It’s been more than half a century since Americans have taken to the streets as they’re doing now to demand justice and express solidarity with fellow citizens. There have been mass protests since then, of course, many provoked by incidents all too similar to George Floyd’s murder, but not in such numbers or with similarly sustained frequency, and certainly not during a global pandemic.
Artists responded then as they do now: with songs giving voice to seemingly limitless anger and grief. Many of those songs, born amid the civil rights and anti-war and anti-poverty movements of the 1960s and early 1970s, are still called into action: Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth (Stop, Hey What’s That Sound),” Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come,” Aretha Franklin’s cover of Otis Redding’s “Respect,” Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready,” Bob Marley’s “Get Up, Stand Up,” and the Staple Singers’ “Why (Am I Treated So Bad),” to name just a few.
As demonstrations continue protesting police brutality and the murder of George Floyd — and Ahmaud Arbery, and Rayshard Brooks, and Breonna Taylor, and a bloody roster of others too numerous to name — it is far too early to say which songs will endure as honest documents of our time. But alongside 12-year-old Keedron Bryant’s viral a cappella plea “I Just Wanna Live” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UIuSLBX74Ac) others are emerging that capture the sharp edge of this surreal moment while carrying echoes of the past.
Leon Bridges and Terrace Martin’s anti-racism song “Sweeter” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=35AWgksymtA), initially intended for release on an album, conveys the conflict of the moment through contrasts. The tension between light tones against heavy beats, between Bridges’ pensive vocal and the brooding rhythm, reflects the combustible uneasiness of everyday life, though subtly harmonious saxophone and keyboard lines point toward hope. “I thought we moved on from the darker days/ Did the words of the King disappear in the air/ Like a butterfly?/ Somebody should hand you a felony/ Because you stole from me/ My chance to be.”
Pasadena-raised troubadour Chris Pierce just released a lyric video for his recording of Stevie Wonder’s irrepressibly funky 1974 hit “You Haven’t Done Nothin’” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pn7bqPEpT2k), from Wonder’s album “Fulfillingness’ First Finale.” Pierce included the song in his 2017 collection of soul covers “You’ve Got to Feel It!” on which he’s backed by the Swampers, the Muscle Shoals Horns, and the Shoals Sisters — estimable company in any situation, and particularly for a song whose message remains distressingly relevant: “It’s not too cool to be ridiculed/ But you brought this upon yourself/ The world is tired of pacifiers/ We want the truth and nothing else.”
The sweetness of actor and vocalist Trey Songz’s limber tenor lends itself to romantic balladry, but with “2020 Riots: How Many Times” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DWZkjXCU-ds) demands answers to the essential, human questions: “How many mothers have to cry/ How many brothers gotta die/ … How many more marches/ How many more signs/ How many more lives/ How many more times?” The gospel-rooted, anthemic quality of the song speaks to the forward-looking determination of protesters who continue to refuse to accept the unacceptable, reinforced by harmonies that expand the song from the personal to the communal, inviting more voices to join the call.