Last week, Questlove of the legendary Roots crew posted a plea on his Instagram page: “I urge and challenge musicians and artists alike to push themselves to be a voice of the times that we live in…We need new Dylans. New Public Enemys. New Simones. New De La Roachas. New ideas!”
The events of the past five months, beginning with the deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of police officers in Ferguson and Staten Island, have sparked a new era of nation-wide protests against racial inequality. Just as the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s had a soundtrack to accompany it and sustain it, so too does this new movement need chants and anthems befitting its unique circumstances.
Thankfully, many artists have already begun answering Questlove’s call. Starting in August shortly after Michael Brown was killed, new music inspired by the movement has been appearing with increasing frequency. In the few days after Questlove’s post, new songs by major artists—including De La Soul and Chuck D, Killer Mike, Wu-Tang Clan, Alicia Keys, and Common and John Legend, arrived on the Internet. Befitting their creative genius, these artists’ responses have differed in tone and content. Wu-Tang Clan used clips from protests around the country in its video for “A Better Tomorrow.” Keys, who despite being nine months pregnant has said she would be out in the streets protesting, released a spare, contemplative arrangement entitled “We Gotta Pray.”
Common and John Legend, collaborating for the soundtrack of the upcoming Martin Luther King biopic Selma, produced the anthem “Glory,” with the backing of a full gospel choir. For anyone who disputes the connection between Dr. King’s struggle against Jim Crow and the newly-christened Black Lives Matter movement, Common makes the case frankly and boldly: “That’s why Rosa sat on the bus/That’s why we walk through Ferguson with our hands up.” Selma and Ferguson are not isolated, unconnected events; they are coordinated cries for justice separated by a half-century of toil and struggle.
While the musical response has been particularly strong in the wake of the non-indictments of Mike Brown and Eric Garner’s killers, there were also artists who made artistic and political statements far earlier. Tef Poe, a local St. Louis rapper, has been one of the main protest organizers while also releasing topical music. Talib Kweli came to St. Louis in October to do a fundraiser concert for Ferguson protest efforts. And J. Cole, who came to Ferguson in the earliest days of the protests, released the Ferguson-focused “Be Free” on his new album, Forest Hills Drive.
A true movement must mobilize all available media to further its cause, and music can be influential in ways that traditional street protests or government commissions cannot be. #Ferguson has spread to cities around the nation and the world. Musicians have an audience that is already listening, eager for a nourishing, inspiring rallying cry. With a little more cajoling from Questlove, they just might rise to the occasion.