Poor babies fighting depression
Been writin’ them essays to graduate with no stage
On Zoom, motherfucka?
Send me the link, I’ll check into your room motherfucka
Cybercongradulate you, then purposely agitate you
Pops got two strikes from the umpire
Stop light, two nights on a bumped tired
And the sirens push red and blue lights, told me pull over
I should feel safer but expired plates on old Toyotas
Means I can’t afford to pay tickets to these racist rollers
Eyes haven’t seen what heaven keeps in store for us
There’s more of us
But in this life some wars we can’t avoid
I wrote this the day they killed George Floyd
We won’t forget your story
Even though they rest they feet upon our neck
Or shove their knee on our spine ‘til we rest in peace
And they never get convicted
'Cause this crooked ass system protects they peeps
– D Smoke & SiR, “Let Go” (2020)
The police, through the form of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, killed George Floyd May 25. On May 29, D Smoke, with his brother SiR, released “Let Go.”
“Let Go” may have come in a hurry, but it's marvelous—insinuating as D'Angelo, as tough as Vince Staples, with enormous weight of sadness and anger but no despair. It cuts to the individual soul and the heart of the matter at hand like, as Marlon Brando said in Apocalypse Now, “being shot with a diamond.”
Like the man said, there's two kinds of music, the good kind and the other kind. The first commandment is: Make the Good Kind. And that includes political music and protest music. Make protest music, and make it beautiful. Not pretty, but beautiful.
And if you are beautiful as a person, please keep it to yourself. “Let Go” is beautiful, and after I listen to it I know nothing about D Smoke as a person. Of course, I know that he is impelled to look at the shit of the world around him and tell us about the shit he sees and—this is the most important thing—show us his response is a determination to endure and to do something, anything, to clear some of that shit away, for both himself and the generations to come that he will never see.
The above paragraph is a clear, if wordy, definition of successful protest music. The cultural myth of modern America, shared in both positive and negative aspects by liberals and conservatives, is that everything is going to work out, that on the one hand we’ll halt climate change and end racism and on the other that we will preserve the primacy of whiteness and money, just as God and Jesus fucking Christ wanted when they wrote the Constitution together and handed it to George Washington in the form of two gold tablets. Both of those sides—and yes this is gross bothsidesism but not inaccurate—have their own music that affirms the rightness of their views, and it is on both sides awful. Even worse, it is ineffectual.
There is a lot of music out there that proclaims the rightness of the performer’s belief, e.g. that racism is wrong and that women are strong and important, and there is a lot of music that has no identifiable meaning that can be discerned from the music itself, but the righteous meaning is asserted by the title. The former is a problem most often found in vocal music, the latter plagues music that is usually instrumental, like jazz and classical.
The greatest political music is also protest music and is also great music. The elements go together—it takes mental discipline, craft, and artistry to take something that at least a plurality of people would agree with and turn it into a statement of fact and grievance that can wound a political-social system. It takes no courage to say torture is bad, fascism is bad, racism is bad, and leaving it at that has no effect on the body politic.
But when you harness the (possibly) revolutionary energy that comes out of injustice and oppression and inequality, you might have something. Do that not by telling people what to think, and never tell them about what a good person you are. Instead, show them that there’s something wrong out there, something worth some sacrifice to change.
A lot of protest music has been put out since November 2016, and all but a couple albums or tracks have been forgettable at best, if not counterproductive. Forgettable includes a large-ensemble jazz recording released earlier this year, made in part “with generous support from the Aaron Copland Fund for Music and the New York State Council on the Arts.” The music is entirely instrumental, and if one heard the album without looking at the track titles—“March on Washington,” “Yellowcake,” “Stupid, Pointless, Heartless Drug Wars”—one would not have an inkling that the music had any political content. Even following the titles and reading the liner notes is insufficient. Though not impossible, it’s a real challenge to get major and minor chords and rhythms to carry political meaning, and quoting hymns and sampling George W. Bush is too obvious and frankly lazy to provide the type of meaning the music seeks.
Counterproductive is music that comforts the comfortable, especially the bourgeois white liberal, who’s self-regarding right-thinking is often the be-all and end-all of anthemic protest songs. Another recent album, both heavily promoted and lauded, features the lyrics:
I am Woman
My roots reach into the ground
Man wants to keep me down
But my Wolfpack won’t allow
They call us nasty when
We speak above the Man
Won’t teach our girls their version of
What they want as feminine
I am Woman
I am free
I will decide what happens with my body
I am Woman
I am free
Every one of you came from one of me
This is set to the kind of generic world-beat that makes an ideal musical hit between segments on NPR. The bland, acceptable, and again obvious lyrical content is a musical parallel to news media that hems and haws at the details but never questions the status quo. Music like this objects, but it doesn’t protest. It is sincere, but it’s about the artist and not the world, and it’s humorless.
