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“I Can’t Breathe”: Protest Music Now

Felicia Miyakawa (Round Rock, TX)

The following essay discusses violence and brutality. Music videos contain news footage of violent acts, accompanied by strong, explicit language.

In 2012, the New York Times offered a retrospective about Woody Guthrie’s life to honor his centenary, noting his legendary ability to sing truth to power, to embody protest in song, and contrasting his legacy with today’s artists whom the op-ed author characterized as tepid, quiet, and Republican. In the same year, Emily Kopp pondered the lack of political bite in contemporary punk and the general dearth of political song, despite the plentiful nature of contemporary injustices. “Maybe artists don't feel equipped to write songs about the recession and the Arab Spring just yet,” Greg Kot argued in the Denver Post, “but you would think that the Occupy Wall Street movement might've sparked a few protest songs by now.”

The Occupy movement did attract musician-activists such as Tom Morello, known both for his politics and his work with Rage Against the Machine. For the May Day protests in 2012, Morello led an army of guitar-playing protestors down Fifth Avenue in New York City, performing tunes such as Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.” Though he later contributed to Occupy This Album: 99 Songs for the 99%, an eclectic collection of old and new songs, the Occupy movement did not produce anthems that could represent the new world of labor protest.

In the provocatively titled “Protest Songs are Pointless,” Michael Barthel argues that modern protest music’s problem is not its invisibility but its ineffectiveness. He points to two defining parameters for protest music: it needs a cause to serve as fuel; and it needs to be music sung or performed by protestors, not at them. In the 1960s, Civil Rights protestors raised their voices in song together; they did not rely solely on performers to voice their concerns. Striking laborers in the 1930s sang at meetings and rallies; they did not rely on concerts and the nascent recording business to carry their grievances to the owners of factories and mines. Political prisoners on Robben Island in South Africa did not rely on visiting musicians to voice their troubles during Apartheid; they sang their stories to each other. Barthel objected to protest music of 2012 primarily because the political ground under the music was shaky; there was no centralized movement strong enough to mobilize the masses.

By 2014, a new wave of protest songs began to address a new cause: police brutality. A number of high profile cases—such as the deaths of Mike Brown, Eric Garner, and more recently Walter Scott and Freddie Gray—have spawned national conversation about why so many unarmed black men and women are dying at the hands of police. Their deaths, and the all-too-frequent acquittal of the police officers in question (or lack of charges brought against police officers, as in the case of Mike Brown’s death), have inspired marchesralliesdie-insprotests, slogans (“I Can’t Breathe,” “Hands Up! Don’t Shoot!”), hashtags (#BlackLivesMatter), and a movement (Black Lives Matter). Their deaths have also inspired music that rails against injustice, asks us to consider this violence within broader patterns of brutality and inequality, and honors their names in memory. Out of this violence a new generation of protest music has been born.

These songs are about an intensified movement to end institutional racism, to end police brutality against people of color. The songs call out names of victims: many of the songs are about Mike Brown and Eric Garner, who have become symbols of this movement, in the same way that Emmett Till symbolized the need for our nation to address racial violence during the Civil Rights movement of the 20th century. I do not make this comparison lightly: more than one commentator refers to the ongoing movement spurred by the Ferguson, Missouri protests as the New Civil Rights Movement. But as Salamishah Tillet noted in a recent essay in The Atlantic, today’s protest song is “a simultaneous revival and redefinition of the protest song tradition.” Today’s protest music is a revival because it has a strong purpose, and once again that purpose is about racial equality. But protest music now is also a redefinition because (1) the songs are not communal, and (2) they are performed by hip-hop and R&B artists, not by the folk or jazz artists of your mom’s (or grandma’s) generation.

Today’s protest songs also circulate through social media, and they rely just as heavily on video as they do on lyrics and music to share their message. Take, for example, “We Gotta Pray,” a single released by Alicia Keys in December 2014 in the wake of the Ferguson protests. The video is comprised of a shifting montage of still photos. Some of the images are of words and phrases: “humanity,” “strong,” “we are united,” and “love.” Others are images of protest and support from afar: a young Palestinian child holding a sign that says “Ferguson with love from Palestine”; a protester brandishing another sign during a protest that reads “Protect our children. No $$ FPD”; and still another with a sign reminds us why the protests happened in the first place: “Black lives matter. #MikeBrown.” There are images of tear-gas filled streets, and several of young men with their hands in the air in a surrender pose in front of multiple emergency vehicles, reminding us of the “Hands up! Don’t Shoot!” chant popular at protests. The video moves from images specific to the Ferguson protests to images that bring our attention to protests of previous generations. We are offered glimpses of the March on Washington and Martin Luther King, Jr., which invoke the non-violent part of the Civil Rights movement of 1950s and 1960s America. We are shown Mahatma Gandhi, civil rights activist and leader of the non-violent Independence movement in India in the 1930s and 1940s. And we glimpse Nelson Mandela, leader of the Apartheid resistance movement in South Africa for much of the second half of the twentieth century. There are also quotations from these leaders, such as “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind,” attributed to Gandhi. One of the most arresting stills is of small, smiling boy bearing a huge sign that reads, “My Life Matters,” a take on the #blacklivesmatter hashtag that became popular in the wake of the protests.

