For the past month, the U.S. has been engulfed with daily protests and demonstrations over the police killing of George Floyd by a white Minneapolis police officer. In the wake of Floyd’s death, there have been unrelenting calls for changes to the way police departments engage with the Black community as well as other areas where systemic racism continues to permeate and spread its toxicity. It’s the same force that robbed the lives of Rayshard Brooks, Breonna Taylor, David McAtee, Ahmaud Arbery, Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray and so many others.
In these perilous times, music is providing a soundtrack to this new movement amid the continual fight for justice and acknowledgment of the importance of Black lives. Historically, music has long served as a vehicle for the plights of Black people from Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” James Brown’s “I’m Black And I’m Proud,” N.W.A’s “F**k That Police,” to Public Enemy’s “Fight The Power.”
A number of artists have released new songs that convey the emotions that many of us are feeling using either our collective anger, fear, hope or joy as inspiration to both raise awareness and capture the reality of being Black in America.
Check out BET’s official protest playlist to motivate you while you're pounding the pavement, fist high in the air, doing your best to help shift the country towards a state of inclusivity and harmony, one day at a time.
Last Friday (June 19), the superstar entertainer unceremoniously surprised everyone and dropped a whole brand new song, aptly titled, “Black Parade,” on, of all days, Juneteenth 2020. At a time where many are feeling emotionally fraught, “Black Parade” is a jubilant celebration of our Blackness. Paying homage to her Southern roots and her African heritage, Beyoncé reminds us that our Black excellence can never be dimmed, not even when we’re being persecuted and oppressed.
A few years ago, YG unleashed his ire against the current President on “F**k Donald Trump” featuring the late Nipsey Hussle before Trump’s eventual presidential win. Amid the ensuing nationwide protests over the police killing of George Floyd, YG came back with another anthem, “FTP (F**k Tha Police,)” a modern retread on N.W.A’s seminal 1988 classic. While Floyd’s name isn’t even mentioned in the lyrics, YG captures the pent-up frustration of many in the Black community. Taking to the streets of Los Angeles in the song’s accompanying music video, YG raps “Been tired, f**k cardboard signs, we in the field / It's the Ku Klux cops, they're on a mission.”
Like many artists trying to make sense of these current times, Alicia Keys encapsulated the grief that Black people have felt witnessing the death of yet another unarmed Black person at the hands of law enforcement. Over a lilting piano-driven instrumental, Keys uses her song, “A Perfect Way To Die” to tell the story of how a simple day in an ordinary Black person’s life can end in tragedy. “Simple walk to the corner store / Mama never thought she would be gettin' a call from the coroner / Said her son's been gunned down, been gunned down,” she sings in the opening verses.
“Of course, there is NO perfect way to die. That phrase doesn’t even make sense,” Keys clarified of the song’s title on Instagram. “Just like it doesn’t make sense that there are so many innocent lives that should not have been taken from us due to the destructive culture of police violence.”
While he doesn’t reference the current protests, rapper SNF. JT lingers in his music on how Black people are caught in between the trapping of the hood and generations of systemic injustices. He eloquently touches on the anxieties and fears that many people are facing right now, rapping “My n****s dyin’, city keep crying / Tired of them sirens, they catching bodies / Drugs got a hold ‘em / he off that molly / Don’t want no peace / He wanna see violence.”
Nearly six years ago, “I Can’t Breathe” became a rallying cry against police brutality after Eric Garner uttered these three words as his last. He was choked out by a New York City police officer in 2014 who was later acquitted of all charges. Ironically, George Floyd uttered these same final words as he lay dying while a Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee down onto his neck in May. In the wake of other recent police killings, H.E.R. released “I Can’t Breathe,” a moving track that speaks to the injustices Black people have had to endure since the first slaves stepped foot on American soil.
“The structure was made to make us the enemy / Prayin' for change 'cause the pain makes you tender / All of the names you refuse to remember / Was somebody's brother, friend / Or a son to a mother,” she sings.
The R&B singer first previewed “How Many Times” during an Instagram live session with D-Nice and then officially released it on June 6. In the emotional record, Songz asks how many more “beautiful precious Black lives” need to be lost before there’s change.
“How many mothers have to cry, how many brothers have to die,” he wonders in the chorus before addressing the ongoing protests, posing “how many more marches? How many more signs? How many more lives? How many more times?”
Over an introspectively mellow beat, T.I. and South African rap artist Nasty C powerfully highlight the stark reality that Black people face living in fear of those who are meant to serve and protect us. “They don't want to see my people livin' good and at ease / They wanna lock 'em all up and then get rid of the keys / We ain't never free,” Nasty C says in the opening of “They Don’t” before T.I.'s verse comes in. Invoking the names of Goerge Floyd, Emmett Till and Sean Bell, the Grand Hustle mogul poignantly highlights the unequal treatment of Black men, scathingly asking “How you 'posed to serve and protect with your knee on my neck?”
Public Enemy are the original disruptors in the rap game and have never held back in their fiery rebuke against the establishment, which in this case is Donald Trump and his administration. Coming in guns ablazing over a DJ Premier beat, Chuck D and Flava Flav detail the current condition of our divided states of America. “White house killer, dead in lifelines / Vote this joke out, or die tryin',” Chuck D rails in the first verse. Later in the song, Chuck delivered some chilling bars for Trump supporters, rapping “Make America Great Again," the middle just love it / When he wanna talk, walk y'all straight to them ovens.”
Check out more protest songs on BET’s Black Lives Matter playlist on Spotify.
(Photo by Linnea Rheborg/Getty Images)