Music and power: The 2020 BLM protests

Music has always been associated with protests, with specific tracks attached to multiple periods of heavy protest.

The 2020 Black Lives Matter protests were no exception.

A week after the murder of George Floyd, Donald Glover’s ‘This is America’ and Kendrick Lamar’s ‘Alright’ rocketed up the chart – with Glover surging to no.2 (up from no.97 on the previous day), and Lamar returning to the chart at no.11.

‘Alright’ has become a rallying call for both the 2015 and 2020 BLM demonstrations. Throughout the country, crowds chanted the song’s hook, “We gon’ be alright!”, demonstrating its power to move people to action. Music, especially hip-hop, possess ideas of collective identity and call for collective resistance – both elements that have the power to unify protests. Tellingly, the pronouns “us” and “we” are used in Lamar’s ‘Alright’ 36 times, and in Lil Baby’s ‘The Bigger Picture’, they are used 20 times.

Meanwhile, Glover lists the many things that are wrong with the USA, and his attacks provide an agenda for change. ‘This is America’ distils “the fury and pain of millions,” in the words of journalist Bryan Rolli.

Opening ‘This is America’, Glover repeats,

“Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah

Yeah, yeah, yeah, go, go away” 

While the first line of “yeah” could portray the nation’s willingness to engage in the positive elements of Black music and art, such as gospel, Glover’s subsequent, “go away” suggests how gospel music is too often exploited at the convenience of white people. Within his opening, Glover highlights the fact that many white Americans are blissfully oblivious to the hostile truth of what it means to be Black in the USA until something tragic happens and reminds them. And, as the beat changes again back to the happy tone, Glover suggests that most listeners become oblivious again. Although gospel music is used as both a response and balm for pain, for example, it is rarely appreciated as art within its long tradition of Black music. Glover’s song suggests that Black Lives Matter protests are required more frequently to remind American citizens of the reality of their country and how the country’s systemic racism must be eradicated.

Winning the BET Hip Hop Award for Best Impact Track, Lil Baby’s ‘The Bigger Picture’ was released in support of the Black Lives Matter Protests. Music allows its listeners to take ownership as people can relate to its lyrics, messages, and purpose. Lil Baby centres himself in the middle of the protests and their cause, suggesting the importance of standing up for, and with, each other. Author Marcus J. Moore discusses the ownership that ‘Alright’ has provided: explaining it “became a protest song because you had all these Black people who took ownership of it.” In The Hip Hop Wars, sociologist Tricia Rose asserts that hip-hop should not merely voice frustration about the plight of Black communities, but also name desired improvements. The Black Lives Matter Movement Protests work by physically showcasing the frustrations while proving the anger of people that pushes them to protest.

It can be argued, therefore, that protests work alongside hip-hop music to bring actual change. Music allows protesters to use the songs as rallying calls and creates links of shared frustration across the protestors and the protest movement.

Resistance has always been a key feature of hip-hop lyrics, and the terms resistant, oppositional and political are commonly used to describe hip-hop artists and traditions. But, more specifically, it is anti-police resistance that almost all of the artists explicitly discuss, including their fear of the police and the police’s disproportionate violence against Black people. Kendrick Lamar’s ‘Alright’ communicates the brutal reality of police violence, as he explains, “we hate po-po, wanna kill us dead in the street fo sho.”  Anti-police violence is a key purpose for protestors marching in the Black Lives Matter Protests and hip-hop music provides a method for communicating this brutal reality.

Bakari Kitwana argues that now is the generation of “hip-hop activism” and with good reason. Hip-hop music is crucial for igniting, supporting, and developing the Black Lives Matter Protests. Each artist presents new arguments and experiences that appeal to emotions or provide arguments for change. Music transports these ideas and uses them for action. While systemic racism generates the anger and frustrations expressed in and around hip-hop music, the lyrics carry crucial counterattacks, which are clearly utilised throughout the 2020 Black Lives Matter Protests.


Image: Duncan Shaffer on Unsplash  

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