Black recording artists have long been highlighting the perils of racism and police brutality through music, but recent events are brightening the spotlight on racial injustice and oppression.
Keeping in the tradition of Black art reflecting the times, the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and subsequent protests have further ignited a passion in artists inspired to use their music as a sounding board for change.
Check below for protest songs that highlight the importance of the Black Lives Matter movement.
1. Usher – “I Cry”
The GRAMMY winner lets his emotions flow on the BLM-inspired piano ballad “I Cry.” The father of two released the song to teach his sons that it’s “OK for a man to feel emotions deeply and to cry.” All proceeds from “I Cry” benefit Local Initiatives Support Corporation.
In 2015, Usher shared stories of police brutality and racial violence with the track “Chains.” Coupled with an interactive music video featuring images of Trayvon Martin, Ramarley Graham, Caesar Cruz, Rekia Boyd, Amadou Diallo, and other victims, the Nas-assisted track provides a sobering perspective on the reality of being Black in America.
2. Beyoncé – “Black Parade”
Empowerment is the name of the game on Beyoncé’s “Black Parade.” Released on Juneteenth, Queen Bey celebrates the beauty of Blackness on the triumphant track.
“Black Parade” serves as a reminder to amplify Black voices and support Black-owned businesses.
“I hope we continue to share joy and celebrate each other, even in the midst of struggle,” the singer wrote on Instagram upon releasing the song. “Please continue to remember our beauty, strength and power.”
3. Lil Baby – “The Bigger Picture”
Lil Baby uses his platform to share a haunting yet hopeful perspective on “The Bigger Picture.” The song offers a window into the trauma of dealing with racism and brutality on a daily basis, while the thought-provoking music video includes footage from nationwide BLM protests.
Released in early June, “The Bigger Picture” has become the internet’s most popular protest song, racking up more than 65 million streams in two weeks.
4. H.E.R. – “I Can’t Breathe”
H.E.R. shares an emotive take on the police killings of unarmed Black men and women on “I Can’t Breathe.”
The bluesy track, which the GRAMMY-nominated singer debuted at the IHeart Radio Living Room Concert Series last month, highlights the importance of intersectionality within activism.
“Starting a war, screaming peace at the same time. All the corruption, injustice, the same crimes,” H.E.R sings on the opening verse. “Always a problem if we do or don’t fight, and we die we don’t have the same rights. What is a gun to a man that surrenders? What it’s gonna take for someone to defend us? If we all agree that we’re equal as people, then why can’t we see what is evil?”
5. Da Baby featuring Roddy Ricch – “Rockstar” (BLM Remix)
The dualities of being a music superstar and a Black man in America come to life on the “BLM remix” of Da Baby’s single, “Rockstar,” featuring Roddy Ricch.
The track includes the North Carolina rapper sharing a firsthand account of police pulling guns on him as a child, and how the incident shaped his mindset.
6. Juicy J – Hella F**kin’ Trauma
Every movement has its tipping point. Juicy J uses his voice on “Hella F**kin’ Trauma.” The song opens with the chant “enough is enough,” as the Oscar-winning rapper and producer calls out police brutality, racism, and shady record labels.
7. Trey Songz – “2020 Riots: How Many Times”
Trey Songz sheds light on the injustices faced by the Black community at the hands of police brutality and institutionalized racism on the compelling new single, “2020 Riots: How Many Times.” Songz was inspired to record the song after joining in protests over Floyd’s murder. “With the words in this song I just wanted to speak to everyone’s hearts and acknowledge the pain and anguish everyone is going through right now,” Songz said in a statement.
8. Prince – “Baltimore”
“Baltimore,” one of Prince’s final singles, was inspired by Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old Black man who died in police custody in 2015, and the subsequent uprisings that followed his death. Recorded exactly one-year before Prince died, “Baltimore” was the lead track off the Purple One’s album, Hit n Run Phase Two.
In commemoration of what would have been Prince’s 62nd birthday last Sunday, the music legend’s estate released his handwritten note on intolerance that reads, “Nothing more ugly in the whole wide world than INTOLERANCE (between) Black, white, red, yellow, boy or girl. INTOLERANCE.”
9. Kendrick Lamar – “Alright”
The GRAMMY-winning rapper’s 2015 single, “Alright,” spotlights the beauty of Black life co-existing within the throes of oppression and police brutality. Produced by Pharrell Williams, Lamar’s critically acclaimed track became an anthem for Black Lives Matter protests, rallies and marches for serving up a slice of faith amid despair.
10. Leon Bridges – “Sweeter”
The GRAMMY-winning singer-songwriter shares the perspective of a Black man taking his last breath in “Sweeter” featuring fellow GRAMMY winner Terrace Martin. Originally recorded for a future album, Bridges decided to release the song early in light of current events. The Texas native has experienced racism throughout his life but Floyd’s death marked a “breaking point.”
“It was the first time I wept for a man I never met,” Bridges shared in a statement. “I am George Floyd, my brothers are George Floyd, and my sisters are George Floyd. I cannot and will not be silent any longer. Just as Abel’s blood was crying out to God, George Floyd is crying out to me. So, I present to you Sweeter.”
11. Nasty C featuring T.I. – “They Don’t Listen”
T.I. and Nasty C address racial injustice and police brutality on “They Don’t Listen.” Proceeds from the song, which was released on Friday, will benefit Until Freedom & The Solidarity Fund.
12. J. Cole – “Be Free”
J. Cole’s “Be Free” illuminates some of the trauma of oppression. Inspired by the police killing of Michael Brown, the chilling chorus to the 2014 track makes a powerful statement as Cole repeats, “All we want to do is take the chains off. All we want to do is be free.”
Besides music and joining marches in Ferguson, Missouri, Cole expressed his feelings on the death of Brown in a 2014 blog entry. “That coulda easily been me,” he wrote at the time. “It could have been my best friend. I’m tired of being desensitized to the murder of Black men.”
13. Black Thought – “Rest in Power”
Black Thought paid tribute to Trayvon Martin with “Rest in Power,” the lead track from the 2018 JAY-Z-produced docuseries Rest in Power: The Trayvon Martin Story. The song includes a 911 call from Martin’s killer, George Zimmerman, and words from the slain teenager’s mother, Sybrina Fulton.
14. Janelle Monae — “Hell You Talmbout”
“Silence is our enemy and sound is our weapon,” Janelle Monae once said of her protest song, “Hell You Talmbout.” The 2015 track channels the frustrations felt by the families who have lost loved ones to brutality. The six-and-a-half-minute song includes a roll call of Black men and women whose lives were taken through brutality, dating all the way back to the 1955 murder of Emmett Till.
15. John Legend – “Glory”
John Legend and Common joined forces for the Oscar-winning lead track from the film Selma. “Glory” debuted four months after Michael Brown’s murder and amid protest in Ferguson. Although Selma is centered around one of the most prevalent marches of the civil rights movement, “Glory” speaks to the present fight against injustice while paying homage to the past.
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