The summer of 2020 was unforgettable. The murder of George Floyd sparked protests around the country, drawing millions of Americans into the streets for demonstrations. And the sounds that summer –from the chants of peaceful protesters to the frequent explosions of violence in response from police– are still echoing throughout the nation. Many musicians added their voices, sometimes as protesters themselves, but also by releasing songs about the impact of police violence and racism, like “The Bigger Picture” from Atlanta rapper Lil Baby.
There’s a long history of music from the African American voice being used in resistance. On Friday’s episode of A Word, I spoke with Atlanta-based entertainment and music journalist Jewel Wicker about what Black protest music looks like today. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Jason Johnson: What struck you about “The Bigger Picture” and how Lil Baby put it together? And is this the kind of thing that he tends to talk about or was this a departure?
Jewel Wicker: This was certainly a departure from what Lil Baby has usually put out content-wise. And I think what really struck me was the timing of the release. It was something that Lil Baby couldn’t have known when he put it out, but less than 24 hours after he released that song, a Black man by the name of Rayshard Brooks was killed by police in South Atlanta in the neighborhood that Lil Baby grew up in. And so what was really special I think about this protest anthem that was released was that, 24 hours later, it became an anthem in Lil Baby’s own city.
What are some of the other songs that came out last summer that you think really spoke to the moment? And again, were those songs with sort of long-term activist, hip-hop stars and rappers, or were they departures as people were paying attention to the moment?
We had songs from everyone from DaBaby, who released a remix of his song, “Rockstar” that had a Black Lives Matter type of verse to it. H.E.R., a singer, released a song called “I Can’t Breathe.” Anderson .Paak released a song called “Lockdown.” A rapper by the name of YG filmed a music video at a protest. A group here in Atlanta called Spillage Village released a song called “End of Daze.” Their music video touched on the protest.
I think it became really common at that time for artists to be speaking on what was going on. I spoke to a Harvard professor, her name is Ingrid Monson. She said what really stood out to her about last year’s protest music was the timeliness of it, right? If you had protest music in previous decades, they couldn’t put it out and have it become the song of a protest the next day. But with streaming, you can put out a song and then the next day, it can become something that people who are in the streets are listening to. Or you can film a music video at a protest and put it out while protests are still going on. This timeliness element is what really stood out about some of the songs that were coming out last year.
What do you think distinguishes Atlanta protest music from maybe songs coming out of Houston or a song coming out of Chicago? Do you think Atlanta has its own flavor to protest music?
One, I would say that Atlanta artists are very linked oftentimes to our politicians here. We see a Killer Mike and a T.I. at a press conference with the mayor. That’s not an uncommon sight here in Atlanta.
But then another thing I would want to point out: I spoke to a reporter by the name of Rodney Carmichael. He does a podcast called Louder Than a Riot, and what he pointed out, which is very true, is that although our artists might not always be speaking about protests specifically, they’re always talking about racial justice in their own ways. If Lil Baby is rapping about growing up in poverty and trapping and things like that, that is inherently political. When you think of Goodie Mob’s Soul Food, that was a political album. And so I think we have to stretch our imagination of what we think of when we think of political music. And if we do that, a lot of times the hip-hop music that we’re listening to is political because being Black, growing up in poverty, growing up in some of these situations are inherently political.
How many of these hip-hop songs and how many of these artists really came out with music last year that was George Floyd–centered, that was a change from what or who they had been musically before?
What’s really interesting, and I’ve been thinking about this, because when Lil Baby put out “The Bigger Picture,” I interviewed him last summer for GQ and profiled him, and I spoke to him about releasing that song because it was such a departure for him to put out something that was so blatantly political. What he told me back then, paraphrasing, “I don’t want to be Martin Luther King or Malcolm X. I put out that song. I spoke to the moment because it touched me and I want to be done with it. I don’t want to be involved with politicians.”