 

Alicia Keys sings “We Gotta Pray.”

 

As protest music goes, “We Gotta Pray” speaks softly. Keys calls out no names, blames no one, submits no calls for justice. She exhorts her listeners to pray, not to fight. And the chorus asks her listeners to remember: “We’re extraordinary people, living in an ordinary life; one extraordinary question: are we gonna live or die? So we gotta pray.” But in showing us images of Gandhi, Dr. King, and Mandela, Keys aligns the Ferguson protests with larger, historically significant rights movements. She advocates peace, but she also clearly sees this present fight as historic, larger than Ferguson.

The video of Tink’s “Tell the Children” (produced by Timbaland) connects Ferguson to the Civil Rights movement even more explicitly. The opening scene is news footage of police officers in riot gear firing tear gas on protesters in Ferguson. Other video clips include Dr. King and Malcolm X giving speeches, a Black Panther rally, and more videos of Ferguson and tear gas deployment. There is a still shot of activist and author Angela Davis, and another of Eric Garner in a chokehold. One extended video clip is of a news report in which the weaponry used by police in the Ferguson standoff is detailed—weapons of war used in Iraq and Afghanistan, turned on our own citizens.

 

 Tink, “Tell the Children” (November 2014).

 

Tink’s lyrics alternate asking for justice (“We still don’t have equality)” and railing against police (“They lie and disrespect us, kill us and then neglect us”). The song’s chorus is a warning: “Tell the children to watch out. They’re gaining on us, keep running.” This is not the “let’s wait and pray and seek peace” attitude of Alicia Keys. This is a primer on survival for young people of color.

But there are new communal songs, too, such as “I Can’t Breathe” by the Peace Poets, a song meant for group singing at rallies. In the interest of simplicity, all musical and textual elements are kept to a minimum. The melody is simple and repetitive, as is the text. Handclaps accentuate the rhythm in predictable ways. The video includes lyrics to aid in memorization, and images of various protest events scroll through the video to remind watchers what this protest is about. In the spirit of 20th century protest songs, there are contrafact settings as well, familiar tunes set to new words. In December, protesters in the Mall of America re-made Christmas Carols in their own image as part of a die-in event: “dressed in holiday style” of “Silver Bells” becomes “dressed in KKK style.” In August 2014, just days after the killing of Mike Brown, Lauryn Hill tweeted a previously-unreleased contrafact that embodied the protest of the new movement: “Black Rage,” set to the tune of Rogers and Hammerstein’s “My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music.

Black rage is founded on blatant denial,

Squeezed economics, subsistence survival,

Deafening silence and social control,

Black rage is founded in wounds in the soul.

She retains the lyrics of the original chorus—the biting dog and stinging bee—nearly intact, but there are important, small differences. She feels angry, not sad; naming and remembering these collective injustices alleviates her fear, and hones it into rage.

 

Lauryn Hill performs “Black Rage” live in Spain on August 25, 2014.

 

Eric GarnerMichael BrownDante ParkerJohn Crawford, IIITamir RiceRumain BrisbanWalter ScottFreddie Gray: these are the names of just a few of the black men killed by police since the summer of 2014. Women have been killed, too, although for some reason their fates are less well known. May their memories be for a blessing, whether or not we know their names.

For Discussion

1. Consider the following songs, available on YouTube or SoundCloud: how do these songs embody protest?

    Tom Morello, “Marching on Ferguson”

    Ezra Furman, “Ferguson’s Burning”

    J. Cole, “Be Free”

    Swizzymack, “Ferguson (For Mike Brown)”

    Elle Varner, “One Love”

    T.I. and Skyler Grey, “New National Anthem”

2. If you have been to a recent protest event, think about the music people sang or experienced. Was the music new or familiar? Was there new text, or was a familiar text presented in a new context?

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