July 13, 2016 7:21PM ET
From Beyoncé to Blood Orange, hear how musicians have added their voices to the growing movement
Chelsea Lauren/WireImage/Getty, Ezra Shaw/Getty, Bertrand Guay/AFP/Getty
Two years after the death of Eric Garner at the hands of NYPD officers, “I can’t breathe” remains perhaps the most disturbing phrase in modern American history. Which makes it all the more courageous that Ellisha and Steven Flagg, Garner’s siblings, refuse to let the tragic day they lost their brother fade into history. This month, they released “I Can’t Breathe,” their second song commemorating Garner, joining countless other musicians who have pledged their support to the Black Lives Matter cause.
The movement has politicized popular artists and helped to shake the commercial cobwebs from hip-hop and R&B. During the past four years, high-profile musicians have issued everything from anthemic rallying cries (Beyoncé’s fearless “Freedom”) to open-ended conversation-starters (Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ “White Privilege II”). Artists such as D’Angelo and Kendrick Lamar emerged with readymade, multifaceted statement albums; smaller artists like Houston MC Z-Ro and icons like Prince released songs in response to various instances of police brutality; and even typically apolitical megastars like Ariana Grande and Usher have joined the outspoken chorus.
A new generation of artists are addressing racism, violence and disillusionment in a way that hasn’t been heard in decades. Read on for our list of some of the most powerful new protest anthems to come out of the Black Lives Matter era.
Beyoncé’s Lemonade was largely an expression of the black female experience, but building on the political aspects of her “Formation” video — where she sang atop a sinking cop car in New Orleans — and Super Bowl performance — where she was surrounded by dancers in Black Panther uniforms — the pop superstar made one of the most striking political statements of her career with “Freedom.” In the context of the visual album, the black-and-white clip that accompanies the track was followed by the interlude-like “Forward,” in which the mothers of slain black men Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner and Michael Brown are seen holding pictures of their sons, whose deaths launched the Black Lives Matter movement.
They Said: Beyoncé has said very little publicly about any of her new music but did show immediate support to the movement and fight against police brutality following the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. “It is up to us to take a stand and demand that they ‘stop killing us,'” she wrote on her official site.
Key Lyric: “Freedom! Freedom! I can’t move/Freedom, cut me loose!/Freedom! Freedom! Where are you?/’Cause I need freedom too!”
Miguel shared a demo song he wrote in reaction to the police shootings of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Philando Castile outside the Twin Cities. When the R&B singer wonders “how many” people must die before law enforcement changes, he channels the late, great Marvin Gaye. Miguel even covered Gaye’s 1971 protest song “What’s Going On” on Instagram immediately after the shootings.
They Said: “This version was started here in London in my hotel room between the hours of 4am and around 7am when I passed out,” Miguel wrote on SoundCloud. “I’ll update this song every week until it’s complete.” On Instagram, Miguel added that he’ll continue to work on the song as it “evolves weekly.”
Key Lyric: “I’m tired of human lives turned into hashtags and prayer hands/I’m tired of watching murderers get off.”
The “Dangerous Woman” singer collaborated with songwriter Victoria Monet for the tender, optimistic duet “Better Days,” a plea for a brighter future. The song was released following the back-to-back murders of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling at the hands of police officers.
They Said: “Music is a universal language that all of us can feel regardless of color lines, gender, sexuality, age, race, religion … it unifies us,” the singers offered in a joint statement. “We believe we can not fight hate with hate, only love. Just as we can not fight darkness with more darkness. Only Light.”
Key Lyric: “Baby there’s a war right outside our window/Don’t you hear the people fighting for their lives?”
Jay Z’s hypnotic, fragmented “spiritual” – his first new solo song in three years – reflects the rapper’s disillusionment with police brutality in modern times. “We should be further along,” he said in a statement released with the song. Jay said that he finished “spiritual” after Michael Brown’s death in 2014, but held onto it, because he said he “knew his death wouldn’t be the last.”
They Say: “I trust God and know everything that happens is for our greatest good, but man … it’s tough right now.”
