How Black Musical Artists Revolutionized the Sound of Protest in 2016

9 minute read

America was in peril in 2016: unarmed Black people were being killed by police at an alarming clip, and Donald J. Trump’s presidential campaign revealed stark ideological divides. None of this was new; law-enforcement officers have always harassed minorities, and U.S. citizens have long been split along racial and political lines. But not since the late 1960s had the tension been so palpable. Between social media and the 24-hour TV news cycle, viewers could see bullets penetrate Black skin on a continuous loop, or watch anti-police protests unfold in cities like Atlanta, Los Angeles and New York. The music responded in kind—from Solange and Beyoncé to Frank Ocean, Black artists were using their work to address the cultural landscape. And as the world grew louder, the music took on a more meditative tone.

But this wasn’t a protest in the traditional sense. While tentpole songs like Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” and James Brown’s “Say It Loud— I’m Black and I’m Proud” set the template for Black protest music, this new generation sought to redefine what protest could entail. In 2016, dissent could be outward-looking and personal; to sing about marital strife, the journey of motherhood and one’s upbringing was also revolutionary. This music was fearless: in a society that constantly denies Black humanity, these artists were reclaiming their stories—for themselves and the community as a whole.

Though the pinnacle of this renaissance occurred in 2016, its beginnings go back to December 2014 and a trio of politically-charged albums that shifted the tenor of Black music. First was the release of Black Messiah, the third studio album from R&B singer D’Angelo, on which he discussed war, the emotional toll of racism and the global ramifications of climate change. It was his most political album yet, even as several songs—“Really Love,” “The Door,” and “Another Life”—recalled the sweet soul of his previous LPs. Three months later, lyricist Kendrick Lamar released To Pimp a Butterfly, an avant-rap opus with traces of jazz, funk and spoken-word poetry, that unpacked the trappings of fame along with his own depression and survivor’s guilt. On the album’s second single, “The Blacker the Berry,” Lamar delved into the rage he felt in 2012 when he saw the news of Trayvon Martin’s death in Sanford, Fla. The record’s fourth single, “Alright,” with its uplifting chorus and optimistic rhymes, sought to assuage those hit hardest by systemic oppression; it became a breakthrough hit and the unofficial anthem of the Black Lives Matter movement. The following May, Lamar collaborator Kamasi Washington put out his own statement, The Epic, a whopping nearly three-hour jazz album at a time when the mainstream marketplace wasn’t interested in the genre. Still, his record—an ambitious mix of gospel, big band, and ‘70s fusion—spoke to the healing that needed to happen; compositions “Askim,” “The Rhythm Changes” and “Malcolm’s Theme” evoked the calm and fire of Civil Rights-era protest anthems. With these divergent projects, D’Angelo, Lamar and Washington tapped into a myriad of emotions—the prevalent hurt, joy, anger and sorrow coursing through the Black community—and forged a path for their peers to follow.

The year 2016 wasn’t just about big names making their most resonant work; it saw the rise of a new voice coming to the fore. Anderson .Paak, an Oxnard, Calif.-born singer, rapper and drummer, released two contrasting albums—Malibu, his critically-acclaimed solo LP in January; and Yes Lawd!, a ‘70s soul-leaning record as one-half of NxWorries with producer Knxwledge, in October. .Paak was 2016’s breakout star, a charismatic performer who looked like a Venice Beach skater and had the old spirit and voice of a Memphis soul crooner. These weren’t, by definition, political albums, but they represented two sides of his persona: the child of a farmer and mechanic with a strong will to succeed, and the budding celebrity with a penchant for slick talk. At a time when Black music was rightfully moody, .Paak committing to tell his own story was its own form of protest. He was betting on himself, and the bliss exuded through his work.

