Over the decades, social and racial justice movements have produced powerful, memorable music that can be performed and enjoyed for years afterward. The enduring nature of the songs created to elevate the struggle for peace, justice, and equality, as well as those written to memorialize lives unjustly brutalized or cut short, continue to enrich American culture even years after the events that they commemorate.
Now, a new generation is adding its distinctive voice to our culture through music composed to accompany the Black Lives Matter protests, which have existed as a movement under the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag since 2013. This new music has also revitalized the already universally popular genres of traditional hip hop, rap, and R&B.
A family bears witness to loss
In 2014, Eric Garner of Staten Island, New York, was killed at the hands of police while saying, “I Can’t Breathe” 11 times in succession. Two years later, the Garner Family formed a group to release a single titled, “I Can’t Breathe.” The song is not only a tribute to Garner, but an updated R&B-style rallying cry for principled protest against police brutality. The lyrics echo the ongoing tension between local communities of color and oppressive policing tactics (“We all know the solution, but they blame you and me”), while at the same time offering a positive plea for unity and mutual support and noting with tragic finality, “A life can change as the wind blows.”
One of the Internet’s most popular anthems
In early June 2020, rapper Lil Baby’s “The Bigger Picture” skyrocketed into first place among the most popular protest songs available on the Internet, tallying some 65 million streamed views within the space of two weeks. In his video, the singer-songwriter’s harrowing depiction of unjust death and the grinding brutality of dealing with trauma on a daily basis are complemented by images in the media chronicling the coronavirus pandemic and divisions around the nation.
Starting with its introduction that references the killing of George Floyd and his “I can’t breathe,” echoing Eric Garner, the song runs its lyrics against background footage of some of the protests in support of Black Lives Matter, and highlights both black and white faces among people fighting for positive change.
The singer zooms out to reflect on the fact that, “It's a problem with the whole way of life,” then asks listeners to understand that we need to “start here.”
Music with a message
In Usher’s “I Cry,” the Grammy-winning singer of the 2015 hit “Chains” gives us another poignant song decrying police brutality.
The raw emotion in “I Cry” is Usher’s way of letting his sons know that it’s acceptable for men to show emotion, particularly in the face of waves of overwhelming violence against Black communities. In the related music video, he sings the spare lyrics against a backdrop of newspaper headlines describing the horrific killings of innocent Black Americans. The words summarize Usher’s feelings of helplessness at what is happening in the world around him, as well as his determination to be a part of the solution: “I’ll fight for the future we’re making.”
While “I Cry” is gentler in terms of the lyrics and beats than the more raw “Chains” (featuring Nas and Bibi Bourelly), the two songs complement each other in their ability to portray the African American experience in the present moment as fraught with tension and a constant sense of being unfairly targeted, while refusing to accept the untenable status quo.
The soundtrack of our moment
With their 2020 album RTJ4, the hip hop supergroup duo Run the Jewels (Killer Mike and Jaime “El-P” Meline) released a work that the online publication Vox immediately dubbed as “required listening” for the year. The Vox reviewer wrote that the performers had put “racial unrest to music.”
Coming as it did after the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery near Brunswick, Georgia, Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky, and George Floyd in Minneapolis that galvanized street protests even in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, the entire album hit the nation where it still had a number of unhealed wounds.
“Walking in the Snow” is one of RTJ4’s central songs. “They feed you fear for free,” the lyrics go, leading listeners through the numbness and pain of seeing victims’ names unroll on the evening news. The song goes on to try to help listeners see the urgent need to replace “apathy” with “empathy” for the sake of those targeted with hate, as well as those expressing the hating.
An icon celebrates struggle and joy
In 2016, Beyoncé began using her enormous platform to come out strongly on behalf of racial justice in general and Black Lives Matter in particular. After the widely publicized police shooting deaths of Philando Castile near St. Paul, Minnesota, and Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, that year, the superstar posted a call to action on her social media pages, pleading with fans to speak out against police brutality and demand solutions.
The video for her 2016 song “Formation” includes an image of the phrase “Stop killing us.” Another video that year, for “Freedom” (featuring Kendrick Lamar), juxtaposed the song’s moving lyrics against a visual backdrop that included images of the mothers of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Trayvon Martin holding up photos of their slain sons. Both songs appear on the Grammy-winning album Lemonade.
To celebrate Juneteenth on June 19, 2020, Beyoncé dropped “Black Parade,” a single focused less on suffering than on the abiding resilience and solidarity of the Black community. Juneteenth is a holiday that marks the end of slavery, observed by African American communities since the end of the Civil War in 1865.
Describing the new song that aims to uplift roots, history, and the beauty of the Black communities and voices, regardless of the circumstances, Beyoncé wrote a message on her Instagram highlighting the need to focus on “joy,” while posting an authorized directory of Black-owned businesses and rallying fans to support them throughout the year.