As Black Lives Matter protests usher in a new slate of reforms and repercussions for police violence around the country, activists are still painfully aware that the officers who killed 26-year-old EMT and nurse Breonna Taylor at her home in Louisville, Ky., haven’t been arrested. This week, as that reality continued to set in, the movement was rocked by another death: this one of a 19-year-old black woman activist, Oluwatoyin “Toyin” Salau, who went missing the day she tweeted about being sexually assaulted. More people are calling for solidarity with black women and to uplift their voices as All Black Lives Matter becomes a key phrase of this moment.
And it’s important to uplift the protest music black women have been creating at a time like this, because music is, in some ways, the biggest microphone black people have to speak about injustice.
The first revolution hit of the summer was created by Johnniqua Charles, a black woman in Dillon, S.C., when she protested her own detainment in handcuffs. She sang, “You about to lose yo job,” and her chant was remixed by DJs Suede the Remix God and iMarkkeyz.
But since then, most of the mainstream press has focused on male rappers like YG, who filmed a music video for “FTP” at a protest, or Pop Smoke’s “Dior.” Rapper J. Cole recently caused uproar on Twitter by releasing “Snow on tha Bluff,” a song that criticizes the tone of black female rappers like Noname, who’s a well-read militant thought leader. He painted her unapologetic approach as condescending and suggested that black women should teach men gently (“Treat people like children,” he raps) instead of demanding more from them.
Meanwhile, black women have been making their own powerful contributions to this moment, and they deserve more attention. They’ve been coming up with experimental ways to amplify their message, even within the limitations of quarantine. They’re doing the work of pushing for a broader black liberation while also uplifting other black women when it seems no one else does.
I’ve highlighted a few recent liberation songs by black women below. And I’ve included a playlist of both classic and contemporary protest songs by black women to continue amplifying their voices and provide a relevant soundtrack for this Juneteenth weekend.
Naturally, we’re going to kick this off with Noname’s response to J. Cole’s diss track. It’s called “Song 33,” and she released it Thursday night. The one-minute song cleverly demonstrates that Noname, a 28-year-old rapper from Chicago, is a leader for our times — just count the number of pressing issues she highlights in the short track. Instead of focusing primarily on J. Cole, the song is mainly an ode to the women who have lost their lives at the hands of abusive men. It centers on Toyin’s death with the chorus, “One girl missing another go missing.” And it expresses her shock that J. Cole would choose to attack her leadership style when “there’s people in trees” (pointing to the tree hanging deaths of multiple black men in the past few weeks). She presumes he chose to write about her because his ego was hurt and points out how little time he spent raising awareness of other issues on his own track. She almost sounds exasperated:
Ultimately, it’s hopeful: Noname ends it by presenting herself as the leader she believes the world needs right now. “This a new vanguard,” she says. “I’m the new vanguard.”
During her live performance at iHeartRadio’s Living Room Series on June 10, H.E.R., a 22-year-old who won two Grammys last year, debuted “I Can’t Breathe.” Introducing the song, the singer said it came from recent conversations she’d been having with friends; she said she wrote it to “make a mark in history.”
The song takes on the painful urgency of Eric Garner and George Floyd’s famous last words, and she almost groans the haunting chorus over stripped-down acoustics:
The short, introspective verses point out how little empathy Americans seem to have for one another and asks how we’re supposed to come together if “the structure was made to make [black people] the enemy.” Its heartbroken questions don’t profess to have an answer, but convey the feeling that America’s soul is lost at sea, and its own people are drowning.
Jorja Smith is the queen of releasing danceable grooves that are subtly about fighting police brutality, like she did with her 2016 hit “Blue Lights.” The 23-year-old British singer’s newest release on June 9, “Rose Rouge,” strikes a similar balance. The song announces itself with an explosive opening. Smith belts, “Oh lord … you know he’s a sinner, help me pray,” as pianos and trumpets crescendo around her voice, creating the feeling that she’s descending from above. After a pause, a rhythmic jazz instrumental beat kicks in, and throughout the song she repeats:
The song’s fast-paced jazz, influenced by African rhythms, is reminiscent of the kind of music that afrocentric artists like Curtis Mayfield used in the 1970s to raise consciousness for black power on tracks like “We Are the People Darker Than Blue.” It’s also the same style of jazz over which black people have given revolutionary speeches and spoken-word performances, from Gil Scott Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” to Kendrick Lamar’s “Ab Soul’s Outro.” In Smith’s version, the instrumentals take the lead: evoking the sense of people in the movement congregating. Maybe it’s for some downtime to recharge, or, as the saxophone kicks in, to lift their spirits in dance.
Just before the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Abery and Breonna Taylor ignited a new era for Black Lives Matter, Jhene Aiko’s “Chilombo” album helped many black women navigate the introspective first weeks of quarantine. Now, the 32-year-old’s song “Speak” feels especially relevant to today’s protests. The track is, on its surface, about Aiko celebrating her freedom as a newly single woman who no longer has to listen to a man’s opinion of what she does. But the soulful chorus balloons into a call for women to speak their truth to any power. In a classically earnest, almost motherly, Aiko refrain, she sings:
New York-based DJ JADALAREIGN’s house track “Floydian Slip” could turn any protest into a dance party, or even a mosh pit. The song gives listeners permission to express their rage at the current state of the country as she loops in the voice of a woman yelling, “I hate you so much right now,” followed by a visceral growl. The track is part of a fundraiser album of songs by black women called “Source of Nurture,” which was curated by the New York-based Chroma collective. The collaborative album, which raised over $15,000 in its first three days, is donating funds to organizations that support black lives, immigrants and essential workers struggling during covid-19.
Beyond “Floydian Slip,” JADALAREIGN’s also been busy creating a 47-minute mix for the Guggenheim Museum called “BLACK: An Audio Collage.” The cover art is a collage of black women and men whose deaths have galvanized the black liberation movement over the decades. It combines a medley of artists, from Marvin Gaye and James Brown to Solange and Queen Latifah, with speeches from Assata Shakur and a comedy snippet from Richard Pryor. On Instagram, JADALAREIGN called it “an ode to black contemplation, introspection, pain, rage, resilience, perseverance, vision, healing, celebration, pride, strength, unity.”
Brooklyn-based singer Nyallah’s mixtape “Reflections” came out earlier this month, giving black women uplifting mantras to power through the initial heartache of a new protest era. With its soaring climactic choruses, “Black Fantasy Dream” sounds almost like the soundtrack of a Disney fairytale. But its point is clear: Black women don’t have to fantasize about a magical world where they’re powerful, because they already are. The song opens with a poem by Tsega Beloved, in which she proclaims, “Never again will I abandon me.” That sentiment continues throughout the booming verses, as Nyallah continues:
She closes the mixtape on an uplifting, encouraging note: The neosoul groove “Outro: The Journey” reminds women to keep going when people around them try to tear them down.
For my complete playlist of black women’s liberation music, click here.