The same went for Rihanna and Beyoncé, two of the world’s biggest pop stars, whose respective albums were equally rooted in dissent and introspection. A mix of pop, hip-hop and dancehall, Rihanna’s ANTI was a pensive and methodical work that confused long-time listeners who’d gotten used to her uptempo island-themed tracks. This her eighth album, she seemed less inclined to release another Rihanna record; through tracks like “Love On The Brain” and “Higher,” she prioritized her timbre—a bravado-rich tone with a lower register—over danceable cuts made just for Top 40 radio. Beyoncé was Beyoncé, one of the most famous people on the planet and queen of the surprise release. For her sixth studio album, Lemonade, she got more personal than usual, expressing candidly the then-rumored (and since-confirmed) infidelity of her husband Jay-Z over an assortment of rock, R&B and electronic soul. It was a brazen tour de force and a stark thematic shift from her stellar pop anthems that skewed somewhat safe. But with takeaways like “you ain’t married to no average bitch, boy” (from “Don’t Hurt Yourself”) and “he better call Becky with the good hair” (from “Sorry”), Lemonade thrived as a heartbreak album with political inflections. “Freedom,” featuring Lamar, declared a new dawning for the singer; it wasn’t so much an activist’s hymn, but an inward-looking reflection—much like Lamar’s “Alright”—that connected with the public at-large.

Perhaps no album did that more than Frank Ocean’s Blonde, the downtempo follow-up to 2012’s channel ORANGE. It was partially inspired by a picture Ocean found in 2014 of a young girl with her hands covering her face, “a seatbelt reached across her torso, riding up her neck and a mop of blonde hair … behind her ears,” he wrote on Tumblr. Taking visual and sonic cues from this image, Blonde simulated the feeling of cruising in a car, the sun nearly set as wind drifts through open windows. There was a stillness to the album: unlike ORANGE, which had a bigger sound with more pronounced drums, Blonde was quieter yet no less socially active. “Pour up for A$AP [Yams], RIP Pimp C,” he sang on “Nikes,” honoring the two fallen hip-hop artists. “RIP Trayvon, that ni**a look just like me.”

All of these albums arose as Black Americans still struggled to reconcile the senseless deaths of Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Mike Brown and Freddie Gray, and in the summer of 2016, we had two more souls to mourn: Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. Black people were rightfully furious. So when Beyoncé’s sister, the equally powerful yet more reserved Solange, doubled down on this notion for her remarkable third studio album, A Seat At The Table, it soothed like balm to raw skin. Seat was an expansive mix of scant soul, a for us, by us record with the beauty of Black womanhood squarely at the center. “Cranes In The Sky,” among other things, was about her personal transition into motherhood. “Don’t Touch My Hair” wagged a finger at the white gaze, the idea that curious white people can run their fingers through a Black woman’s mane because it’s “exotic” or “foreign.” A Seat At The Table arrived just over a month before Trump’s stunning presidential win. And while some could predict dark days ahead, no one could envision the endless lowlights that would classify his term.

Now, there is a perception that a sense of calm has returned to the Oval Office. But just last month, we witnessed a white-supremacist insurrection at the nation’s Capitol, and we’re not far removed from the racial reckoning of last summer, seeking justice for George Floyd, for Breonna Taylor, for Ahmaud Arbery. This time, the furor in the street made for a timeline of great singles rather than albums, from .Paak’s “Lockdown” to Alicia Keys’ “Perfect Way To Die” and SAULT’s “Wildfires.” Some of the artists of 2016’s renaissance have largely gone silent. D’Angelo is in the den again. So are Lamar, Ocean, Rihanna, and Solange. Beyoncé’s latest release, Black Is King, was as much a visual work as a musical one, about the beauty and elegance of African culture.

Time has only heightened the magnitude of the work these musicians have produced, which showcased the broad spectrum of Black culture and Black creative freedom. They portrayed our diversity, proving once more that we have rights to the same range of outward expression that others are afforded. The musical renaissance of 2016 wasn’t just a moment in Black history, it was a sea-changing event for American history overall. There’s no telling when these luminaries will return with their latest offerings, or what tone they’ll assume. But we can trust that the raw emotion of these five years will make for rich new works.

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