Black people are rendered invisible in mainstream political discourse, and historically have been denied an official channel to voice their opinions. Therefore, in times of crisis, music becomes our soapbox. Black protest songs originate from the Black Power Movement, with jazz, funk and soul acting as an avenue for social commentary. With the rise of gangsta rap came another form of protest music; rappers using their songs to expose the troubles explicitly faced by poor Black communities in the US.
Since 2010, we have seen a new wave of music detailing the specificities of the Black experience, encompassing various genres and expanding outside the US. Here are just a handful of the powerful songs by Black artists that have been released in the past decade.
Solange – ‘Mad’ (feat. Lil Wayne)
This song speaks to those labelled as “Angry Black Women” in order to silence our frustration towards society. Through her soft melodic vocals, paired with Lil Wayne’s passionate verses, Solange reminds us that we are entitled to feel angry in the face of injustice.
Most powerful lyric: “I got a lot to be mad about”
Joey Bada$$ – ‘LAND OF THE FREE’
Joey Bada$$ explicitly expresses his anger and frustration towards the US, a nation that prides itself on being the ‘Land of the Free’, when it has been repeatedly made clear that this freedom does not extend to African-Americans.
Most powerful lyric: “Another family evicted, another black man a victim / That’s as real as it’s getting, you should take recognition”
Dave – ‘Black’
As the UK’s top lyricist, Dave details what makes Blackness so beautiful, while exploring the struggles faced by Black people navigating a white supremacist world. A song like this really shouldn’t be controversial, but the white reaction to his Brit Awards performance tells you everything you need to know about what it is like being Black in the UK.
Most powerful lyric: “Black is so confusin’, ’cause the culture? They’re in love with it / They take our features when they want and have their fun with it / Never seem to help with all the things we know would come with it / Loud in our laughter, silent in our suffering’”
Little Simz – ‘Pressure’
British-Nigerian rapper, Little Simz, refuses to hold herself back on this track. Her anger and frustration are made evident with her punchy delivery, her lyrics and tone showing how fed up she is with the system while also knowing the importance of applying pressure to those in power.
Most powerful lyric: “Take a walk in my shoes / Or any other young Black person in this age / All we ever know this pain / All we ever know is rage”
D’Angelo – ‘The Charade’
Elements of rock, funk and neo-soul come together in this politically charged track from D’Angelo, from the game-changing album ‘Black Messiah’. Underpinned by the melodic bass and drumbeat, D’Angelo uses this song to highlight how little has changed since the Civil Rights movement.
Most powerful lyric: “All we wanted was a chance to talk / ‘Stead we only got outlined in chalk / Feet have bled a million miles we’ve walked / Revealing at the end of the day, the charade”
Ms. Lauryn Hill – ‘Guarding the Gates’
From the Queen & Slim soundtrack, this ballad is more than a song, the layered choral vocals paired with the dulcet strings create an immersive experience. Hill reminds listeners of the importance in finding joy and ‘Guarding the Gates’ of your mind to protect yourself from the ills of society.
Most powerful lyric: “Tryna mix myself for society / But can you tell me, where is love in anxiety?”
Noname – ‘Casket Pretty’
On a more contemplative and sombre note, Noname explores the fears that plague Black people in Chicago. She reminds us that being black in America means being reminded of death on a daily basis.
Most powerful lyric: “All of my n***** is casket pretty / Ain’t no one safe in this happy city / I hope you make it home. / I hope to God that my tele’ don’t ring”
A Tribe Called Quest – ‘We the People…’
Opening with one of the decade’s most poignant beat selections, paired with police sirens in the background, A Tribe Called Quest refuse to hold back in getting their message across. This song critiques the opening phrase of the US Constitution, drawing attention to the intolerance that plagues society.
Most powerful lyric: The fog and the smog of news media that logs, / False narratives of Gods that came up against the odds”
Vince Staples – ‘BagBak’
Staples expresses his apathy towards the current climate. Feeling like no one in politics represents him, with the fear of police brutality and racial profiling weighing on him every day, he concludes that we should stand up against those in power.
Most powerful lyric: “Prison system broken, racial war commotion, Until the president get ashy, Vincent won’t be votin’”
Rapsody – ‘Power’
On this heavy collaboration with Lance Skiiiwalker and Kendrick Lamar, Rapsody explores the nature of power. How do we define power? Who holds the true power in society?
Most powerful lyric: “Badge make police feel powerful in the hood / Guns make us feel powerful but they don’t do no good”
Pose Cast – ‘Love’s In Need of Love Today’
A cover of the 1976 song by Stevie Wonder, the cast of the hit TV-show Pose remind us the importance of loving those around us, in a world full of so much hate. A reminder to consider also those in the Black trans community, whose stories are often side-lined.
Most powerful lyric: “The force of evil plans /To make you its possession / And it will if we let it / Destroy everybody”
Jay-Z and Kanye West – ‘Murder to Excellence’
Over the sample of Indigo Twins’ “La La La”, Jay-Z and Kanye West leads us on a journey: starting with an outline of the poverty and violence that ‘murders’ the black community. Halfway through the track, the two express their joy at the fact that Black people still find success despite all of this.
Most powerful lyric: “So let’s savour this moment and take it to the floor / Black excellence, truly yours”
Akala – ‘Find no Enemy’
The UK’s 21st century Shakespeare, Akala, expresses his frustration towards the violence that lies within the fabric of the UK social structure. Historical amnesia, the war on terror, anti-blackness and wealth inequality are just some of the many topics he addresses in this conscious track.
Most powerful lyric: “And if I’m honest I am just tired / If I’m honest I am just tired”
Chronixx – ‘Black is Beautiful’
Blackness is normally discussed in a negative sense. Here, the Jamaican reggae artist uses this track to focus on the beauty that lies in blackness, singing over a strong bass hook to deconstruct how he defines black beauty.
Most powerful lyric: “So every word weh mi say black In my world everything black / Black white, white black right back / So don’t be surprised when mi say mi king black”
Kendrick Lamar – ‘Alright’
As one of Kendrick’s most famous tracks ‘Alright’ needs little introduction. The unofficial anthem of the 2015’s Black Lives Matter protests, the song creates a sense of solidarity, with Kendrick assuring his Black listeners that “we gon’ be alright”.
Most powerful lyric: “N****, and we hate po-po / Wanna kill us dead in the street fo sho’/ N****, I’m at the preacher’s door / My knees gettin’ weak, and my gun might blow / But we gon’ be alright”