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The Many Sounds of Black Lives Matter

The movement has resisted an anthem. Instead, it has redefined protest music.

Stuart C. Wilson/Getty Images for MTV

Since lockdown began, I have become essentially reliant on the This Is Janet Jackson playlist on Spotify for my emotional well-being. Early on, I decided to make this reclusive pop star, whose hits “Miss You Much” and “I Get So Lonely” reverberate like erotic anthems of isolation, the official chanteuse of my quarantine. When I logged onto the app last week though, I suddenly noticed a new banner of playlists under the heading “Black Music Matters.” After weeks of being bombarded by empty corporate statements of solidarity and anti-racist listmania, I was skeptical at best. Delving into a BLM-timed “Feelin’ Myself” list, I had to wonder: How would someone hoping to listen and learn react once they pressed Play on Saweetie’s “Tap In”: “B-B-Billionaire n----- wanna eat me out (Hahaha) /  B----, I’m from the West Coast / they wanna go down South”?  

Yet the search for a soundtrack is understandable. Martin Luther King called freedom songs, the anthems inspired by the civil rights era, “the soul of the movement.” Songs function as a kind of political chorus, lending structure, flow, and collective intensity to what can otherwise feel like an atomized experience. It is no wonder that in seeking to capture the complex set of emotions spawned by the recent policing killings that have roiled America, writers and critics are gravitating toward musical referents: civil rights anthems like Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam,” jazz records like Hal Singer’s “Malcolm X” and John Coltrane’s “Alabama,” early hip-hop hits like Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” and NWA’s “Fuck Tha Police.” Likewise, any cynicism I had going into Spotify was swiftly disarmed by Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come,” a song that nervously mingles Cooke’s despairing tone with hopeful lyrics, reflecting an appropriate ambivalence about America’s future.

Notably, these songs are not unique to the Black Lives Matter movement, which crystallized in response to the shooting death of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin. Save for possibly Kendrick Lamar’s uplifting hit “Alright,” which was sung at a number of BLM rallies after it came out in 2015 and got a recent bump in streams, the current movement has not found a definitive soundtrack all its own. Fans bristle at the contradictory politics of the commercial musicians writing songs in response to these protests. They prefer instead to mine existing—or even seemingly apolitical—music for revolutionary sentiments. There is, after all, no shortage of music that speaks to the cycle of rage, mourning, and defiant hope that black Americans have been experiencing on a loop for centuries now; in fact, such songs largely serve as the foundation of American popular music. The result has been a beautifully scattered playlist, one that reflects the radically decentralized nature of the Black Lives Matter movement itself.  

If Black Lives Matter does not have a definitive sound, it is not because artists haven’t tried to provide one. In just the last two weeks, hip-hop, R&B, and rock musicians have released new songs or remixes on almost a daily basis that address George Floyd’s death and the protests unfolding across the world. Atlanta rapper Lil Baby released “The Bigger Picture” with a music video featuring recent footage from various protests. Rapper YG just released “FTP,” a retooled version of his 2016 hit “Fuck Donald Trump.” The rock band The Killers added new lyrics addressing the death of George Floyd to their 2019 song “Land of the Free”: “Eight measured minutes and 46 seconds / Another boy in the bag / Another stain on the flag.”

These songs, which succeed to varying degrees, nonetheless come on the heels of a period when, in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, audiences have been more critical of celebrities, particularly those weighing in on political crises. Starting with the backlash to the star-studded “Imagine” video, in which actors and pop stars like Gal Gadot and Ryan Reynolds expressed solidarity with people stuck at home by lip-synching from their cavernous mansions and palatial backyards, celebrity voices are being relegated—thankfully—to the backdrop of political discourse. As more mainstream musical artists have begun weighing in on the current Black Lives Matter protests, there have been similar callouts, with fans becoming increasingly impatient with the prosperity gospel espoused by some hip-hop artists and their attachment to the same power structures that rap music used to rail against.

Last week, rapper J. Cole dropped “Snow on tha Bluff,” a bafflingly tone-deaf response to the recent protests. The song was widely thought to be a takedown of the black female rapper and poet Noname who has been vocal on social media about the need for artists in the music industry to take a stronger stance on Black Lives Matter. Noname also runs a monthly book club featuring readings on radical politics and the effects of racial capitalism on the black community. In “Snow on tha Bluff,” J. Cole dismissively raps “I scrolled through her timeline in these wild times, and I started to read. / She mad at these crackers, she mad at these capitalists, mad at these murder police.” He advises her to change her approach, singing that he is bothered by her “queen tone.” J. Cole quickly took to Twitter to defend himself, though he refused to admit or deny that the song was about Noname.

Nonetheless, the lyrics and Cole’s sensitivity to critiques rooted in anti-capitalism speaks to the hip-hop industry’s increased coziness with corporate brands and promulgation of the idea that racial uplift is best achieved through capitalism. Likewise, popular hip-hop artists like Meek Mill, T.I., and Killer Mike have come out supporting the marches but condemning looting, despite the fact that looting is a long-recognized form of protest and civil disobedience. When Keisha Lance Bottoms, the mayor of Atlanta, pointed out in a press conference that T.I. and Killer Mike owned significant real estate on the city’s west side, one Twitter user quipped: “I guess RJT,” referring to the name of Killer Mike’s rap duo, “stands for ‘Return The Jewels.’”

Black Lives Matter has eschewed many of the defining qualities of the civil rights movement, dispelling the need for charismatic male leaders or a top-down organizational structure. Its soundtrack is likewise radically diffuse, and it has spurred listeners to look for inspiration across time periods and genres, enabling them to look elsewhere when it feels like our favorite musicians are selling out. Critic Wesley Morris recently wrote about the newfound power Patti Labelle’s 1985 live cover of “If You Don’t Know Me by Now” has taken on for him in recent weeks. “This is not a protest anthem. It’s a lovers-at-a-crossroads jam,” he explained, charting all the ways the song embodies the exasperation black Americans have with a country that refuses to learn from its past. 

At the same time, videos also began circulating across social media showing protesters across the country singing the late Brooklyn rapper Pop Smoke’s 2019 song “Dior.” The lyrics, “Christian Dior, Dior / I’m up in all the stores,” ring with new and urgent irreverence as activists push back against efforts to frame looting as a distraction. Pop Smoke was part of a burgeoning rap scene in New York known as Brooklyn Drill that was coming under increased police surveillance because of its tendency toward gritty and violent lyrics. In “Dior,” it is clear those confrontations are never far from Pop Smoke’s mind; even in the midst of a luxury goods–riddled escape, he thinks of his friend who is in jail: “Brody got locked, denied his bail / Until he free, I’m raisin’ hell.” Writing about the way this summer’s protesters have revived the song, Pitchfork’s Alphonse Pierre has observed: “‘Dior” was never intended to be a song for this moment, but it’s doing what all great protest songs should: unifying and energizing.”

As for me, I have returned to my Janet Jackson playlist. While I have been inspired by the protests, I keep coming back to the wish that they never needed to happen in the first place; that George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and Rayshard Brooks were still with us. I think of their families and loved ones, and how they must miss them, miss them much.  

I miss ya much
Boy-oh-I miss you much
Baby, I really miss you much