-and-present day horror of the streets (“I’ve been tryna run from these caskets/ All of this pain that’s in me/ You don’t want none of this action/ Go get some money and feed the fam”). Ultimately, the track winds up with Mill’s own interview on CNN where he said, “I grew up in America in a ruthless neighborhood where we are not protected by police, we grew up in ruthless environments, we grew up around murder, you see murder, you see seven people die a week, I think you would probably carry a gun yourself.”
Trey Songz, “2020 Riots: How Many-Times”
Hip-hop crooner Songz is usually singing about romance, sex and bling. But on this gospel-ish ballad, (), the Virginia-born singer says “I have to get some things off my chest,” before turning the title phrase into a hypnotic mantra (“How many mothers have to cry?/ How many brothers gotta die?/ How many more marches?/ How many more signs?”). After looking at the stark reality of the crimes against Breonna Taylor (“sitting on a couch, in your own house”) and Ahmaud Arbery (“taking a jog”), Songz points fingers without pulling punches. “All these beautiful, precious black lives/ Lost in the name of senseless white pride.”
T.I. and Nasty C, “They Don’t”
Killer Mike may have made the more impactful speech during a heated press conference with the Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms last week, but it was his friend T.I. — who spoke as well — who invited him and convinced him to take the mic. Here, the Trap King and South African rapper Nasty C share a sprightly track that shows America’s police doing more harm than good. While Nasty takes melodic broad strokes at the issue with “They don’t want to see my people, leaving good and at ease/ They wanna lock em all up, and get rid of the keys,” T.I. goes for the jugular. “How you supposed to serve and protect/ With your knee on my neck?”
Pharoahe Monch, Styles P and Marco Polo, “Same Sh–, Different Toilet”
A clattering, jazzy track with dramatic pianos and a vicious empowered screed? That sounds about right for Monch, the Queens rapper who won renown in the ‘90s for his multisyllabic rhymes and dense, hard lyricism. With Styles P and Marco Polo, the song’s title — based on a Southern segregation-era poster — goes on about the physical struggle against racism with eye-for-an-eye might. “Looked in the mirror and said ‘breathe … breathe’/ I’m about to bring six Klansman to their knees.”
Short for “F— the Police,” rapper YG has been down this road before with “F— Donald Trump.” And while Variety does not condone this song’s call to pick up arms, YG’s voice deserves to be heard.
Conway the Machine, “Front Lines”
If any BLM track paints an exacting, anxiety-inducing picture of the violent aftermath of Floyd’s murder, it’s “Front Lines.” An off-kilter piano stands starkly behind the Buffalo rapper, as he states, “Cops killin’ black people on camera and don’t get charged/ We ain’t takin’ no more/ We ain’t just pressin’ record/ Can’t watch you kill my brother, you gon’ have to kill us all.” To cap it off, “Front Lines” concludes with a news report of flames engulfing the Minneapolis’ city police station.
Tee Grizzley, “Mr. Officer”
Starting with the sawing of synthetic strings and a lovely piano line, the Detroit rapper known for the smooth “No Effort,” joins forces with Queen Naija and the Detroit Youth Choir for a look at police violence. While a handful of female voices ask “What if that was my dad?/ What if that was my uncle?/ What if that was all that I had?,” Grizzley invokes George Floyd: “He can’t breathe, and you still choking him – why would he lie”
Teejayx6, “Black Lives Matter”
On this directly titled song, Detroit rapper Teejayx6 takes no prisoners, calling out the bystanders to George Floyd’s death at the hands of police (“Why you ain’t just go and help him out?”) and Chauvin (“Why you had to put your knee on his neck?”). Saddest though, is when Teejayx6 paints a reality that every black mother must confront. “How the f— my momma gon’ sleep at night when the police keep killing us?”
Terrace Martin featuring Denzel Curry, Daylyt, Kamasi Washington, and G Perico, “Pig Feet”
Whether as artist or producer, Los Angeles-born multi-instrumentalist Terrace Martin — who played a big role on Kendrick Lamar’s groundbreaking 2015 album “To Pimp a Butterfly” — has been at the crossroads of new jazz and hip-hop for 15 years, but “Pig Feet” is one of the hardest tracks he’s ever done. A collaboration with rapper Denzel Curry, saxophonist Kamasi Washington and others, the song starts off with a kick of gun shots and a siren’s wail before the rappers go in. “Helicopters over my balcony/ If the police can’t harass, they wanna smoke every ounce of me.” MC Daylyt, however, hits on the most ominous point “They gon’ pay for takin’ my brother.”
Leon Bridges and Terrace Martin, “Sweeter”
Less than a week after “Pig Feet” dropped, Martin drops in again, this time with Grammy winning R&B singer Leon Bridges on the quiet but passionate “Sweeter,” a synth soul soliloquy that finds that Texan R&B vocalist in a mellow, prayerful mood. “I thought we moved on from darker days,” he sings while Martin blows a simmering noir subtone. “You stole from me, my chance to be… sweeter.”
DJ iMarkkeyz and DJ Suede, “Lose Your Job”
While maybe not as poignant as some of the above-mentioned tracks, DJ iMarkkeyz — the man behind Cardi B’s “Coronavirus” PSA remix — found a still-unsourced clip of an apparently inebriated person being detained by police, laid in a beat and some video clips. Humor in the face of adversity is one of humankind’s saving graces.