Every revolution has its soundtrack. And in the U.S., a nation founded upon rebellion, protest music functions as an essential form of expression during moments of unrest. Nina Simone’s Mississippi, Goddamn artfully captured the pain of segregation in the Jim Crow south, Public Enemy came through with Fuck the Police in the 1980s, a searing and straightforward indictment of police brutality. And arguably the most famous protest song of all time, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, has become an anthem for demonstrations worldwide since its release in 1971. So it makes sense that during what seems like a never-ending pandemic, and a massive resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, the music would come. It has, quickly—from some of the biggest and occasionally unlikely pop stars. Artists like Anderson Paak, H.E.R., and Lil Baby, who might not have made politically charged music one year ago, released projects commenting on the protests and socio-economic climate over the past two months.
To the untrained ear, it would appear that Paak, a jolly funk artist with a huge grin permanently on his face; H.E.R., a romantic crooner whose r&b songs are soulful enough to melt your heart, and Lil Baby, one of the most thoughtful writers in rap today, were breaking character by releasing music about the uprising. Newer listeners might think these tracks deviated from the artists’ usual subject matter. But if the demonstrations have made anything clear, it’s that the musicians making protest music now—and scores of Black artists who employ other mediums—were creating based on their entire life experiences. They made songs that told the stories of their frightening encounters with police officers, daily encounters with racism, and fighting for their right to live. This, like police brutality and the killing of unarmed Black people, was nothing new.
Not every artist making protest music, however, must have a pop hit and a huge platform. There’s a ballooning number of indie musicians who have been protest through their art for decades, and are now gaining new audiences in light of the Black Lives Matter movement.
The singer, writer, and activist Amyra León told me as much. León, who grew up in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood and is still based there, has written protest music all her life. But the only time she is seen as “marketable” is during a moment of political unrest.
“This happens to my career every time the world explodes,” León told me during a phone call recently. “My image, my work, my words, my things are used more than usual.”
Prior to 2016, venues where León performed had asked her not to sing her song Burning in Birmingham, a track she wrote after she spoke at an event with Trayvon Martin’s mother, Sybrina Fulton, in 2015.
“They were like, ‘Do you have to talk about the things? Burning in Birmingham is a little intense,’” León recalled. But following Donald Trump’s election as president, “suddenly, it was like, ‘Hey, can you come and lead this march?’” León said. “The same venues, the same people who were turning me down or asking me to censor myself, were begging me to speak.”
She saw the same thing happening after the death of George Floyd in late May.
“A lot of Black artists getting beautiful amounts of attention right now. But how far down do we have to be before you decide that you want to lift us up?”
León, who is releasing her latest album “Witness” in August, has decided the way she wants to make music will change going forward. After a few years spent working on a play called Vaseline in London, writing three books, and filming a documentary on her art and activism with PBS, she’d like to focus on music that “creates the place that we go to feel safe.”
“I only discuss what’s happening with me and my people as an opportunity for us to look at the wound and heal,” she said. “I don’t want to continue to look at the wound anymore, because I’m exhausted. And it’s a place that often gets exploited. Uprisings like this remind me that I wish I had music I wanted to play when I was in the shower, when I needed to cry or to invite people to have a place, to go to cry.”
The Houston-based musician Tobe Nwigwe’s protest music gained notoriety through a different channel: his song “I Want You To” went viral on TikTok. Nwigwe, who has fans in Michelle Obama and Erykah Badu, made the song after he says he had a vision about it. He called his sister LaNell Grant, who also happens to be his producer.
“She made the song— it was something light and it sounded like it was about to be a warm, buzzy feeling, and then a beat came in hard after,” Nwigwe explained from his home in Texas. The beat—a spare, but heavy drum—highlights Nwigwe’s simple message in the 45-second track. He raps, “Arrest the killers of Breonna Taylor. And Elijah McClain too,” while sitting next to Grant, and his wife Ivory Nwigwe, dressed in all white. They perform simple choreography that corresponds with the lyrics: they cross their wrists together for “arrest” and on “killers,” they position their hands as though they were holding a gun. Nwigwe uploaded the video on Instagram, and it was quickly picked up by users of TikTok, who moved it to that platform.
“They forced my hand to put it on TikTok,” Nwigwe said. “Once I heard it was on TikTok, I was like alright, I might as well put it on there as well.”
The song was picked up by TikTok users like Amelie Zilber, who has over 2 million followers. They created their own interpretations of the original video, and reposted it with clickbait-esque intros like “It’s finally time to show you…” to entice viewers.
The message of I Need You To is simple enough to render it tailor-made for any platform of social media. It is an unadorned, but impactful message, a rallying cry. But Nwigwe said he doesn’t see his music as being necessarily political, or even protest music. He’s just being honest.
“When something is wrong, I call a thing a thing. If it’s wrong, it shouldn’t be happening. Somebody needs to say something about it,” he said. “My music consistently reflects my life, my experiences, the times, what I’ve been through, and speaking to people who come from where I come from.”