New Protest Songs: Artists' Respond to George Floyd's Killing - Rolling Stone
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New Protest Anthems: Songs of the Uprising for George Floyd

From LL Cool J to YG, here’s how artists have responded to the latest killing of an unarmed black man at the hands of the police, continuing a decades-long struggle

new protest anthems

Terrace Martin, LL Cool J, YG (from left to right) and others have released new material in direct response to the killing of George Floyd.

Tim Mosenfelder/WireImage; Cindy Ord/Getty Images; Earl Gibson III/Shutterstock

In the wake of George Floyd’s killing by a Minneapolis police officer on May 25th, streaming numbers for protest songs have soared. Vintage tracks like N.W.A’s “Fuck tha Police” that specifically call out police violence serve as a reminder that our current national crisis is nothing new. As Black Lives Matter resistance continues across the country, artists have channeled their anger and sadness into new protest anthems, directly inspired by Floyd’s death and its aftermath. Here’s how artists including YG, LL Cool J, and Teejayx6 have responded to the latest chapter of an age-old crisis.

YG, “FTP”

A few years after releasing his two-part single, “FDT (Fuck Donald Trump),” YG has issued “FTP” — short for “Fuck the Police,” alluding to N.W.A’s 1988 landmark — in response to the killing of George Floyd and the protests that have followed. Although he doesn’t specifically reference Floyd in the lyrics, the Compton MC raps about “Murder after murder after all these years” and says the “Ku Klux cops, they on a mission.” He also captures the spirit of how exhausting it is to protest the same injustices that have been carried out against black people for centuries. “Been tired, fuck cardboard signs, we in the field,” he says at one point, and at another, “I’m tired of being tired of being tired.” But of course, he already said everything he needs to in the chorus: “Fuck the police. Fuck ’em. Fuck the police.”

LL Cool J, untitled rap

After a tense weekend of protests, hip-hop’s original G.O.A.T., LL Cool J, captured the outrage of a nation in two-and-a-half minutes of a cappella verses, delivered via a teary-eyed Instagram post. Beginning with “For 400 years you had your knees on our necks,” referring to the brutal way Minneapolis policeman Derek Chauvin took George Floyd’s life, LL holds no punches in addressing the effects of white supremacy. “Watching that man die slow left a hole,” he says. “He cried for his mama as the murder unfold/If it wasn’t for those phones, Chauvin would be at home/Feeling justified because of George’s skin tone/I’m telling those with melanin, you’re not alone.” The rapper also name-checks several other black people who have died wrongly at the hands of police and others through the years, including Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Amadou Diallo, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, and Breonna Taylor. He closes with the lines, “Black Lives Matter forever.”

Teejayx6, “Black Lives Matter”

“Black Lives Matter,” a new track by the young Detroit rapper Teejayx6 — shared with the hashtag #RIPGEORGEFLOYD and paired with a video featuring footage of Floyd’s final moments and other instances of police brutality against black people — is filled with rhetorical questions that have no good answers. “How the fuck my momma gon’ sleep at night and the police keep killing us?” he raps over a tense midempo beat by Atlanta producer TM88. Later in the song, he turns his inquiries directly on George Floyd’s killer, Derek Chauvin (“Why you had to put your knee on his neck?”) and those who witnessed his death (“Why you ain’t just go and help him out?”). The song pledges support to Black Lives Matter while lamenting that, at moments like these, that or any other slogan falls short: “Another black man just died on camera/But we can’t even use our hammers/All we can say is, ‘Black lives matter.'”

Terrace Martin feat. Denzel Curry, Daylyt, Kamasi Washington, and G Perico, “Pig Feet”

Producer and multi-instrumentalist Terrace Martin’s genre-spanning background — his résumé includes work with Kendrick Lamar, Snoop Dogg, Herbie Hancock, and many others — helps him bring together a stellar cast on this urgent new track, featuring MCs Denzel Curry, Daylyt, and G Perico, along with saxophonist Kamasi Washington. Curry jumps directly into the fray, painting a bleak picture of life as a black man in America: “Helicopters over my balcony/If the police can’t harass, they wanna smoke every ounce of me.” Daylyt’s lines speed by in a flurry of syllables, landing on stark declarations like “They gon’ pay for takin’ my brother.” Washington’s saxophone adds emphasis to the rappers’ lines, and as the track ends, his and Martin’s horns tangle in an impassioned improv outburst. “The video to this song is happening right outside your window,” says a message on the screen in the accompanying clip, driving home the urgency of this collective statement.

Conway the Machine, “Front Lines”

After protesters set fire to the Minneapolis police department’s third precinct as a reaction to the killing of George Floyd, Buffalo MC Conway the Machine released “Front Lines,” which addresses both Floyd’s death and the uprising that followed it. “Cracker invent the laws, that’s why the system is flawed,” Conway raps, after describing the way Derek Chauvin kneeled on Floyd’s neck. “Cops killin’ black people on camera and don’t get charged/We ain’t takin’ no more/We ain’t just pressin’ record/Can’t watch you kill my brother, you gon’ have to kill us all.” The track ends with a recording of a news reporter describing flames billowing out the police station, as Conway’s anxious-sounding backing track plays in the background.

