Contemporary rap classics, regional hits, deep cuts, and standouts from some of rap’s youngest stars have become the soundtrack to protests around the country.
As the nation continues to erupt in protest in demand for justice for Black lives, chants of those slain, as well as chants like “Black Lives Matter” and “No Justice, No Peace”, embody the anger and frustration protesters are feeling at this moment, and so does the music soundtracking these demonstrations.
Protest music in America has been an ever-evolving phenomenon since the 18th century. Older music genres have spawned countless subgenres, each having their own sound and tone that differentiates it from its predecessors. As a result, music — particularly protest music — has changed as well, the intent still the same despite how it’s articulated.
A part of this evolution of American protest is Black protest music. The spirituals sang by slaves that doubled as coded messages; Odetta Holmes, “The Voice of the Civil Rights Movement,” whose blend of blues, jazz, spirituals, and American folk music influenced everyone from Bob Dylan to Mavis Staples; James Brown’s declarative “Say It Loud — I’m Black and I’m Proud“; Marvin Gaye’s contemplative “What’s Going On“; N.W.A’s “Fuck The Police“; and Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright.”
There are many songs considered canon in Black protest music, with overtly political lyrics centered around racism and police brutality making them timeless anthems. But there are others that aren’t as overt that have been adopted as protest songs for the moment, too: contemporary rap classics, regional hits, deep cuts, and standouts from some of rap’s youngest stars are energizing and mobilizing Black people across the country. In the age of streaming, curated playlists like Spotify’s “Black Lives Matter” or Apple Music’s “#TheShowMustBePaused” dictates what is believed to be the soundtracks of the streets countrywide. However, those playlists only tell part of the story — that alongside these easily-identifiable protest tracks are ones that aren’t as direct. Songs that carry the energies of protest — anger, chaos, excitement — without being categorized as such. Whether they will become a part of the canon of timeless Black protest music is uncertain, but for now, they’re holding space.
If there has been any song associated with the protests and uprisings occurring in Minneapolis following George Floyd’s death, it’s Chief Keef’s “Faneto.” Released on SoundCloud in October 2014, “Faneto” has become a cult classic in Keef’s catalog, and a classic of 2010s rap. The track begins with a clash of cymbals and punchy percussion, Keef complimenting his own beat with chants of “Gang in this bitch” that grow more and more excited with each repeating. Then, the hook hits:
I’m a gorilla in a fuckin’ coupe, finna pull up to the zoo, nigga
Who, nigga? Who the fuck is you? I don’t know, nigga
No, nigga, pull up on your block, we gon’ blow, nigga
Go, nigga, run, nigga, run for the po’, nigga (Police, nigga)
Gas what I smoke, nigga (Nigga, smoke)
Feds at my door, jump out the window, nigga (The window)
No, you can’t get no money, silly ho (Silly ho)
I just hit a stain, faneto (Faneto)
When the Third Precinct building of the Minneapolis Police Department burned down on May 28, “Faneto” soundtracked its demise. Multiple viral videos of the incident surfaced on Twitter, showing protesters rapping the song’s hook word for word.
“I can’t believe I witnessed that,” Yasmeenah, a local DJ, said. “It felt like, honestly, joy. It felt empowering. This is Black people. This is us. ‘Faneto’ is our revolutionary track and I really hope Chief Keef sees that and understands that he is a legend, he is an icon, and he means a lot to Black people.”
Along with “Faneto,” Yasmeenah said she also heard music from fellow Chicago rappers Lil Durk and G Herbo, as well Future’s “March Madness.” Yasmeenah would go on to curate the sound for a protest organized by Black Visions Collective, a Black, trans and queer non-profit organization based in Minnesota. This particular protest, which took place on June 7, made national headlines when Mayor Jacob Frey was booed after he declined to say he would completely abolish the Minneapolis Police Department.
Yasmeenah DJ’d the protest in real-time, opening her set with ballroom DJ MikeQ’s “Reclaiming My Time,” before playing Solange’s “Stay Flo,” Rae Sremmurd’s “Powerglide,” Bobby Shmurda’s “Hot Nigga,” iMarkkeyz and DJ Suede the Remix God’s “Lose Yo Job” and more.
