When the smoke clears: These ten tracks – new and old – by J. Cole, Lil Baby, others reflect today’s times the best…

(June 17, 2020). Like the late Nina Simone once famously said, “an artist’s duty is to reflect the times.”

I initially wrote a really long intro to this piece.  It was going to reflect on George Floyd and the international wave of protests his merciless killing sparked more than three weeks ago and how I sensed that sweeping social change (finally) seemed imminent. 

But with the country continuing to be in turmoil and the latest unjustified killing of a black man – 27-year-old Rayshard Brooks who was shot in the back in Atlanta – just days old, I’m reminded that change, if it happens, will continue to be glacially slow in coming.  

So I shelved several paragraphs intended to highlight the worldwide outpouring of support for the current movement to get right to the point of this article: to highlight ten songs (and their artists) who can tell the story of the black man’s plight in America as well as anyone can.

J. Cole’s controversial new “Snow on Tha Bluff” is one of ten tracks featured in this article. Keep reading.

The issue of racism in America has been front and center ever since the merciless killing of Floyd – a 46-year-old unarmed black man – by a white Minneapolis police officer on May 25.  That came on the heels of the senseless vigilante-like killing of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia by three white men (one a former officer of the law) and the mistaken-identity murder of Breonna Taylor by police in Louisville, Ky.

And while these murders – and the pattern of killers’ acquittals that have tainted similar cases throughout history – continue to dominate headlines, they are only the tip of an iceberg of systemic racism in policing that has been the source of anger and frustration in black communities for ages – anger that has been intensified by the realization that even video evidence of these encounters haven’t proved sufficient to flip the scales of justice in our favor, defying all logic at a minimum and any law of averages at most. 

And so the civil unrest continues with the nation now in its fourth week of protests against police use of excessive force against blacks, just as another hashtag (Brooks) is added to the long list of names that have gained international attention on this issue for years during the social media era.  

As this is a music blog, perhaps no one can retell today’s headlines – musically speaking – as grippingly as today’s young hip-hop artists, particularly with many of them hailing from the same hard-hit communities where the acts of brutality and unfair police tactics often play out daily.

In an age where it is often said that great protest songs are a lost art – one that died as America moved on from the turbulent 1960s and into the post-Civil Rights movement and post-Vietnam War era, the truth is that black artists – particularly young male rappers – have continued to protest in their songs about social injustices in black communities for decades.

It can be argued that much of hip-hop straddles the blurred line between glorifying violence and promoting social change, both of which use graphic, hard-hitting street tales to get their points across.  DJROBBLOG has found ten songs that do more of the latter and I present them now for your indulgence:

Lecrae – “Welcome to America” (September 2014).

From Genius:  “This song is from the point of view of three different people:

“The first verse is from Lecrae’s perspective, talking about his life growing up and living in America. The second verse is from the perspective of an army veteran who thinks that a lot of fellow Americans are ungrateful for the sacrifice he and other vets made for their country. The last verse is from the view of a person in poverty, likely but not necessarily from somewhere in Central/South America or Asia, and how he thinks America is amazing and wants to live there and move there. This song shows the good and bad of America.”

DJROBBLOG chose this as the first song and video in this feature as it sets the stage for what’s to come by depicting the polar opposite views Americans (and others) often have about this country.  Forty-year-old Lecrae, who was 34 when the song’s parent album Anomaly was released in 2014, captures this dichotomy perfectly.  Incidentally, Anomaly was the first album ever to top both the Billboard 200 and Top Gospel Albums chart simultaneously.

An anomaly indeed.

Terrace Martin & Denzel Curry – “Pig Feet” (June 2020).

“He didn’t have a gun!”  A woman’s voice cries after three shots ring out, casing shells fall to the ground, and the hard-hitting trauma that plays out in Martin & Curry’s “Pig Feet” begins.  Released just two weeks ago at the height of the George Floyd protests, this song depicts the murder of an unarmed black man by police and the emotional reactions from those in his community who witness his killing.  The track minces no words and is hard-hitting in its storytelling.  The urgency of the issue is magnified by a random and ominous-sounding saxophone playing throughout the unfolding drama.  The song’s video includes footage of the recent (and still-continuing) protests happening throughout the country and abroad.

Locksmith ft. Martin Luther McCoy – “From a Distance” (June 2020).  

Released June 2, “From A Distance” is a monologue told from the perspective of a black military man faithfully serving his country in a foreign war against an enemy that is not his and pondering how he got there.  While it doesn’t touch specifically on the topic du jour, “From A Distance” captures the common story of how poor men and women – often minorities – find themselves fighting for a country that doesn’t fight for them in return.  The punchline to this story is that Uncle Sam didn’t even need to reinstate the military draft; the true draft is classism and those at the bottom are usually the first to go.

Joe Moses – “Black Lives Matter” (November 2019).

Released in November 2019, “Black Lives Matter” by rapper and community activist Joe Moses makes one reference to the issue of police-involved killings of black people – and that’s at the very beginning of the song.  The rest serves as an introspective look at Moses’ own journey in and out of the criminal justice system from a life of gang banging and bad decision-making. 

