I still remember the first time I heard Lupe Fiasco’s “All Black Everything.” I was in my apartment in Davis, Calif. where I was attending college. When I heard the words, I was reminded of the history of black people in America, and it made me want to learn more.
Since August, when unarmed teenager Michael Brown was killed by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Mo., young people have been rallying in the streets of Ferguson, New York, Oakland, Los Angeles and other key cities across the nation around the movement #BlackLivesMatter.
Just like Lupe’s song made me think about my people’s history, music is inspiring young people of color to push for #BlackLivesMatter.
In his song “Hands Up,” North Long Beach Native Vince Staples raps, “Raidin’ homes without a warrant/Shoot him first without a warning/And they expect respect and non-violence/I refuse the right to be silent.”
Fellow Long Beach rapper Crooked I, recently going by Kxing Crooked, released “I Can’t Breathe” in which he raps, “So, no, I can’t buy that pellet gun/They might try to Tamir Rice You.” Tamir Rice was a 12-year old black boy who was killed by a police officer this November in Cleveland, OH.
While the lyrics are strong, some argue that it isn’t enough.
“[Vince Staples] is exposing the issue, but there is no call to action,” said Menchie Caliboso, local musician and music therapist. “There is a pretty strong community organizing in Long Beach, but that is not reflected a lot in music. I think part of that is because musicians in Long Beach are not connected to community organizing.”
While Long Beach is known as a city thriving with music, Caliboso argues that the music communities are fragmented.
“One thing I’ve learned about being a musician in Long Beach is that there are small communities,” Caliboso said. “There is a rock community. There’s a rap community in North Long Beach.”
Nationally, well-known musicians all over the nation are taking a stand and recording music around the issue of police shootings. Here’s just a short list:
- Six days after Brown’s death, Hip-hop artist J. Cole recorded and released the song “Be Free.”
- Lauryn Hill belted out the lyrics, “Black rage is founded on two-thirds a person/Rapings and beatings and suffering that worsens,” on “Black Rage,” which she released a couple weeks after Brown’s death.
- The Game, a rapper, brought together over ten hip-hop and R&B artists including Rick Ross, 2 Chainz, Wale, Swizz Beatz, Curren$y, and TGT to produce the song “Don’t Shoot.”
- Tink sang and rapped on “Tell the Children” a few days after the grand jury decided not to indict Wilson for the murder.
- Rapper Dizzy Wright also released a song called “I Need Answers.”
These songs are 21st century protest songs. While each of these songs are a response to the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, they speak to the same racism black communities around the country have been dealing with for centuries. They are reminiscent of Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam,” Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On?” and Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power.”
According to Filipino Migrant Center community organizer and DJ Eric Tandoc, “Music can be considered the heartbeat of social movements. Not everyone is going to listen to a speech or read a book, but people will listen to a 3-minute song.”
Musicians have even more influence than they had in earlier decades. In the age of social media, the possibility of communication between musicians and their fans has been brought to an all time high. If young people see their favorite musician talking about social change, they might pay more attention to what is happening and be inclined to get involved in making a positive impact.
When famous musicians don’t speak out, some are critical.
A few years ago, singer, actor and civil rights activist Harry Belafonte called out two of today’s biggest musicians, Jay-Z and Beyoncé, saying that they have “turned their back on social responsibility.” To Belafonte, they and other popular artists are not using their influence to have a positive impact on their fans, youth and our nation as a whole. People pay attention to what celebrities say and do, whether it is in their work or in their daily lives.
As a young person, I think it’s a waste of influence when famous musicians don’t speak up. I personally wish that they would speak in times where there needs to be some action. While it doesn’t necessarily affect whether or not I will continue listening to their music that I already have, I do question supporting their future projects.
Jay-Z has said that his work is charity. To me, that’s not enough when he can potentially call millions of fans into action.
Hip-hop artist Yasiin Bey, formerly known as Mos Def, put it best in his monologue addressing the happenings in Ferguson: “I think many of us are becoming even more aware of where we are, and the urgency to change this miserable condition on this Earth, Malcolm X said, is occurring to many of us.” (Listen to the full audio below.)
If all artists spoke up, I truly believe that it could wake up many more young people to demand changes.
“I think music can play an important role in sparking the motivation in wanting to do something,” Tandoc said. “But long term organizing is where the true power is.”