For rap fans, the start of June brought an anticipated reaction: a new groundswell of songs generated by widespread protest against police brutality and racist violence – this time sparked by the May 25 murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, the March 13 murder of Breonna Taylor by Louisville cops, Ahmaud Arbery’s February 23 killing by three white men in Georgia, and others. It fulfills a tradition that dates back to the earliest days of recorded rap: when a crisis hits the black community, the musicians shift to address it.
The first major offerings emerged on June 1 with the likes of “Pig Feet”, a collaboration between Terrace Martin, Denzel Curry, Kamasi Washington, G Perico and Daylyt. (Less publicized was D Smoke & SiR’s “Let Go,” which dropped at the end of May.) Then came Conway the Machine’s “Front Lines,” YG’s “FTP” (Fuck the Police), Meek Mill’s “Otherside of America,” Pharoahe Monch, Styles P and Marco Polo’s “Same Sh!t, Different Toilet”; and many others. As of this writing, there are at least two dozen tracks by known artists addressing a political flashpoint that has consumed national politics with fierce and surprisingly lengthy intensity. More are likely to come.
This wave of tracks dedicated to a movement that does not yet have a name, but which has many goals – from abstract ambitions such as ending systemic racism to policy initiatives like defunding local police departments – has historic parallels. (On MSNBC, professor and historian Jelani Cobb called the movement an “American Spring,” similar to the Arab Spring and other international protests). There’s the spate of cuts that emerged from the crack cocaine epidemic of the mid-80s, the aftershocks from the beating of Rodney King by LA cops and the subsequent 1992 uprising and, most recently, the ongoing COVID-19 epidemic that has affected black and brown people disproportionately. Critical analysis of their aesthetic qualities may be less important than how they express black solidarity.
Conway’s “Front Lines” is notable for how it shifts from a typical thug boast in the first verse to an anguished rebuke of police aggression in the second. On Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire’s “Bootlickers (Burn Baby Burn),” the New York rapper shifts from a soft recitation of black suffering to a heated promise to meet force with force. Save for its intro sampling Donald Trump’s notorious “What the hell do you have to lose?” speech in Michigan during the 2016 presidential campaign; Meek Mill’s “Otherside of America” and his pride over rising from poverty could be an outtake from one of his albums.
Then there’s Run the Jewels’ RTJ4. It was already scheduled to drop in late May when the murder of George Floyd, which a teenage bystander caught on a camera phone, sparked a protest of millions that continues to build. Its arrival is serendipitous, and Killer Mike and El-P’s patented agit-rap feels as timely as ever. Of particular note is “Walking in the Snow,” where Killer Mike extemporizes on mass complacency to state-sponsored terror of black people. “And you so numb you watch the cops choke out a man like me/Until my voice goes from a shriek to whisper, “I can’t breathe”/And you sit there on your couch and watch it on TV/The most you give is a Twitter rant and call it a tragedy/Truly a travesty, you’ve been robbed of your empathy.” Hearteningly, his disgust on “Walking in the Snow” has been contradicted by worldwide outrage of yet more black people being murdered by cops on video.
As time passes, some of these emergency responses to the current events may earn classic status. Others will only be remembered by crate diggers and music scholars. Ultimately, it’s the building of a chorus of different voices and styles addressing a historic moment that’s most important right now.
- Conway the Machine – “Front Lines”
- Terrace Martin & Denzel Curry feat. Kamasi Washington, G Perico & Daylyt- “Pig Feet”
- YG – “FTP”
- Mr. Muthafuckin eXquire – “Bootlickers (Burn Baby Burn)”
- Papoose – “Tribute”
- Jim Jones – “The People”
- D Smoke & SiR – “Let Go”
- Tee Grizzley feat. Queen Naija and members of the Detroit Youth Choir – “Mr. Officer”
- Meek Mill – “Otherside of America”
- Lil B – “I Am George Floyd”
- Juelz Santana – “Justice for George”
- Nappy Roots – “Blind Faith”
- Pharoahe Monch feat. Styles P and Marco Polo – “Same Shit, Different Toilet”
- Dizzy Wright – “Police Can’t See Me Alive”
- Nasty C & T.I. – “They Don’t”
- Run the Jewels feat. Gangsta Boo – “Walking in the Snow”
- Icewear Vezzo – “No More Pain”
- Teejayx6 – “Black Lives Matter”
- Machine Gun Kelly – “Killing in the Name”
- Jean Dawson – “Policía”