The New Dawn Of The Protest Song
People never stopped making protest songs. For decades, the protest song has been woven into the culture of popular music. Some musicians build entire careers with them. But right now, we’re looking at something different. In the past three weeks, we’ve seen a widespread global human rights movement, one that started off with police murdering George Floyd and spread outwards from there. It’s easily to get cynical and pessimistic, especially as global conglomerates do their best to subsume political fury and make it a part of their public-facing identities. But the past few weeks have been inspiring. It feels, for the first time I can remember, like a mass protest movement might actually lead to some kind of systemic change. It at least looks possible. Rap music is part of that.
Politics are deeply entwined with rap music. Anytime people make music about turning to criminal enterprises because it’s their only chance of lifting their families out of poverty, that’s a political act, whether it’s intended to be one or not. Sometimes, political songs end up having accidental resonances; consider the new Run The Jewels album, where the lyrics about Eric Garner become lyrics about George Floyd because police refuse to stop choking people to death. And sometimes, movements adopt songs and give them new meaning.
Two weeks ago, when New York police kept thousands of protesters trapped for hours on the Manhattan Bridge, the demonstrators chanted the hook from the 2001 Ludacris song “Move Bitch” at them. “Move Bitch” is not a protest song. It’s a song about being angry that people are driving too slow. In a spontaneous moment, the people trapped on that bridge transformed “Move Bitch” and used it for their own purposes. (Ludacris approved.) I’ve seen Twitter videos of demonstrators chanting songs like Pop Smoke’s “Dior” and Chief Keef’s “Faneto” — songs that can make people feel like larger-than-life superheroes. “Lose Yo Job” — a song improvised on the spot by a woman who was being detained, set to a beat and gone viral — has become an unlikely anthem. None of these are intentional protest songs. Out in the world, though, they can function that way.
It says just as much that tons of popular rappers — rappers who aren’t especially known for being political — have come out with their own versions of protest songs in the last few weeks. I’ve never seen that on anything like this scale. I saw bits and pieces of that kind of sentiment in the early days of the Iraq war, or after Hurricane Katrina decimated New Orleans, or during the Ferguson uprising, but it hasn’t been on anything like this. We’re to the point now where J. Cole, an artist who is known for being political, just came out with a defensive song about why he hasn’t done enough in the present moment. The moment demands response.
Characters as seemingly apolitical as Juicy J and Teejayx6 have been coming out with songs of genuine anger and confusion. T-Pain and Trey Songz are making protest songs. 52-year-old NCIS: Los Angeles star LL Cool J, who was on “Accidental Racist” with Braid Paisley five years ago, is suddenly transforming into his former labelmate Chuck D, booming angry and powerful slam poetry into his webcam. Machine Gun Kelly, reliably the most awkward motherfucker in the room, is out here covering Rage Against The Machine. These songs and gestures aren’t all effective, and they aren’t all musically compelling. But taken together, they add up to something.
YG isn’t new to this. Four years ago, YG and the late Nipsey Hussle made “FDT,” a furious fuck-you directed at the man who was about to be elected president. “FTP,” YG’s new fuck-the-police song, belongs to that same lineage. YG isn’t Immortal Technique. When he makes protest songs, he’s not teaching history classes. Instead, he’s making something hard and direct, something that you can chant. “FTP” has a very simple message: The American underclass will burn down cities if that’s what they have to do. That message isn’t too far from the music that YG’s been making; it’s part of the reasons that his rare protest songs don’t come off forced. A couple of weeks ago, YG filmed his “FTP” video at a massive 20,000-person Black Lives Matter march on Hollywood Boulevard. It makes for a pretty amazing spectacle.
Lil Baby’s “The Bigger Picture” works in different ways, even though both songs have videos shot at protests. “The Bigger Picture” isn’t the same kind of intentional juggernaut chant-along. Instead, it’s a thoughtful and internal song, one that’s more sad than angry. Before he became a rap star, Lil Baby spent two years in prison, charged with marijuana possession. On “The Bigger Picture,” he sounds awestruck by the reality of the situation: “I find it crazy the police’ll shoot you and know that you dead, but still tell you to freeze/ Fucked up, I seen what I seen.” But Baby is also resolute and determined, talking about using his power to help make some kind of impossible change in the world. He’s rapping his ass off, too, which is part of the reason that “The Bigger Picture” is the best and the biggest of the recent protest songs.
But now the biggest song in America is a protest song, too. Last week, DaBaby and Roddy Ricch’s “Rockstar” ascended to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100, and it’s remained up there for a second week. “Rockstar” was already a hard-flexing song, and it had at least some vague resonance with its moment. When DaBaby says, “Brand new Lamborghini, fuck a cop car,” he’s talking about the triumph of escaping constant arrests, moving into rap-money luxury. A few days after the song hit #1, DaBaby made the connection more explicit. On the “BLM” remix of “Rockstar,” DaBaby adds on a new opening verse, rapping furiously about his own history with cops: “As a juvenile, police pulled their guns like they scared of me/ And we’re used to how crackers treat us, now that’s the scary thing.”
The “Rockstar” remix is a nakedly commercial move. DaBaby’s song is more likely to have a longer run at #1 if he keeps coming out with remixes. With this new version, he’s tied “Rockstar” to an ongoing movement that’s dominating the news. It’s a smart, cynical move, but that doesn’t mean that it’s dishonest. DaBaby shows real fire on that new opening verse, and what he says on it is nothing he hasn’t said before. In any case, it’s pretty amazing to see that the smart commercial move now — the thing that a superstar rapper can use to solidify his hold on the #1 spot — is to make a hit song more political, more angry. I’ve never seen that before. It’s one more clear sign that this movement is an unprecedented phenomenon, that the future remains unwritten.
1. Young T & Bugsey – “Don’t Rush (Remix)” (feat. DaBaby)
The Nottingham duo Young T & Bugsey came out with the absurdly catchy, dancehall-indebted UK club-rap jam “Don’t Rush” back in November. I missed it. But now that the still-very-busy DaBaby has shown up on the remix, replacing original guest Headie One and absolutely floating over the beat, “Don’t Rush” is even more of a monster. It breaks my heart that I’m not going to be drunk in a nightclub hearing this anytime soon.
2. Skyzoo – “A Song For Fathers”
Skyzoo has been a Brooklyn underground perennial for about as long as I can remember, and I don’t pay him as much attention as I probably should. This one caught me — a heartfelt grown-man song about fatherhood, delivered in a flexible authoritative boom over a loose, jazzy !llmind beat that recalls early-’90s Pete Rock without biting. Some great writing here: “Every cop that’s outta pocket with his rep in his in his hand/ And every word thrown at me to make me less of man/ Was all fully aligned here for you to take part in/ So put your whole chest in whatever you put your heart in.”
3. Bandgang Lonnie Bands & Sada Baby – “Bracking”
Lonnie Bands rhymes “Skuba Steve” with “MC Breed.” Skuba Steve imagines that Kobe Bryant helicoptering over you lames. Detroit remains undefeated.
4. Azealia Banks – “Black Madonna”
A Lex Luger-produced Azealia Banks song might’ve melted brains if this was 2012. Credit where it’s due: It’s still pretty fucking good in 2020.
5. Tay B – “Can’t Make This Up”
I just really like that bassline.
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO