The Racial Reckoning Soundtrack

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S1: This is a work, a podcast from Slate. I’m your host, Jason Johnson, as we head into the heart of summer. Some of us are wondering what songs will conquer the airwaves and emerge as the song of the season will be a love song, a party anthem. But this time last year, the song on the streets was protest, and that was reflected in the music.

S2: Want to pull me over? Embarrassed of you. Never knew me. Thought I was there as a juvenile. Police put a gun like that scared of me and we used to have street. It’s not just scared

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S1: in honor of black music. A Resistance soundtrack coming up on a word with me, Jason Johnson. Stay with us. Welcome to a word, a podcast about race and politics and everything else. I’m your host Jason Johnson. The summer of Twenty Twenty 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 chance of peaceful protesters to the frequent explosions of violence and response from police are still echoing throughout the nation. Many musicians added their voices, sometimes as protesters themselves, but also as artists releasing their songs about the impact of police violence and racism. Like the bigger picture from Atlanta, rapper Lobet Tamai.

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S2: For my profile, you see three a.m. famous. I gave them a chance, a chance again. I even told him I find it crazy to police to shoot you. I know that you don’t with the you to freeze up, but see what I say. I guess them hold them down. If you say he can’t bring this to me, any money is grieving that killing us for no reason big enough to learn it. Even if it wasn’t kids like that when

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S1: they see me to prison my mom. There’s a long history of music from the African-American voice being used in resistance. One person who knows a lot about this is Jewel Wicker. She’s an entertainment and music journalist based in Atlanta. Jewel, welcome to a word.

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S3: Thank you for having me.

S1: We just heard a bit from the bigger picture a moment ago. What struck you about this song and how little baby put it together? And is this the kind of thing that he tends to talk about or was this a departure?

S3: This was certainly a departure from what little baby has usually put out content wise, and I think what really struck me was the timing of the release. It was something that little 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 Rashad Brooks was killed by police in south Atlanta in the neighborhood that little 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 Little Baby’s own city.

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S1: 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 sort of departures as people were paying attention to the moment?

S3: You know, we had songs from Everyone from the Baby release, a remix of his song Rock Star that had a Black Lives Matter type verse to it her, a singer, released a song called I Can’t Breathe. Anderson PAC released a song called Lockdown. Rapper by the name of Reggie filmed a music video at a protest group here in Atlanta called Village Village, released a song called In the same

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S4: statement that my mom used

S2: to sing while I. Wicker.

S3: 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 Monts, and 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 it become the song of a protest the next day. Right. But with streaming, you can put out a song and in the next day it can become something that people who are in the streets are listening to. Right. 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.

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S1: You write from Atlanta, 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?

S3: You know what I think is really interesting about Atlanta, it’s two things. One, I would say that Atlanta artists are very linked oftentimes to our politicians here. Right. We see a killer, Mike, in a tie at a press conference with the mayor. That’s not an uncommon sight here in Atlanta. The musicians oftentimes work very closely with our politicians and our leaders here. But then another thing I think I want to point out, and 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. Right. If little baby is rapping about growing up in poverty and trapping and things like that, that is inherently political. When you think of goodie mobs, soul food. Right. 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.

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S1: 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.

S3: You know what’s really interesting, and I’ve been thinking about this because when little baby put out the bigger picture, I interviewed him that summer, 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. And 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 D.A. here, he lost, but he was running for re-election and he said that little baby endorsed him. Little baby said, I did not know. He was very clearly stepping back from being involved in politics. Now, since then, I have 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 recreate almost the killing of Rashad Brooks at the Windies 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 it was a something that he just felt compelled to do. I can’t say if it was something that was business motivated. Let’s be honest. You know, a lot of rappers tend to to to kind of once they get to a certain level, they can always say f the police or they can always be explicitly anti-government in the way that they were before. It’s not lucrative for them to do that.

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S1: Is bad for the brand, bad for the bad for the brand.

S3: So I can’t say if he’s doing that just because it is hard is leading him to do it or if it’s because this is bad for the brand, for you not to go ahead and lean into this.