Lil Baby – “The Bigger Picture” (June 2020).

As of this writing, Lil Baby has the No. 1 album in the U.S. as his latest, My Turn, returns to the top after debuting there three months ago.  However, the new track “The Bigger Picture,” which was released June 12 in the wake of this season’s protests, doesn’t appear on My Turn.  Ironically, this song was released the same day as the killing of Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta, making the following lyrics eerily relevant in the wake of allegations of aggravated assault accompanying the arrest of the two police officers involved in Brooks’ killing:

“I find it crazy the police’ll shoot you and know that you dead/ But still tell you to freeze/ F—ed up, I seen what I seen/ I guess that mean hold him down if he say he can’t breathe/ It’s too many mothers that’s grieving/ They killing us for no reason/ Been going on for too long to get even/ Throw us in cages like dogs and hyenas/ I went to court and they sent me to prison/ My mama was crushed when they said I can’t leave.”

Mozzy – “Black Hearted” (October 2018)

California rapper Mozzy sounds, at times, like a cross between Scarface and Tupac, particularly during the chorus of “Black Hearted.”  He cleverly uses a sample of a Joyce Wrice’s “Tribute to BabyGurl” (the late singer Aaliyah) and a cover of the song “Never Comin’ Back” to fuel this track.  The refrain here: “I lost the ones closest to me, now I’m soul-searching; Born cursed but I deserve worse…” 

Dave East – “Don’t Shoot” (September 2016).

In “Don’t Shoot,” Dave East walks us through a life story that begins with his rough childhood and carries listeners through the many life lessons he learned about a criminal justice system that isn’t fair to people like him.  He laments a life of harassment that includes possessing a college degree that only led to deeper hate from cops.  The song’s ending finds him begging cops for his life (for the sake of a newborn daughter) before a gunshot is heard.  The genius of “Don’t Shoot” is how Dave East’s voice changes throughout each of the verses, beginning with a child-like cadence that gradually deepens as the song carries him through adolescence and adulthood.

Joey Bada$$ – “LAND OF THE FREE” (April 2017).

This song was released on the day Donald Trump was inaugurated (January 17, 2017), which also happens to be Joey Bada$$’s birthday.  “LAND OF THE FREE” features Joey dropping some life lessons on us from a black man’s perspective, while depicting America in its failing state (on race relations) with vivid imagery and a beat reminiscent of ‘80s classic “Juicy Fruit” by Mtume (though not a complete rip).  The lyrics lament the black man’s plight while asserting that Barack Obama was not enough (and Trump is not capable) as president.  In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, many people returned to this three-year-old gem, but we likely should have been on it from Day 1.

J. Cole – “Snow on Tha Bluff” (June 2020).

Surprise-released just this Tuesday (16th), rapper J. Cole addresses the current sociopolitical climate of race and police brutality, but with a controversial twist.  Yes, as always, J. Cole is teaching, but this time his lesson is directed at someone more “woke” than him.  Many are speculating that it’s Chicago rapper Noname, who’s made a name for herself for years with her outspoken social media activism.  J. Cole, respectfully admonishes her with the following lyrics:

“F-ck is the point of you preaching your message to those that already believe what you believe?

I’m on some “F-ck a retweet,” most people is sheep

You got all the answers but how you gon’ reach?

If I could make one more suggestion respectfully

I would say it’s more effective to treat people like children

Understandin’ the time and love and patience that’s needed to grow.”

J. Cole’s fresh track would be a great way to end this article, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t include at least one track from a woman’s perspective – the woman who is the target of J. Cole’s um, advice.  So here it is:

Noname – “Casket Pretty” (August 2016).

In just one minute, fifty-one seconds, Chicago rapper Noname spits some dark rhymes about death in her home city, which also happens to be this blogger’s home city.  The most notorious case of police use of excessive force in Chi happened in 2014 when Laquan McDonald was gunned down while walking away from police.  Justice wouldn’t occur until more than a year later, when a judge ordered police to release dash cam video of McDonald’s killing by officer Jason Van Dyke, who was convicted of second-degree murder three years later (in 2018).

Chicago rapper Noname

Noname eloquently addresses the topic of policing and race with the following brutal truth:

“Don’t hold me, don’t hold me when niggas is dying and dying

And I’m afraid of the dark, blue and the white

Badges and pistols rejoice in the night

And we watch the news, and we see him die tonight

Tonight’s the night his baby said goodbye

Roses in the road, teddy bear outside, bullet there on the right

Where’s love when you need it?”

Perhaps these songs won’t be included in the discussion about great protest recordings in years to come for the same reason that they exist in the first place – the societal bias that tends to marginalize them as mere street tales, stories that glorify violence and are indistinguishable from the mere ramblings of angry black men (and women) whose circumstances are mostly self-inflicted, in the views of many.

Yet, if the plight of being young, black and male in the United States could be summed up musically in three or four minutes, there’s nothing more poetic than having the truth delivered by those who’ve lived it – or those who’ve come closest.

DJRob 

DJRob is an African-American freelance blogger from Chicago who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff!  You can follow him on Twitter @djrobblog.

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