By Camille Rasor | Arts & Life Editor
As Black Lives Matter protests continue across the country in the wake of the police killings of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Ky., Black musicians released new singles expressing their support of the movement and their anger and sorrow over lives lost.
This is not the first time Black artists responded to police killings with new songs. This tradition started a long time ago, and in modern music, several releases are still remembered and played on loud speakers at racial justice protests.
In August 2014, rapper The Game released a track called “Don’t Shoot” featuring nine other artists, including DJ Khaled, Rick Ross and 2 Chainz, in the wake of the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. The song ends with a haunting verse sung by The Game’s then-4-year-old daughter which includes the lyrics “God ain’t put us on the Earth to get murdered, it’s murder / Don’t point your weapons at me.”
In March 2015, Kendrick Lamar released “Alright,” a single that has since been played at protests against police brutality across the country. The song preaches a hopeful message while also calling back to injustices Black people have faced in this country since slavery and the Reconstruction era following the Civil War. The chorus features the lyrics “We gon’ be alright / Do you hear me, do you feel me? We gon’ be alright.”
In May 2018, Childish Gambino released “This Is America,” which went on to earn Song of the Year and Record of the Year at the 61st annual Grammy Awards. With the lyrics “Look how I’m livin’ now / Police be trippin’ now / Yeah, this is America / Guns in my area,” the song speaks to police brutality against Black men as well as general gun violence that plagues America. In the music video there are 17 seconds of silence which critics and fans have interpreted as a tribute to the 17 deaths of students at the Feb. 14, 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.
However, in the wake of recent police killings and broad support of the Black Lives Matter movement, a new wave of songs came out as a way to support the protests and to celebrate of Black culture in America. Some of the most popular ones are detailed below:
1. Beyoncé – Black Parade
This new Beyoncé single calls back to African history, indigenous religion and the land itself while also celebrating the African diaspora and those within the Black community in America. The singer released the song as a celebration of Juneteenth, a holiday that celebrates the last slaves being freed in Galveston on June 19, 1865 after word of the Emancipation Proclamation reached them two and a half years after it was made official. Featuring the lyrics, “Put your fist up in the air, show black love (Show black love) / Motherland drip on me, motherland, motherland drip on me,” this song is pure, unadulterated celebration of Black culture. Additionally, the proceeds from the single will be donated to Beyonce’s charity initiative, BeyGOOD’s Black Business Impact Fund, to support small Black-owned businesses in need.
2. H.E.R. – I Can’t Breathe
In this song, also released on Juneteenth, R&B artist H.E.R. sings about the fear that she experiences as a Black woman in America and the injustices she sees regarding police brutality against the Black community. The sorrowful ballad features a short chorus containing the lines, “I can’t breathe / You’re taking my life from me / I can’t breathe / Will anyone fight for me?” echoing some of the final words of Floyd and Eric Garner in 2014, both of whom were killed by police. The song ends with a lengthy verse that calls back to famous Black artists of past generations such as Billie Holiday and Gil Scott-Heron. H.E.R.’s voice gets angrier throughout the last verse of the song, finally ending with a moving call to her listeners with the words “Do not say you do not see color / When you see us, see us / We can’t breathe.” Proceeds from the song will go to Black Lives Matter.
3. Anderson .Paak – Lockdown
This R&B and rap track, another Juneteenth release, plays on the juxtaposition between the state of lockdown the country was in due to the coronavirus pandemic and the mass crowds that took to the streets in protest after the deaths of Floyd and Taylor. With the lyrics “Stayin’ quiet when they killin’ n—–, but you speak loud / When we riot, got opinions comin’ from a place of privilege / Sicker than the COVID how they did him on the ground / Speakin’ of the COVID, is it still goin’ around?” .Paak speaks to the anger and frustration activists feel when those in political office and the media suggest that they protest peacefully as if rioting is an unjustifiable and unproductive form of protest. The line also speaks to the health risks protesters have put themselves in, especially during a pandemic that is disproportionately affecting Black, Latinx and other minority communities. The track also speaks to the differences between this summer’s protests compared to the riots in Los Angeles in 1992 in response to the acquittal of the police officers who brutally beat Rodney King, and in doing so, frames this moment in civil rights history as perhaps a turning point in the fight for justice and equality.
4. T-Pain – Get Up
This track, released on June 12, has a distinct pop feel to it with the synth line humming in the background to the encouraging lyrics, “Everybody gettin’ knocked down (Knocked down) / The only thing that matters is what you gon’ do when you get up.” The music video begins with an audio clip of one of the speeches of 1960s civil rights activist Malcolm X, calling for his audience to “come together against the common enemy” of oppression. The inclusion of this audio clip along with the song’s positive message seeks to encourage those walking in the footsteps of civil rights activists of yesterday in the fight to end racial discrimination and police violence today. The proceeds from the song will go to Crime Survivors Safety and Justice, an organization of survivors of crime fighting for justice and public policy reform.
5. Lil Baby – The Bigger Picture
Rapper Lil Baby packed this June 12 release to the brim with meaningful lyrics on top of a beat that pulls the listener throughout the whole song. The track starts with clips of radio and television journalists speaking about the protests and the goals of those on the streets: to see the officers involved in Floyd and Taylor’s deaths arrested and charged. Baby then puts in an audio clip of protesters shouting “I can’t breathe” before launching into the first verse. It’s tough to choose just a few lyrics to highlight because the verses are packed so tightly with meaning and emotion. The chorus features the lines, “It’s bigger than black and white / It’s a problem with the whole way of life / It can’t change overnight / But we gotta start somewhere.” This sums up the point Baby tries to make throughout the track: the issues protesters are fighting against are so deeply embedded in our society that tons of work will have to be done to change the status quo. It might take time to get to where they want to be, but the work has to start now.