Key Lyric: “I am not poison/Just a boy from the hood that got my hands in the air/In despair don’t shoot/I just wanna do good”
Lamar’s association with the movement is more implied than explicit, especially since his controversial statements in the wake of Michael Brown’s killing. The rapper did not set out to create an anthem for protestors with his hopeful exploration of black pride, but it ended up being adopted by many who would chant “We gon’ be alright!” during protests.
They Said: “It’s a chant of hope and feeling,” he told The New York Times in December 2015. “I credit that to Pharrell, for being able to present an arrangement and to inspire me to do a record like that. Immediately, I knew the potential.”
Key Lyric: “Ni**a, and we hate po-po/Wanna kill us dead in the street fo sho’/Ni**a, I’m at the preacher’s door/My knees getting’ weak and my gun might blow/But we gon’ be alright.”
“Glory” was written for Selma, a film chronicling the Civil Rights era, but the gospel-infused song proved just as relevant in the face modern-day tumult. During Common’s verses on the Oscar-winning track, the rapper and actor connects moments like Rosa Parks refusing to sit on the back of the bus to the protests in Ferguson.
They Said: “We say that Selma is now because the struggle for justice is right now,” Common said during his acceptance speech at the Academy Awards.
Key Lyric: “That’s why Rosa sat on the bus/That’s why we walk through Ferguson with our hands up/When it go down, we woman and man up/They say ‘Stay Down’ and we stand up.”
Atlanta artists Daye Jack and Killer Mike teamed up for a soulful reflection on the history of protests in response to police brutality aimed at black communities. In the video, footage from past protests are interspersed with clips from Mike’s many CNN appearances, a testament to the Run the Jewels rapper’s current status as one of the most vocal public figures in the movement.
They Said: “The montage served as a way to show that despite the tragic subject matter, it brought people together from all walks of life in solidarity about something that should not be tolerated,” the video’s director David Gallardo said in a statement.
Key Lyric: “Living with my head down, hands up/No, no, don’t shoot”
In the wake of the Michael Brown shooting, R&B singer Lauryn Hill reprised a powerful song about the strife of the African American community that she’s performed live since at least 2012. “Black Rage” reworks “My Favorite Things,” the alliterative show tune from The Sound of Music, to show how hatred spirals to dark places.
They Said: “An old sketch of Black Rage, done in my living room. Strange, the course of things. Peace for MO,” the singer tweeted in August 2014.
Key Lyric: “Black rage is founded on two thirds a person/Rapings and beatings and suffering that worsens/Black human packages tied up in strings/Black rage can come from all these kings of things.”
Monae expanded a bonus track from her 2013 album The Electric Lady into a rousing, nearly seven-minute-long protest anthem. The song features members of her Wondaland Arts Society collective shouting the names of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland and more as they repeat “Say his name!” or “Say her name!” with urgency over a driving drum beat.
They Said: “This song is a vessel,” Monae wrote on Instagram. “It carries the unbearable anguish of millions. We recorded it to channel the pain, fear and trauma caused by the ongoing slaughter of our brothers and sisters. We recorded it to challenge the indifference, disregard and negligence of all who remain quiet about this issue. Silence is our enemy. Sound is our weapon. They say a question lives forever until it gets the answer it deserves…Won’t you say their names?”
Key Lyric: “Emmett Till, say his name!/Emmett Till, say his name!/Emmett Till, won’t you say his name?”
Seattle rapper Macklemore reckoned with some difficult questions one evening in 2014, marching with protestors in response to the acquittal of Darren Wilson, the officer who shot and killed Michael Brown. Macklemore poured his inner strife about white-male privilege into a song that, not surprisingly, drew both praise and ire.
They Said: “The question is, What type of human do I want to be? How do I want to use my platform? Do I want to be safe, under the umbrella of my white privilege? Or do I want to push back and resist?,” the Seattle MC said to Rolling Stone. “It’s easier, as a white person, to be silent about racial injustice. But it’s not easier on the whole, because injustice affects all of us, whether we know it or not, whether we acknowledge it or not.”
Key Lyric: “You speak about equality, but do you really mean it?/Are you marching for freedom, or when it’s convenient?”
Swizz Beatz and Scarface’s mournful collaboration wishes for a day without “sad news.” The track arrived after the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile but also addresses the recent, headline-grabbing murders of young black men like Trayvon Martin while also touching on the Ku Klux Klan and Donald Trump.
