Black Protest Anthems Are Bringing Sixties Soul Back To Rap
Tomorrow will be the first time that the residents of Ferguson, MI, have gone to the polls to pick a presidential candidate since the killing of Michael Brown two years ago. It’ll be four years since Trayvon Martin was gunned down in Florida. In this nearly half decade of public unrest, a national Black Lives Matter movement has created a new wave of activism not seen since the Civil Rights Era fought to end segregation in the 1960s. Hundreds of thousands have taken to the streets to speak out about racial discrimination, police brutality, and other struggles that come with being black in America. Alongside their footsteps and voices, a new chorus of singers have emerged to answer the call to action and, in the process, have led to a resurgence of one of the most vital genres of black artistry.
“Jazz speaks for life,” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said in a 1964 speech. “The blues tell the story of life’s difficulties—and, if you think for a moment, you realize that they take the hardest realities of life and put them into music, only to come out with some new hope or sense of triumph. This is triumphant music.” The genres of jazz, soul, and blues have become interchangeable for a style of music that’s punctuated as much with brassy saxophones and booming trumpets as it is overrun with searing, introspective lyrics.
It was through this genre that the Black Panthers voiced their struggle, with notable black artists like Elaine Brown and vocal supergroup The Lumpen taking the rebel group’s message of self confidence and assertiveness from the streets to the radio waves. James Brown ruptured the status quo with his soulful anthem to black male confidence, “Say it Now, Say it Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud,” while Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” provided a mantra as relevant in the Black Power movement of the ’60s as it is now in the Black Lives Matter movement.
In the decades since the explosion of soul music into the mainstream, sounds have shifted and protest music became more focused on hardcore hip hop and visceral lyricism. Horns, saxophones, and trumpets were put away in favor of drum machines, samples, and beatbox-heavy raps. The soul movement ceded to the N.W.A.‘s fiery anthem, “Fuck tha Police,” and became an outlet for the anger of a broken system. 20 years after the gangsta rap genre took off the gloves and created protest music that was as honest as it was hard-hitting, the new wave of black power anthems have begun to bring back the roots of soul to voice the cynicism and hope of a new generation of people struggling to navigate America’s structural racism.
The new soul movement may have dusted off the brassy jazz of decades past, but it interweaves it with a somber lyricism that’s as searing as it is searching. There had been rumblings of the impending mainstream soul revival before Trayvon Martin’s murder sparked a movement. Most notably, the 2010 release of Wake Up, John Legend and The Roots’ cover album of ’60s and ’70s soul protest anthems. It was a necessary look back at the struggles that communities of color had overcome before the new era of protest music reminded listeners of how much more work needs to be done to achieve equality.
Like the Black Power movement’s ties to the genre in the ’60s, the new wave of artists bearing their souls today have emerged out of the Black Lives Matter protests and the epidemic of police brutality that has claimed the lives of thousands. The names of Mike Brown, Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, and countless others have become the rallying cries of bluesy and soulful ballads or powerful, charging anthems. D’Angelo emerged from a 14-year absence in the wake of Ferguson to rock the world with Black Messiah, a protest album steeped in jazz and slick with his soulful crooning over lyrics about unrest and liberation. Kendrick Lamar, the crown jewel of the rap soul revival, has released two masterpiece albums full of jazz-heavy beats with collaborator Kamasi Washington, and has taken the stage at award shows to deliver blistering declarations on the black experience. Outside of full protests albums, Common and John Legend’s Selma anthem “Glory,” Alicia Keys’ Michael Brown and Eric Garner-inspired “We Gotta Pray,” and Eryn Allen Kane and Prince’s “Baltimore” have provided searching soul music in song-sized chunks.
The songs and albums that have emerged out of the past half decade of black protest music are a soaring return to the roots of soul and blues while staying true to modern rap. It’s a call to arms and a sonic response to the tragedy of being black in America. By reviving the brassy jazz music of the ’60s, this new wave of artists is paying tribute to the pioneers of the Civil Rights Era while articulating how much more we need to accomplish to achieve equality.
Stay tuned to Milk for more protest music.
Image via Kamasi Washington.