“Sound Is Our Weapon”: Protest Music and Black Lives Matter

"Hell You Talmbout" and "Cry No More" are a new kind of protest song that reintroduces traditional minimalism and congregational singing into this contemporary moment.


In August 2015, Janelle Monáe and artists from her Wondaland Records label release, ” Hell You Talmbout“, a protest song that consists of furious drums, a unified chorus and various artists shouting the names of black American victims of racist violence and murder, mostly at the hands of police: “SEAN BELL, SAY HIS NAME, SEAN BELL, SAY HIS NAME, SEAN BELL, SAY HIS NAME , SEAN BELL, WON’T YOU SAY HIS NAME, SAY HIS NAME, SAY HIS NAME, SAY HIS NAME, SAY HIS NAME, SAY HIS NAME, SAY HIS NAME, SAY HIS NAME, WON’T YOU SAY HIS NAME”, and as you listen, maybe you’re loosened from time and place—

It’s 2006 and Sean Bell leaves his bachelor’s party, unarmed, and is shot four times by five officers who unload 50 rounds into his car.

It’s April 2015 in Tulsa, Oklahoma: there, an unarmed Eric Harris runs from police, is tackled and then shot by a 73-year-old reserve deputy named Robert Bates. Handcuffed, Harris says, “I’m losing my breath.” “Fuck your breath,” says a non-reserve deputy.

The same month, in North Charleston, South Carolina, the unarmed Walter Scott runs after being pulled over for a broken brake light. Officer Michael Slager hits Scott with a Taser, the 50-year-old continues to run, and Slager shoots him in the back.

In 2008, Lil’ Wayne releases Tha Carter III which includes “Tie My Hands”, about the thousands left stranded and dying in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. “They talked all that freedom at us,” he all but whispers, “and didn’t even leave a ladder, damn.”

Sandra Bland enters a Waller County, Texas jail cell on 10 July 2015 and never comes out alive.

Four days after Bland’s death, nine parishioners including Clementa Pinckney, a pastor and state senator, enter the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina and are gunned down by Dylann Roof in an attempt to start a race war.

On a stage at the 1963 Newport Folk Festival, the Georgia Sea Island Singers perform “My God Is a Rock in a Weary Land” a little more than a month after Medgar Evers, a veteran of Normandy, is killed in Mississippi.

Freddie Gray enters a Baltimore police van on 12 April 2015 and one hour later is admitted to the hospital in a coma, his spine broken. He dies seven days later.

Jamycheal Mitchell enters a Portsmouth, Virginia jail cell in April 2015, hours before and two miles away from where William Chapman, unarmed, is shot dead outside of a Walmart. Incarcerated without bail for stealing five dollars’ worth of snacks. Mitchell dies in his cell four months later.

Carnegie Hall, 1964, and Nina Simone turns what she calls a “show tune” inside out in “Mississippi Goddam”, adding in her syrupy deadpan voice, “but the show hasn’t been written for it, yet.” The mostly white audience, knowing where Evers was killed, chuckles nervously before she sings the next lines: “Hound dogs on my trail, schoolchildren sittin’ in jail / Black cat cross my path / I think every day’s gonna be my last”.

Just after midnight on 4 February 1999, and Amadou Diallo pulls a wallet out of his pocket and is shot at 41 times by four NYPD police officers and killed.

Overflowing with beauty and a honey-sounding trumpet riff, The Impressions’ 1968 song “This Is My Country” can’t be misunderstood when Curtis Mayfield sings “I’ve paid three hundred years or more of slave-driving, with sweat and welts on my back”, but somewhere today you imagine an #AllLivesMatter supporter will insist the title should’ve been This Is My Country, Too.

April 2014, Dontre Hamilton is killed in Milwaukee.

July 2014, Eric Garner is killed in Staten Island.

August 2014, Michael Brown is killed in Ferguson, Missouri.

In late August 2015, Fox and Friends co-host Elisabeth Hasselbeck asks “Why has the Black Lives Matter movement not been classified yet as a hate group?”

In 1956, a year after being acquitted of killing Emmett Till—the trial was over within a month of the murder—Roy Bryant and J. W. Milam cower under the legal protection of double jeopardy and later proudly admit to murdering the 14-year-old in an interview with Look magazine.

At the 2015 BET Awards, Kendrick Lamar raps “Alright” from To Pimp a Butterfly on top of a trashed police car covered in graffiti with an enormous American flag waving in the background. Geraldo Rivera analyzes it thusly: “This is why I say that hip-hop has done more damage to young African-Americans than racism in recent years.”

