Protest songs have seen a major spike in streaming numbers in recent weeks, and the timing of the upsurge is no coincidence: Black Lives Matter uprisings around the country have brought renewed attention to the history and power of Black-led civil unrest in the U.S., of which music has long been an integral part. According to Billboard, protest songs from artists like Kendrick Lamar, Childish Gambino, Beyoncé, James Brown, and others have been streamed at high numbers.
The protests that began in late May have stretched into June, which marks the 41st Black Music Month (officially named “African American Music Appreciation Month”), an annual celebration of the achievements and contributions of Black musicians to American music and culture. Now some modern artists have even written new music to address the current moment as people have taken to the streets in protest of police brutality and other forms of state-sanctioned violence against Black people.
This month, country music artist Mickey Guyton released a song called “Black Like Me” about her experience being a Black woman in America. The song had been written months prior to the protests, but it was released after Guyton heard about the killings of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor. Another country artist, Kane Brown, also released an uplifting anthem to address the unrest called “Worldwide Beautiful.” Not long after, R&B artist Trey Songz released “2020 Riots: How Many Times.” In “How Many Times,” Songz references the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Botham Jean, and Tamir Rice:
“Take a look around, can you see it now?
Don’t be colorblind, ’cause when they’re killin’ mine
They’ll try to justify it
Oh, each and every time
Playin’ in a park, takin’ your jog
Sittin’ on the couch, in your own house
Never seem to matter what we do
You think we don’t matter, but we do”
Gospel singer Deitrick Haddon also wrote a song that comments on recent events called “I Can’t Breathe,” a nod to the phrase uttered by Eric Garner and George Floyd moments before they were killed at the hands of police.
In honor of Juneteenth, Beyoncé released a joyful song called “Black Parade” where she pridefully sings about her Black roots in the South:
“I’m goin’ back, back, back, back
Where my roots ain’t watered down
Growin’ growin’ like a Baobab tree
Or life on fertile ground, ancestors put me on game
Ankh charm on gold chains, with my Oshun energy”
Modern Black artists are also turning to music to reflect on the history of civil rights in America. Leon Bridges’ new song, “Sweeter,” which features Terrace Martin, highlights the words of Martin Luther King Jr. and talks about the Black freedom struggle:
“I thought we move on from the darker days
Did the words of the King disappear in the air
Like a butterfly?
Somebody should hand you a felony
‘Cause you stole from me
My chance to be
Hoping for a life more sweeter
Instead I’m just a story repeating
Why do I fear with skin dark as night?
Can’t feel peace with those judging eyes”
Classic protest anthems
The new music being created in the midst of the current civil unrest joins a long lineage of protest anthems throughout Black music history. “Lift Every Voice And Sing” is considered by many to be the Black national anthem. By now, many are also familiar with the song “We Shall Overcome,” one of the most popular protest songs during the civil rights movement. The song was sung at the March on Washington in 1963. But there are other popular protest songs by Black artists that gained notoriety before and during the movement, and are still used as protest anthems to this day.
“Often, people who are not African American but who enjoy listening to music by African American artists are unaware of and in many cases don’t want to deal with the specifics of the politics, history, and context that shape Black artists and their music,” said Maureen Mahon, author of Right to Rock: The Black Rock Coalition and the Cultural Politics of Race and an associate professor of music at New York University. “In short, they don’t want to deal with race and power, but race and power have always been tied up in African American music and to make sense of the music, we have to acknowledge these factors.”
Billie Holiday’s 1939 iconic jazz song, “Strange Fruit,” highlighted the scourge of lynchings with its references to “Black bodies swinging” and “blood on the leaves.” The track went on to sell more than one million copies and is considered the first great Black protest song. A few decades later, Nina Simone’s popular 1964 song “Mississippi Goddam” voiced frustration at the state of civil rights in Mississippi, Alabama, and Tennessee:
“Hound dogs on my trail
School children sitting in jail
Black cat cross my path
I think every day’s gonna be my last”
Martin Luther King Jr. reportedly named the 1965 song “People Get Ready” by The Impressions the “unofficial anthem” of the Civil Rights Movement:
“People get ready, there’s a train a-comin’
You don’t need no baggage, you just get on board
All you need is faith to hear the diesels hummin’
Don’t need no ticket, you just thank the Lord”
When it comes to protest songs, Bob Marley’s 1971 “Get Up, Stand Up” and Public Enemy’s 1989 “Fight the Power” have some of the most straightforward lyrics, encouraging people to fight for their rights.
The origins of Black Music Month
In addition to lifting up protest anthems, Black Music Month is a time to appreciate the full spectrum of Black music in America. It began when President Jimmy Carter decreed the celebration in 1979 for an event, but Black musicians and institutions celebrated it every June from then on. However, in the 1990s, radio and music professional Dyana Williams discovered it hadn’t been officially decreed, so she worked with her congressman in Philadelphia, Rep. Chaka Fattah, to draft The African American Music Bill. The bill was then signed by President Bill Clinton in 2000 to celebrate and acknowledge the impact of Black music on American culture.
“I suspect that many people are unaware of the breadth and lineage of African American music and don’t realize that many different genres that have become mainstream and are played by everyone started in African American communities such as blues, jazz, R&B, rock and roll, house, and techno,” said Mahon. “I suspect that most people are unaware of how important the contributions of African American musicians have been to the development and success of the recording industry.”
For centuries, including during these current times of heightened racial justice awareness, Black music has been both a catalyst for social change and a representation of Black joy and resiliency. Even now, Black music is used as a tool for collective resistance, bringing hope to Black and brown communities and inspiring them to fight against injustice.
The history of Black music can be traced all the way back to the transatlantic slave trade, when song was used to bring solace to those in bondage and help pass the time. The end of the Civil War brought the blues, a genre that was used by Black musicians to express heartache and adversity. The blues are considered the “building block” that brought in rock ‘n’ roll, rhythm and blues, jazz, and country music.
Jazz peaked in popularity during World War I. Decades later during World War II, major record labels abandoned predominantly Black genres such as gospel and jazz due to cutbacks. Later on, they made attempts to reengage the Black community. Around that same time R&B came to life and was pioneered by the Detroit-based record company Motown, which signed Black artists like The Supremes, Ray Charles, and Ella Fitzgerald.
A few decades later came one of the most popular forms of Black music: rap/hip-hop. Rap/hip hop has been embedded in Black culture since its establishment as a genre in New York in the 1970s.
Looking to the future
Black music is always evolving, and even the way cultural gatekeepers hear and understand it is beginning to transform during this period of rapid social change. For example, after years of debate surrounding the term “urban,” the Grammys recently announced they will no longer use the term to describe Black music. And this year in honor of Pride Month, the National Museum of African American Music is spotlighting Black LGBTQ+ musicians like Frank Ocean, Sylvester, Billie Holiday, Ma Rainey, and Janelle Monet, highlighting the intersections of Black artists’ multiple identities. Spotify has also released its own playlist of Black artists to celebrate, and will be devoting its “New Music Friday” to Black artists for the remainder of the month.
As the Black Lives Matter demonstrations continue into the summer, music lovers and protesters alike can expect a variety of music to be played for inspiration. Given the rich history of Black music amid political and social struggle, there is no shortage of songs to choose from.