How #BlackLivesMatter started a musical revolution (2023)

We are experiencing a new golden age of protest music, that much is sure. You could say its moment emerged near the goalposts of Levi’s Stadium last month, on the mark where Beyoncé, the biggest and longest-reigning megastar musician of her generation, executed an inspired, insurgent assault on the media (or shamelessly vacuous infomercial, depending on who you ask). There, in the Super Bowl interval, with pyrotechnics blazing and her signature all-female drumline flanking her from side to side, Our Lady Bey launched into Formation, swinging a pro-capitalist, black-is-beautiful anthem that rhapsodised about her “Givenchy dress”, southern “hot sauce” and “Jackson Five nostrils” as an affirmation of swaggering black pleasure and joy in the face of black life under duress.

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Others might focus on what took place a week after Bey’s performance, when Kendrick Lamar took to the Grammys stage in LA in a prison blues chain gang for his medley of The Blacker the Berry and Alright (from his 2015 album To Pimp a Butterfly). Lyrically, visually and sonically, in long-black-song jazz incantation coupled with virtuosic rap fury, he spelled out black music as break-the-chains resistance to the systemic mass incarceration of black folk.

That kind of musical statement, the sound of black sonic dissent, has a history to it that stretches across the centuries and could surely make a mixtape for the ages: Billie Holiday’s anti-lynching dirge, which laid down the blueprint for modern black musical agitprop; Curtis Mayfield’s prophetic counsel to “get ready” that helped to cultivate a disenfranchised public’s self-reckoning; Nina Simone’s curse on Mississippi that agitated for a fuller and more rigorous re-examination of social enfranchisement; and Jimi Hendrix’s stars and stripes, which gave us the necessary feedback to confront America’s steamrolling military expansion.

But this is a new age of injustice, one with a heightened awareness of state violence and a national reckoning with the state-sanctioned disposability of black lives, and so this moment clearly demands a new set of jams. With the rise of new technologies, the killings of unarmed black men as well as women – Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Rekia Boyd – are etched into our public consciousness.

(Video) Black Lives Matter Protests Around the World

For black Gen-Xers like myself, who witnessed past scenes of black torture caught on camera, like the beating of motorist Rodney King by LAPD officers back in 1991, this is a moment in which the truth of black death and incarceration feels both familiar and utterly new. We are more than accustomed to managing our fury and incredulity about the insult of racial violence and its casual, chronic erasure from the public conversation. What is harder to process is seeing the faces and hearing the stories of the dead in great detail from surviving family members grappling with unspeakable pain. We who watch these daily tragedies unfold on our phones and laptops and cable news watch from afar but feel the sad heaviness of what it means to experience one’s blackness as precarious and unprotected, as eviscerated of its citizenship. To live like that is to walk through the world always slightly numb and sceptical of what lies ahead.

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Out of this situation has come #BlackLivesMatter, the most high-profile grassroots black liberation movement in more than two decades to emerge on the national scene. And a diverse array of musical voices has emerged in tandem with, in response to, inspired by and occasionally at ideological odds with this new movement. The new wave of black pop protest music captures and grapples with racial catastrophe in the 21st century: the prison-industrial complex, globalised wealth inequality and the violent expenditure of women and children.

It is a movement whose leadership reminds us that the art that accompanies it should be as capacious as “blackness” itself, which is why the old-school-meets-new-school gospel-meets-R&B-meets hip-hop elegance of the John Legend and Common duo, the epically conceived, storm system catharsis of saxophonist Kamasi Washington’s 21st-century jazz, the Afrofuturist dance electronica resurrection power of producer and musician Flying Lotus, the sci-fi Afropunk rebel-with-a-cause black feminism of Janelle Monáe, and the bandleader-meets-veteran MC-meets-still-as-radical-as-she-wants-to-be soul singing of Lauryn Hill – to name but a few – need to be recognised, alongside Beyoncé and Lamar, and R&B musician D’Angelo, as creating a new sonic fabric of black dissent for our present-day emergency. Together they offer the most robust moment of resistant (and also heterogeneous, say, in contrast to the predominance of soul or funk), black popular music that we’ve ever had.

