New Protest Anthems and Rallying Cries: A Black Lives Matter Soundtrack

Over the past two weeks, the murder of George Floyd at the hands of those who are supposed to protect and serve has brought the matter of police brutality and systemic racism again to the forefront of the American public’s attention. Covid-19 took a backseat, as people nationwide gathered in streets across the country to protest injustices that are too blatant and widespread to ignore. The killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and many others by law enforcement, has made it clear that the system is in dire need of reform. Discussions of dismantling broken police forces are taking shape as officials in numerous cities talk of redirecting duties and finances of their police forces. The Minneapolis City Council, the city in which Floyd was killed, has already pledged to replace their force with a new public safety system. Among the most vocal advocates of change are a slew of artists that have turned out mobilizing Black Lives Matter protest anthems over the past week. Here is our 14-song soundtrack of essential listening:

Pig Feet: Denzel Curry and Terrace Martin (ft. Kamasi Washington, G Perico and Daylyt)
Released June 2, in the midst of nationwide protests, “Pig Feet” zeroes in on the indignation sweeping the world right now with an illustrious cast of expressive voices. The song begins with gunshots and a blood curdling scream of “He Shot Him!” taken from the Bourbon Street shooting of 2014. Kamasi Washington is unhinged on his saxophone, grounding Terrace Martin’s busy, boom bap production in timeless free jazz tradition. Curry, one of the most animated rappers today, expresses his anger with a punk fury, speaking from the heat of the protests, as Daylyt provides a counterpart for his energy, riffing off the energy of rebellion, in tandem with Washington’s ad-libs.

Tribute: Papoose
In an epic, alphabetical litany of victims, Papoose forces listeners to confront the matter at hand in its full scope and scale. With no concern for choruses, he raps straight through, over a sampled soulful shriek, beginning with Amadou Diallo, who was shot forty-one times in a case of mistaken identity, and Betty Jones, shot in her own house the day after Christmas. He goes all the way back to the ‘50s, recalling the case of the 14-year-old Emmett Till, and details the killings of Dominic Fuller and Khiel Choppin, armed respectively with a stapler and a hairbrush. Along the way, he mentions a man shot while handcuffed, and another shot for the egregious offense of jaywalking. In the end, you are left with no choice but to demand justice.

Mr. Officer: Tee Grizzley, Queen Naija and members of the Detroit Youth Choir
A somber singalong is often the most effective way to mobilize people after a sobering experience, and “Mr. Officer,” released June 5, delivers in this respect. Queen Naija, backed by the Detroit Youth Choir, addresses the eponymous target directly, asking “What if that was my brother? What if that was my dad?” with a defeated tone and straightforwardness that deflate any hype around the matter, bringing it straight to the heart. Tee Grizzley riffs off the subject in a succinct verse, contextualizing the current situation in the historical framework, pointing out, “They brought us here against our will, now they ain’t happy with us.” 

Sweeter: Leon Bridges (ft. Terrace Martin)
Leon Bridges and Terrace Martin are both artists who preserve long legacies of black music, carrying honored traditions into the future. Bridges channels decades of soul and R&B, while Martin sits at the nexus of jazz and hip-hop. Consequently, the two are a particularly apt team to communicate the vital message of the moment. “Sweeter,” released June 8, is a smooth, soulful number. While so many other new protest songs pound fists of fury, this one stands apart with its tone of resigned disappointment. “I wish I had another day, but it’s just another day,” Bridges sings tenderly over a mellow sax-filled backdrop, hovering just above the depths of despair, clinging on to Dr. King’s dream over a half a century later.

Who Do I Turn To?: Joy Oladokun
Released June 5, Joy Oladokun cuts right to the chase, admitting, “I’m scared of getting pulled over ’cause of someone else I look like.” These simple lines encapsulate a struggle shared by black people throughout the country, and this gentle, unassuming piano ballad draws attention to the confounding simplicity at the root of the matter. Oladokun trudges along, expressing her fatigue at seeing the same story in the news again and again, and making a series of helpless entreaties, culminating in a desperate, climactic cry of “Who do I turn to?”

Walking in the Snow: Run the Jewels
Run the Jewels have always had a revolutionary manner about them, and they tackle current events with all their usual zeal, teaming up with Three Six Mafia’s Gangsta Boo. Over a dystopian B-boy soundscape of referee whistles, handclaps, and wonky bass, they call attention to the public’s overall lack of empathy in a spirited back and forth. Killa Mike reminds us how he “popped up in Wikileaks,” name drops Chomsky and Bukowski, and criticizes the whole system, from schools to prisons. The most piercing line comes when he quotes the final words of both Eric Garner and George Floyd, noting “You watch the cops choke out a man like me / And ’til my voice goes from a shriek to whisper, ‘I can’t breathe.’” 

