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The Problem With Trying to Force Protest Music

In the wake of the uprisings stemming from the killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, dozens of new songs have tried to make a statement. But few—if any—have captured the moment.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

A few weeks ago, I was one of tens of thousands marching down Sunset and then Hollywood boulevards. We waved signs about abolition and onlookers honked their car horns; Hollywood, and then West Hollywood, echoed with rhythmic chants declaring that Black Lives Matter, demanding that everyone say the names Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. Near the start, someone played “Freedom” by Beyoncé, and the people around me began to sway, singing of a better future. But increasingly, marching began to feel just like walking, as we passed freely by cops and met only people who agreed with us. It was a contradiction in aims: YG organized the largest anti-racism protest in Los Angeles’s history, but then shot a music video there. Cars blaring YG’s new single, “FTP,” the spiritual follow-up to 2016’s “FDT,” were strung along the route. I joined in shouting the hook because that was easy enough, but I didn’t know the rest of the words—not even by the second mile, after who knows how many listens. I turned to a friend and suggested morale might improve if they played “Dior” by Pop Smoke.

When you reach for that song, right now—to rescue you from despair, to inspire you, to at times literally get you out of bed—does it immediately come to you? Could you say, with any confidence, that there’s a nominal “protest” song that ably threads the fury and anguish and confusion and hope you feel in this particular moment? That feels like a bookmark for this moment in time? That feels as though it’s making A Statement? Because it is not “FTP” for me—other, better, more incendiary renditions of “Fuck the Police” already exist.

There are other songs that are trying to be that song for right now, though. Lil Baby’s “The Bigger Picture,” the proceeds of which will “support the movement,” according to a press release, is a genuine national hit. It invites you to look outside and see what Baby sees: a hail of rubber bullets, a corrupt system proudly built on unequal power structures, and rampant empathic failure. “It’s bigger than black and white, it’s a problem with our whole way of life,” goes the hook. The song plays as one righteous, hypertopical screed, and it’s clearly the work of a rapper in the midst of his prime, but “The Bigger Picture” can also feel inert, and a bit like scrolling a timeline—“the scars too deep to heal us / what happen to COVID nobody remember?

It’s an awkward stylistic tendency of a lot of today’s purpose-made “protest” music. You could overread this passage in Anderson .Paak’s “Lockdown” as one of those frank barbershop conversations that moves as quickly as people can recall things they’re mad about. But in the car, or on the street, or in the privacy of your own home, it just sounds like the past month’s grabbiest headlines laid end to end:

Sicker than the COVID how they did him on the ground
Speakin’ of the COVID, is it still goin’ around?
And won’t you tell me ’bout the lootin’? What’s that really all about?
‘Cause they throw away Black lives like paper towels
Plus unemployment rate, what, 40 million now?

Then there’s this dispatch, from Conway the Machine’s “Front Lines”:

I just seen a video on the news I couldn’t believe (Nah)
Another racist cop kill a nigga and get to leave (Again?)
He screamin’, “I can’t breathe,” cop ignorin’ all his pleas
Hands in his pocket, leanin’ on his neck with his knees (Psh)
Cracker invent the laws, that’s why the system is flawed
Cops killin’ Black people on camera and don’t get charged

Though no doubt animated by ancestral trauma and stoked by daily bullshit, and not bad by any means, these songs—the “protest” genre in general, as it’s currently constituted—tend to feel like they’re stating the obvious. Just like with Dave Chappelle’s recent 8:46 special, there’s a lingering sense that you’ve heard this all before, on Twitter. There may have been a time when John Lennon balanced a bird on his guitar and soothed the bitterly bummed-out masses with a lullaby about basic human decency, or when Neil Young could literally break news, but those days have been over for some time. There are more and more diverse channels through which underrepresented communities can advocate for themselves. For instance, the Detroit house mix of “No Justice, No Peace,” and DJ Suede the Remix God and DJ iMarkKeyz’s “You About to Lose Your Job”—a remixed clip of Johnniqua Charles’s being detained by a South Carolina security guard this past February—are truthfully chaotic and organic, and feel more like bookmarks than any of the studio-recorded music that has sought to serve that function.

There’s just no way to neatly resolve the broad and ever-lengthening list of concerns that has led protesters out onto the streets across the country, night after night. This Moment, which carries with it the sum total of frustration and skepticism and unaddressed grievances left over from all other previous Moments, has duly made insufficient spokespeople out of “trusted” voices on a near-daily basis. In that respect, J. Cole, who released a new song “Snow On Tha Bluff” to much criticism last week, is simply the latest. In the song, he admits to not knowing much about how to be a good ally, and pleads with a nameless woman to be a little less harsh in teaching him how to be better: “If I could make one suggestion, respectfully / I’d say it’s more effective to treat people like children,” he raps. The open secret is that this was a direct response to Noname, who, in the wake of the news of the disappearance and death of Oluwatoyin Salau and Victoria Sims, rightly took Black men to task for their conspicuous absence when it comes time to stand up for Black women. (It’s important to note that the broad appeal of Noname, aside from her obvious ability as a storyteller, is her willingness to not be cool while trying to learn something. She was “Noname Gypsy” before she was informed that part of her stage name was a slur; she started a reading club in part to motivate herself to read progressive books by writers of color and LGBTQ writers, and to have space to talk about them.)

This kind of contrition is familiar to you if you’ve been fielding texts from well-meaning white friends looking to outsource their anxieties. J. Cole is just one of many Black men that recently learned it is possible to be a victim of one form of oppression while being an agent of another, and would like reassurances that no one is mad at him for it. It comes off as stunted as those tossed off trending topics by Baby or Paak or Conway or whomever—it’s an overemphasis on the result (a song; reconciliation) over the process, which is where our chance to prevent the next crisis lies.

Perhaps, if you’re an artist, the best you could hope to be is like Noname, who responded with “Song 33,” produced by Madlib, the next day. To my mind, what she said in the song itself was less important than her willingness to tweet an apology for wrenching the discourse away from more important matters for a weekend. I don’t accept it, because I feel that she was right—it may be a flawed step, but it’s another earnest one toward developing “good” politics on a personal level, rather than projecting sanitized politics outward.

You’ll notice that I still haven’t settled on that song. The politically indispensable one. It could be that it doesn’t exist. I don’t think there is one song that makes the meaningful statement about this moment in time—so don’t feel bad if you aren’t particularly moved by “FTP.” It still works great for cardio.