The DA here, he lost, but he was running for reelection. And he had said that Lil Baby endorsed him. Lil Baby said, “I did not.” He was very clearly stepping back from being involved in politics. Now, since then, I’ve been very interested in the fact that he went on to perform it at the Grammys and he had Tamika Mallory and he had an actor re-create almost the killing of Rayshard Brooks at the Wendy’s and things like that.
He was just photographed at the White House with Nancy Pelosi. It’s a sharp contrast to what he said last July about not wanting to be involved in politics. I’m not sure why he made that departure. I have not spoken with him since. I can’t say if it was something that he just felt compelled to do. I can’t say if it was something that was business-motivated. Let’s be honest, a lot of rappers tend to, once they get to a certain level—they can’t always say F the police, or they can’t always be explicitly anti-government in the way that they were before; it’s not lucrative for them to do that. So I can’t say if he’s doing that just because his heart is leading him to do it, or if it’s because it’s just bad for the brand for you not to go ahead and lean into this.
There’s a long history of music telling the story of Black Americans fighting for our rights. So we’re going to step back in time for a moment. Jewel, you’ve written about how closely many musicians like the Staple Singers worked with civil rights leaders in the 1960s. How did these relationships come about? Was it because they were already active in the movement and this was just a way that they could participate? Were they moved by what was happening at the time and went into the studio and decided to cut an album?
I was really interested in that and I looked to Bernice Johnson Reagon. I didn’t get to interview her, but I did some research about her previous interviews, and she was a founding member of the SNCC Freedom Singers, and she’s from Southwest Georgia. And she told PBS that the Staple Singers toured with Martin Luther King Jr.; Mahalia Jackson organized fundraisers for him. They were very much intertwined with the movement beyond the songs that they were recording in the studio. They were actually out activating and organizing a lot of times with these leaders.
I think that’s really interesting because we’ve seen some of that play out recently when we see our artists link up with leaders and politicians today. So I was really interested in that link and in seeing how artists go beyond the music that they released, beyond that moment of going into the studio and feeling compelled to release a song and going beyond that and saying, “I want to actually organize, I want to fundraise. I want to do things that are actually going to make me a part of the movement beyond producing the soundtrack.”
A lot of artists in the 1960s were all connected to the Black church. They came out of the Black church, they learned from the Black church. Church attendance has gone down in the African American community as it has for almost everybody else. So where are we getting our musicians from now? Where are we getting that sort of activist music?
Well, I would say two things. I would say that even if we’re not in the church, we usually grew up with a grandma or somebody who was in the church, so the church is still very much a part of us as Black people, even if we didn’t grow up specifically in the church. So a lot of times when you listen to some of these songs, you can still hear that element that is a part of these songs.
Then the second thing I would say is we’ve seen over the year that hip-hop has become the dominant genre and so we really have seen hip-hop artists—they were very outspoken in previous decades as well, but their music has taken center stage in pop culture. We really have been able to hear them take the front in these moments. And even before last year with protests when we think back to Kendrick Lamar and even, say, Beyoncé releasing songs in the Black Lives Matter movement times. They have been able to release songs that were really outspoken about the times that we’re in and maybe don’t have that specific church element, but I think if you listen close enough, you can still hear some of those elements.
We hear about artists endangering their entire lives and careers in the ’50s and ’60s, but the backlash today is different. So what’s the difference in consequences for Black artists making protest music today versus 50 or 60 years ago?
I mean, I think you’re right. I think you might not become a Nina Simone in releasing a song, but I also don’t want to minimize the impact that some of the controversy might have on an artist when they are attacked by, say, Fox News or by pundits for releasing some of these songs, especially if you’re not a Beyoncé or a Kendrick Lamar. Releasing a song like “F Donald Trump” could have a really big—and it didn’t for YG. He’s fine—but it could have a really big impact on your career. Or recently, we’ve been talking a lot about Black celebrities and mental health. We don’t know what the impact is on their mental health when they’re taking these risks and releasing songs like this. So I don’t want to minimize it, but I certainly do think that because of the broad nature of pop culture today and the ways in which artists can have these niche groups of fans, or stans as we call them sometimes, you run less of a risk of being just completely exiled.