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Songs of Black Lives Matter: 22 New Protest Anthems

From Beyoncé to Blood Orange, hear how musicians have added their voices to the growing movement

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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. 

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D’Angelo, “The Charade”

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."

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J. Cole, “Be Free”

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."

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Prince feat. Eryn Allen Kane, “Baltimore”

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."

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Rhiannon Giddens, “Cry No More”

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." 

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The Game feat. Rick Ross, Diddy, etc., “Don’t Shoot”

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."

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Tom Morello, “Marching on Ferguson”

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."

Beyonce, Dev, Blood Orange, Prince, black, lives, matter, music, Black Lives Matter, Black Lives Matter music, Black Lives Matter Playlist, Playlist Rolling Stone

Blood Orange, “Sandra’s Smile”

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."

Beyonce, Dev, Blood Orange, Prince, black, lives, matter, music, Black Lives Matter, Black Lives Matter music, Black Lives Matter Playlist, Playlist Rolling Stone

Usher feat. Nas and Bibi Bourelly, “Chains”

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."

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Joe Budden, “Freedom Freestyle”

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."

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