Protest Music In 2020: A Timeline George Floyd's killing at the hands of police sparked a wave of protest music. We Insist is a timeline of that uprising.
We Insist.

We Insist: A Timeline Of Protest Music In 2020

Protest Music In 2020: A Timeline

Protesters gather May 26 near where George Floyd died in police custody in Minneapolis. Kerem Yucel/AFP via Getty Images hide caption

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Kerem Yucel/AFP via Getty Images

Protesters gather May 26 near where George Floyd died in police custody in Minneapolis.

Kerem Yucel/AFP via Getty Images

The killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers on May 25 sparked an unprecedented wave of protests across a nation already on edge thanks to the global COVID-19 pandemic. Thousands upon thousands of activists took to the streets of hundreds of cities across America to demonstrate against police brutality and support civil rights movements like Black Lives Matter. But that was far from the only form of protest this summer. Hip-hop is the heartbeat of this movement, and as the protests gathered and sustained force, a wave of new songs pushing for social justice accompanied them. Within days of Floyd's death, prominent Black musicians across a variety of genres began to write and release songs that expressed grief, rage, exhaustion and resolution in the face of America's 400-year history of institutional racism. Some directly invoked by name Black victims who have died during encounters with the police. Others produced new, provocative videos for older songs that spoke to the moment.

This series — titled We Insist, a nod to Max Roach's 1960 protest album of the same name — attempts to document the songs and videos that will come to define the summer of 2020 and the months leading up to what will certainly be a contentious presidential election. We'll update this timeline throughout the rest of the year with stories about noteworthy songs that confront white supremacy and the state's historical mistreatment of Black citizens.


A running Spotify playlist of 2020's noteworthy protest songs

A historical list of songs by Black musicians protesting state violence


The video for Dinner Party's newest single, "Freeze Tag," is centered around an age-old tradition in the Black community: the cookout. Group members Terrace Martin and Robert Glasper stand by as local kids and neighbors gather to eat grilled food and share a few laughs. That's until a young boy in a crisp white t-shirt appears mid-frame with his fingers twisted into a makeshift gun. As he fires a shot, he's hit by one. The color shifts to a dramatic black and white as Martin, Glasper and company scatter. A few frames later, directors Elliott Sellers and the members of Dinner Party return to the initial scene. This time it's peaceful, a quiet night with a hopscotch grid scribbled on the concrete.

The song itself is equally emotive. "They told me put my hands up behind my head," vocalist Phoelix sings above the track's head-nodding drum loop. "They told me if I move, they gon' shoot me dead." Here, Dinner Party flips the notion of a childhood game into a grim portrayal of police brutality in the United States. Cordae's verse unpacks the frailty of human existence: "The funny thing about this life s*** is that we all die / Hoping for heaven although we're closer to hell / Dreams to get my brother out that cage and open his cell." In that way, both the video and track are political and intimate, reminding us that life can turn at a moment's notice, and that state-sanctioned violence is still an American plague.


"I was a joyous child, if I ever was a child," utters Kassa Overall as he walks along the shores of his hometown of Seattle in the video for "I Think I'm Good." The rising jazz drummer and producer explores such contrasts throughout the short film, which features selections from his album of the same name (released on February 28). In the video, shot in quarantine, Overall attempts to reconcile his youth, through old snapshots and poignant reflections of his childhood, with the looming present-day reality of racial inequity faced by Overall, his brother, reedist Carlos Overall, and countless Black men everywhere.

Directed by filmmaker Noah Porter, with several cameos including Macklemore (Overall's high school classmate), the film turns its focus on its lead Miguel McDaniel, cast as a food delivery person (à la Uber Eats) making the rounds. As McDaniel approaches the steps of his first house, we hear Overall's stark opening on "Please Don't Kill Me": "Please don't kill me in your sleep / I can't breathe when I get down / I could drown in your weep." Representing one of our many essential workers, McDaniel is constantly met not with praise and cheers (as health professionals received in neighborhoods all over) but with indifference and fear at several of the delivery stops, and soon faces an unwarranted police stop while en route.

Likely borrowed from the famed Langston Hughes poem, the notion of a "dream deferred" repeats throughout "I Think I'm Good," which ultimately lends a portrait of a young Black artist (and man) reexamining his life and purpose.