They Said: “What do you think would be the solution? What do you think would be the answer?” Swizz Beatz said in an Instagram video. “We gotta team up together to try to figure out this big problem. This is a big problem.”
Key Lyric: “Get on your knees and pray/Get on your knees and pray/We hope the whole world be OK.”
Days after the deaths of Sterling and Castile, Houston MC Z-Ro and NYC producer Mike Dean dropped a defiant song building on the Black Lives Matter movement’s slogan “No Justice No Peace.” Over a smooth 808 hook, Z-Ro vented his frustrations about racially fueled police brutality.
They Said: “Being black in America, you have to know how to take punches from cops, the government and white society,” Z-Ro said to Vibe. “That’s what it means to be black. You have to be able to take punches and be able to keep moving.”
Key Lyric: “Oh, I’m tired of holding my hands up/Fuck that, they want me to sit down, but fuck that, I’ma stand up.”
Brown’s Michael Jackson-esque track finds the R&B singer calling for more unity in the wake of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling’s deaths. “A Lot of Love” followed another Black Lives Matter response track titled “My Friend,” which he had released a day earlier.
They Said: “This song I released for free for anybody dealing with injustice or struggle in their lives,” he wrote of previous song “My Friend” which had similarly debuted on SoundCloud.
Key Lyric: “Things are gonna be the way that they should be/With all the children running freely/No more war on TV/Open your heart and then you’ll finally succeed.”
D’Angelo worked on his third album, Black Messiah, for 14 years, but when the opus finally came out in late 2014, it felt astoundingly prescient. Released in the mire of Ferguson and ahead of Baltimore, just as the Black Lives Matter movement was taking hold, Messiah laid out some of the heavy themes America was faced with: systemic racism, police brutality and the general plight of the black community in the new century.
They Said: “Black Messiah is, I think, the most sociopolitical stuff I’ve done on record. … The Black Lives Matter movement is going on, young black men and women are getting killed for nothing. I’ve always been a big reader and fan of history, and I love the Black Panthers. … I’m not trying to be like a poster child or anything of the movement, but definitely a voice as a black man — as a concerned black man and as a father, as well,” the singer said on The Tavis Smiley Show.
Key Lyric: “All we wanted was a chance to talk/’Stead we only got outlined in chalk/Feet have bled a million miles we’ve walked/Revealing at the end of the day, the charade.”
Like many other young black men across the country, J. Cole saw himself in victims like Michael Brown, feeling like it could have been him, a friend or a family member in a similar situation. Cole responded to such an intense emotion with the passionate, heartbreaking “Be Free,” which he released in the wake of the unarmed, nonviolent Brown’s death at the hands of a white police officer.
They Say: “We become distracted. We become numb. I became numb. But not anymore. That coulda been me, easily. It could have been my best friend… I made a song. This is how we feel,” Cole wrote in a statement about the song.
Key Lyric: “Can you tell me why/Every time I step outside I see my ni**as die/I’m lettin’ you know/That there ain’t no gun they make that can kill my soul/Oh, no.”
Prince found himself deeply affected by the death of Freddie Gray, who had succumbed to spinal cord injuries while in police custody. His death caused an uprising in the city of Baltimore in 2015, and the late icon penned a tribute to the city that reflected on the violence across the nation during the past few years, even citing Michael Brown by name early on in the song.
They Said: “The system is broken,” Prince wrote in a statement that appeared at the end of the song’s lyric video. “It’s going to take the young people to fix it this time. We need new idea, new life.”
Key Lyric: “Are we gonna see another bloody day?/We’re tired of the cryin’ and people dyin’/Let’s take all the guns away.”
Shot in a single, breathless take, Rhiannon Giddens’ video for her devastatingly direct song was one of the strongest artistic responses to the shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015. The dry drums, the hushed gospel choir and the singer’s voice echoing from the pulpit set an appropriately solemn tone in the wake of the tragic murders.
They Said: “The massacre at the AME church in Charleston is just the latest in a string of racially charged events that have broken my heart. There are a lot of things to fix in this country, but history says if we don’t address this canker, centuries in the making, these things will continue to happen. No matter what level privilege you have, when the system is broken everybody loses. We all have to speak up when injustice happens. No matter what.”