S1: We’re going to take a short break. When we come back, more about the evolution of protest music with Jewel Wicker. This is a word with Jason Johnson. Stay tuned. Did you know you could be listening to this show? Ad free, all it takes is a slate plus membership. It’s just one dollar for the first month and it helps support our show. Plus, it lets you hear all Slate podcast without ads and read unlimited articles on the Slate site without ever hitting a paywall. So sign up now for Slate plus at Slate Dotcom. Again, a word plus that slate. Dotcom, a word plus. You’re listening to a word with Jason Johnson today, we’re talking about the evolution of black protest songs, but music writer Joel Wicker. 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. I want to play Freedom Highway by the gospel group, The Staple Singers.

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S3: We have

S4: a day. The.

S1: Jewel, you’ve written about how closely many musicians like the Staple Singers worked with civil rights leaders in the 1960s, you know, 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 just moved by what was happening at the time and went in the studio and decided to cut an album, talk a little bit more about how these relationships perform and how they were sustained during the movement?

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S3: You know, I was really interested in that. And I love to. Our name is Bernice Johnson Reagan. I didn’t get to interview her, but I did some research about her previous interviews. And she was a founding member of SNEEK, the Freedom Singers, and she’s from southwest Georgia. And she told PBS that the Staples 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. Right. They were actual actually activating and organizing a lot of times with these leaders. And I think that’s really interesting because we’ve seen some of that play out recently when we see our artists kind of link up with leaders and politicians today. And so I was really interested in that link and in seeing how artists go beyond the music that they release right 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.

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S1: A lot of artists in the 1960s were all connected to the black church, right? They came out of the black church from the black church that entertainers came out of 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 active, his music? Because, you know, if you came out of the church in the 1940s and 50s or 60s, you might have been learning about liberation theology. Right? You might have had a pastor who was delivering those kinds of messages. Where do we where are we getting our protest music from now if many more of these artists are not necessarily starting their careers in the church?

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S3: Well, I would say two things, right? 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. And 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. And then the second thing I would say is we’ve seen in recent years that hip hop has become the dominant genre. And so we really have seen hip hop artists, even like we’ve talked about before. They were very outspoken in previous decades as well. But their music has taken center stage in pop culture and we really have been able to hear them take the front in these moments and even before last year’s protest. Right when we think back to Kendrick Lamar and even like, say, a Beyonce 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.

S1: We hear about artists endangering their entire lives and careers in the 50s and 60s, but the backlash today is different, right? And also sometimes it can work for you as much as it works against you. I mean, I think Beyonce has now become even more of an icon because of what she did at the Super Bowl. I mean, for everybody who hates Beyonce because, oh, my gosh, I can’t believe she did a Black Lives Matter presentation. There’s fifty thousand think pieces in the black community and a whole bunch of jazz queens. So what’s the difference in consequences for black artists making protest music today versus 50 or 60 years ago?

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S3: I mean, I think you’re right. I think you you might not become a Nina Simone, right. And 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, a FOX News or by pundits for releasing some of these songs, especially if you’re not a Beyonce Eric Kendrick Lamar. Right. Releasing a song like F Donald Trump or say something like that could have a really big and it didn’t for a while. He’s fine, but it could have a really big impact on your career. Or I mean, like we’ve seen 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 broader nature of pop culture today and the ways in which artists can have these niche groups of fans or stand, as we call them sometimes, that you you run less of a risk of being just completely exiled.

S1: We’re going to take a short break. When we come back, protest songs past and present with music writer Joel Wicker. This is a word with Jason Johnson. Stay tuned. You’re listening to a word with Jason Johnson today, we’re talking about protest songs and their role in the black liberation movement with music writer Joel Wicker. I want to play you a clip from a Kendrick Lamar song that he performed at the 2015 BET Awards. We’re going to talk about on the other side. I asked my

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S4: fans to thank you. Patrick. When I went home

S2: and, you know, win, but

S4: did we go beyond. We don’t be all right.

S2: We don’t be all right.

S1: You think it will be all right? Here’s what’s really interesting. And I’m glad we have this song by Kendrick Lamar, because to me, it’s the quintessential example of the crossover. Does a song that crosses over to the white mainstream have a greater chance of being associated with the movement down the road than a song that seems to be sort of specific to our community? And have we seen things like that in the past where there might be like a protest song again by by a Bob Dylan that white America is like, yes, that’s a protest song, but black folks like that when really what we were Jasmine to.

