It 'should send a chill down everybody's spine': How hip hop is responding to George Floyd death
USA TODAY Network journalists across the country documented protests denouncing police brutality and racial bias in response to the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police. USA TODAY
Black artists will not be silent.
In the weeks since protests ignited over the released new songs that speak directly to our current moment. With blistering, emotional lyrics ripped from the headlines, these anthems powerfully speak out against inequality (Meek Mill's "Other Side of America"), police violence (YG's "FTP") and systemic racism (Nasty C and T.I.'s "They Don't").
Black people have turned to music as a form of protest for generations, decrying brutal treatment at the hands of ity. What's different now is the speed at which songs – and their messages – reach ears across the world.
More: Dr. Stephanie Shonekan, a professor of Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and co- of "Black Lives Matter and Music: Protest, Intervention, Reflection."
"These 2020 songs are a continuation of Black artists raising awareness and capturing the horrors of their circumstances. What is new is that perhaps now they will be heard by more people because of the scope of global reaction against the George Floyd murder."
Songs 'should send a chill down everybody's spine'
Floyd's death factors heavily into the latest wave of Black Lives Matter music, with many artists name-checking him and other victims such as "#BlackLivesMatter Freestyle," for instance, graphically details Floyd's choking death by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, while "Captured on an iPhone," by super-producer Dre (of Cool & Dre), samples a news report about Floyd's death. Other tracks, such as H.E.R.'s "I Can't Breathe" and Lil B's "I Am George Floyd," evoke the phrase "Walking in the Snow," a timely anthem calling out the media's dispassionate coverage of police brutality. ("Every day on the evening news, they feed you fear for free / And you so numb, you watch the cops choke out a man like me / Until my voice goes from a shriek to whisper, 'I can't breathe.' ")
The song was recorded last year and released earlier this month on the album "RTJ4," which has been lauded by critics as "the unofficial soundtrack of the uprising" and "exactly what America needs to hear right now."
"That line was written about Eric Garner," El-P (real name Jaime Meline) tells USA TODAY. "The fact that it's not just about Eric Garner should send a chill down everybody's spine."
Adds Killer Mike (real name Michael Render): "We end up seeing the same things happen again, so the timing is crazy. But with all our records, we try to do something that's for the community and not just us having fun; to inspire and bring together and talk about what's going on."
Historic protest songs go from 'Lift Every Voice and Sing' to 'F--- Tha Police'
Before 2020, the last surge of protest songs was in 2016 at the outset of the Black Lives Matter movement, with stirring anthems from Kendrick Lamar ("Alright") and Beyoncé ("Formation") that celebrated Blackness and solidarity. They're themes that can be traced back to some of the earliest Black protest music post-Civil War.
In 1905, J. Rosamond Johnson set his brother James Weldon Johnson's poem “Lift Every Voice and Sing" to music. The song was a counter to "The Star-Spangled Banner," and was soon dubbed the "Negro National Anthem" by the NAACP.
Other early examples include "Strange Fruit," recorded by Billie Holiday in 1939, which protested the lynching of Black Americans; and Nina Simone's 1964 anthem "Mississippi Goddam," her response to Medgar Evers' murder and the Birmingham, Alabama, church bombing by the Ku Klux Klan at the height of the civil rights movement.
Soul and jazz artists Marvin Gaye, James Brown, Gil-Scott Heron and John Coltrane released protest classics throughout the '60s and early '70s. But it was hip hop that captured the spirit of unrest and defiance of the late '80s and '90s, through songs such as Public Enemy's "Fight the Power," 2Pac's "Changes," and N.W.A.'s "F--- Tha Police" that railed against racism and police brutality.
The latter song became a rallying cry during the 1992 Rodney King riots after four Los Angeles police officers were acquitted for beating a Black man. "F--- Tha Police" has also seen a 272% increase in streams since late last month, in light of the Floyd protests, according to Rolling Stone charts.
"It touched an emotional nerve that had been festering for a long time, capturing the anger and frustration people had been feeling for decades, as well as their distrust and fear of the police in their own communities," says Tom Schnabel, host of "Rhythm Planet" on Los Angeles' KCRW, who has written about protest music. "I think it still resonates today because these same frustrations, anger, distrust, and fear continue to exist. It is still the most direct, powerful, provocative, and defiant song against police brutality."
Hope and unity move songs, message forward
Trey Songz was inspired in part by N.W.A. when he wrote "2020 Riots: How Many Times," a gospel-tinged anthem that mourns the human toll of police brutality. ("How many mothers have to cry? / How many brothers gotta die?"). He drafted the song six days after Floyd's death, during a restless night when he couldn't sleep.
"My stomach was turning, I was sad, I was angry and I was hurt," says Songz (real name: Tremaine Neverson). "Thoughts of George Floyd ... and the worry of his family not getting justice as we’ve seen in so many situations, was heavy on my heart."
He called his producer Troy Taylor, who was wrestling with the same feelings, and the two hashed out ideas for a track. Songz started laying down vocals that morning, but "I cried like a baby after every line and decided I needed to get some air," he recalls. "At that moment, I went to find the first protest I could (in Los Angeles). The hope and unity that I saw – droves of people, all ethnicities coming together to fight for one cause – it gave me everything I needed to finish the song."
That spirit of unity also drives "Get Along," a new song released as part of the KidNation initiative. The project was co-founded by rapper Ludacris and music executive Sandy Lal and aims to teach children about current events. "Get Along" was recorded last year and is performed entirely by kids, who sing about their hopes for a "colorblind" world.
"ity has me scared / put my hands up in the air," the lyrics go. "I don't want to move / because I'm scared to lose / Can we all just get along?"
Ludacris (real name: Christopher Bridges), who attended Floyd's memorial in Minneapolis earlier this month, believes the song is more urgent than ever.
"It is vital to have a song like 'Get Along' because everyone, including children, are being affected by what is going on in the world," Ludacris says. "Our decision to move up this release was to find a way to allow kids to express themselves and touch on this heavy topic through their eyes."