But one of the most memorable songs Yashmeenah played during her set was Beyoncé’s cover of Maze’s “Before I Let Go,” which followed Frey’s booing. “I needed to remind the Black people that were around the float that we’re all in this together,” she said. “That fake ass nigga may have said he didn’t support but that didn’t matter because we brought all those people there who did support us.”
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“That song, specifically — doing the Electric Slide, it reminds people of how all types of Black people can just come together and be in space and feel each other, and I needed people to feel from each other that they were all showing up there for each other,” she added.
In George Floyd’s passing, the world has come to learn of his ties to Houston, particularly his affiliation with the late DJ Screw and his Screwed Up Click. Floyd spent most of his life in Houston, specifically the city’s Third Ward, where he aspired to be a rapper. Following his death, Floyd’s appearances on screw tapes surfaced online, Floyd immortalized as a part of Houston rap history as the one and only “Big Floyd.”
His screw tape features soundtracked the Houston protest that took place on June 2. An estimated 60,000 people marched from the Discovery Green Park to City Hall in remembrance of Floyd and, according to some protesters, Floyd soundtracked the march alongside Tupac classics like “Changes,” “Only God Can Judge Me,” and “So Many Tears.”
“I believe hearing his music as protest music has opened up a lot of people to how massive and full his life was,” Brandon Caldwell said in a Twitter Direct Message. “The full spectrum of it is that he was capable of achieving so much and meant so much to his community that it poured out into the city. Those who didn’t know Floyd rapped now do. He’s become elevated in a way I don’t think anyone truly believed initially but it’s the perfect story. He wasn’t a perfect man, but he was the embodiment of Third Ward, Houston Texas. Good, bad, and in-between. The voice will never fall, even if he’s no longer with us.”
In Louisville, protests have been taking place in remembrance of Breonna Taylor, an emergency room technician who was gunned down after police broke down the door to her apartment during a narcotics raid. Although the city has since passed a ban on no-knock warrants following Taylor’s death, her killers — Sgt. Jon Mattingly, Myles Cosgrove, and Brett Hankison — are still free.
Some Louisville residents know that some of these officers’ transgressions didn’t begin with Taylor. James Lindsey, a local musician who has participated in some of the protests, said Hankison — referred to as “Hank” — was known for terrorizing the neighborhood he grew up in. Hankison has also been accused of sexual assault.
“I remembered hearing that name so much growing up and people being like, ‘Oh, Hank this, Hank that,’ I just never really put two and two together,” Lindsey said. “He’s just a crooked cop…he was Training Day material.”
According to Lindsey, the music that has soundtracked protests in Louisville has ranged from Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” to Future’s “March Madness,” the latter of which he heard while marching toward the West End, a predominantly Black area of the city. The protest, which took place on June 1, was particularly notable for its inclusion of cars, with people being able to march in the street alongside people cruising in their cars, a moment reminiscent of a tradition Lindsey called “derby cruising” that the city of Louisville banned back in 2006.
“For some reason, it caught on like wildfire in clubs in Louisville when it dropped,” Lindsey said while referencing some of the song’s jabs at cops (“These fuckin’ police can’t touch me (Nah) / These bogus police can’t touch me (Nah)”). “That song has a bounce…it’s like a chant…that’s what these records are. If you’re rooting for Black people you’ll probably be singing those lyrics.”
The Los Angeles Police Department is arguably one of the nation’s most notorious and infamous departments, forever connected to the wrongful beating of Rodney King that occurred 19 years ago. Three years prior to that incident, N.W.A. had captured the anger and frustration of the city’s Black and brown youth towards the LAPD with their song “Fuck Tha Police.” Now, the track is considered not only a rap classic but a Black protest anthem.
“If you had to ask me what’s the protest song I’ve heard the most [is], it’s ‘Fuck Tha Police,'” protester Taylor said, adding that he heard the song coming out of cars and apartment windows during a march near Highland Park on June 6. “It’s California — everyone has such a context to [that song]. It’s just a clear signal — everybody agrees that what [the police] are doing is wrong.”