Beauty Pill frontman Chad Clark wrote "Instant Night" in 2015 after seeing far-right media pundit Ann Coulter guest on HBO's Real Time with Bill Maher. "She was asked to predict who the Republican nominee would be," Clark wrote on Bandcamp's messaging app. "She picked Trump. At the time, it was patently ridiculous to most people. People laughed at her."

Clark didn't find it so funny. "I could feel she was right," he wrote. "Trump, though he was seemingly moronic and clownish, had tapped into a seething current of white rage and grievance and he would harness it to take him all the way."

In its finished form, "Instant Night" unpacks the fear associated with Donald Trump's then-pending U.S. presidency. Though he hosted Saturday Night Live and let Jimmy Fallon ruffle his trademark hair, Trump was still politically divisive. Given his views on women and people of color, some feared the country was headed for incredibly dark days. Through intricate lyrics and an orchestral score, "Instant Night" conveys the feeling of dread in the social media age. With lines like "the screen won't stop scrolling, and look at you patiently waiting for rescue," Beauty Pill outlines the slow-moving claustrophobia that would soon grip the nation. Indeed, there was a notion that Trump's presidency was a fad, and we'd get back to normal sooner than later. That wouldn't be the case. "If there's no 'scared' option," sings vocalist Erin Nelson, referring to Facebook's quick emoji reactions, "'Sad' is alright."

The video for "Instant Night" is also a form of protest. In it, illustrator Ryan Nelson draws three portraits — of Trump, Lindsey Graham and Mitch McConnell — layering each of their faces with those of different animals (Trump becomes a wild boar; Graham becomes a dog; and McConnell becomes a wolf). Both the video and song depict the left's current mood, and with the 2020 election just a few days away, it's a not-so-subtle reminder to vote like your life depends on it.


In "Orange Man" and its accompanying video, Sunny War never once minces words or actions. Combining performance art with potent and direct lyrics, the Los Angeles-based singer, songwriter and guitarist attempts to not only understand our current man in charge, but also the very nation that produced him.

"Orange Man" begins with a militaristic cadence of snare drum and triangle (courtesy of Harlan Steinberger), peppered with Sunny War's rhythmic guitar. The video's opening moments show a twirling Trump — actually collaborator Aroyn Davis in a Trump mask — replete with superhero cape and American flag jumpsuit, against the overlaying audio of some of the many vapid things the President has actually said while in office, including my personal favorite: "I think I've done more for the Black community than any other president."

Sunny War's vocal delivery is understated throughout; juxtaposed against the audio of Trump's lies and hatred, it lends her a wry sense of authority and command.


Public Enemy has been making hip-hop protest music as long as anyone, and the group's latest release, What You Gonna Do When The Grid Goes Down?, is unsurprisingly full of confrontational, political songs. Throughout the record, Chuck D, Flava Flav and company take aim at Donald Trump, technology, racism and corruption — and give space for Rapsody to add an outstanding verse that brings the 1989 protest anthem "Fight The Power" into 2020.

"Go At It," however, is the album's most explicit call to arms. Over a blown-out guitar loop, Chuck D shouts rhymes like declarations of war in the same booming voice he has been using for decades. Chuck is both furious and motivational, urging listeners to do whatever they can to help change the country for the better. "So it be revolution, then let it be known / Whatever it is, whatever it be / You just go at it," he raps on the chorus.

It's a sentiment that risks venturing into slightly-cliched "be the change you want to see in the world" territory, but Chuck presents the message with so many layers of bombast and righteous anger that the song feels like a genuinely urgent call to get up and go do something.


There are certain things children shouldn't have to worry about. But nowadays, with the global pandemic in full swing and police still killing unarmed Black people at an alarming rate, they're exposed to despair much earlier than usual.

"Little Boy," the concluding track on SAULT's latest album, Untitled (Rise), is about protecting the child's innocence as long as possible. On an otherwise upbeat collage of funk, soul and Afrobeat, "Little Boy" ends (Rise) on a sorrowful note, as wistful piano chords score the singer's plea to the youth. "When you get older," a woman declares, "you can ask me all the questions, and I'll tell you the truth about the boys in blue."

