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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Monday, April 15, 2024

The sound of protest music in 2015

“I’m the biggest hypocrite of 2015,” Kendrick Lamar began, and it only got more honest from there. Just hours after winning the Grammy Award for Best Rap/Hip-Hop Song, Kendrick released “The Blacker the Berry,” a song that palpitated with rage and self-loathing. Just months before, Kendrick had been preaching a message of love and peace. But this was just the next step in the evolution of protest music.

The failures of grand juries to hear trials in the cases of Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and others gave rise to the Black Lives Matter movement, one of the most prominent cultural movements of the last decade. That movement is very much in motion today, in the form of every protest, every “hands up, don’t shoot” chant, every hashtag and every newly sparked conversation. Much has been made of the reaction by the sports world to the Black Lives Matter movement. Cleveland Browns wide receiver Andrew Hawkins wore a black T-shirt that read “Justice for Tamir Rice and John Crawford III,” and was later hailed for defending his statement. Other high profile athletes, from LeBron James to Derrick Rose, have also shown their support for the movement, actions widely noticed by the media. But a far more powerful movement has been emerging in music, and it’s been criminally ignored.

“I’m letting you know / that it ain’t no gun they can make that can kill my soul,” J. Cole sang. Appearing on "The Late Show" on Dec. 10, Cole bore his soul in a raspy performance of “Be Free.” The song was painful and personal, expressing a need for change while acknowledging a fear that the system is beyond hope. Other artists took note.

 Less than a week after Cole’s tour de force, Kendrick Lamar appeared on "The Colbert Report." Arguably the most talented rapper of his generation, many looked to Kendrick to take a stance on the recent events that had shaken the black community. He responded in late September with “i”, a buoyant anthem of self-love and peace in the black community. The video features Kendrick dancing past the arrest of a young, black man, a scene of domestic violence and the open window of a man who is about to kill himself. The message is one of pure optimism, of the infectious nature of love.

  And then Kendrick threw a curve ball. Performing an untitled song on "The Colbert Report", the rapper began with a slow, paranoid groove, more R&B than rap. As a backup singer shrieks “what does the Indian say?” and “what does the black man say?”, Kendrick builds into a searing critique on capitalism, on our society where money is valued over freedom.

            That's what the white man wanted when I rhyme

            Telling me that he selling me just for $10.99

            I go platinum from rapping, I do the company fine

            What if I compromise? He said it don't even matter

            Make a million or more, you living better than average

            You losing your core following, gaining it all

Between Kendrick swaying on stage with a flask and the man in a wolf costume playing the base in the back, the message of the song would be easy to miss. For much of the performance, it seems as though Kendrick is presenting an infomercial rather than a racially charged statement. That is, until the rapper starts convulsing and screaming, “Tell em we don’t die / we multiply,” over and over. Like Cole’s performance, Kendrick’s “untitled” is odd, unnerving and his best music to date.

Last week, Kendrick won the Grammy Award for Best Rap/Hip-Hop Song for “i”. As Kanye West has pointed out a number of times, the Grammys, decided by the The National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences, are an awards show historically dominated by white musicians. Just as with last year’s win by Macklemore in the Best Rap Album category, it seemed as though the Academy recognized “i” because it preached a message that appeased white people. As if he predicted this discussion, Kendrick Lamar released “The Blacker the Berry,” on Feb. 9, only hours after the Grammy Awards. Reverberating with rage, the song is a brutal critique of the black community, and of Kendrick himself. If “i” boasted a message of self-love, “The Blacker the Berry” was the opposite end of the spectrum. To emphasize this point, Kendrick posted a picture on Twitter featuring Martin Luther King Jr. with the label, “i”, next to a picture of Malcolm X with the label, “The Blacker the Berry.” True to the advertisement, the song is much more divisive than “i”, and reflects on how wealth alienates Kendrick from the rest of the black community. But more than a social critique, “The Blacker the Berry” is an introspection.


            “Don't matter how much I say I like to preach with the Panthers,

            or tell Georgia State 'Marcus Garvey got all the answers'

            So why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street?

            When gang banging make me kill a n***a blacker than me?



These are among the more brutally honest lines you will ever hear, but maybe this is just the beginning.

Back in the 60s and 70s, protest music was all the rage. Some of the biggest hits, from The Beatles’ “Revolution” to Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” were societal critiques. Protest music reached an all-time high during the early 70s, as musicians rallied in opposition of the Vietnam War to create classic music moments like the Woodstock music festival. And then, somewhere along the way, protest music faded. It would be a stretch to say that songs with civic messages ever dominated the airwaves, but they were far more common in the 60s and the 70s than in today’s EDM/Pop era. While musicians like Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, U2 and recently Arcade Fire have continued the tradition, it is increasingly apparent that protest music not only exists, but is thriving in rap music.

Call it hip-hop or call it rap, the genre has never gotten a good reputation. Derived from predominantly black art forms like spoken word and gospel, rap developed into the contemporary voice of the black community. Unfortunately, it also became known for misogynistic and violent lyrics, and offered white people (who, by the way, make up 70 percent of rap music sales), another chance to critique the black community for a lack of conduct or civility. Musicians like J. Cole, Kanye West and Kendrick Lamar are combating that impression. With a more story-driven approach to rap that harkens back to the days of spoken word or early rap stars like Grandmaster Flash, these rappers are making some of the most daring music today.

Listening to “The Blacker the Berry,” I continue to think back to Cole’s performance on "The Late Show"; it seemed as if host David Letterman was entirely unprepared for what was about to come. Letterman was smiling and cracking jokes just seconds before Cole wailed, “All we want to do is take the chains off! All we want to do is be free.” It seemed an entirely inappropriate forum for such a personal and painful message, which made it the perfect forum. This is the brilliance not only of Cole’s performance, but of the music that has sprung from recent tragedy. From Cole to Kanye West to Kendrick Lamar, the music is unwieldy and unpredictable. Preaching a vast range of responses, from peace and love, to prosperity and economic independence, to uprising and radicalism, these artists have brilliantly mirrored the reactions of a reeling society. While it would be easy to peg songs like “i” in the vision of Martin Luther King Jr. or label “The Blacker the Berry” a Malcolm X-style call for insurgency, the most important message to be gleaned is that protest is not uniform. The need for change is clear, but it has been manifested in a variety of ways, and created the type of internal conflicts evinced in “The Blacker the Berry.” In continuing the tradition of protest music, these artists have created a dynamic, vibrant platform for expressing that is expanding our cultural definition of “protesting.” Now it’s up to us to listen.