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How to Write a Protest Song in 2017

On the gospel-punk band Algiers’s latest album, frontman Franklin James Fisher howls with anguish, anger, and desperation. But also: hope.

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

“Cleveland,” from the Atlanta gospel-punk quartet Algiers, is the best kind of political song, both rousing and acutely painful, timeless and dismayingly timely. Its title has two inspirations. First, the song is built around a sample of gospel kingpin Reverend James Cleveland’s magisterial “Peace Be Still.” Second, it’s a grim survey of what the band describes as “the entire history of legalized murder and imprisonment of black Americans,” and in particular the death of Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old African American boy shot and killed by a Cleveland police officer in 2014 while sitting on a swing, holding a toy gun.

“Innocence is alive,” howls frontman Franklin James Fisher on the refrain, “and it’s coming back one day.” How you’ll react to this song largely depends on whether you believe him, and whether you think he believes himself.

“I think whenever you’re talking about belief, it’s always sort of intertwined with doubt,” Fisher says, talking over the phone a few days before the Friday release of Algiers’s second album, The Underside of Power. “Those two things coexist. A belief is also a hope.” Hope, in this case, is a very powerful, very fragile, and incredibly vicious thing.

Sonically, “Cleveland” is a singular combination of thrilling and terrifying, a dense industrial apocalypse, a pocket tour of both heaven and hell. “Whoooa, I never saw your face,” Fisher wails, by way of introduction. “But I can tell you’re there and waiting at the right hand.” Soon, he leads a call-and-response recitation of black Americans who died under mysterious and/or highly contentious circumstances, often in jail cells:

This is followed by 30 genuinely petrifying seconds of atonal anguish and fury and vengeance, a free-jazz horror-film freakout that depicts, as Fisher puts it, the point “when you’re so overcome with grief, you don’t really know what else to do.” But that’s only half the equation.

“In this particular song, that also represents the bad guys finally getting what they deserve,” he continues. “You might get away with it in this life, but you won’t in the next. Whether that’s some sort of divine violence, or a corrective sort of rising up, exacting vengeance. Either way, you would like to imagine it, within that middle-eight space of that three-and-a-half-minute song.”

This is challenging, high-minded stuff from a fearless and omnivorous band. Read anything about The Underside of Power and you’re bombarded with genres and styles and desperate attempts at contextualization: Northern soul, Detroit techno, Italian horror soundtracks, punk and post-punk deities, Curtis Mayfield, TV on the Radio. Rap music from London, Chicago, and back home in Atlanta. But the seamless result never feels like homework. The title track is dense and slick and catchy and monolithic, with Fisher splitting the difference between a punk snarler and a soul belter; “Suicide-meets-Stax” is the clubhouse leader for the best quick-and-dirty summation.

Much of that dystopian art-soul sound is present on the band’s 2015 self-titled debut album, but The Underside of Power sounds fuller and nastier and much, much angrier. You might superficially attribute that change to the fact of it emerging in Donald Trump’s America. Fisher says that “Animals,” a jackhammering Suicide-without-the-Stax dirge written in early 2016, is “a direct reference to the rise of Trump, of cryptofascist America, which has been sort of waiting to resurrect all of its nastiness for a very long time.” As the song itself puts it, “They planted all the corpses on the side of the house / And now they act surprised that they’re beginning to sprout.”

But “Cleveland” is the focal point of this album, a despairing reminder that the horrors and injustices it depicts long predate our current situation: As Fisher notes, most of the victims mentioned in the song died during the Obama administration.

“I don’t know how that sort of despair doesn’t resonate with anybody on a guttural level, if they’ve been exposed to any of what’s been happening for the past several decades,” he says. “Disheartening doesn’t begin to describe it. Particularly for things wherein you have actual footage, you see what’s transpired. You think that would be damning evidence. And somehow, it just still doesn’t matter. Yeah. Frustrating at hell.”

A few days after “Cleveland” premiered in June, a Minnesota jury returned a not-guilty verdict for the police officer who shot and killed Philando Castile. (Equally upsetting dashcam footage of the shooting was released earlier this week.) The scariest thing about this song is the fact that the tragedies fueling it have proved to be a renewable resource, the roll call constantly in need of an update.

“It’s never really my intention to bring depression to somebody’s doorstep when I’m writing a song,” Fisher says. “That’s not what I’m striving for. But at the same time, I’m not really thinking about people when I’m writing, you know what I mean? It’s more of an existential therapy, and a sort of exorcism, for me to come to grips with what’s happened.”

He’s also trying to come to grips with all the tragedies he doesn’t know about. “That was kind of what spawned the name-calling thing — it’s almost sort of representative of the faceless multitude,” he continues. “With the exception of Sandra Bland, I’m not sure how many of those names are in the national spotlight, or ever were. They’re representative of so many more people like them.”

Fisher is calling from the basement of a stadium in Europe; Algiers are opening a series of shows for synth-pop heroes Depeche Mode, whose new album is more explicitly political than their usual. It’s hard to say what the average Depeche Mode fanatic would make of Algiers at first contact, if they’d hear fierce sophistication or pure noise, rebellion or despondence. There’s definitely a little despondence in there, but not enough to break the band’s spirit, or yours. “You have to have hope,” Fisher says. “Because otherwise, you will crawl into a fetal position and go down this pit of apathy and despair. That’s not really an option. I don’t think that’s an option for anybody who has a creative impulse to want to make something to communicate with other people, things that can’t really be communicated by conventional means.”

“Cleveland” at least hints at the possibility of justice, sometime, somehow. “There’s always that thread of hope that’s underlying anything that we do,” Fisher says. “But it is really interesting, the intersection of celebration and joy, and despair and heartache. This is something that’s particularly hatched within the African American experience. That’s what it’s always been. That’s something that extends beyond borders, and beyond nationality, and beyond subjective histories. It’s something that’s very close to home for me, obviously, and it’s something that we try to emphasize in our music.” He has far too many decades-old tragedies to sing about, and far too many new names to sing. You can plainly hear the anguish in his voice. But you can hear defiance, too.