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WOKE MUSIC: SOUNDS OF PROTEST AND BLACK CULTURE
(PART TWO)

Read Part One here.

My recent visit to the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, a museum located on the original site of 1969’s famed Woodstock concert in upstate New York, revealed some apropos info. Amid mounted photos of Richie Havens and Muhammad Ali, nearby labels explain music-related details of the civil rights era. Bernice Johnson Reagon—founding member of both SNCC’s Freedom Singers and the a cappella quartet Sweet Honey in the Rock—married activism and the arts long ago. Another caption tells of singer-activist Bettie Mae Fikes (known as the Voice of Selma) and her popular cover of Pete Seeger’s “If You Miss Me at the Back of the Bus,” written after the drowning of a black boy in a river who was banned from using a segregated swimming pool in Illinois. As the opening act at Woodstock, Richie Havens freestyled “Freedom (Motherless Child)” onstage before an audience of 400,000.

But what the examples of Bernice Johnson Reagon and Bettie Mae Fikes illuminate is that there has always been music created to critique the powers that be that was known mainly to niche audiences. “What’s Going On” hit #1 on the Black singles chart; Anderson .Paak’s “Lockdown” (shining light on the prison industrial complex) and YG’s “FTP” only lasted one week each on any Billboard chart. Common and John Legend can win a Grammy and an Oscar for “Glory,” their positivist contribution to director Ava DuVernay’s Selma. Both most of today’s woke music might not be known beyond the microwaved Twitter moment of buzz it generates.

“I think radio has a lot to do with it,” veteran cultural critic Michael A. Gonzales. “Years back, most radio stations were community-based. DJs might discuss local politics, show up at the school dance or lead a march in the park. People were connected through the disc jockey and through the music. Nowadays, radio stations are detached from the community. Most people, young and old, don’t even listen to the radio anymore; they’re listening on their devices. Record shops, outdoor jams and radio station-sponsored events barely exist now.”

On 5/25, two months deep into this country’s coronavirus pandemic, a police officer knelt on the neck of a forty-something black man named George Floyd in Minneapolis. Arrested for buying cigarettes with an allegedly fake $20 bill, Floyd wheezed “I can’t breathe” in full view of onlookers’ smartphone cameras. His murder led to weeks of civil unrest, global protests, the removal of racist statues and monuments nationwide and Black Lives Matter street murals in several cities—including a stretch of Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue in front of Trump Tower and an avenue leading to the White House in Washington, D.C.

Despite its surface reputation for materialistic excess, hip-hop remains the same voice for social commentary that gave birth to songs from Melle Mel’s “The Message” to Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power.” Most of the recordings inspired by the killing of George Floyd this year emerged from rap artists. Compton’s YG filmed a video live from a BLM protest in Hollywood for his woke music statement “FTP.” Taking the baton from N.W.A, his “fuck the police” choruses sat in between verses equating racist officers with the Ku Klux Klan (“It’s the Ku Klux cops, they on a mission”) and angry venting over all the excessive murders law enforcement has committed against the Black community for decades.

YG isn’t quite cast in the classic “conscious rapper” mold of an MC like Common. But his other attack on police brutality—“Police Get Away With Murder”—dropped four summers ago, name-checking murder victims Kimani Gray, Laquan McDonald, Tyler Woods and David Joseph. Prior to the presidential election of 2016, YG’s standalone single with the late Nipsey Hussle, “FDT (Fuck Donald Trump),” took the impeached leader to task for his xenophobia against Mexicans. A consistent voice against injustice, YG performed with Nas, Black Thought, Rapsody and Chuck D in a videotaped rendition of Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” at this year’s COVID-friendly BET Awards.

January’s Grammy Awards feels like a ceremony from an ancient age, but just this year, the alternative R&B darling H.E.R. almost nabbed an Album of the Year award for I Used to Know Her. In June, the 23-year-old singer-songwriter put out “I Can’t Breathe,” an acoustic slow-burn released to raise funds for the National Urban League. The title clearly recalled the last words of George Floyd; tragically, they were also the last words of the late Eric Garner—an African-American killed by police chokehold in 2014 on suspicion of selling cigarettes illegally on the streets of Staten Island.

“We are fed up eating your shit because you think your so-called black friend validates your wokeness and erases your racism,” H.E.R. accuses in the spoken-word third verse, amid righteous speechifying that takes place in a stark black and white video of 2020 protest footage, as a list of nearly 100 police victims fills the screen. “I Can’t Breathe” deserves high status among great modern woke music.