Along with “Fuck Tha Police,” Taylor said he heard other regional-mainstream protest anthems like Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” at both the Highland Park protest and the Hollywood protest on June 7, as well as more regional protest anthems like YG’s “FDT” and “FTP,” the latter of which he filmed a music video for during the Hollywood protest. But the most memorable protest music moment Taylor had was when he heard Marvin Gaye’s classic “What’s Going On” during the Highland Park march.
“That’s one of my favorite songs and albums, period,” Taylor said. “It’s tonally different — it’s protest music but it’s a song that is diagnosing things, and getting to the layer beneath anger. It’s a layer deeper than shouting Fuck the police because, yeah, that’s the enemy. But what’s creating the environment for the enemy to do what they’re doing?”
New York City
Protest in New York City haven’t only been in remembrance of Arbery, Floyd, and Taylor, but for those who’ve been victims of police brutality throughout the city.
In Brooklyn, Pop Smoke has soundtracked a handful of protests. The late Brooklyn rapper had his own troubles with the NYPD when he was alive. In life and death, Smoke’s music is inescapable in New York City. Last summer, “Welcome to the Party” and “Dior” turned bars, clubs and block parties into a joyous ruckus as the city had a new, young rapper to champion, and the Black youth of the city are still championing him as they take to the streets.
Protester Denver recounted how, during a Brooklyn protest that took place on June 1, a group of young Black kids played Pop Smoke from a little speaker they had on a trolley as they made their way back to Barclays Center.
“You’re chanting and it’s like, this righteous indignation, and then the Pop Smoke comes on. It gives you the opportunity to relax and release through the music,” Denver, a 12-year Bedstuy resident who has participated in protests for Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner, said. “Maybe other regions don’t know the importance of Pop Smoke, but New Yorkers, particularly young New Yorkers from East New York, Flatbush, they understand the significance.”
“Protests can be very regional. A lot of the protests — specifically in other regions — there’s other things going on that it’s just not George Floyd or Breonna Taylor. Everybody in a lot of these cities have different experiences with the police,” Denver added. “In Black culture we rally around music — particularly youthful music — that relates to us. That’s what gets us going.”
This year marks 35 years since the MOVE bombing when the Philadelphia Police Department dropped a bomb on the home of MOVE, a Black radical liberation group. The attack killed 11 men, women and children, and destroyed 61 homes. This moment, as well as other instances of police injustice against Black people, have been integral to the protests in Philly.
The music that has soundtracked some of Philly’s protests has come from local artists who’ve had their own experiences with the city’s cops, namely Meek Mill. In 2007, 19-year-old Meek was arrested on gun and drug charges; the case finally came to a close last year when he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor gun charge. Philly trial judge Genece Brinkley oversaw the 12-year criminal case and accused the rapper of not following the rules of his probation. In November 2017, Brinkley sentenced Meek to two-to-four years in state prison over minor infractions, including riding a dirt bike in New York City. His conviction turned him into a symbol for criminal justice reform, and upon being released two years later, he became an activist.
“Meek is ours and he has been through this very system,” Protester and writer Shakira, said.
“I think it speaks to that longstanding relationship between Philly and New York,” Shakira said of Smoke’s music being played alongside Meek’s. “We’re deadass cousins. The language, the words we use, the mannerisms, the fashion that we have all up and down that very small stretch of the East Coast. We’re family, but we still rep our cities individually.”
But the protest also served as an opportunity for the “young bouls” — as Shakira affectionately referred to them as — to engage in a pastime that makes Philly what it is, even if the city considers it illegal — riding their dirt bikes through the streets.
“There’s something about the freedom that it gives folks here — that dirt bike culture,” Shakira said. “Being able to ride on these major streets, it gives these kids a sense of freedom because we don’t have a whole lot of open space here.”
At the core of these protests is the imagining of a country that holds its police forces accountable and, hopefully someday, abolishes these forces in favor of a system that doesn’t abuse its people. Protest music will always be around to soundtrack these, and future protests.
“Our protest music is gonna look so much different than it did in the ’50s and ’60s, and I think all the historians everywhere need to be prepared for that,” Shakira said. “It will be radical and leftist, and it will be dirty and it will say all the F-words and it will be very harsh…it won’t just be fight the power — it’s gon’ be fuck this shit, burn this bitch down, fuck Donald Trump — it’s gonna be all of those things that we have seen in music over the last seven years.”