Black Lives Matter remains one of the most prominent news stories at present, as protests and marches continue across the globe. In the aftermath of the death of George Floyd, people around the world, from America to Australia, have come together in protest, calling out for proper recognition and reform of the systemic racism which permeates societies across the globe.
Music has always been political, and there is perhaps no greater example of this in the 21st century than its use during the ongoing Black Lives Matter protests. During these protests, music has become a commonplace tool to not only keep spirits lifted, but also to continually serve as a reminder of what people are protesting for.
For many, the presence of music at protests functions as a constant reminder as to why they are protesting, and who they are doing it for. Celebrating black art, and the people who create it, has allowed many to stay grounded and remain aware of what is really at stake as they take to the streets to make their voices heard. For generations, black people have been at the epicentre of artistic and creative movements, and music is a good way of reminding us of that very fact. As Dr. Jaime Jones, Ethnomusicologist at the UCD School of Music puts it, “black music permeates every aspect of popular music”, and consequently, permeates all of our lives, be it directly or indirectly.
When speaking to one student about the impact of music on their protest experience, they claimed that it gave them an “unwavering sense of certainty” of their belief in the ongoing protests. Artists such as Kendrick Lamar and Beyoncé have become integral players in popular culture over recent years, and people all across the world have been enjoying and celebrating their endeavours for over a decade. Having their works reappropriated in a context such as these protests brings the Black Lives Matter movement home for many people, reaffirming their commitment to the movement.
Not only can music amplify the purpose of the Black Lives Matter movement, but music in and of itself lends itself to the feeling of shared experience. “All human beings want to feel like they connect with other people, and music is good at doing that,” said Dr. Jones.
In a public space, music can be heard by most, if not all. As a result of this, people inherently feel brought together by the music, as everyone is aware that everyone is hearing and experiencing the same thing in that very moment as the music plays. As one student who attended the Black Lives Matter protests in Geneva, Switzerland puts it, having “a rhythm people can move to harmoniously” brings people together as they move/march together to the same beat, to the same song.
The presence of music at protests, be they related to the Black Lives Matter movement or otherwise, reinforces the idea that everyone at the protest is experiencing the same thing altogether, and therefore, are all in it together.
Whilst still popular, politically charged rap songs of old do not make up the entire canon of protest music anymore. Enter the late Pop Smoke and his smash hit ‘Dior’, which has quickly become a favourite for protestors to sing and dance to as they congregate in the streets. Whilst ‘Dior’ is a song all about success, riches, and designer goods, its allure to protestors is indicative of why music is so powerful at protests in the first place.
Music, like all art, is subject to interpretation, and this is part of why it brings so many people together. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, the late Pop Smoke’s ‘Dior’ has become immortalised, not as a simple banger about expensive clothes, but an almost anthem-like celebration of the black experience, and black success, and that has brought people together all around the world.
Speaking of the increased popularity of Beyoncé’s ‘Lemonade’ during the current protests, Dr. Jones argued that, while the content is not the same as classic protest albums such as Kendrick Lamar’s ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’ or Public Enemy’s ‘Fear of a Black Planet’, it is “just as powerful to the people that use those songs [during protests]”. As protestors worldwide interpret new songs in new ways, people are given more reasons to come out to the streets and feel more connected to the protestors around them than ever before.
It is no secret that the events which triggered these protests around the world are incredibly upsetting, and music has served as a tool to maintain spirits both inside and outside of a protest context. Classic songs like NWA’s ‘F*ck the Police’ as well as newer entries into the protest canon such as Kendrick Lamar’s ‘Alright’ enable people to put a slightly more positive spin on occurring events. It gives people a chance to celebrate black culture while they are out on the streets demanding basic social equalities for those same people – a task that no one wants to do, but inevitably people feel the need to.
A student who attended one of the many protests recently explained that the music created a more “enjoyable” atmosphere when waiting around in intervals during the protests. Protesting is anything but easy, and, for some, the experience is made significantly more bearable with the presence of music.
For many, music gives them a real added motivation to join the protests. For others, it’s a way of creating a sense of shared experience and connection with other people at these protests. We all consume music, be it directly or indirectly, and we all consume music created by black artists at one point or another. Those same artists make the protests a very real experience for many around the world for a multitude of reasons. Like in protests, black music has a very real impact on all of us, whether we are capable of recognising such a fact or not.
Nicolas Murphy – Reporter