The boys, of course, are police officers, the ones sworn to protect and serve, as long as you have the right skin color. Children — Black children, especially — supposedly don't know this yet. But as the song infers, Black boys are demonized by racist cops who see them as a threat no matter what. As they grow up, they're somehow considered more dangerous. Tamir Rice was 12 years old when he was killed by officer Timothy Loehmann in Cleveland. Mike Brown was 18 when officer Darren Wilson gunned him down in Ferguson. While nothing can truly prepare little Black boys for state-sanctioned violence against them, "Little Boy," a gospel-soul hybrid, seeks to soften the landing. The singer reminds them that they're anointed. "Heaven's angels are shining down on us," she asserts. "They won't go away, God has chosen us."

The song could've easily concluded Untitled (Black Is), SAULT's protest-ready Album of the Year contender released in June. But as summer turns to fall, and only one police officer was indicted in the death of Breonna Taylor, "Little Boy" arrives at the right time — when we're left to mourn the dead, and true justice eludes us one more time.


Five minutes and 22 seconds into the striking video, above, that Tyler Childers posted to YouTube today – a spoken liner note that sets up the title track from his surprise new album, Long Violent History – the much-beloved singer-songwriter utters the words, "justice for Breonna Taylor, a Kentuckian like me." It's a grounding detail in a statement full of specifics, a clear and simple plea for empathy.

Childers, who's emerged in recent years as the foremost roots-music representative of the white working and underclass of the mid-South, directly addresses those among his fan base who've been "taken aback" by what they perceive as the inexplicable violence of this summer's Black Lives Matter protest. Citing his own struggles to get sober and the general malaise coronavirus has brought, Childers holds his fans hands' metaphorically: "In the midst of our own daily struggles, it's often hard to share an understanding for what another person might be going through." Then he goes in, painting picture of what it would be like for white Southerners if "the smallest interaction with a public servant" led to being handcuffed, assaulted and possibly shot multiple times, as Louisville resident Taylor was by police who entered her apartment in a no-knock raid in March.

Childers spins tales in his statement as he does in his songs – vividly, describing scenes in which white country folk might be killed by game wardens while fishing, or pulled from their cars while driving Grandma to the hospital. Citing the Battle of Blair Mountain, the labor uprising led by coal miners in 1921, he reckons that if they were in such danger, white Southerners (and others) would certainly react. "If we wouldn't stand for it," he pleads, "why would we expect another group of Americans to stand for it? Why would we stand silent, or worse, get in the way of it being rectified?"


The song "Long Violent History" plays out the internal argument that led Childers to make this explicit and remarkable stand in solidarity. It's a lament grounded in bluegrass fiddle and that fundamental African import, the banjo. Presenting himself as a confused "white boy from Hickman" who once understood how the protests might feel like unnecessary trouble, Childers artfully bends perspective at the ballad's center, realizing that for all the times he'd belligerently questioned authority, he'd never felt like he might lose his life. Echoing a long line of labor and other protest songs, Childers asks how many "boys could they haul off this mountain" until their parents, their loved ones, would get out Papaw's pistol and fight back. "Would that be the start of a long, violent history?" he asks. The tune ends with a sonic invocation of the long, violent history of American white supremacy: a few lines of "My Old Kentucky Home," a minstrel ballad written by Stephen Foster, complete with racist depictions of enslaved people.

Childers has taken a chance with this song – in the video, he explains that the eight instrumental songs that precede it on his new album were well-considered as stage-setters for this final, controversial act. He's joined other artists on the border of country and Americana music, like Margo Price and Chris Stapleton, by sharing his support for Black Lives Matter in unambiguous terms. And he's done something more: the psychic journey toward empathy that "Long, Violent History" represents, set to a plaintive and singable tune, offers fans of such music a place to consider America's past and present without nostalgia and its aftereffect, the false rationalization of present inequities. Perhaps he's finally offered a new song to sing, instead of"The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down."


Rapsody isn't afraid to call it like she sees it. On her new single, "12 Problems," the North Carolina MC spits fearless bars about police brutality over hair-raising production, courtesy of Cubeatz and Don Cannon. With surgical precision, Rapsody breaks down what it means to protest in present times, stretching from the restrictions of the pandemic to the immediate power of social media: "I was supposed to resort in the Maldives, now / We in the rallies, now / Boxin' in IG, now."

