By Nikki Cohen
Music is a catalyst of culture and a unifier of people. When musicians include social-political commentary in their work, they provide a voice for those not inherently heard: where John Lennon cried out for world peace in the midst of the Vietnam War, N.W.A challenged racial injustices in a 1980’s Los Angeles. Though different in genre and delivery, these artists are just a few of the many who optimize their large platforms to rally the public.
While struggling to contain the coronavirus this year, the United States concurrently faced another ruthless, deadly disease. Centuries of persistent, systemic racism manifested into continuous deaths of innocent Americans at the hands of law enforcement. With a country reeling from economic downfall and strict quarantines, Americans were drawn to the streets, echoing collective cries of “no justice, no peace” in the name of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Jacob Blake, and too many more.
A Rise in Protest Music
The resurgence of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement sparked a wave of politically charged music. Following weeks of BLM protests across the nation and the world, DaBaby released Rockstar: BLM Remix. The remix explicitly touches on police brutality by reflecting on DaBaby’s personal run-ins with the police as well as the current civil unrest. The remix was accompanied by an emotional performance at the BET Awards where DaBaby reenacted the violent restraint that killed George Floyd. Other BLM- influenced songs include I Can’t Breath by H.E.R., Lockdown by Anderson Paak, and Get up by T-Pain, amongst many others. In a time of unprecedented isolation, BLM- influenced music united the nation by reverberating shared demands for justice and change on a wide scale level.
Rap Beef between Noname and J. Cole
Over the summer, artists J. Cole and Noname publicly rap-battled over their respective responses to BLM. Turning to Twitter, Noname expressed frustration about famous rappers, such as J. Cole, who neglected to use their enormous platforms to raise awareness for the movement. J. Cole responded with the release of Snow on Tha Bluff, a soulful rap where he takes responsibility for his initial silence while calling upon Noname to refrain from criticizing how others respond to such complexities. Noname responded to J. Cole through Song 33, where she acknowledges his argument and also calls attention to the lack of media coverage surrounding the brutal treatment of black women at the hands of police.
Shifting Popular Culture and Public Opinion Together
Though rap beef and protest music are not novel concepts, utilizing music as a platform to address social issues exemplifies the symbiotic relationship between popular culture and social change: when one evolves, the other must adapt. In the past, musicians were often chastised for speaking out about their political beliefs, one prominent example being the Chicks (previously known as the Dixie Chicks). The Chicks were more or less cancelled after publicly disavowing President Bush and the invasion of Iraq at a 2003 concert. The opposite appears true today, where popular artists are often admired for elevating marginalized voices and scolded for remaining bystanders.
Like most industries this year, the music industry has had to adapt to a new normal. Society looks towards celebrities, our cultural public servants, to acknowledge, respond to, and further educate fans on the social issues that shape our systems and institutions. The rise of protest music in the wake of national unrest demonstrates how popular culture is relative to social and political forces; thirty some years after its release, we are still hearing Fuck Tha Police by N.W.A. echo throughout the streets amongst new cries of “I can’t breath” and “say her name”.
Playlist curated by Stevie Terando: