‘There’s An Awakening Going On’: Inside The Protest Music Explosion

Written by on June 27, 2020

by Jason Lipshutz

As superstars and rising artists alike release songs about racial injustice, the music industry adapts to a more socially conscious moment.

The week that George Floyd was killed by police on May 25 in Minneapolis, R&B singer-songwriter H.E.R. was experiencing a very acute type of sadness. “I think we all were,” the Grammy winner tells Billboard, “just being very overwhelmed when social media was flooded with the video — and just knowing that there hadn’t been any kind of justice.”

She remembers feeling uninspired that final week of May, until she got on the phone with her frequent songwriting collaborator, Tiara Thomas, to discuss Floyd’s death and its greater meaning as an act of police brutality. That conversation turned into the foundation of “I Can’t Breathe,” a searing indictment of a society that refuses to change — its title could refer to the police killing of Eric Garner in 2014, or the police killing of George Floyd six years later — as well as a plea for unity. “How do we cope when we don’t love each other?,” goes H.E.R.’s favorite line in the song, which was given a raw, soulful arrangement by producer D’Mile.

Since the release of “I Can’t Breathe” last Friday (June 19), H.E.R. has received a ton of positive, and emotional, responses from fans. “A lot of people have said, ‘This was needed,’” she says. “And there’s no better feeling than feeling like your art is necessary.”

In the month since George Floyd’s death, worldwide protests have erupted against police brutality and racial injustice — and the world of popular music has been transformed in conjunction with the movement, resulting in the most pronounced period of protest songs in multiple generations. Artists across genres and demographics, from rising singer-songwriters to hip-hop A-listers, have commented on the human rights violations that have made national news over the past month, including (but not limited to) the wrongful deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. And the music industry has responded in kind, with tracks like Lil Baby’s “The Bigger Picture” making splashy Hot 100 debuts and protest songs dominating streaming playlists like Spotify’s New Music Friday and Apple Music’s New Music Daily.

Read More From Lil Baby to T-Pain: 10 New Black Lives Matter Protest Songs That You Have to Hear

“People are responding to that kind of music — it’s what they want to hear,” says Carl Chery, head of urban music at Spotify, which made its most recent New Music Friday playlist exclusively songs from Black artists in observation of the Juneteenth holiday. Chery says that hip-hop has naturally led the conversation as related to new injustices against Black Americans, but the difference between this influx of protest music and others in the recent past  has been the participation of artists that don’t typically speak on social issues.

“[Modern] hip-hop has been about escapism, to a certain extent,” Chery says. “But the world doesn’t lend itself to that right now. This might not be the time to escape reality — you need to be aware of what’s going on.”

The first pronounced wave of new protest music arrived the week of June 1, during which thousands of Americans marched in cities across the country and President Trump ordered peaceful protesters in Washington D.C. to be tear gassed. That week, YG returned with “FTP,” a spiritual sequel to his 2016  anti-Trump anthem “FDT” aimed at the police; Detroit rapper Tee Grizzley teamed up with rising R&B singer Queen Naija and members of the Detroit Youth Choir for the poignant “Mr. Officer”; Run The Jewels released their new album RTJ4, recorded before George Floyd’s death but including several nods to systemic racism; and Leon Bridges unveiled “Sweeter,” a collaboration with Terrace Martin told from the perspective of a Black man taking his last breath before dying.

“A song like ‘Sweeter,’ I wrote that last year, and it’s a perpetual narrative,” says Bridges. The acclaimed singer-songwriter felt compelled to return to the Southside of Fort Worth, Texas to film a music video for “Sweeter” in the Black community where he grew up, after being “heartbroken” by recent news events. “It’s an accumulation and constant narrative of Black men dying in the hands of police,” says Bridges. “And in the past, I’ve been numb to those things, but seeing Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd was a tipping point for me. That fired me up.”

In the same week that “Sweeter” came out, country artist Mickey Guyton also released a song that she had written last year: “Black Like Me” touches upon the singer-songwriter’s first experiences with racism as a child, and how frustratingly little has changed in modern society. Guyton, one of the more prominent African-American artists in a predominantly white genre, says that “Black Like Me” —  recorded and mastered last November — quickly became one of her favorite songs she had made. Yet she says that she still didn’t expect it to see the light of day.

“I would send it out to people, and people would be like, ‘I need to sit with this for a minute.’ And I’m thinking, ‘What do you need to sit with?’” Guyton recalls. “I had this song done last year, and people weren’t ready to hear it.”

As national protests continued and expanded during the week of June 8, mainstream hip-hop and R&B artists not known for addressing social issues in their music released songs that did so. DaBaby released a “Black Lives Matter remix” of his Roddy Ricch collaboration “Rockstar,” as the song (which also includes the line “f–k a cop car” in its chorus) resided at the top of the Hot 100 chart. Juicy J, best known for his club anthems as a solo artist and as part of Three 6 Mafia, released “Hella F–kin’ Trauma,” a scorching reflection on systemic racism. Anderson .Paak and Trey Songz issued powerful comments on “Lockdown” and “2020 Riots: How Many Times,” respectively, and T.I. and South African rapper Nasty C teamed up for “They Don’t,” which sends love to the “innocent mothers” who get their children taken away in police killings.

“We’re in the middle of a revolutionary time as we’re fighting against systemic injustice,” says T.I. “It was important for me to get my message out there about demanding justice for the families of the slain and accountability for the officers in our communities.”

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