The officer who shoots Michael Brown is not indicted. The officer who shoots Dontre Hamilton is not charged by the D.A. The officer who shoots John Crawford III in a Beavercreek, Ohio Walmart is not indicted. The officer who shoots Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Ohio has not been indicted. No one is held accountable for Jamycheal Mitchell’s death.

The officers who choke and smother Eric Garner to death are not indicted. The officers on duty during Sandra Bland’s death have not been charged. The five California Highway Patrol officers who beat US veteran Tommy Yancy to death have not been charged.

The four NYPD officers who shoot Amadou Diallo are acquitted. The first trial of the officer who shoots seven-year-old Aiyana Jones in Detroit ends in a mistrial, as does the second trial and the remaining charge is dropped. Three of the five officers who shoot Sean Bell go to trial and none are found guilty.

—loosened from time and place into a constellation of pain and resistance, points in history and geography held together in the irreducible now as “Hell You Talmbout” goes on, six minutes long, entirely composed of drums and a xylophone and voices and the hook and the names and the feeling that nothing changes, that this has been going on for decades, centuries, which is one more reason why it has to change.

Listen: combined with the minimalism of the music, the monotony of the structure also forces you to hear each voice shouting, some of them raw, some desperate, some on the edge of breaking, all of them determined, and to hear each name as it’s shouted. Walter Scott. Jermaine Reid. Philip White. Eric Garner. Trayvon Martin. Sean Bell. Freddie Gray. Aiyana Jones. Sandra Bland. Kimani Gray. John Crawford. Michael Brown. Miriam Carey. Sharonda Singleton. Emmett Till. Tommy Yancy. Jordan Baker. Amadou Diallo.

In her song “Cry No More”, a response to the murders committed in the Emanuel AME church in Charleston, South Carolina, Rhiannon Giddens takes a similarly spare approach. In the song’s video, she faces a choir and beats on a hand drum that sounds at first like a deep-toned bell as she digs deeper into history, from slavery to the “the bedrock of this nation… laid with these brown hands” to the “acts of terror” committed today. Her voice is resolute, timeless, capable of crossing that history and coming back. Like “Hell You Talmbout” the structure is simple and repetitive so that you must hear the history.

Listen closer and you hear the musical intricacy in each performance: the layers of drums in “Hell You Talmbout”, beginning with the tight martial rhythms of a field drum, then a bass drum that just seems to exist, like it’s not being played—you don’t hear the strike in the same way as the snare—and a rattling xylophone and congas accentuating the edges. In both songs, the complexity sounds in the voices of the choirs, the epitome of loose cohesion, of democracy and common bond, individualism and unity. In “Hell You Talmbout” the voices that step forward to remind us of the black lives ended emerge from the choir, while in “Cry No More” it’s Giddens’ call and response with the choir that creates the sense of a dialogue—the one the song demands, the one we’re still not having about history and the present moment.

In the American Wow of spectacle and celebrity, a protest song can be co-opted like any other into a commercial, into a self-flattering portrait of the performer. But the space these two songs create is sacred, unbreakable by commerce because they have no commercial value and immovable by ego because the singer is surrounded by community. Unlike other protest songs where the singer or the band stand onstage and invite the crowd to sing along, in “Hell You Talmbout” and “Cry No More” the crowd is already onstage, already singing. And it’s mobile. All it needs is a drum and voices.

Assembly and mobility: fearsome to the institutions that try to control both. But freedom doesn’t require a permit or a license.

“Hell You Talmbout” and “Cry No More” are a new kind of protest song that reintroduces traditional minimalism and congregational singing into this contemporary moment, but they work because they’re artistic even as they’re useful. Like any good song, each compels you to keep listening. “Silence is our enemy”, reads part of the statement that accompanies Monae and Wondaland’s song. “Sound is our weapon”.

Listen and hear where it’s aimed: in “Hell You Talmbout” and even in “Cry No More”, which doesn’t mention them, the names of the dead are sonic weapons against ignorance and gaslighting and soft-headed liberalism and the obscene words and narratives that try to pave over and whitewash the ongoing history of the systemic prejudice, abuse of power and disregard for black American lives, the living and the dead. Silencing that history and the voices who tell it is deftly done by the likes of Geraldo Rivera, by the public officials and police officers who say the problem in their ranks is just a “few bad apples”—apples that never seem to get picked—or even Bernie Sanders, who should never have walked away from those women in Seattle, whether they belonged to Black Lives Matter or not.

“Hell You Talmbout” says something so simple it’s shocking: these names signify not ideas or statistical fodder or news clips, but people whose lives were ended. That is a fundamental truth, the one we should begin with.

Silencing the truth is easy. Speaking it is hard. You have to make people listen. The drums have to be loud. The names have to be shouted.

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