For a whole slew of reasons, such as wanting to get a haircut and the SYSTEMIC OPPRESSION AND MURDER OF INNOCENT CIVILIANS right now protests are all the rage (though not always against the machine.) It would be impossible, and futile, to try and rank the music that accompanies such angered voices, but below are some of the most powerful and significant of the past decade or so.
Kendrick Lamar – The Blacker the Berry
While K.Dot’s ‘Alright’ and it’s breathtaking video have become anthemic for the stay-at-home contingent of the recent Black Lives Matter actions, that song’s poetic contemplation of being black in America, are refined into a TED talk on what that means, called ‘The Blacker the Berry.’
On ‘TBTB’ Kendrick attempts to carry some of the weightiest issues of his own experiences including the complexity of his Compton upbringing, likening gang violence to African tribal conflicts, in a way that very few artists could. It’s an unflinching examination too, critical in places, which lends to an overall sense of a flawed humanity that protest works have sometimes historically avoided. It is unfortunate to note however that his voice has been conspicuously absent in support of racial injustice IRL, which has upset many of his fans.
Noname – ‘Song 33’
In the midst of a flurry of attention concerning Noname’s public disappointment with rappers like Kendrick, and J. Cole regarding their silence over George Floyd’s murder, she manages to so perfectly encapsulate the public’s mood of exasperation, the gist of intersectional feminism, and gets a pop in at Sleepytime J, all in the space of about a minute. She focuses on Trans women and the disappearances of young black girls; stories that never get told in hip hop, and over a Madlib beat no less, with genuine class. While not strictly a protest song, this should be blasted in the face of all public officials.
Dave – ‘Black’
While ideologically very similar to Kendrick, Mercury prize winning MC and actor, Dave’s, monologue is a much less bombastic, almost encyclopaedic, effort which spans both sides of the Atlantic. It took on a particular significance at this year’s BRITs when Dave stood up from his piano and delivered a fiercely biting final extra verse, openly calling out Boris, the Royal Family, and the British Press for their overt racism. Politics aside, it is also a masterclass in rap songwriting as polemic, where simplicity quite sneakily covers some truly elegant craftsmanship.
Heems – ‘NYC Cops’
Troubled and multitalented Himanshu Suri (Das Racist, Swet Shop Boys), is an overlooked gem when it comes to activism in art; informed, invested, and not shy of putting his boots down. Politics is all over his music, particularly the deeply personal, ‘Brown’ person-in-post 9/11- America laments of ‘Flag Shopping’ and ‘Patriot Act’ (shoutout Hasan Minhaj). Nowhere does he shine more, though, than on this random Strokes cover , a full on assault on the NYPD. While the original was removed from The Strokes’ ‘Is This It?’ after the planes hit the towers, Heems doubles down on the disrespect, spitting barbs like ‘blackface wearer’ and ‘wife beater’, and naming names. Although its sonic dissonance and the unstructured nature of his rapping make for a hard listen, the result is a rewarding and important reminder of the severity of the policing problem.
Run the Jewels – ‘Early’ ‘Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck)’
How the powerhouse duo that is RTJ manage to tightrope walk between creatively requesting their detractors fellate them, and being a consistent and authoritative voice of progressiveness, is an unfathomable trick that would kill lesser rappers. ‘Early’ sees Killer Mike and El-P using the benefit of their individual experiences to tell two sides of the same, too-familiar, story of police brutality to poignant and harrowing effect over an unsettling instrumental more reminiscent of El’s solo work, and amplified by Boots’ jumpy vocals.
‘Close Your Eyes’ is a looser, way more incendiary offering, which is more like a call to arms than anything. Whereas on ‘Early’, Mike’s character was an overly respectful victim, now he’s an instigator, who loves the smell of burning prison mattresses. The legendary Zack de la Rocha, joins in too, in fine, unruly form, and makes a great addition to the team, but, much like Kendrick Lamar’s ‘Alright’, it’s the song’s arresting (no, I’m not sorry) visuals that pack the hardest punch.
Killer Mike – ‘Reagan’
It seems as though, in a relatively short space of time, ‘Killer’ Michael Render went from being a rapper mainly talked about as a Dungeon Family affiliate, to one of the most valuable and outspoken voices in the media today, and rightly so. He never holds back, telling you exactly what he thinks and why, as perfectly evidenced on this El-Producto banger, on the subject of the war on drugs and the criminality of the Reagan Era.
Joining fellow LA native YG, the late, great Nipsey Hussle crossed the Blood/Crip divide to deliver this unequivocal message. Nipsey, much like Heems and Killer Mike, was not afraid to put his money where his mouth is, and really embrace local politics for the improvement of his community, where presumably he is much missed. As relevant today as it was when it was written, there isn’t really much to elaborate on this one. Fuck Donald Trump and anyone that love ‘im.
Anderson .Paak – ‘Lockdown’
Credit to Anderson .Paak for putting together something so polished so quickly, ‘Lockdown’ explores righteous outrage in the age of quarantine frustration with his usual, increasingly commercial, panache. A few famous Cali friends lend their faces (Syd, SiR, Dominic Fike), as well as a touching cameo from his son and a spot on verse from TDE bulldog, Jay Rock.
Mick Jenkins and BadBadNotGood – ‘Drowning’ Not really a protest song but an eloquent use of the heartbreaking phrase which has become synonymous with BLM protests since the 2014 killing of Eric Garner.
H.E.R – ‘I Can’t Breathe’
Macklemore – ‘Same Love’
Premiere Atmosphere impersonator, possible Jim Henson puppet, and famed anti-semite Macklemore’s attempt to hijack Gay rights for radioplay smacks of ignorance, insensitivity, and is also just bad. If you can make it to the first chorus without vomiting, I admire your constitution. Bonus dickhead points for also being the first rapper to fully endorse gentrification on the infectious, insipid, ‘Thrift Shop’. Don’t bother, listen to this instead.