Although Memphis musicians have been creating some variation of protest music since at least the 1920s, the turmoil and unrest of the past few years has proven to be an evergreen source of inspiration for local artists of all stripes. From the 2016 election to the emergence of Black Lives Matter to the uprisings in the wake of the death of George Floyd, Memphis artists have released a barrage of powerful songs that speak directly to our current political and societal moment. Below are ten songs that prove that the tradition of protest music is alive and well in the Bluff City.
“Breathing While Black” MonoNeon
“I wrote “Breathing While Black” immediately after seeing the video of George Floyd’s murder… While the song came from being saddened by George’s murder, the song is for every black man and woman who has dealt with police brutality,” MonoNeon recently told the Memphis Flyer. While the bass virtuoso is largely known for releasing songs that are as humorous as they are innovative, “Breathing While Black” stands as a powerful testament to the fear that permeates the Black community in 2020.
“Might Not Be OK” Kenneth Whalum Ft. Big K.R.I.T.
Written as a direct response to the death of Alton Sterling in 2016, Kenneth Whalum’s “Might Not Be OK” is a jarring and urgent call to action. Featuring a scorching guest verse from Mississippi rapper Big K.R.I.T., Whalum’s track stands in direct opposition to Kendrick Lamar’s hopeful protest anthem “Alright,” suggesting that things might not turn out for the better after all. “Writing that verse, recording that verse, and even listening to that song is not the easiest thing to do,” Big K.R.I.T. later admitted. Bleak? Yes. Necessary? Absolutely.
“Dem a Callin’ (Flodgin)” Chinese Connection Dub Embassy Ft. Webbstar
For Memphis reggae group CCDE, protest and liberation are at the very core of their music and mission. For years, the group has been releasing music that may appear breezy and celebratory upon first listen, but that ultimately serves as a righteous weapon against racism, discrimination, and other societal ills. “Dem a Callin’ (Flodgin),” which was written and released amidst this summer’s historical protests, is one of the group’s most striking offerings yet.
“Aww Hell, Amerikkka” The Poet, Havi Ft. Rico Fields
“My friend and producer Jay Particular was telling me about a Bob Dylan song called ‘Political World’ where Dylan was really calling back to his old form of protest music. I listened to the track and it lit a fire in me to try and touch on the political world that we’re living in today,” hip-hop artist The Poet, Havi said about his inspiration for creating the blazing “Aww Hell, Amerikkka.” “Rico (Fields) of Negro Terror has been a friend for years, even before we were both doing the projects that we’re involved in now, so I was able to call in the favor and have him add some killer guitar solos to capture the urgency of the lyrics.” The result is a discombobulating mixture of distorted vocals, thumping bass, and fuzzy guitar riffs that feel a lot like living in America in 2020.
“Don’t Shoot” Jordan Occasionally
R&B artist and community organizer Jordan Occasionally’s music is unquestionably some of the most vital and empathetic to come out of Memphis in recent history, speaking directly to the unique struggles faced by Black, LGBTQ+, and non-binary folks. “I was moved to write ‘Don’t Shoot’ when I heard of Sandra Bland’s passing, as well as the 65,000 Black and Latino young girls that went missing in Washington, DC that year,” she told me. “I am not positive that I really wrote the song, rather I turned on my voice recorder and started to sing a prayer or a hymn to myself that I was making up as I go. The words for ‘Don’t Shoot’ stem from a rooted space of anxiety, knowing that I could have been a young or old Black person and my life could feel like it didn’t matter to those that were supposed to protect me. I wanted to speak to that, and I’m grateful that I did.”
“Beat the Machine” Andrew Geraci
Already a well-established bassist, Andre Geraci seems primed to become a notable singer-songwriter in his own right with his debut single “Beat the Machine.” “When the news of George Floyd’s death hit, that started to occupy my energy. It’s all I could think about, how he was wronged and unjustly taken from us by those police officers,” he told me. “I started to focus my time and energy into music, something central in my life. I then started to think about John Henry, the man and legend. There are many stories and many different ballads and songs about him, but one thing is a constant in all of them. He died while trying to beat a steam drill digging a hole in a mountain so the railroad company could lay railroad tracks. As the story goes, he did beat the machine, but it cost him his life. Reveled as a larger than life man, I drew parallels between him and Floyd.” Geraci also used the song to give back to the community in a more direct way, donating nearly $1,000 in proceeds to the Stax Academy.
“Take ‘Em Down” John Paul Keith
Like many Memphians, Americana artist John Paul Keith was inspired by the 2017 movement that saw the removal of statues of Nathan Bedford Forrest and Jefferson Davis from our city’s parks. As similar statues were felled around the country this summer, he was stirred to write the simple yet effective tune “Take ‘Em Down,” which is a celebration of the revolutionary spirit that gripped the nation.
“Change” Mavis Staples
Since the mid-1960s, Mavis Staples has been at the forefront of what she calls “freedom songs,” music with an undeniable political message. As a member of the iconic family band the Staple Singers, Staples released numerous songs on Stax Records that became anthems of the Civil Rights Movement, such as “When Will We Be Paid?,” “Long Walk to D.C.,” and “We The People.” Now in her 80s, the legendary soul singer continues to release music with a political message, including the stand-out “Change” from her 2019 album We Get By. Earlier this year, Staples was also notably featured on the song “Pulling the Pin” from the political hip-hop duo Run the Jewels.
“Rational Actor” Nots
Since their inception in the early 2010s, Memphis’ all-female post-punk band Nots has never shied away from tackling political issues, especially those that directly affect women. “Everything I do or write about is going to have a feminist perspective, because I am a feminist, so it comes out in the work that I do and the art that I make,” frontwoman Natalie Hoffmann said in 2016. Although their most recent album 3 has plenty of songs told from the feminist perspective, it’s also a lamentation on America’s surveillance state and our increasing dependency on technology. “Everything handed to an empty screen/A distracted sea/An elusive dream,” Hoffman sings with righteous anger on “Rational Actor.”
“Hella F*ckin’ Trauma (Enough Is Enough)” Juicy J
For long-time fans of Juicy J and Three 6 Mafia, the song “Hella F*ckin’ Trauma (Enough Is Enough)” probably came as a bit of a shock. While the hip-hop star boasts an enormous catalogue of songs, never has he been as overtly political as he is on his newest single, which rails against police violence, the carceral system, and record labels. While the song’s production is vintage Three 6 Mafia, sampling from the group’s 1999 track “Time for Da Juice Mane,” its message is unmistakably ripped from the headlines of 2020. “When they gon’ stop killin’ n—as man? Enough is enough/ Why they lock up all the real ones man? Enough is enough…”