Last Wednesday, Wale visited Baltimore high schools to share a message of peace and positivity with the young people studying there. Rev. Jamal Bryant, the pastor who delivered Freddie Gray's eulogy, showed him around. Before heading into Frederick Douglass High School, Bryant explained why Wale was a more necessary voice than any other kind of community leader.
"What we're finding is that this is a new breed of leadership," he told Good Day DC. "Leadership for this generation is not an elected official or a title, but somebody who has influence. And Wale has proven himself to be a leader for the hip-hop generation."
He couldn't be more right — and it isn't just Wale. On his whirlwind tour, the rapper allegedly brought together local gang leaders and encouraged kids to see themselves as the future leaders they are. But he's just one example of how, during one of the most turbulent years in recent memory, musicians are helping to lead the way as a national social conscience. Musicians have been extraordinarily active in recent weeks, offering prayers, songs and rhetorical fuel to focus the movement. Music hasn't assumed such a powerful role in political culture in decades. And it's necessary.
Responding to the call. In December 2014, Questlove bemoaned the lack of protest music. "I urge and challenge musicians and artists alike to push themselves to be a voice of the times that we live in," he wrote on Instagram. He called for "new Dylans" and "De La Rochas," artists making music with some social and political import. "[And] when I say challenge I don't mean breathless race to the finish on who makes the more banging 'Fuck Tha Police' sequel. I mean real stories. Real narratives. Songs with spirit in them. Songs with solutions. Songs with questions."
Recently, musicians in hip-hop especially have done just that. J. Cole, Joey Bada$$, Lauryn Hill and Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello have all dedicated lyrics to dissecting police brutality and the inequalities present in our criminal justice system.
For J. Cole, this political angle was a bold new territory. "For the past four or five years of my career, I've always been very politically correct ... I don't want to offend nobody," Cole told Power 105's Angie Martinez about his protest song for Michael Brown, "Be Free." "But at the end of the day, I realized I'm doing myself a disservice and I'm doing people a disservice. If I'm speaking my mind and saying how I truly feel, I might say one thing that connects the dots for somebody that might have been the right connection that was needed to do something to change the world."
Protest music's big hit. This idea of the artist's responsibility to better their listeners also drove one the most widespread and critically-acclaimed releases of the year so far: Kendrick Lamar's record-shattering To Pimp a Butterfly.
"I remember you was conflicted, misusing your influence, sometimes I did the same," Lamar repeats throughout the album. The whole record narrates Lamar's journey of coming to terms with his influence and becoming comfortable as a cultural leader. Eventually he finds the message he wants to communicate: "The word was respect," he shares on "Mortal Man." "If I respect you, we unify and stop the enemy from killing us." Lamar's whole record was a deep reflection on what hip-hop music and culture owe to black culture; on the state of race in America and on the way our art can change it. And people responded to it forcefully.
Protest music's reigning king. Run the Jewels' Killer Mike recently attended the White House Correspondents' Dinner as a guest of Arianna Huffington, who also invited the rapper to write for the site. Killer Mike has been an outspoken leader through his music as well as through his brilliantly conceived op-eds regarding Ferguson, the racist treatment of hip-hop in our country's courts and, most recently, Baltimore. His latest video offered a nuanced portrait of race relations and police brutality in Run the Jewels' "Close Your Eyes (And Count To Fuck)," featuring Rage Against the Machine's Zack de la Rocha.
Run the Jewels avoided the simplistic, black and white reading of police brutality. "[N]early every director that sent us a treatment sent us something like 'Pressure,' my song with Ice Cube, or other videos we've done: anarchy in the streets and all that," Killer Mike wrote in his an op-ed for Billboard. "No — we need a video that shows the exhaustion that this situation causes, and this video ... does that."
Their depiction of this ongoing struggle is far more nuanced and resonant than most of the sensationalized reporting that major news networks were doing on the ground in Baltimore. Killer Mike's strong inclination toward the opposite kind of dialogue on Baltimore only revealed how genuinely engaged he is.
Shaping social media. Protest music isn't the only way for protesting musicians to get the word out. Increasingly, theirs have been the dominant voices on social media during our most stressful national moments. Other musicians have also done their part by helping guide the action and the conversation on Twitter. They've offered their fans and followers suggestions on how to take action and new ways to think about the facts being presented by media outlets and public officials. As 7 of the 10 most-followed Twitter accounts are musicians, it's clear these leaders' words hold weight.
Beyoncé Knowles, arguably the world's most influential pop star, used her social media platforms to drum up support for those hurting. She used her Instagram to encourage her 31.3 million followers to donate to the NAACP's cleanup and relief efforts in Baltimore.
It's clearer than ever that musicians have the platform to affect major social change. Increasingly, they're using it in unprecedented ways. Hopefully, when a musician writes a song or a tweet, they speak more directly to the people who need to hear from them, with greater urgency than a pundit or politician could muster. Because, for better or for worse, Baltimore's Rev. Bryant is right that those voices don't hold as much weight with young people as they once did.
Everyone needs more than rhetoric to encourage them to fight back against the status quo. They need something to lift the spirit. Music does that in a way few other forms of communication can. It has played a vital role in almost every nonviolent revolution, from the 1960s civil rights protests to the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. Whatever the scale of our own protest now, we need it as much as we ever have. The good news is, our musicians aren't letting us down.