Key Lyric: “First they stole our body, then they stole our sons/Then they stole our gods and gave us new ones/Then they stole our beauty, comfort in our skin/And then they gave us duty and then they gave us sin.”
Following the murder of Michael Brown, the Game gathered 10 rappers and four R&B singers for the stark, reflective “Don’t Shoot.” The artists create a chorus of anger and hope, detailing injustices against the black community while calling for an end to it. The song wraps with the Game’s own daughter singing the track’s chorus.
They Said: “The issues in Ferguson really hit home for me, and I feel compelled to use my musical platform to address this,” the Game told Rolling Stone. “I am a black man with kids of my own that I love more than anything, and I cannot fathom a horrific tragedy like Michael Brown’s happening to them. This possibility has shaken me to my core.”
Key Lyric: “Time to take a stand and save our future/Like we all got shot, we all got shot/Throwing up our hands don’t let them shoot us/’Cause we all we got, we all we got/God ain’t put us on the earth to get murdered, it’s murder.”
Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello released this urgent, politicized anthem in response to Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson. The song was available as a free download, but Morello asked fans for donations that would assist arrested Ferguson protestors with their legal fees.
They Said: “I’ve witnessed countless incidents of racially motivated police brutality in my lifetime and it’s time to say ‘Enough!’ … For all the courageous men and women raising their voices against injustice in Ferguson, and beyond, give ’em hell,” Morello said.
Key Lyrics: “A nation at half mast/Figured I’d get the last laugh/Carving up that golden calf/With a blow torch and gas mask.”
Following the mysterious suicide of Sandra Bland in her jail cell following a wrongful detainment, Dev Hynes released an enigmatic track dedicated to her smile, which was seen in photos of the 28-year-old shared on social media prior to her death. Around the same time, he released the sprawling collage of pain titled “Do You See My Skin Through the Flames?” in which Hynes reflected on injustices against the black community overall. He further referenced Black Lives Matter on his new album, Freetown Sound, which came out just before the murders of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling.
They Said: “I had a somewhat delayed depression upon Sandra’s death,” Hynes wrote in a Genius annotation of the song. “I was hurt and upset and mad instantly of course… but I think a part of me had my eyes closed, as a form of numbness. A few days later it hit me and I was [inconsolable].”
Key Lyric: “You watched her pass away the words she said weren’t faint/Closed our eyes for a while, but I still see Sandra’s smile.”
Usher and Nas teamed up on a multi-platform protest song “Chains.” The song debuted last October as an interactive video on Tidal that used facial recognition technology to pause the track every time the viewers’ eyes deviated from the screen. (The screen would read “Don’t Look Away” if the viewer stopped watching.) The singer and rapper re-released the track with a new video montage of portraits of black people of different ages, genders and locations who were killed at the hands of police brutality.
They Said: “What’s it gonna take? What are WE gonna do? United or Defeated Justice or Just Us?” Usher tweeted along with the track on July 8th.
Key Lyric: “I am Sugar Ray Robinson, Booker T. Washington/W. E. B. Du Bois, I’m the modern one/Yelling at senators, presidents, congressmen/We got a problem that needs some acknowledgement/I am no prison commodity, not just a body you throw in a cell.”
Budden remixed Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar’s “Freedom,” taking the song’s political message one step further by explicitly turning the track into a series of references to Black Lives Matter. In the powerful video, various images from over the years of injustices towards black people — including the haunting video recorded by Philando Castile’s girlfriend after his shooting — are cut together alongside Jesse Williams’ powerful BET Awards speech about cultural appropriation, which soundtracks the final moments of the clip.
They Said: “I was told there was once a world where slaves communicated with each other via music, and tho I wasn’t present for that, the HipHop I fell in love with always encouraged me to do the same (Thank you Public Enemy),” Budden wrote in the description of the video on YouTube. “Let this act as an unfortunate reminder that times change and they don’t.”
Key Lyric: “Land of the free, the home of the brave/Can’t let us be, we’ve grown from slaves/It’s there if you want to read/I mean it’s all in the page.”