Injustice often inspires art. When the Ohio National Guard killed four college students protesting the Vietnam War in 1970 at Kent State, Neil Young penned “Ohio.”
The counterculture anthem is one of the greatest protest songs written: “Tin soldiers and Nixon’s coming / We’re finally on our own / This summer I hear the drumming / Four dead in Ohio.”
“Keeping Nixon in the lyrics was one of the bravest things Neil has ever done,” former Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young vocalist-guitarist David Crosby said during a 2018 interview.
Protest songs take courage. “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud” by James Brown and “Get Up, Stand Up” by the Wailers are examples of powerful protest songs that have endured.
In recent years, protest songs inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement have made quite an impact.
When Janelle Monae was asked about her powerful BLM protest song “Hell You Talmbout,” the vocalist-actress gasped.
“When you have a platform like I do, you have to make an impact,” Monae said during a 2018 telephone interview. “It’s our responsibility. I really believe that silence is our enemy, and sound is our weapon.”
Monae namechecks several Black victims of police brutality throughout “Hell You Talmbout” such as Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland and Freddie Gray.
One of Monae’s musical heroes, Prince, was inspired to write “Baltimore,” one of his final singles, because of the death of Gray, a 25-year-old man who died in police custody five years ago in Baltimore.
Last June, Prince’s estate released his handwritten note on intolerance. “Nothing more ugly in the whole wide world than INTOLERANCE (between) Black, white, red, yellow, boy or girl, INTOLERANCE.”
“2020 Riots: How Many Times,” by Trey Songz, could be the theme of the BLM movement during the coronavirus. The R&B singer, who was inspired to write the compelling tune after Floyd’s murder, focuses on the injustices.
“With the words in this song, I just wanted to speak to everyone’s hearts and acknowledge the pain and anguish everyone is going through right now,” Songz said via a statement.
Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Leon Bridges was also moved to write after Floyd’s tragic death. Bridges responded by crafting “Sweeter,” about a Black man being denied the freedom to breathe.
“It was the first time I wept for a man I never met,” Bridges said courtesy of a statement. “I am George Floyd, my brothers are George Floyd, and my sisters are George Floyd. I cannot and will not be silent any longer. Just as Abel’s blood was crying out to God, George Floyd is crying out to me. So, I present to you, ‘Sweeter.’ ”
One of the most moving BLM anthems is “I Can’t Breathe,” written and recorded by H.E.R., aka Gabriella Wilson.
The catchy blues song with a memorable vocal hook features some jarring lyrics:
“Starting a war, screaming peace at the same time? All the corruption, injustice, the same crimes? Always a problem if we do or don’t fight / And we die we don’t have the same rights / What is a gun to a man that surrenders / What it’s gonna take for someone to defend us? If we all agree that we’re equal as people / Then why can’t we see what is evil.”
Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” was featured at a number of BLM protests throughout the country. It’s not surprising since “Alright” exudes determination and persistence, and it’s relentlessly positive.
“We gon’ be alright,” a backing vocal by Grammy winner Pharrell, who produced the track, is a phrase that is a beacon of hope in a sea of darkness courtesy of this 2015 number.
Usher’s “I Cry,” also released in 2015, is one of the most beautiful BLM tunes. The piano ballad is deep, emotional and catchy.
“Free” was written and recorded by J. Cole not long after Ferguson police killed Michael Brown in 2014. Cole makes his statement during the chorus: “All we want to do is take the chains off / All we want to do is be free.”
Black Thought tipped his cap to Martin in 2018 with “Rest in Power.” “One killer, one child, one weapon / The shooter was unthreatened / 71 seconds / So many unanswered questions / If the wounds heal, the memories never fade / I wonder if you’re in heaven’s 11th grade / Six thousand, two hundred and 30 days / Too young of an early age / Such evil and worldly ways.”
The video features the Roots frontman rapping next to an American flag and a brick wall with the projected images of Martin, BLM protests and former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick kneeling.
“The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” by Gil Scott-Heron was written and recorded long before the BLM movement, but it fits. The cut, which is a poem and a song, is a clever and provocative piece that doesn’t sound as if it’s been around for a half-century.
But the song was at the forefront of the Black Power movement. “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” was released less than a year after “Ohio.” 1970-71 was a good period for protest songs. Perhaps the same will be said for 2020-21 a half-century from now.
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the Spokane7 email newsletter
Get the day’s top entertainment headlines delivered to your inbox every morning.