(Video) Dax - BLACK LIVES MATTER (Official Music Video)

A trio of recent releases calls attention to the diversity of black protest music today: Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, Beyoncé’s Formation and, before either of these, D’Angelo’s end-of-2014-end-of-the-world/new world manifesto, Black Messiah (December 2014), the first major album directly linked to #BlackLivesMatter. All three artists meditate in varying ways on the meaning, quality and value of black life by way of vastly different, thrillingly difficult, unconventional and unpredictable structures of form and content. This new music for a new moment born out of 400 years of subjugation picks up the echoes of gospel redemption and west coast black power combat, black feminist philosophy, Prince’s Minnesota love songs and Compton street poetry fury, the ghosts of black southern parlour life and black urban disaster born out of state neglect. All three artists are, along with their fellow musicians, breathing new life into this current moment when so many of us are longing for air.

If, for instance, one listens carefully to D’Angelo’s stirring, arresting heartbreaker The Charade (called by some the “most political” track on Black Messiah), one hears the B-side to a B-side. Prince’s 1993 late-night, at-the-piano heartache dirge How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore? haunts the song: exhaustion and weariness crossed with longing and hope.

When I listen to The Charade, I am reminded of its kissing cousin, another track that challenged politically astute listeners to question the shibboleths of racial progress in what was, then, the nascent post-civil rights era, George Benson’s 1976 version of This Masquerade (written and originally recorded by white country soul veteran Leon Russell in 1972). Benson’s Grammy award-winning smash (record of the year in 1977) was the soundtrack to many a backyard barbecue of my childhood, a song that, in its time, seemed to encapsulate a collective feeling in my educator parents’ world of southern black migrants who’d escaped the Jim Crow south for University of California degrees, humble suburban homes in integrated neighbourhoods, and the dream of a new covenant with the concept of American citizenship denied them in their own youths.

It was a world of post-civil rights ironies—highs and lows for black America—which have only intensified in our present day. And so in this era of violent but often unacknowledged forms of white supremacy, D’Angelo, Lamar and Beyoncé are each using their repertoires to encourage us to congregate with each other, to wrestle with pleasure, to raise our hands in the air in postmodern contradiction – in ecstasy, abiding faith, as well as resistance. To intimately expose the corrosive effects of this quotidian violence, D’Angelo and Lamar go deep inside, protesting the brutality of these black lives that don’t matter in significant ways that call attention to protest music’s ability to move a people toward catharsis and group action. We might think, for instance, of the importance of the word “congregate” in each artist’s work (or to assemble en masse in the case of Beyoncé). They draw on the energy of the crowd as a source of utopian, redemptive, insurgent power from below.

A thick, handclap-and church-bell-driven jam like Black Messiah’s Prayer does just this, emulsifying “50 years of funk and soul and rock and metal and hip-hop and gospel into a seamless whole,” as the music critic Jason King puts it. D’Angelo leads us into sanctified solidarity as we feel the earth move beneath our feet, as we throw our hands in the air in a show of resistance-meets-Afropunk euphoria like that captured on the Black Messiah album cover.

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(Video) Black Lives Matter & Music: Documenting Contemporary Culture

Our hip hop poet Lamar, too, is drawn to the energy of collective reform and rebirth, staging a live concert sequence on the revelatory To Pimp a Butterfly track i, in which he sets out to exorcise our demons and turn racial epithet inside out: “negus”, the term from the Ethiopian past meaning “black emperor,” “king”, “ruler”. Lamar calls on us to congregate, to feel the prodigious power of the defiant group of young men on the cover of ...Butterfly, filling up the White House lawn with “vibrations so strong, so mean”, as the influential theatre and TV producer Ellis Haizlip had it, “that never will another enter without acknowledging our presence here.”

Lamar’s album ends by reflecting on the final affective power of the music itself to sustain and transform, in his response to the ghost of Tupac on the track Mortal Man: “In my opinion, only hope that we kinda have left is music and vibrations, lotta people don’t understand how important it is. Sometimes I be like, get behind a mic and I don’t know what type of energy I’mma push out, or where it comes from. Trip me out sometimes …”