A few months before becoming one of over a dozen MCs ever to grace the cover of Rolling Stone, trap star Lil Baby protested on the streets of his native Atlanta, leading a crowd to the Georgia State Capitol on his bike with a Black Lives Matter T-shirt on. That visual became the cover art to “The Bigger Picture,” the rapper’s testimonial against the country’s systemic racism. In the style of the most popular strain of hip-hop music at the moment, Lil Baby testifies that “corrupted police been the problem where I’m from,” and complains “they trainin’ officers to kill us, then shootin’ protesters with these rubber bullets.” By the end of June, he scored his highest charting single as “The Bigger Picture” hit #3 in the U.S.

The summer’s #1 woke hit went to DaBaby’s BLM remix of “Rockstar” with Roddy Ricch.  As another of the hottest young guns of hip-hop, DaBaby’s political views reach impressionable younger fans far more than elder statesmen like Nas, Common or Chuck D. When he complains that police “kill another nigga, break the law, then call us outlaws,” Gen Z hears him loud and clear. The fact that he returned to the studio to add verses to “Rockstar”—a song that had already spent seven weeks at the Billboard top spot—that specifically addressed the George Floyd-inspired protests and his own abusive run-in with law enforcement (“police pulled their guns like they scared of me”) spoke volumes.

Five years ago, an old college friend from the South visited New York City just in time for me to invite her to a Highline Ballroom concert of Janelle Monáe. Her Wondaland Records had just released The Eephus, a compilation album full of the label’s protégé acts. And before the night was through, Monáe, Jidenna, Deep Cotton, Roman GianArthur and St. Beauty joined in on collaborative finale “Hell You Talmbout.” An alternate version of a track from 2013’s The Electric Lady, the song integrates the hashtags #SayHisName/#SayHerName to humanize police victims like Aiyana Jones, Sean Bell, Sharonda Singleton, Freddie Gray by speaking their names aloud. Their performance was forceful and chilling.

“Does anybody hear us pray for Michael Brown or Freddie Gray,” Prince had asked just recently on “Baltimore,” his own woke music single from 2015. Brown’s murder in Ferguson, Mo., at the hands of the police led to weeks of uprisings involving the arrest of over 300 protesters. Arrested over a concealed knife, 25-year-old Freddie Gray also died that year from injuries of what bystanders called the unnecessary force of the Baltimore police force. That May, thousands showed at the Royal Farms Arena for Prince’s Rally 4 Peace charity benefit concert, wearing all gray at Prince’s request. His Royal Badness sequenced the song as the opener to HitnRun Phase Two by winter, the last album to be released in his lifetime.

Beyond the realm of polished tunes and #1 singles, some artists’ woke music has taken the form of shorter fragments—briefer testimonies designed to honor the dead, respect their memory, and speak out against injustice. The death of Michael Brown sparked such a musical moment. In August 2014, Lauryn Hill released a self-described sketch of a song entitled “Black Rage,” a rhyme against white supremacy rhymed to the melody of “My Favorite Things.”

Two years later, officers in Baton Rouge, La., shot Alton Sterling (a 37-year-old black man) at close range in the chest for resisting arrest over selling CDs. A day later, police murdered Philando Castile at a traffic stop in Minnesota. Jay-Z, moved by both the senseless killings, released the brief “Spiritual.” With minor-key piano and a sparse arrangement, the song’s hook speaks of “a boy from the hood that got my hands in the air in despair”—Jay himself. By 2018, he’d produced the six-part docuseries Rest in Power: The Trayvon Martin Story, giving Black Thought of the Roots the stage to record a blistering two-minute title track, “Rest in Power,” to vent his own lyrics of fury memorializing Trayvon.

Black Lives Matter started as a Twitter hashtag and, in the six years since the Ferguson uprising, has evolved into the civil rights movement of modern times. In lockstep with BLM, the catalog of woke music developed from the likes of D’Angelo’s “The Charade” (“All we wanted was a chance to talk/’Stead we only got outlined in chalk”) to the pop hits of DaBaby and Lil Baby. Just this week, Wisconsin police officers shot 29-year-old black man Jacob Blake seven times in the back, paralyzing him from the waist down and sparking civil unrest in the city of Kenosha. More woke music will certainly result in the months and years to come until substantial changes get legislated. What America needs far more than another song is long-overdue justice.

LISTEN: The Woke Music Playlist

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