Music for turbulent times: Protest songs on the rise in 2020
Can protest music have the same impact in the 21st century that it did in the 1960s? Perhaps not, as it’s harder for songs to have universal impact in an era with far more avenues to seek out music than in the radio-dominated landscape of a half-century ago.
Still, topical songs have remained a significant part of popular music. A wave may be cresting in 2020, one of the most tumultuous years in American history. Heated conflicts from a pivotal election year already were surging in January, before the coronavirus pandemic turned the world upside down in March. Then came nationwide demonstrations in May and June over police brutality and the killings of unarmed black people like George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and Michael Ramos.
With all of that in mind, here’s a look at a few new songs that have surfaced in recent weeks, addressing those different aspects of these times. We’ll continue watching for more protest music that arises in the weeks and months ahead.
“SWEETER” by LEON BRIDGES ft. TERRACE MARTIN
The subject: In a statement accompanying the song’s release on Monday, Bridges wrote: “Growing up in Texas I have personally experienced racism, my friends have experienced racism. From adolescence we are taught how to conduct ourselves when we encounter police to avoid the consequences of being racially profiled. I have been numb for too long, calloused when it came to the issues of police brutality. The death of George Floyd was the straw that broke the camel’s back for me. It was the first time I wept for a man I never met. I am George Floyd, my brothers are George Floyd, and my sisters are George Floyd. I cannot and will not be silent any longer."
The artist: Bridges, from Fort Worth, rose quickly from obscurity to worldwide stardom in 2015 with the release of his debut album “Coming Home” and its 2018 follow-up “Good Thing,” both of which reached the Top 10 of the Billboard charts. Martin is a renowned producer who’s worked with Kendrick Lamar, Stevie Wonder, Raphael Saadiq and others.
Key lyric: “I thought we moved on from the darker days/Did the words of the King disappear in the air, like a butterfly?”
An Austin connection: Two former members of Austin band White Denim helped Bridges write and record his debut album.
“2020 RIOTS: HOW MANY TIMES” by TREY SONGZ
The subject: Songz released “2020 Riots” last week, as cities across the nation were in the midst of continued protests after Floyd’s death. The “How Many Times” part of the title signals that Songz was calling attention to systemic nature of the issue. “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,” he said in a statement accompanying the song’s release.
The artist: A three-time Grammy-nominated R&B singer, Songz has released seven albums since 2005. Born Tremaine Aldon Neverson in Virginia, he began his music career in New Jersey after signing with Atlantic Records.
Key lyric: “It’s so hard to sing these words out loud/All these beautiful, precious black lives lost in the name of senseless white pride/Tears fallin’ from my eyes.”
“$20 BILL (FOR GEORGE FLOYD)” by TOM PRASADA-RAO
The subject: Prasada-Rao wrote “$20 Bill” about Floyd’s death after Floyd was arrested for passing a $20 counterfeit bill at a Minneapolis store. In a minute-long preface to his May 28 YouTube live video of the song, Prasada-Rao, who noted that he’s recently been undergoing chemotherapy treatments, said, “I was watching CNN, watching the protests in Minneapolis. It’s breaking my heart. And this song started coming to me, so I just paid attention to it and wrote it down.”
The artist: Prasada-Rao, who lives in Silver Spring, Maryland, grew up in the Washington, D.C., area and attended college in England and India before returning to D.C. and becoming a prominent part of that city’s folk-music community in the early 1990s. He’s also toured and recorded with fellow singer-songwriters Tom Kimmel and Michael Lille in the trio Sherpas.
Key lyric: “Sometimes the law is the devils’ last straw/The future unfulfilled, like the dream they killed/For a $20 bill.”
An Austin connection: Prasada-Rao was a winner of the Kerrville Folk Festival’s prestigious “New Folk” competition in 1993. Austin singer-songwriters Betty Soo and Sara Hickman are among more than 50 artists who already have covered the song on social media and streaming platforms, per a list Prasada-Rao posted on Monday.
“IN A YOUNG PERSON’S BODY” by KORA FEDER
The subject: Feder wrote and recorded “In a Young Person’s Body” while holed up in her Philadelphia apartment during the initial weeks of the coronavirus pandemic. She posted it to YouTube on April 25 as an entry into NPR’s annual Tiny Desk Contest, which has helped give rise to artists such as New Orleans’ Tank & the Bangas in recent years. “Feder's lyrics eloquently illustrate the full range of emotions many people are feeling in the era of the coronavirus pandemic,” NPR’s Elle Mannion observed.
The artist: Feder grew up in Northern California and played in the band of her mother, folk singer Rita Hosking. She then attended New York’s Long Island University and got a degree in global studies, which included spending two years abroad in Asia and Europe.
Key lyric: “And what about my grandpa who just turned 94, he’s seen it all but I want him to see more/And what if the glaciers release new diseases, and new generations have nothing good to believe in?”
An Austin connection: Feder’s 2019 album “In Sevens” was produced by Austin’s Rich Brotherton at his Ace Recording studio.
UNTITLED by LL COOL J
The subject: On June 1, LL Cool J unleashed an untitled 2 1/2-minute rap that, in the words of Rolling Stone, “captured the outrage of a nation in two-and-a-half minutes of a cappella verses, delivered via a teary-eyed Instagram post.” He hasn’t released new music in several years but is well-known for his activism.
The artist: One of the most prominent hip-hop acts of all time, LL Cool J broke through with his platinum-selling 1985 debut album “Radio” and has sold more than 13 million albums across his career.
Key lyric: “For 400 years you had your knees on our necks/A garden of evil with no seeds of respect/In America’s mirror, all she sees is regret/Instead of letting blood live, they’re begging for bloodlet.”
“AMERICAN CRISIS” by BOB MOULD
The subject: “American Crisis” is a scathing indictment of the political climate that gave rise to the Trump presidency. In a statement accompanying the song’s June 3 release, Mould wrote: “The parallels between 1984 and 2020 are a bit scary for me: telegenic, charismatic leaders, praised and propped up by extreme evangelicals, either ignoring an epidemic (HIV/AIDS) or being outright deceitful about a pandemic (COVID-19).”
The artist: Mould has been one of rock’s most incendiary artists for four decades, since his rise in the 1980s fronting Minneapolis trio Husker Du. He’s released more than a dozen albums under his own name since then, the past four as a trio with drummer Jon Wurster and bassist Jason Narducy, who feature prominently in the “American Crisis” video. The song will be included on Mould’s next album, “Blue Hearts,” due this fall on Merge Records.
Key lyric: “Wake up every day to see a nation in flames, we click and we tweet and we spread these tales of blame/Here’s the newest American crisis, thanks to Evangelical Isis.”
An Austin connection: Mould lived in Austin for several years in the early to mid-1990s.
“I JUST WANNA LIVE” by KEEDRON BRYANT
The subject: Bryant, age 12, posted “I Just Wanna Live” to Instagram and YouTube on May 26, the day after George Floyd was killed. According to ABC’s “Good Morning America,” which recently featured Bryant’s song, the lyrics came from his mother, Johnnetta Bryant.
The artist: A budding gospel singer from Jacksonville, Florida, Bryant recently appeared on NBC’s reality-TV talent show “Little Big Shots.” His song quickly went viral, with singers such as Janet Jackson and Nas sharing it on social media and artists including hip-hop standout Will.I.Am using it as part of extended videos.
Key lyric: “I’m a young black man, doin' all that I can to stand/Oh, but when I look around and I see what’s being done to my kind/Every day, I’m being haunted as prey.”