As we are all aware, on May 24, 2020, George Floyd was killed during an arrest in Minneapolis, Minnesota. This is an all-too-common tale, one of a Black man not surviving an encounter with police. Floyd’s death, which was recorded by an onlooker, has shaken up not only the United States but the entire world, leading to protests near and far.
With every movement comes music, and for as long as Black musicians have been creating music, they have used the art form to share their stories, their pain, with the world. Since the Black Lives Matter movement began in 2013, following the death of Trayvon Martin, Black artists have used their music as an act of protest. We are also seeing the return of older music that captures the spirit and the pain of the current state of the world. Here, we’ve compiled some of the most poignant tracks dealing with racial injustice that we can all learn from.
Ripped From the 21st Century Headlines
Over the past few years, with the racial unrest in America and beyond, several artists have been inspired to speak out in the manner they know best: through their music.
‘Runaway’ – Mai Moxi and Will Kuepper
In 2018, Dirt Media and Magic Degree Recordings released the album The Political is Personal. Featuring music and poetry from a variety of artists from the Denver area, the album focuses on the theme of sharing art as a political action. One such song on the album is ‘Runaway,’ a collaboration between Mai Moxi and cellist Will Kuepper. ‘Runaway’ is soft, strangely intimate, especially considering the rough lyrical content. The song features the line ‘White people hunting,’ a harsh word choice but one that is important all the same.
For further listening, check out: the rest of the album The Political is Personal
‘Martin, Malcolm, Marvin’ – Mike Patrick
Mike Patrick is a critically acclaimed pianist, back with an empowering instrumental, named for civil rights leaders. In the video for ‘Martin, Malcolm, Marvin,’ powerful scenes, including news snippets taken directly from the racial divide we see in society today, are the focal point, making the track’s title all the more relevant. However, this imagery is displayed along with footage of peaceful protests. Though ‘Martin, Malcolm, Marvin’ has no lyrical content, the jazz-infused track puts forward a feeling of hopefulness that we can overcome and create a better, more equal world.
For further listening, check out: Mike Patrick’s album The Piano
‘I Can’t Breathe’ – H.E.R.
In the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of the police and the resulting protests, H.E.R. released a new song, ‘I Can’t Breathe.’ The song’s title itself sends a message, as it comes from Floyd’s last words before passing away. The lyrics are no different, a scathing attack against police brutality. ‘All the corruption, injustice, the same crimes / Always a problem if we do or don’t fight,’ H.E.R. sings. This is the reality protesters face: peaceful protests, such as Colin Kaepernick’s decision to kneel during the national anthem, is met with as much resistance as louder and more violent demonstrations, indicating there is no winning.
For further listening, check out: H.E.R.’s Girls with Guitars series on Instagram, where she recently aired a special Black Music Month edition
‘Black Rage’ – Lauryn Hill
When Lauryn Hill released ‘Black Rage’ in 2014, she dedicated the song to Ferguson, a city striff with unrest following the murder of Michael Brown. The song itself is interesting, a reworking of ‘My Favorite Things’ from the musical The Sound of Music. It’s a shocking contrast, one that takes the upbeat song and turns it into something darker, bleaker. ‘Black Rage is founded on two-thirds a person / Rapings and beatings and suffering that worsens / Black human packages tied up in strings / Black rage can come from all these kinds of things,’ Hill sings to a soft, flowing beat. The song itself is an opposition: it’s uncomfortable, it’s jarring, it’s important.
‘Baltimore’ – Prince
In 2015, following the death of Freddie Grey, Prince released the protest song, ‘Baltimore,’ with a lyrics video also featuring tributes to Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown. In ‘Baltimore,’ Prince rejects the notion that an absence of war means there is peace. He sings, ‘Are we gonna see another bloody day? / We’re tired of the crying and people dying / Let’s take all the guns away,’ directing his anger at the all-too-common occurrence of police shooting unarmed Black men. Today, as protesters march, they chant, ‘No justice, no peace,’ a sentiment that Prince echoes in ‘Baltimore’: ‘If there ain’t no justice, then there ain’t no peace.’
‘Marching on Ferguson’ – Tom Morello
Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello is no stranger to politically-charged music. RATM is well-known for creating music with revolutionary views. Morello does the same with his solo work, and one of the best examples of this is ‘Marching on Ferguson.’ The song was inspired by Michael Brown, a Black teenager shot and killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. The incident led to unrest in the city. With ‘Marching on Ferguson,’ Morello shows his support for the protesters, with lyrics like, ‘No peace and no patience / I’m under surveillance / Wish I woulda paid less / Different glove, same fit / I’m marching on Ferguson / I’m marching tonight.’
Don’t Forget the Classics
Racial inequality (and the need for social justice in general) has always been a prominent theme in music, made evident by the following tracks.
‘They Don’t Care About Us’ – Michael Jackson
When fans of music think of Michael Jackson, songs like ‘Beat It’ and ‘Bad’ may be the first to come to mind. These songs are fun, but, starting in the early 1990s, the King of Pop’s music frequently took a stance against racism, something he had personal experience with. ‘They Don’t Care About Us,’ a song Jackson himself referred to as ‘a protest kind of song,’ is just one example. Released in 1995, ‘They Don’t Care About Us’ was intended to shed light on racism in the world, in addition to making a connection between other types of oppression. In the song, Jackson proclaims, ‘I am the victim of police brutality, now / I’m tired of bein’ the victim of hate.’ It’s no wonder the song has gained more attention in recent years.
‘Across the Lines’ – Tracy Chapman
When Tracy Chapman burst on the scene in 1988 with her self-titled debut album, she helped revive the singer-songwriter tradition that had seemingly been lost amongst pop ballads and hair metal. Much like the folk singers of the 1960s, Chapman chose to focus on social issues, with the track ‘Across the Lines’ centering on racial violence in particular. ‘Little black girl gets assaulted / Don’t no one know her name / Lots of people hurt and angry, she’s the one to blame,’ she sings, these lines cushioned between lyrics focusing on riots and a location that is ‘Under the bridge / Over the tracks / That separates whites from blacks.’
‘Killing In the Name’ – Rage Against the Machine
Rage Against the Machine is no stranger to getting political. Their brand of rap metal is aggressive, and, coupled with their lyrics, the band is revolutionary. ‘Killing in the Name,’ released in 1992, was the lead single for RATM’s debut album, and it’s explosive. The song is explicitly about institutional racism, police brutality, and the revolt against both. With lyrics like ‘You justify those that died by wearing the badge, they’re the chosen whites’ and ‘Some of those that work forces are the same that burn crosses,’ it’s impossible to not know where the band stands on these issues, making it even more incredulous that listeners, in the year 2020, criticize the band for being political.
‘Rhythm Nation’ – Janet Jackson
In 1989, Janet Jackson released her fourth album, Rhythm Nation 1814, a concept album focused on social issues. One of the most prominent songs to come out of the album is ‘Rhythm Nation.’ The song speaks of coming together to protest the injustice in the world. Focusing on unity as opposed to individualism, she sings, ‘With music by our side / To break the color lines / Let’s work together / To improve our way of life / Join voices in protest / To social injustice.’