The chorus of the song, a reimagining of Jay-Z's "99 Problems" (which took its own chorus from Ice-T's song of the same name), feels especially evocative; as Rapsody ventures into explaining her current set of issues, she twists her vocals in a sorrowful direction, sounding as if she's drawing from personal experiences: "I got 99 prooooblems / 12 still the biggest / I got 99 prooooblems / Baton, bullets, triggers."

Rapsody doesn't stop at law enforcement killings in the subjects she broaches — she slams those who perpetuate the concept of Black-on-Black crime and calls out the mystifying reality that is the cannabis industry, which she says is dominated by white entrepreneurs while Black men sit in jails and prisons for "an ounce or two." Toward the end of the song, Rapsody speaks candidly to anyone willing to listen and learn about the Black experience of 2020, one that involves mental stresses that stem from involuntarily seeing Black people being murdered over and over again, at the hands of police and vigilantes. "And you wonder why we got a disorder?" she asks rhetorically, a palpable ache in her voice.


In 2015, Janelle Monáe released the visceral and raw "Hell You Talmbout," a protest song that directly listed the names of the Black lives lost at the hands of law enforcement and vigilantes, a nearly 7-minute journey. Five years later, Monáe returns to the movement, with "Turntables," a marked difference of energy, delivery and presentation. When compared to the exposed pain of "Hell You Talmbout," "Turntables" sounds sleeker, more palatable and mainstream. But its messaging remains just as urgent.

During the video's three minutes, Monáe finds herself on a beach, a symbol of freedom, and in front of a U.S. flag, an emblem that has recently been seen as a mark of oppression for Black Americans. Her salient lyrics slice through a neo-soul groove: "I'm kickin' out the old regime: Liberation, elevation, education / America, you a lie / But the whole world 'bout to testify." By the end of the song, the "I" becomes a "we," a full-fledged surrendering to the collective need to effect real change.

Throughout the music video is footage of marches past and present. Figures like Angela Davis, Muhammad Ali, Toni Morrison, Stacey Abrams, and Maxine Waters are featured prominently, Black thought provokers, leaders and politicians who have pushed for societal upheaval. Visually, Janelle Monáe sends subtle, but key, messages about the embattled U.S. Postal Service, about the lack of Black representation in the toy industry, about climate change — all vastly singular topics, yet interconnected by an umbrella of miseducation and inequality. Through it all, Monáe remains unafraid and unshaken by the circumstances that surround her. If anything, she's rushing forward to meet them head-on.


Teyana Taylor has released a divisive music video for her song "Still," from her June release The Album. The video includes footage from a variety of protests related to racial injustice, including the 1992 Rodney King riots, and features Taylor dressing up like Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain, Trayvon Martin and Emmett Till's mother, Mamie.

While "Still" is soulful and moving, no one would have called it a protest song when it was originally released. There's nothing particularly revolutionary about lyrics like, "I can't fight back, I don't want to, babe / 'Cause I'm always a heartbreak too late / Chillin' with some s*** from the past / Tryna get what I never had" and "I keep cryin' for love / But it won't wipe, won't wipe, my tears / Ain't it crazy how I'm still so emotional, still? / Got no control, still forever yours." Yet Taylor's self-directed music video invokes the radicalism of Malcolm X and shows footage of George Floyd being killed.

Taylor received criticism on social media from those who questioned the effectiveness of the visuals. Even if the video was intended as a homage or memorial, it runs the risk of capitalizing on tragic stories that Black America is still grappling with, in which victims of police brutality become martyrs without receiving justice.

Introduced as a "Spike Tey" joint — an on-the-nose nod to divisive director Spike Lee — "Still"'s visuals are, at best, unsettling and at worst, reductive and exploitative.


"My great-great grandmama was a slave," Steve Arrington sings at the start of "Make A Difference." It's a stark opening line, a reminder that the forms of racism and oppression that can seem, to some, like distant history in high school textbooks are really not all that removed from our present.