Both Lamar and D’Angelo have been championed by critics for making musical statements in the vein of great soul activist brothers – wrestling with institutional racism like Stevie, wrestling with their oppressive environment like Curtis, wrestling with themselves as well as the all-too-fine line between the spiritual and the profane like Marvin. But what about Beyoncé and her place in the all-too-often overlooked lineage of female black protest art? From the aforementioned Nina to the remarkable Mavis Staples, who has been recording black liberation music for over half a century now, to the can-you-believe-that-actually-happened Tracy Chapman phenomenon right in the midst of the Reagan-Bush 80s, sending out a pre-Bernie Sanders jeremiad about how “poor people gonna rise up and take what’s theirs”, a long line of black women artists have paved the way for the seemingly unstoppable Beyoncé. And while our latter-day Queen of Pop may not be as politically confrontational (yet) and as lyrically incisive (yet) as Lauryn Hill, she is the only post-soul black pop icon (I’m talking global-level icon: Whitney, Michael, even Bey’s sometime mentor Prince) to place social, cultural and political concerns at the centre of her repertoire.

So bring the haters. As I’ve argued elsewhere, Beyoncé is a stone-cold believer in the power of “paper” (money) to raise up a people and to fuel the autonomy of black womanhood. Her consistent conflation of black wealth and black political struggle (“I can do for you what Martin did for the people,” she sings playfully on Upgrade U) are well-discussed, and her allusion to her own New Orleans roots (as seen in the Formation video’s images of the city under water) date back to her 2006’s BDay album.

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Groomed for success from a young age by a middle-class business executive father and independent entrepreneur mother, she has always been an artist attuned to and entrenched in the business of the culture industry. Some of the fiercest and most insightful blogs of late have been by black feminist and queer critics making these points quite clear: the Formation video described, for example, as “strategic consumerist dramatism”; the Superbowl routine as a “mode of presentation… rooted in the same corrupt system that has led us to this historical moment”. (As an aside, it’s worth saying that this wealth of online criticism from voices often barred from media conversation about art, is one of the greatest gifts Beyoncé continues to give us all.)

(Video) Lil Baby - The Bigger Picture (Official Music Video)

But Beyoncé’s is a different kind of protest pop than that of either D’Angelo or Lamar. Hers is the most elaborate and aesthetically innovative of the three in that it calls on audiences to passionately engage and grapple with pop spectacle. In her open embrace and promotion of feminism, unprecedented for a pop star, she weaves gender equality into her iconicity and hands fans a working definition of the term. In her performances she trades on dizzying juxtapositions: sinking a police cruiser and carrying a spicy condiment as swag. Flipping the bird one moment and hinting at being Bill Gates at another.

For a black feminist my age, I cannot seem to convey to my millennial students just how remarkable and unprecedented these kinds of bold moves are for a black female pop star to make. Can you recall a scene in pop history akin to our Lady Bey marching right through the Superbowl, the centre of end-all-and-be-all oppressive corporate materiality, dressed in outfits that summon the memory of Black Panther women, a spectacle that, along with her video, riled rightwing former NYC mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Miami police enough to brand her a Bonnie-and-Clyde criminal diva whose act called for a boycott?

To be sure, we should not confuse the urgency of grassroots agitation with culture industry performances. We should not confuse material fetishism with a substantive liberation of the human, nor should we overlook Bey’s occasional hot mess moves (see that recent south Asian appropriation video with Coldplay). But Beyoncé the conundrum time and again shows how popular music culture – and especially black women’s popular culture – can awaken, acknowledge and articulate the pleasures and distastes of those in the margins.

Love her or hate on her, Beyoncé’s pop protest remix in all its ubiquity is, like the pop culture industry itself, not going away. And I’m so grateful that it’s not. Her wildly inventive repertoire challenges us to ask how we all can make cultural forms work for us and not the other way around. She provides us with a global stage on which we can get in formation with her (and demand that she do the same with us) to withstand the brutality of repressive law enforcement in our daily lives.

Black protest music should sting and burn, be hard to digest for some, leave an aftertaste for others, make us feel more rather than less – whether it’s hate or love – make us recognise our conflicted passions, and the contradictions of our strange, post-civil rights and post-black power movement lives. Lives that shouldn’t have to be defended as mattering. Black pop radicalism should shake our culture to its core. Thank goodness for all of us that right now Bey, Kendrick, D’Angelo and company have enough in their bag to pass around.

Daphne A Brooks is professor of African American studies, theatre studies and American studies at Yale University

(Video) #BlackLivesMatter: A Look Into The Movement's History | Long Story Short | NBC News


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