2015 was rough, y’all. Between the attacks in Paris, the death and terror that the Islamic State has inflicted in the Middle East, the countless mass shootings, police shootings and rampant xenophobia in our own country, it has been a truly bad news year. Amidst all this violence and political turmoil, though, we learned to seek comfort in solidarity—and some of that solidarity came in the form of new music.
This year was “The Return of the Protest Song” according to The Atlantic, and a highly necessary return it was. Musicians stepped up to make their voices and their politics heard in the debates on police brutality, gun control and immigration, led by Janelle Monáe, Killer Mike, Kendrick Lamar and the ever-political M.I.A. In September, Monáe (who led a Black Lives Matter march in San Francisco earlier this year) and several other artists from Wondaland Records recorded “Hell You Talmbout,” a simplistically powerful drumline-march which included a chant of the names of the many people of color killed by police in the past several years. “Freddie Gray, say his name, Sandra Bland, say her name” shouts Monáe—citing the phrase used by protesters of Sandra Bland’s arrest and suspicious jail cell death in July. The phrase “say her name” is a plea to stop thinking of the deaths of people of color as mere statistics, but as the loss of real people with names, faces and families. Blood Orange (the musical project of Dev Hynes) released a song about Bland in October called “Sandra’s Smile.” In a series of lyric annotations to the song on Genius, Hynes said, “I had a somewhat delayed depression upon Sandra’s death. I was hurt and upset and mad instantly, of course … a few days later it hit me and I was unconsolable [sic].”
Meanwhile, M.I.A. was working on “Borders,” a song and music video that asks endless questions of the listener which are progressively abstract and hard to answer. The video is set in two locations: a high chain-link fence and a beach—both sites that we associate not only with borders, but with illicit or dangerous emigration. Standing among hundreds of people symbolizing refugees, M.I.A. raps “Broke people, what’s up with that?/ Boat people, what’s up with that?”—colloquial phrasings meant to elicit long-form answers.
Before all of these, though, Kendrick Lamar released his third album, To Pimp a Butterfly, in March. It’s reached the top of many “Best Albums of 2015” lists, and for good reason: Lamar knows that politics are personal, and that being successful doesn’t protect anyone from the prejudice of others. The track “King Kunta” references the fictional slave in Alex Haley’s novel Roots, who had his foot cut off as punishment for attempting to escape the plantation where he labored. “Now I run the game, got the whole world talkin’/ King Kunta, everybody wanna cut the legs off him/ Kunta/ Black man taking no losses” raps Lamar, paralleling Kunta’s story with his own escape from the hood and his daily struggle against those that would bring him down.
Music has always been and will always be an important part of every revolutionary political movement. Not only because music brings us together and reminds us of what’s important, but because, during our darkest moments, it can be an uplifting light. What’s that probably-fake Emma Goldman quote? “If I can’t dance, it’s not my revolution.”