Opening the song by counting the generations back to slavery also forms a neat parallel to the musical history woven through "Make A Difference," a song all about intergenerational connectedness, particularly between generations of Black political music.

As one of the great funk songwriters and performers of the '70s and '80s, Arrington himself is a major part of that history. Here, he calls back to the protest of a generation before his. With the help of producer DJ Harrison, a specialist in crafting fresh hip-hop from the sounds of the past, Arrington locates a clear-eyed musical optimism that places the song firmly in the lineage of Curtis Mayfield's great Civil Rights-era soul anthems like "Keep On Pushing" and "We're A Winner." Arrington spans and bridges generations with his songwriting, taking elements of funk and hip-hop to create a soul song that steps through centuries of political and musical history to demand change.

When Mamie Till made the decision to have an open-casket funeral procession for her recently slain 14-year-old son Emmett Till, it laid bare not just his body, ravaged and mutilated after being horribly beaten and lynched for a crime he did not commit. It revealed to the rest of the country that there were in fact two different "Americas": one for whites and one for Blacks. After young Till's assailants were acquitted, just months later, they reportedly confessed to their crime in a magazine interview, knowing that there wouldn't be any actions taken.

London-based vocalist ALA.NI released "Lament for Emmett Till" on July 28, commemorating what would have been Till's 79th birthday with a rendition of journalist Claudia Jones's 1955 poem of the same name. Rereleased just one month later, to memorialize the time of his untimely death, she enlisted an arsenal of collaborators for the project, including Los Angeles-based producer Adrian Younge. Though upended by the pandemic, and pieced together remotely, ALA.NI's inherent connection to the material is tangible. From her evocative delivery of every harrowingly vivid detail to Younge's slick production, this requiem, nor the murder, loses none of its ineffaceable ache and horror: "Tears, blood and pain / All mixed in rage / Sorrow comes again / When I am there at heaven's gates / Will I be free?"


The South is a brutal place, many feel — the birthplace of American racism. It is also a Black place, and a beautiful one: the music, foodways, spiritual life and family traditions Black Americans sustained throughout centuries of attempted erasure by the white ruling caste provides much of what makes this nation vibrant. The beauty is tied to the land, from coastline to mountains to delta. Adia Victoria, born in South Carolina with more recent ties to Nashville, locates the contours of her own body and being in the Southern earth, and this blues-driven oracular statement is her pledge to it, in love and fury.

"I stood up to the mountain, told the mountain say my name," Victoria wails over a church-born organ line in the center of this song. That image — her confrontation with monumental, historical oppression, simultaneously a mystical union with a landscape and Black heritage that welcomes her — epitomizes Victoria's mission to refresh overtold Southern stories by finding herself in them. (She is a blues poet, after all.) A clear reckoning, "South Gotta Change" is also a love song — "I won't leave you," Victoria sings, her voice breaking. Instead, she tells the land that she considers a living being, she will "drag you into the light." With "South Gotta Change," Victoria offers a way to consider the region in all its complexity — an origin point worth fighting about, and for.


Many Americans first heard Arlissa's voice on the soundtrack to The Hate U Give, the 2018 film adaptation of Angie Thomas's novel about coming of age in the Black Lives Matter movement. Her ballad "We Won't Move" reflected that story's grounding in intergenerational connection as a source of Black strength. Her latest song was also written for that film, but set aside; Arlissa found new meaning in it as the violence of the past two years mounted, and protesters responded with an ever-greater sense of focus. An introspective ballad that suits the singer's thoughtful, melancholy approach, "The House We Live In" is the kind of call for compassion and hope made for vigils and late night weeping sessions — the occasion to light a field full of candles, or just one.

Co-written with Taura Stinson (who also co-wrote the Oscar-nominated "Mighty River," from Mudbound) and producer Blake Mills, "The House We Live In" considers the way racism becomes internalized, and calls for an end to the weaponizing of speech. "I'm calling off this war inside me," Arlissa sings over a restorative piano line. "The words that we speak out loud become the house we live in." The British-born, Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter further realized the song's elegiac potential with the video that accompanied its August release, which shows the names of BIPOC victims of violence formed in ribbon laced through the iron fencing of the Silver Lake reservoir. (Arlissa is donating the proceeds from "The House We Live In"'s release to the BFTA Collective, which support BIPOC trans and non-binary femme artists and other creatives.) The tenderness and insistent strength in Arlissa's delivery is its gift: Life is fragile, it reminds us, and infinitely worth the struggle.


