a musical history of black lives matter

Music has always been intrinsic to social uprisings, and nowhere has this been truer than in the fight for racial equality. From Marvin Gaye, to the vogueing scene, to the Black Lives Matter movement, we contemplate decades of revolutionary music.

by Ian McQuaid
18 July 2016, 2:19pm

When Marvin Gaye released What's Going On in 1971, he laid the template for the modern protest album. Launched at the peak of his fame, and sold through a reluctant Motown (label head Berry Gordy was notoriously averse to Gaye's new found political stylings — until the money started rolling in), the album became the high point of a career packed with high points, setting the benchmark against which all future records challenging the racial tensions of America would be measured.

Nearly 50 years on and it feels like little has changed since Gaye called for equality and humanity. Black people on the streets of America (and beyond) feel justifiably threatened by a police force that has proven happy to resort to lethal force. From Trayvon Martin to Philando Castile, the deaths of countless black Americans at the hands of the state has proven that melanin count is too often provocation enough alone.

Whilst it's doubtful that there has ever been any slackening in global anti-blackness between the 70s and now, our current information rich age has brought that anti-blackness into stark relief. The presence of portable cameras and the means to disseminate footage worldwide has enabled links to be drawn. Where Michael Brown or Sandra Bland's deaths might once have been a regional news blip that died down in a fortnight, they now tie into a narrative that stretches from police brutality in Dallas to the shooting of Mark Duggan on the streets of Tottenham. Unsurprisingly this network of violence has led to black artists from around both sides of the Atlantic to use the reach of their voice to demand answers. Not since the wide sweeping black power movement of the late 60s has popular culture so concerned itself with voicing rage, frustration,  and sorrow.

In the mainstream this has been most obviously seen in the high impact releases of Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar. Kendrick's To Pimp A Butterfly is an album made firmly in the What's Going On model — lyrically introspective, musically intricate, and very, very successful. There was no doubting the scope of Lamar's ambition when he appeared at the Grammy's to perform "The Blacker the Berry" while chained in prison blues, and he has been widely feted for bringing a social conscious back to mainstream hip hop.

Beyoncé's adoption of the imagery of racial struggle has been treated with more caution — perhaps as a result of patriarchal paradigms that reward men and suspect women, or perhaps as a result of her naked championing of capitalism, a system that builds profit from exploitation (as the sweatshop workers stitching her Ivy Park brand have attested). Her undeniably striking use of Black Panther imagery for her 2016 Superbowl performance split commenters on all sides of the spectrum. Outside of the predictable spluttering rage from America's easily triggered far right (ever reliable, Rush Limbaugh described it as symptomatic of "the social rot that is befalling our country"), there were supporters of the #BlackLivesMatter movement who had reservations about Bey's new found activism; most notably bell hooks, who struggled with the link between the use of emotive slogans and the slick money making machine they emanate from. hooks' criticisms are in no way universally approved of, and plenty in both America and UK see no cynicism in Beyoncé's approach — or accept it and consider the power of her voice as crucial regardless. In Mrs. Carter's favor it should be noted that she recently changed her website to a statement decrying the continued murder of black Americans by the police. Detractors would probably point out that the statement was taken down within a day, replaced by an advert for American Express.

Whatever your stance on Beyoncé's critiques of state sponsored violence, her visibility guarantees that protest is currently embedded in hip hop and pop culture. And, as is usually the case, that which is happening in the mainstream is being repeated with more vigor on the underground. Black artists from both sides of the Atlantic are encoding protest into their music — moving beyond mere lyrical statements into creating music itself that rages against a system of violence.

Experimental vogue producer Lotic makes explicitly politicized collisions of noise; his live sets opening with voices of the mothers of murdered black Americans, before dissolving into apocalyptic soundscapes that shred notions of dance, of rhythm, of melody, see-sawing between joy, rage, and woe. Largely bereft of lyrics, his music is nonetheless a jaggedly potent protest; his syncopated rhythms demanding dancing bodies form unfamiliar shapes, a physical refutation of the societal cages we inhabit. This same refutation be heard in the Ghe20 G0th1k sets played by Lotik's contemporary Venus X, musical travelogues were her track selection charts links across black and Latin diasporas, their shifting rhythms creating new forms of complex physical expression.

The vogue world, with its queer black roots, has long been a site for music that functions as both an exhortation to dance and a protest against inequality. Vogue producer Schwartz's "Hands Up Don't Shoot" is an overt shot of anger, combining the sound of police audio weaponry with the "hands up, don't shoot" chant of Black Lives Matter protestors, all of which is then laid over militant Baltimore breakbeats. It's the sound of harsh ghetto protest music, stripped and ferocious, and has remained as unfortunately relevant in 2016 as it was when first released in 2014.

UK artists have also been spread between those who make overt political statements and those who try and encode protest into the beats they make. Akala and Skepta may have once seemed poles apart; in the late 00s Akala was a wordy MC loved by the backpack scene, and Skepta was notorious as the grime MC who shot a porno as the video for one of his singles. Now the two are far closer together, with Akala increasingly seen as relevant by a grime fans thirsty for MCs speaking eloquently on social justice, while Skepta now describes himself as an 'activist', dropping the album cut "Crime Riddim," a seething banger dealing with his experiences of police harassment. Whilst Skepta may have expanded his focus, whole swathes of the grime fanbase aren't comfortable with MCs being increasingly vocal on racism. 

As the scene has exploded around the country, an artist like Stormzy has found himself loved by suburban white kids who have little to no contact with black contemporaries. A selection of these fans are more than happy for Stormzy to be dropping bars about merking people, but far less happy when he uses his social media to attack institutionalized racism, both in America and the UK. When he posted on Instagram that "I ain't waiting till a fed kills one of my bredrins before I rise up," he had a fair amount of responses from fans telling him that they "ain't racist in anyway or form," but that he should "stop posting this crap," or, that it was "more likely another black person will shoot your dad before a cop will." In many ways this makes his statements all the more important —he reaches directly to people who would never normally engage with the concepts that Black Lives Matter movement are trying to foreground.

Meanwhile the young grime MC and producer Novelist — recently photographed bearing the hand painted 'Stop Killing the Man Dem' sign at recent London protests against police violence — has been creating music that reflects his outspoken politicization. Instrumental cuts "David Cameron Riddim" and "Tax the MPs" are paranoid, minimalist loops, their titles laying blame for the claustrophobia of inner city life firmly at the feet of the elite, and drawing on similar, albeit more linear, digital dystopias that make Lotic's work so essential. Elsewhere, rising Londoner Gaika can be seen as bridging between Skepta's lyrical barbs, Novelist's bass pulse, and Lotic's fragmentation — his two mixtapes packed with deep meditations on life as a black Londoner in an abusive system, over music that kicks off from a platform of grime and bashment to float free in an unexplored cosmos of possibility. And it's this commitment to musical experimentation that may be the most radical step emerging from the modern, entirely necessary black liberation movement — not just lyrics that howl rage at the situation as it is, but a creative energy that dares to dream of how things could be.



Text Ian McQuaid
Photography Alice Zoo

Black Lives Matter