Solange scoring America’s No. 1 album last week was a victory on several levels. A Seat at the Table finds the younger Knowles striving forward with cinematic song structures and lush production, but more than how it sounds, what it says makes its ascent particularly inspiring. It is an unabashedly pro-black album, and one that is executed with a staggering amount of nuance and compassion. Solange’s words span from the peaks of black pride (“F.U.B.U.”), to the valleys of black anger and depression (“Mad,” “Cranes in the Sky”), and every microaggression in between (“Don’t Touch My Hair”).
Though A Seat at the Table never mentions the Black Lives Matter movement by name, rarely has an album so closely channeled BLM’s essence: that black lives are significant, even when they are not treated as such. In this regard, A Seat at the Table is not alone. In late 2014, D’Angelo’s Black Messiah emerged amid the tremors of the Ferguson protests with odes to black hope. Three months later, on To Pimp a Butterfly, Kendrick Lamar wrestled with the burdens of blackness and poverty, earned comparisons to Invisible Man writer Ralph Ellison, and birthed one of Black Lives Matter’s de facto rallying cries. Then, earlier this year, Beyoncé pushed the most mainstream of audiences to not only hear but also see the resiliency of black womanhood on Lemonade. These are the three works recently highlighted by Black Lives Matter activist DeRay Mckesson, who poignantly told us, “We aren’t born woke. Something wakes us up. For some people, that’s a video of police violence, or their proximity to a friend, or a protest. For some people it’s art.”
As high profile and acclaimed as they are, the latest albums from Beyoncé, Kendrick, D’Angelo, and Solange represent just a fraction of the contemporary music linked to the Black Lives Matter movement. Each senseless murder has been met with a musical outcry, whether it’s Dev Hynes’ tribute to Sandra Bland or Miguel’s call to action in the wake of Alton Sterling’s death. Even musicians who haven’t addressed the movement on record regularly come forward to speak out through other means.
Those who criticize Black Lives Matter often call it a liberal phenomenon that idly vilifies the police, and the music sharing its ideals a passing trend. BLM is technically a young movement, having started in the summer of 2013, but of course, its central ideas are not new. The tensions between America’s law enforcement and its black and brown people represent the latest iteration of a multi-century struggle for equality. At every step of the fight, there has been a soundtrack—to strengthen, to soothe, to spell out for those who don’t understand. The idea that black lives matter can be found throughout musical history, whether it’s Billie Holiday underscoring the senseless cruelty of lynching on “Strange Fruit,” or James Brown calling for radical black self-respect in “Say It Loud - I’m Black and I’m Proud.”
But it’s more than that, too. Black artists have channeled the weight of their systematic oppression, both directly and indirectly, into forms of expression that have forever shaped the Western canon. The history of contemporary music cannot be pulled apart from that of black resistance, and vice versa. Gospel’s roots can be traced to fields of slaves seeking resilience in communal song. The mold for blues, itself the precursor to rock’n’roll, was cast by black performers committing the woes of post-slavery Southern life to song. Jazz was the byproduct of black musicians exploring European musical traditions after decades of being stripped of their own. Soul and funk were shaped by a segregated music industry. Hip-hop first found its footing as an avenue for black youth to verbally paint the challenges of inner city life. Electronic music as we know it is indebted to house music’s emergence within Chicago’s ostracized queer and black underground club community.
Nearly all of these genres can be found in the playlist below, which highlights the best of (but certainly not *all of*) the pro-black music to emerge concurrently with BLM. If there was ever any doubt that music is as integral to the Black Lives Matter movement as it was to the Civil Rights struggle of the 1960s, look to these anthems.
Beyoncé - “Formation,” “Freedom” ft. Kendrick Lamar
Boogie - “Hypocrite Freestyle”
clipping. - “Knees on the Ground”
J. Cole - “Be Free”
Jamila Woods - “VRY BLK” ft. Noname
Janelle Monae and Wondaland Records - “Hell You Talmbout”
Jay Z - “spiritual”
Lauryn Hill - “Black Rage”
Lil B - “No Black Person Is Ugly,” “I Can’t Breathe”
Mick Jenkins - “11”
Miguel - “How Many”
Princess Nokia - “Black Girl Blues”
Rick Ross - “We Gon Make It”
Yasiin Bey - “Where Are We?”
YG - “Police Get Away With Murder”
Young Jeezy - “It’s a Cold World”