2020 Riots: How Many Times: Trey Songz
Released June 5, Trey Songs tackles the central question on everyone’s mind right now, as the same horrific story repeats itself time and time again. He questions the efficacy of marches, signs, and lives, one by one, culminating in the final, dramatic question: “How many times?” The pain and anguish are palpable in his strained, yet smooth delivery. You can trace the emotion in real time through his melismatic outpourings, and he sounds, at moments, as if he is about to break into tears. By the end, a gospel choir has joined him, and the frail entreaty has built into a spirited, unifying chant. 

The People: Jim Jones
Released June 4, “The People” begins with Jim Jones reading the breaking news of nationwide protests on CNN in real time, over a soulful sample of Birdy singing the titular word. He pays tribute to George Floyd directly, and dives into a verse packed with historical allusions, covering a timeline stretching from Columbus to Covid-19. He deconstructs new footage from Somalia, calls for more than reparations, shouts out to figures like Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, and builds up to a chilling ending in which he quotes Floyd’s final words, all the way through to his final call for his “Mama.”

Body Cast: Dua Saleh
Released May 30, “Body Cast” is a barebones track that lets Minneapolis-based queer artist Dua Saleh’s expressive, idiosyncratic voice speak for itself. Saleh weaves through a hushed melody as ghostly choirs swell at key points, over an insistent drum beat. They give the song the silent but deadly treatment, as you can hear Saleh seethe under their cool composure, delivering lines like, “Iron out my organs ’til my body,” and holding their ground in the chorus, insisting, “Bitch, I never said it.” When the song comes to an end we hear the voice of Angela Whitehead reminding us that she knows her rights, and officers cannot illegally enter her home. Proceeds from the song’s Bandcamp downloads will be donated to the Black Visions Collective. 

They Don’t: Nasty C ft. T.I.
Released June 5, this song captures a rare combination of defeat and hope. “Nasty C” has internalized systemic racism to such an extent that enmity is assumed. He sings, “They don’t want me to win, they don’t want me to eat” from a scapegoat’s mentality, yet musters up the resolve, at moments, to suggest, “But everything will be alright soon.” T.I. drops a short but pointed verse, mentioning George Floyd, Emmett Till, Sean Bell, Breonna Taylor, and Sandra Bland. In true activist spirit, Nasty C and T.I. will donate all proceeds from the song to Until Freedom & the Solidarity Fund. 

Otherside of America: Meek Mill
Released June 5, “Otherside of America” begins with a snippet from a Trump campaign speech, describing the overall pitiful social state of the black community, and asking, “What the hell do you have to lose?” In spite of the condescending tone, it’s hard to argue with the statistics, and Meek Mill steps up promptly to describe the experience from the “Otherside of America.” Over a standard trap beat, he drops verses full of the usual gunslinging bravado, but this time in the context of the hardship that leads to such circumstances, with lines like “Uzi on me, all my friends are dead, nigga, we lonely.” The outro draws from a CNN interview in which Mill communicates to the interviewer why someone from his upbringing feels obliged to carry a gun.

Black Like Me: Mickey Guyton
As a black woman in country music, singer Mickey Guyton might be more qualified than anyone else on this list to sing about what it feels like to be an outsider. She opts for a simple, subdued approach, drawing attention to a difference that is always present, even in an otherwise nondescript, small town life. In a catchy chorus, she challenges the listener, “You should try to be, oh, black like me,” gaining traction in successive verses, until belting passionately in the end, expressing both newfound pride and hopes of a brighter future.

Let Go: D Smoke and SiR
Released May 29, D Smoke wrote this song the day of George Floyd’s death. In an old school track of basic beats and rhymes, Smoke speaks his mind on the matter, vividly depicting scenarios, and offering a stream of consciousness narration of the concerns that arise in certain situations. His first verse is measured and reflective, while his second is impassioned and agitated. SiR sings a tortured hook, asking, “If I shout but ain’t nobody around to hear it / How ’bout it when it echo?” We can only hope that at this stage, the shouts have echoed one time too many.

Front Lines: Conway the Machine 
Released June 1, “Front Lines” is a no-nonsense hip-hop track, with Conway spitting verses over a minimal beat, shuttling between non sequitur wordplay as he always does. This time he draws from current events, as he brings up the video of George Floyd’s murder, describing in detail the descpicable manner in which the officer was seen, and concluding, “Cracker invent the laws, that’s why the system is flawed.” In the context, the otherwise vague refrain of “All my niggas outside, they outside” takes on a revolutionary ring, confirmed by an outro of a news reporter at the scene of a protest