D’Angelo and the Vanguard: “1000 Deaths” (2014)
On “1000 Deaths,” D’Angelo’s a speck on the wind above one of the most fearsome and physically awesome funk recordings ever made. The song just sounds like a call to arms—preachers, speakers, broken radio transmissions struggling to break through a rhythm that’s like a yawning black hole in the center of the stereo field. Perhaps D’Angelo understands that most listeners will turn to Google to figure out what he’s saying. If so, they’ll be hit head-on with a manifesto as violent as the music: If I have to kill and die for what I believe in, I’m ready. “I was born to kill,” D’Angelo squeaks, and though it can certainly be read as a metaphor for any struggle, violent or otherwise, it’s more effective taken literally. Violent songs can be as effective as peaceful ones; they remind us that when lives are on the line, to maintain a pacifist stance can be tantamount to cowardice: “A coward dies 1000 deaths, a soldier just dies once.” – Daniel Bromfield
Against Me!: “Transgender Dysphoria Blues” (2014)
Since Against Me!’s debut in 1997, they’ve contributed scathing social and political critiques packaged within punk rock. In 2012, Against Me! contributed to gender identity discourses as lead singer Laura Jane Grace, came out as transgender. The subsequent album’s title track, “Transgender Dysphoria Blues”, specifically addressed Grace’s transition. Beginning the album with the title track disallowed listeners from avoiding Grace’s narrative. Lyrically, “Your tells are so obvious / Shoulders too broad for a girl”, articulated Grace’s insecurities while also reiterating the fears echoed throughout the trans community.
Later Grace sings, “They just see a faggot / They’ll hold their breath not to catch the sick.” Here she casts shrewd awareness of the caustic invective and the transphobia prevalent throughout society. “Transgender Dysphoria Blues” provokes listeners to take account of society’s problematic treatment of individuals with fluid gender identities. The track is an authentic and relatable account complicating gender identity that provides listeners with a safe musical community. Likewise, Grace’s coming out was inspired by a young transgender fan. Against Me!’s “Transgender Dysphoria Blues” is an anthemic contribution to gender identity narratives. – Elisabeth Woronzoff
Kendrick Lamar: “Alright” (2015)
Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly is one of the most important rap albums of all time, one filled with incredibly complex literary devices and beautiful storytelling. The major hit “Alright” stands as a turning point in that album, but more than that, it’s an anthem of hope. It’s an anthem of progress that ultimately became, as New York Times called it, “the unifying soundtrack to Black Lives Matter”. Lamar begins by tying his situation in to that of the character Sofia from Alice Walker’s The Color Purple: “Alls my life I has to fight, nigga.” What ensues is a tirade against American consumerism, the evil snares of fame and fortune, police brutality and murder. But it’s also a personal battle against the character of Lucy (the embodiment of the devil, or Lucifer) and a moment of self-reassurance as Pharrell Williams delivers the hook: “We gon’ be alright.” The song was a classic from the instant it was released. But its connection to the Black Lives Matter movement, as crowds chanted this chorus of hope to the world, immortalized the song. – Chris Thiessen
Janelle Monae feat. Wondaland: “Hell You Talmbout” (2015)
It started as an outtake from her second album, taking place in her ongoing Android dystopian narrative with marching band drums and a funky bassline. But in the wake of mounting media attention on the ongoing police brutality against unarmed black Americans, Monae and her Wondaland collective released a new version. Same drums, but a markedly different tone, repeating the refrains “Say his name!” “Say her name!” a common battle cry at marches and a hashtag on Twitter, followed by the names of black Americans, like Walter Scott, Jermaine Reid, Phillip White, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, and on and on, as the list of names gets longer.
It eventually connects to Emmett Till, one of the first black murders to gain national attention in the 20th century and spark the Civil Rights movement, reminding us that this is not a new problem. Black bodies have, throughout history, been thought of as disposable by people who want to demonstrate power over them. This song functions as a grief-stricken battle cry, a beautiful rejoinder. NPR called it “visceral” and “blistering” and different versions on Youtube have tens of thousands of repeated views. – Bobby Evers
Pusha T: “Sunshine” (2017)
Though Pusha T may be more Biggie Smalls than Public Enemy, his 2015 track “Sunshine” is a striking entry into the subgenre of “conscious rap”. It’s a track that lays bare the reality of racial inequality and police brutality in terms as stark as anything Pusha ever rapped about crack. Written at the peak of the Black Lives Matter movement, “Sunshine” mirrors its frustrations, of weekly—daily sometimes—news stories about an unarmed black man shot by police, a black grandmother dragged from a car, black men arrested for simply sitting in a coffee shop. Jill Scott brings an anguished croon to the hook as Pusha’s frustration boils over: “The badge is the new noose / Yeah, we all see it, but cellphones ain’t enough proof.” As an old head, Pusha brings a longer perspective, reminding us that the incidents BLM was created in response to are no new phenomenon: “These ain’t new problems, they just old ways / I see one-time turn sunshine into Freddie Gray.” Protests, and protest songs, are meant to unite. To get people off the sidelines. On “Sunshine”, there’s no mistaking Pusha’s meaning and intent. – Adam Finley