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Five Black Artists on Making Music for the Movement

Musicians all over the world are responding to the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis with new songs calling out police brutality and entrenched systemic racism. These powerful protest anthems cross musical genres—from rap to country to classical—and are often deeply uncompromising, with blistering lyrics reflecting on this historic moment and demanding a more…

Musicians all over the world are responding to the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis with new songs calling out police brutality and entrenched systemic racism. These powerful protest anthems cross musical genres—from rap to country to classical—and are often deeply uncompromising, with blistering lyrics reflecting on this historic moment and demanding a more equitable and just future.

We spoke with five Black artists contributing to this new soundtrack of hope in America.

“I Can’t Breathe” by H.E.R.

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“‘I Can’t Breathe’ was inspired by a conversation with myself, and the conversation I think everyone is having [right now]. It was definitely a tough song to write and record. I’ve been feeling very overwhelmed and anxious with everything I’ve seen, just in the past few months. With everything going on in this country, and even in this world, as an artist, I have a responsibility to write about it and make people aware. Music heals, it teaches, and it sometimes creates change. That was and is the goal.”

“body cast” by Dua Saleh

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“I want [listeners] to pay attention to the words of Angela Whitehead [who confronted Montana cops entering her home without a warrant last year in a viral video] during the intro and outro. I also want people to hear the emotions in my flow and delivery. Words are obviously what I’m known for as a poet and songwriter, but I also think that the most cathartic part about [recording ‘body cast’] was the energy I brought into the flow.

When I wrote the song, I was still lamenting the death of Jamar Clark and Philando Castile, who were both murdered by police officers in Minnesota. The recent murder of George Floyd by the Minneapolis Police Department ignited an uprising in Minneapolis [where I’m from]. Everyone is mourning this beloved soul. I wanted to support my community through proceeds via Bandcamp. The community is leading direct actions, creating mutual aid funds, and setting infrastructure in place for each other.

Due to the even more recent murders of Oluwatoyin “Toyin” Salau and Kirvan Fortuin, I’ve decided to donate 100 percent of the proceeds from the song to Women for Political Change, a group that’s active in the community and has been redistributing funds to Black women, Black trans and non-binary people under the age of 30. I want to help those who are vulnerable, especially people at the front lines of protests and mobilizing around resistance.”

“Mr. Officer,” by Queen Naija and Tee Grizzley feat. members of the Detroit Youth Choir

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“The song came about when Tee Grizzley’s management hit my manager and asked me to do a hook on a song about police brutality. Tee is from Detroit, my hometown, so I thought it would be cool to collaborate together on a song about what’s going on in the world. I jumped on it immediately, because we are in a state of emergency and need to be heard in any way we can.

I hope that the people who are already affected can listen and continue to stay empathetic to the victims and their families, and use their voices and pain to help us overcome such a hard time. I also hope people who work in the justice system will hear our cry for help as they put themselves in our shoes. The message of the song is that we are tired, helpless, and exhausted of fighting for something that we should have had from birth: equality. We are now pleading with officers to just care and stop treating our people inhumanely.”

“Black Like Me” by Mickey Guyton

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“[This song] was inspired by the title of a book I read in college called ‘Black Like Me’ by John Howard Griffin. It was such a compelling story and I carried it in my heart. I was also inspired to write this song because of my own experiences as a Black woman and a Black woman in country music. It has not always been the easiest, to say the least. They say that country music is ‘three chords and the truth.’ This is my truth and I felt it needed to be written about.

I hope people [that listen to this song] can have a better understanding of what people of color have been going through all of our lives. Although this song is through my lens, there are many people that have had it way harder than I have. In order for things to change, we must first face and accept the problem. Once we do that, we can start taking steps to fix it. There’s so much hope in this song. We are all one and I believe with all my heart that we can coexist and love each other. No matter what color you are, we still bleed red.

The reason there are protests is because people feel unseen. I think music helps the unheard be seen and understood. It gives them a song to help express their pain and frustrations but in the same breath give them hope.”

“mama’s baby” by Orion Sun

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“I experienced police brutality while protesting in Philadelphia. I was injured pretty [badly], but I remember not grasping the reality of the situation, because I hear so many people confuse police brutality with police murder. Example: George Floyd. Neither is acceptable. [My mom] was worried crazy and heartbroken over what had happened to me. I saw then that what the police did wasn’t right, even when I made it out alive. When I shared my story with some video to accompany it, only then did it mobilize close friends of mine to break their silence and stand in solidarity with me.

I was processing a lot and this song sort of bled out of me. I’ve been in pain, physically and emotionally, but [after] completing this song, a wave of peace came over me. It was the first time my anxiety subsided in a long while, and I thought if this did that for me, then it might for other people. Even when people can look at the world burning and feel nothing because the fire hasn’t touched their skin, there are people feeling deeply and fighting in their own important way for the change that is inevitable.”

Staff Writer
Rose is a Staff Writer at ELLE.com covering culture, news, and women’s issues.

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