Brittany Campbell asks questions she shouldn't have to in "Matter," a neo-soul ballad released on Aug. 20.

Over angelic harmonies and gentle guitar picking, the She's Gotta Have It star is direct with her question: Does a human life matter more than property? Campbell wrote the song after a difficult conversation with a friend in Los Angeles whose parents' store was destroyed during a Black Lives Matter protest.

In "Matter," Campbell moves beyond the politics of riots and looting to share her frustrations about the poisons Black people in America are fed. She poses her questions to everyone: silent friends, neighbors who avert their eyes and the carceral state that funds death warrants for Black people by way of militarized police departments with overstuffed budgets. ("Are we here? Do we matter? / I ask this on the daily / I ask this for my babies").

The accompanying music video for "Matter" is an animated memorial for Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Elijah McClain, Ahmaud Arbery and several other victims of senseless violence. Campbell raises her voice for those who had theirs forcibly taken away: "We want to breathe again."


"Who is this man in our house?" Robert Cray growls as this fierce, creeping blues ensues, executing a guitar line as powerful as the current through an electric fence. Featured on his 2020 album That's What I Heard and released this month with a new video closing with the late freedom fighter and Senator John Lewis's words at the historic March on Washington — "we must say, 'Wake up, America! Wake up! For we cannot stop" — Cray's song is, as his music has been for four decades, direct and robust. "Our house," here, is America itself. "This Man" never names the menace "walking around like a big king," but the point is clear, repeated in the chorus until it becomes a banishing spell: get him out.

Claiming and protecting space has always been fundamental in anti-racist practice, from lunch counters to doxxed Twitter feeds to the front lines of group protest. Recent events have made the threat to personal space tragically palpable. Breonna Taylor was asleep in her Louisville home when police entered and shot her to death. The video of Jacob Blake trying to climb into his car — where his children sat in the back seat — before being shot seven times by police has shocked millions. Most recently, the American democratic idea of government buildings as the home of the people — all people — has been tested as the Trump re-election campaign has staged partisan events at the White House and in other ideally neutral areas. Cray's anger is palpable in "This Man," as is his determination to stand up for safe spaces — the home, the polls and the polis itself.


Protest is stoked by the spark of oration and kindled by slogans chanted in the street. Yet words alone can't adequately encompass the horror of racist violence. From filmmakers like Ava DuVernay and Yance Ford to the dancers who did the Harlem Slide across New York's avenues to the muralists who've made memorials in every American city, artists have found ways to go beyond words to convey this year's revolutionary spirit.

Add saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins to that list. On his debut album, Omega, Wilkins fully employs the potential of the jazz quartet to reconstruct scenes of terror within compositions that crawl and crash and soar. The seven-minute "Ferguson, An American Tradition" follows the path of shock, grief and outrage Michael Brown's shooting by police officer Darren Wilson inspired, but backwards, from quiet clarity into a full clamor. But it's this song that attains the emotional intensity of a life in its last moments and brings the evil of racist violence into full focus. In 1918, white residents of Valdosta, Ga., went on a lynching rampage after an abused worker shot the white owner of a local plantation; Mary Turner, 30 years old and eight months pregnant, lost her husband in the melee. She objected. A mob formed and overtook her as she fled. Wilkins and his quarter distill all that Turner must have felt during her final hours — the grief, the human need for some dignity, the disorienting fears — in four and a half minutes. It's an extraordinary memorial that makes an immediate connection with the wrongdoings and responses of today.


Four years ago, I was, thankfully, challenged to think more globally about Black Lives Matter. This was while on assignment covering the London Jazz Festival, just days following the election of our current president. During a conversation with my friend Nadia Gasper, a London-based writer and story consultant, she rightly pointed out that much of the then-recent galvanization and discourse around racial inequality in the United States had overlooked the rampant struggles for Blacks living elsewhere, namely in England. Jorja Smith puts a "face" to that very issue in the accompanying video for "By Any Means," rather highlighting the many faces of color who comprise the U.K.

