In the summer issue of Artforum, Daphne A. Brooks, professor of African American studies at Yale, describes how the protest pop of modern black musicians like D’Angelo, Kendrick Lamar, and Beyoncé differs from that of forbearers like Nina Simone and Sly and the Family Stone, figures who arguably invented protest pop in the 1960s. Here’s an excerpt:
But clearly the insidious distillation of racial terror, state violence, and surveillance in our current era demands a new collection of jams. Likewise, this moment calls for an active, watchful, robust, and antiphonal black commons “woke” enough (as the kids would say) to read the commodification of “blackness” and “black message” music so as to make sophisticated and empowering choices and statements, to generate critical reception as well as rejection of the pop art that we’re invited to consume ad nauseam, 24/7. New millennial black protest pop captures and grapples with the specificity of racial catastrophe in the twenty-first century—its inextricable ties to neoliberal infrastructures, to the prison-industrial complex and globalized wealth inequality; its ferocious preoccupation with the violent expenditure of women and children; its ubiquity crossed with its seeming illegibility. New millennial black protest pop recognizes, mourns, and rages against the relentless roll call of black folk slain by the state, by one another (in conditions enabled by the state), and by agents of white supremacy.
That black protest music (if that’s what we should even call it anymore) might look and sound and feel as contradictory and varied as it does in the hands of a culture-industry behemoth like Beyoncé or an upstart South Central hip-hop poet like Kendrick Lamar, who rejects the title “MC” in favor of “writer,” or an iconoclastic neosoul vet like D’Angelo, who shuns the flash of the pop world, should come as no surprise in this moment of two-generations-removed post–civil rights struggle and activism. We are in an era characterized by spectacular dichotomies in black modern life, the ironies of hypervisible black-celebrity wealth existing alongside an outsize, cancerous black and brown carceral complex. So it makes sense that such a diverse array of voices would emerge in tandem with, in response to, inspired by, and occasionally at ideological odds with Black Lives Matter, the most prominent grassroots black-liberation movement in the US in more than two decades. After all, this large-scale uprising—which started on social media and quickly took to the streets—was started and is led in part by three young African American women (two of whom identify as queer): Patrisse Khan-Cullors, Alicia Garza, and Opal Tometi, who know a thing or two about intersectional politics—a politics of racial, gender, sexual, and class identities and experiences informing one’s selfhood. BLM is thus an effort founded on the principles of complex, multifaceted “blackness” and on the heterogeneous sociopolitical energies and ideologies of black feminism, hip-hop, LGBTQ activism, Occupy, and civil rights and Black Power resistance movements aimed at creating a new coalition of dissenters lobbying for reform. As scholar Andreana Clay has astutely pointed out, “we have a full-fledged movement happening that is full of leaders, actually, predominantly led by black queer women, transfolk and our allies. Just look at the leadership in almost every BLM chapter: Chicago (BYP), Minneapolis, Oakland, Los Angeles. The ‘ladies’ are already in formation.” So shouldn’t the music follow suit? If, as black music critic Greg Tate reminds us, hip-hop is “the voice of the voiceless,” and if BLM is, as he suggests, the revolutionary manifestation of hip-hop, it is only fitting that this modern movement would inspire urgent rap lamentations (J. Cole’s wrenching “Be Free”) and manifestos for living (Big K.R.I.T.’s “Soul Food”), as well as sort-of-black-feminist, sort-of-patriarchal tribute pieces (Big Sean’s well-meaning “One Man Can Change the World”).
The multifarious voices that make up BLM impel the art that accompanies the movement to be as capacious as blackness itself—and the current sound track offers new strategies, new scores, new narratives, new arrangements for protesting, resisting, and disturbing the political and socioeconomic subjugation of black and brown folk in American culture. The sonic performances of D’Angelo, Lamar, and Beyoncé drive these points home in distinct and powerful ways.
Image of Kendrick Lamar via eurweb.com.