Hiss Golden Messenger, “Stones (For George Floyd”)

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And now the cops are protecting the killer. There’s people crying all around the door. Another brother brought down, the message couldn’t be clearer: The system don’t work for you. And the fires will be burning long after the flames die, when there’s no news left to sell. Hey, it’s hot in the streets when they got you on the asphalt. It’s hot when you’re living in Hell. You pick up a stone. You pick up another. You work until your back can’t work no more. You tried to build a little home, now I think we’re gonna find out other things that stones are for. If it ain’t peace, I don’t know the way out. Real peace. We need police protection, not some kind of legislator seeking re-election. Real peace. I wanna go down singing songs by the river. I wanna tell y’all about something good. But if you only feel tall when your neighbor’s on his knees, I’ve gotta sing a different song for you. So burn, baby, burn, it’s the lesson that they’re learning. It sounds like the governor’s gotta learn a little more. Hey, it’s hot in the streets when they’ve got you on the asphalt. It’s hot when you’re living in Hell. You pick up a stone. You pick up another. You work ‘til your back is sore. You’d rather build a home but now I think we’re gonna find out other things that stones are for.

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M.C. Taylor, the singer-songwriter who performs as Hiss Golden Messenger, uploaded this folk lament to Instagram five days after Floyd was killed. “I watched that video of George Floyd being murdered by those cops in Minneapolis,” he said in his introduction to his freshly written song. “And I felt sick.” Taylor’s song is mournful and outraged, making direct reference to Floyd’s final moments: “Hey, it’s hot in the streets when they got you on the asphalt/It’s hot when you’re living in Hell.” He implicates his audience via a variation on a Toni Morrison quote — “I wanna go down singing songs by the river/I wanna tell y’all about something good/But if you only feel tall when your neighbor’s on his knees, I’ve gotta sing a different song for you” — and suggests that for any artist with a platform, no matter what their idiom, now is no time for silence.

Wyatt Waddell, “Fight!”

Many of the songs created in response to George Floyd’s death and the latest wave of Black Lives Matter protests have — for obvious reasons — captured feelings of outrage, despondency, or both. But Chicago singer-songwriter Wyatt Waddell chose to zero in on a different emotion, crafting an upbeat soul-funk track specifically designed lift the spirits of those out in the streets. “This song is me looking at what’s happening and what I’d tell the people protesting,”  he wrote on Bandcamp. “I hope that it can be an anthem for my people as they’re fighting for a better America.” He uses a thumping beat, gospel-chorus–style vocals, and feel-good retro grooves to underscore the song’s core message of positivity in relentlessly bleak times: “There’s already so much pain/And there ain’t nothin’ else we can do.”

Trey Songz, “2020 Riots: How Many Times”

 

“I know this ain’t usually my message and you’re not used to hearing this from me, but this is the person I’ve always been,” Trey Songz wrote in an introduction to his new track, crafted in the midst of the current protests. The song finds the singer pivoting from his sensuous R&B wheelhouse to a yearning, gospel-tinged sound, and posing a litany of questions, none of which has a good answer:

How many mothers have to cry?
How many brothers gotta die?
How many more times?
How many more times?
How many more marches?
How many more signs?
How many more lives?
How many more times?

Nnamdï, “Rage”

Rising Chicago artist Nnamdï has issued Black Plight, a three-song EP recorded and written in the midst of ongoing Black Lives Matter protests nationwide. The hardest-hitting track is “Rage,” a thrashing hard-rock account of police violence (“I see the fear in your eyes/I feel the hate in your heart/Murders part of the job”) that finds Nnamdï singing and playing every instrument. The result sounds something like Rage Against the Machine fronted by a crooner instead of a rapper and rocking a sweaty basement show. It’s a piercing depiction of what happens when oppressed voices are met with state violence for decades. “Had to burn it all down just to be heard,” Nnamdï sings. “But we still ain’t heard.”

H.E.R., “I Can’t Breathe”

Appearing on the iHeartRadio Living Room Concert Series, H.E.R. opened her set with new song “I Can’t Breathe.” She introduced the song by saying, “Just by the title, you know that it means something very, very kind of painful and very revealing. … These lyrics were kind of easy to write because it came from a conversation with what’s happening right now, what’s been happening, and the change that we need to see. I think music is powerful when it comes to change and when it comes to healing, and that’s why I wrote this song — to make a mark in history.” The tune itself is somber acoustic blues with H.E.R. leading the way as a lonesome electric guitar and a keening organ alternately bubble to the surface. “Praying for change because the pain makes you tender,” H.E.R. sings, “All of the names you refuse to remember/Was somebody’s brother or friend/Son to a mother that’s crying, saying/I can’t breathe, you’re taking my life from me.”

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