It’s disorienting looking back at the unrest of 2014 and 2015. At the hot summer night when the St. Louis Police Department faced a community incensed by the unfair policing and anti-Black violence that had culminated in the death of Mike Brown, armed with stun grenades and MRAPs, weapons of warfare, and the many months of civil disobedience and extralegal disruption that followed, and realizing it wasn’t the end of something but the tremors before an earthquake. The rift never healed. In November of 2014, when a second round of protests followed news of no indictment for Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in the Mike Brown case, Donald Trump, then a tycoon and reality star barreling carelessly into politics, spoke on the situation on Twitter: “Our country is totally fractured and with our weak leadership in Washington, you can expect Ferguson type riots and looting in other places.” Four years into his presidency, we’ve been made painfully aware of what he would do to suppress a protest. The image of Trump holding a Bible upside down in front of a D.C. church where protesters decrying police brutality were cleared out with tear gas to make room for the photo op is one of the many indelible artifacts of a chilling chapter of American history.
The unwitting theme song of the wave of protests that carried on through 2015 — as news broke of the mass murder at Charleston, South Carolina’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, and the death of Sandra Bland in a Texas jail — was Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright,” the cornerstone of the Compton rapper’s challenging, eclectic sophomore album To Pimp a Butterfly. Butterfly is a thesis about persecution and perseverance, a trip through a battlefield riddled with mines. The protagonist’s path to freedom takes him around predatory lending schemes (“Wesley’s Theory”), a rigged prison system (“Institutionalized”), gang violence (“Hood Politics”), alcohol abuse (“u”), and colorism (“Complexion”). In the middle of the album, “Alright” sticks out, invoking the steely composure of old Negro spirituals, songs about tarrying through tough times in search of the glory on the other side, in emancipation or in death. The Kunta’s Groove Sessions, Lamar’s small-venue To Pimp a Butterfly tour, turned “Alright” into a lengthy crowd participation exercise, as the audience chanted the chorus of the one song they hadn’t heard yet in the break before the encore. Lamar came out to stir the pot a little more before playing the song in full. The feeling was electric. We needed to hear that we would be alright. What wasn’t clear is how long it could take.
As weeks of unrest became a yearslong struggle for transparency amid mounting cases of unexplained incidents of police brutality, “Alright” grew a strange aftertaste. The sentiment suddenly felt premature, like the big hit landing too early in the live show. The world the song envisioned seems far away, though not out of reach. The moment requires a different kind of protest song. Rappers are putting in work; there’s a new one out almost every day, from sources both expected and unexpected. Indiana rhymer Freddie Gibbs’s “Scottie Beam” recounts an unnecessary police stop; Albany’s Conway addresses cops using deadly force against innocent Black citizens in the scathing “Front Lines.” Compton rapper YG (whose “FDT” was one of the defining anthems of our election anxiety in 2016) released “FTP,” the latest in a long line of powerfully rude songs about LAPD mistreatment; L.A. transplant Jay Cue’s new “Fuck Racists” seethes with retaliatory outrage. Meek Mill’s “The Other Side of America” employs the Philly artist’s spitfire raps and heartfelt verses to outline the conditions that drive people to do and sell drugs, critiquing a government that lines its own pockets while leaving many citizens to fend for themselves. Atlanta rhymer Lil Baby’s “The Bigger Picture” applies the clearheaded, emotive writing of songs like “Hurtin,” “No Friends,” and “Emotionally Scarred” to straightforward political messaging and comes out with the kind of protest song that also has designs on being a hit. The country’s current No. 1 song, DaBaby and Roddy Ricch’s “Rockstar,” now has a Black Lives Matter remix with a verse about run-ins with cops. Common points of outrage in songs coming out of every corner of the country are a damning indictment of the status quo. When Northeast boom bap guys, Midwest spitters, newly minted Southern trap stars, and Cali gangsta rappers agree you suck, you suck.
So far, though, the internet that weaponizes snark and gives new context and purpose to old songs and videos has picked intriguing contenders for the protest song of the moment. When a woman being detained outside a South Carolina strip club improvised a song about getting the officer fired, and enterprising internet users made a trap remix, the viral smash “Lose Yo Job” was born. Just as popular is a track from the mid-aughts Discovery Channel kids’ show Hip Hop Harry that came to be called “Go, Go, Go, Who’s Next?” In the show, the song — a wholesome knockoff of Terror Squad’s “Lean Back” — plays as Harry, a dancing anthropomorphic teddy bear who raps, leads the kids in a dance-off not unlike Soul Train lines and break-dance team battles. “Who’s Next?” picked up steam first as an innocuous TikTok dance challenge and later evolved into a response to cloying corporate gestures of support for Black Lives Matter on Blackout Tuesday, as brands that spoke up were quickly criticized for questionable track records on race.
In this climate, existing songs about race and justice are newly poignant. Streams of Kendrick’s “Alright” jumped up almost 800 percent as protests broke out across the country. N.W.A’s trenchant “Fuck tha Police” got a bump, as did YG’s “FDT.” Late Brooklyn rapper Pop Smoke’s 2019 smash “Dior,” might not seem like a first ballot theme song for marches against injustice, but there’s enough disappointment in the American prison system in the lyrics to make it work. Hip-hop’s social consciousness pokes through even when the artist is trying to be lighthearted.
Mainstream artists’ eloquent expressions of outrage fly in the face of faulty ancient wisdom about young rappers, which states they only care about debauchery and material wealth. (It was always a catastrophic misunderstanding of the outlaw character of drug dealers to flatten their role in society into destroyers of communities when the reality is much more opaque and morally gray.) Hip-hop has always had a strong political backbone. Run-D.M.C.’s “Hard Times” and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “The Message” spoke to the struggles of the ’80s; in the ’90s, complicated gangsta rap figureheads like 2Pac and Ice Cube spoke truth to power, although their politics could run coarse and even wrongheaded, as anyone tracking the N.W.A legend’s month in disconcerting Twitter dispatches can attest. The outpouring of smart, relatable political analysis coming from artists at every level and in every region of hip-hop this month is proof the elders’ legacy is in good hands. The ability of their successors to synthesize prickly conversations about race, power, and policing into poignant music while neither watering down the message nor speaking in a manner that divides people (well, for the most part) is proof hip-hop is capable of rising to the occasion as tough times necessitate. The game still has its issues, but today, let’s lift up the people dreaming up a better world.