S3: I would say I mean, I think, again, I bring up charges of Donald Trump, right? I think that is a song that very much spoke to the way that some people were protesting Donald Trump’s presidency. And I don’t I wouldn’t necessarily call that a crossover song. But I think we’re going to look back when we look back at protests about that presidency. And that will be an example that we bring up. It’s a very clear, very distinct example of he was not mincing words in that song. I think artists have been very blunt and very clear. And I think that they don’t necessarily have to cross over in order for that to happen, in order for us to remember some of those songs. Now, do I think there are some songs from last year that will be forgotten and that won’t be cemented like, say, what’s going on? Of course. I mean, I think all songs are very hard to get to that level of anthem. Right. But but I do think that songs like The Bigger Picture will likely stand the stand, the test of time. When we think about remembering these moments,

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S1: we haven’t talked as much about women artists. Janelle Monae has been really vocal about releasing music about black liberation. Who are some of the other women entertainers, hip hop artists, singers who really been sort of focused on this moment. And in particular, I mean, hey, or we do we have examples of women rappers who weren’t really paying attention and got involved because of George Floyd. Do we have examples of sort of OROMBI crooners that all they were talking about is, you know, Sunset’s and Santero pay and then after George Floyd, they decide to get a little conscious. Have we seen that sort of change in women, hip hop artist and entertainers as well?

S3: I mean, I think Jomini is an excellent example. It’s not that she wasn’t outspoken before, but when I think of the that really is a protest chant. Right. And it’s called hell. You talk about is the song that I’m thinking of. And it literally is just her and the rest of her signees to Wonderland yelling the names of black people who were killed and then saying, say his or her name. Right. It’s literally a protest chant to say.

S4: I would say that I have to say I told my

S2: dad, I want

S3: to say that is the song that I think is really significant and it’s an example of a woman artist who did something that certainly was not for radio. Right. That’s not the song that you’re going to be streaming while you’re driving along. That is specifically for protest. But I also think we brought we talked about her earlier. She’s an RB singer. I would say one of the most popular R and B singers of our time right now. And she released a song called I Can’t Breathe, I Thought was pretty significant. I would also say that even when artists aren’t releasing specific songs, they’ve been outspoken. Maegan The Stallion you mentioned, Brianna Taylor and referenced her when she was talking about an incident where she got shot last year in a piece for The New York Times. Right. And so we’ve seen these artists become specifically women artists becoming outspoken even beyond their music. And I think that’s significant as well.

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S1: We’re about to wrap up Jewel, but I did want to talk with you about a song that really touched you during this period. And that’s what’s going on. It’s a remake of the Marvin Gaye classic by Atlanta artist oglu. Here’s the clip.

S4: Many. You find. Well. There’s far too many of you guys, you know, that to find

S1: kind of a two part question, one do what is it about this particular remake of the song that speaks to you and then like I mean, what’s going on? Climb to the top of charts, like 50 years ago. And it’s still a song that we know today. So what song from this era do you think we might still be talking about in 50 years?

S3: I would say that the Allu said something about this that really stood out to me when I interviewed him. And it was that he wanted to remake this one as a match to his father who had passed away, but to because he wanted to show that music movement music didn’t just have to be angry. It didn’t just have to be shouting. There is a place for that. And that’s not to say that that music doesn’t have significance. But he wanted to show that there are other emotions that come attached to these songs. And what’s going on was really the perfect song for him to do that. And I think his cover encapsulated that. But I would still stand by that. I think the bigger picture will be the song that really kind of stand the test of time out of this at this kind of bucket of songs that we’ve talked about for two reasons. One, I think it’s palatable. There are some songs that are a little more forceful in being kind of f the police little baby at least, is, you know, they’re good cops, they’re bad cops, you know. And so I think it’s palatable. And I think that’s what helped it become a hit. And then to I think it was because of the timing of when it was released in connection to Rashad Brooks death. But that just helped it give a little more significance to the release of the song.

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S1: Joel Wicker writes about music and entertainment from Atlanta. Thank you so much this morning.

S3: Thank you for having me.

S1: And that’s a word for this week. The show’s e-mail is a word at Slate Dotcom. This episode was produced by Ahyiana Angel and Jasmine Ellis. Aisha Solutia is the managing producer of podcasts Slate. Gabriel Roth is Slate’s editorial director for audio. Alicia Montgomery is the executive producer of podcasts at Slate. June Thomas is senior managing producer of the Slate podcast Network. Our theme music was produced by Don Will. I’m Jason Johnson. Tune in next week for word.