Don't give me glossy, milquetoast production and sassy beats, give me a gimlet eye and a flensing knife, give me humor because the prigs in the White House and on the New York Times editorial page are humorless, and if you want to get it in people's ears and hearts get it in their hips. Give me “Whitey on the Moon” (1970) and “Tyrone” (1997). Give me the world as it is for other people, not just as it is in the secret garden of your mind.
Being about the world matters, protesting matters, humor matters. Charles Mingus’s “Fables of Faubus” (1959) is lyrically inelegant and obvious in its own way, but it’s also funny, it points out what’s wrong and mocks those responsible:
Oh, Lord, don't let 'em shoot us!
Oh, Lord, don't let 'em stab us!
Oh, Lord, don’t let ‘em tar and feather us!
Oh, Lord, no more swastikas!
Oh, Lord, no more Ku Klux Klan!
Name me someone who's ridiculous, Dannie.
Why is he so sick and ridiculous?
He won't permit integrated schools.
Then he's a fool!
Boo! Nazi Fascist supremists!
Boo! Ku Klux Klan (with your Jim Crow plan)
Name me a handful that's ridiculous, Dannie Richmond.
Faubus, Rockefeller, Eisenhower
Why are they so sick and ridiculous?
Two, four, six, eight:
They brainwash and teach you hate.
The music does even more than the words. Columbia Records nixed the lyrics when Mingus recorded it on his great Mingus Ah Um album (1959), but the mocking tone, the satirical goose step, is at the core of the music. And though it comes from Mingus and is about his thinking, his view is expansive, he’s looking at the world, not at himself.
D Smoke does this too. He puts himself in the middle of the song but it’s not about him, it’s a document of what he sees around him (that is central to making hip hop and why it is the ne plus ultra of protest music). So is “Faubus,” so are Fred Rzewski’s two extraordinary pieces about the Attica uprising, “Coming Together” and “Attica” (both 1974). Rzewski takes the words of two prisoners and sets them respectively to driving, machine rhythms and to music that makes for a kind of lilting sunset.
Rzewski is the great political composer of the 20th century, his music works as descriptive of things that are morally outrageous. He doesn’t bother with answers, which in the context of art reduce works to mere slogans—he does something more, he grabs the listener by the heart and leaves them with a need to take action. It’s protest music that drives further protest.
Rzewski’s heir is Ted Hearne, who also uses found material, including more George W. Bush audio and also samples from Supreme Court arguments. He stitches them into musical fabric that has the same punch that one hears with Rzewski, Gil Scot-Heron, and Erykah Badu. His Katrina Ballads (2007) lays bare the outrageous abandonment of American citizens by the government, Sound From the Bench (2014/2017) is a essentially pop music about the corporate dominance of the judicial system, and his latest release, Place (2020), is a blunt-force collaboration with poet and performer Saul Williams. All this music has a personal touch of focussed anger, but it never gets lost in Hearne's own feelings.
The personal is not the political. Protest music that is about the artist’s feelings has too much ego in it to have any political benefit, there’s no room for sympathetic imagination. Nothing has driven this home to me more clearly than a truly awful set that Marc Ribot delivered at the Winter Jazzfest in 2018. It was his idea of songs of resistance, which boiled down in one perfect example to him banging out chords on his guitar while yelling “Fuck La Migra!”, a political buzzkill of a song if there ever was one.
Ribot did do one wonderful thing, though, which was to perform someone else’s music, the Italian anti-fascist song “Bella Ciao.” The lyrics translate as:
O beautiful, goodbye
This morning I woke up
And I found the invader
O partisan, take me away
And if I die as a partisan
You need to bury me
And bury me up there in the mountains
Under the shade of a beautiful flower
There’s heartbreak in the song, but not from the end of a love affair. The choice is between the singer’s “bella” and his life. And the invaders are here, and fighting fascism for everybody is more important than the beauty of his own love. It’s a sad song that produces a feeling of steely resolve and determination, it sees that politics can come down to life and death—in the case of George Floyd, then-Hennepin County DA Amy Klobuchar fobbed off a possible prosecution of Chauvin to a grand jury so that would give her political cover when she declined, enabling her to run for Senate and him to murder Floyd.
The political is the personal, and politics literally kills people. Klobuchar’s presidential campaign showed me that she could hear “I am Woman / I am free / I will decide what happens to my body” and nod her head in satisfied agreement. When there’s no difference between the politician and the protest music, the song fails. Protest is loud and uncomfortable and hard, and can mean sacrifice—shit has to be deeply fucked up for people to protest. And shit is deeply, deeply fucked up. So, goodbye, beautiful.