The British singer-songwriter renders an evocative, all-encompassing anthem of empowerment, resilience and fortitude, felt by Black people everywhere. Released as the lead single from the forthcoming Reprise initiative that features songs curated by Roc Nation, Smith joins a host of artists lending their talents in solidarity with protestors and organizers worldwide, fighting for those who continue to face discrimination and brutality.

Inspired by the words of Malcolm X in a speech he delivered during the last year of his life, Smith draws out the revolutionary spirit at the onset of "By Any Means," challenging the many institutions and legacies designed to oppress and marginalize an entire people. With sparse production of rhythm and backing vocal effects, as the tune shifts mid-tempo, Smith finds strength in numbers, emboldened and aware that all are needed in this collective battle: "I take pride in the things that we've done / Side by side in the revolution / Won't stay silent for things that I love / 'Cause we know dem nuh care about us."


The death of John Lewis in July was cause to reflect on the parallels between the movement for racial justice he helped lead in the 1960s and the one going on right now. Lewis himself encouraged people to do so in a farewell essay published on the day of his funeral in the New York Times. In that spirit, one of hip-hop's young stars performing a faithful rendition of one of the iconic songs of the Civil Rights movement during the Black Lives Matter era is a way of bridging the activism of the 20th century to 2020.

"What's Going On," the title track of Marvin Gaye's 1971 opus, is lyrically as relevant now as it was at the height of the Vietnam War. Watching Olu, one half of EARTHGANG, break into his best Motown falsetto in 2020 to deliver lines like, "Brother, brother, brother / There's too many of us dying" and, "Don't punish me with brutality" is a reminder that this moment is part of long lineage of Black protest in America, one that stretches back well before Marvin Gaye. Olu's bedroom cover also captures the quieter side of a civil rights struggle constrained by a pandemic, in which the coronavirus has forced many to participate in the movement while stuck in their homes.


"I Just Wanna Live" by Keedron Bryant — a viral hit with humble beginnings as an Instagram post — reveals how fast Black children grow up when constantly confronted with racial injustice. In a simple but chilling chorus, the thirteen-year-old singer appeals to a higher power: "I just wanna live / God protect me".

Bryant's mother, Johnnetta, wrote the song after George Floyd's death. Bryant's verbal prayer spread widely after he posted the a capella video to Instagram on May 26, eventually grabbing Former President Barack Obama's attention.

Bryant joins the long list of Black children shouldering burdens of racial inequity. From Ruby Bridges to Little Miss Flint, Black youth are forced to become symbols, martyrs, instruments, calling for change in a country that doesn't serve them.

The gospel singer is no different, exclaiming: "My people don't want no trouble / We've had enough struggle." Collective grief weighs on Bryant, his thoughts running rampant until he can't distinguish victims of police brutality from himself ("Oh, but when I look around / And I see what's being done / To my kind / Every day / I'm being hunted as prey").

On July 27, Warner Records released a remix of and a music video for "I Just Wanna Live" after signing Bryant. There, Andra Day raps about her unhealed inner child ("They gon' tell you, 'Shut up, angry black girl'") while IDK shows how burdened children grow up into adults who demand justice by any means necessary ("Throw a molotov at the cop / Whether he crooked or not / Until them killing us stops").


Some of the defining images of the summer of 2020 have been of protestors removing and repurposing Confederate monuments in cities across America. And no song has captured the defiant, cathartic energy of a crowd of people tearing down a statue of a Confederate general better than Ski Mask The Slump God's "Burn the Hoods" and its accompanying video, in which the Florida-born rapper burns a Confederate flag, proclaims "f***, my president Donald Trump" and takes out several members of the Ku Klux Klan with a machete. The song's lyric visual is no less chaotic, featuring an animated group of protestors exploding Georgia's infamous Stone Mountain memorial.

Propelled by an off-kilter metronomic synth and booming 808 kick drums, Ski Mask is fully on high-energy mode here. He bounces through most of the song in an ebullient, rebellious sneer, resting briefly in a baritone mumble that just serves to make the final chorus sound that much more in-your-face.

We Insist.

We Insist: A Timeline Of Protest Music In 2020

Protest Music In 2020: A Timeline