Voices of the new movement

“What’s Going On” was personal and political for Olu of the hip-hop duo EarthGang.
“What’s Going On” was personal and political for Olu of the hip-hop duo EarthGang.

Credit: Ryan Fleisher

Credit: Ryan Fleisher

How Atlanta artists provided inspiration during a year fueled by civil unrest and protests

When southwest Atlanta native and EarthGang artist Olu released a cover of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” in July, he did so amid an outpouring of new releases from Black artists who were hoping to speak to this year’s ongoing racial reckoning. The musician, who was also honoring the anniversary of his father’s passing with the release, says he wanted to show that there are various emotions and reactions connected to an uprising. “Every reaction isn’t always anger or ‘let’s take to the streets.’ Those are valid actions but there are so many other reactions that people have to what’s happening around us and I wanted to reflect that also,” he says.

The story of Gaye’s “What’s Going On” has been well documented. A hit single, peaking at no. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1971, and an anthem that has maintained its relevance for the past five decades, the song’s history is a reminder of the impact popular musicians can have in times of civil unrest.

The cover was an obvious bridge between the social justice anthems of previous generations and the music that has become the de facto soundtrack to the Black Lives Matter movement today. Even beyond obvious homages such as Olu’s cover, historians, musicians and reporters say the links between the music of past and present are abundant. Whether releasing songs that speak to a particular social movement, or documenting the everyday realities of their lives, Black artists are constantly releasing music that is inherently political.

Protesters march down Peachtree Street on Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2020, after the ruling in the death of Breonna Taylor. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
Protesters march down Peachtree Street on Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2020, after the ruling in the death of Breonna Taylor. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer/Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer/Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Throughout history, Black Americans have been using song as a form of protest, from the Negro spirituals and folk songs that comforted the enslaved to the congregational singing of hymnals and other popular songs that had been adapted to convey the spirit of the civil rights movement.

Within popular culture, musicians such as Gil Scott-Heron, Sam Cooke, Nina Simone and Harry Belafonte also made songs that spoke to the civil unrest during that time. They didn’t stop with performing their songs, though. As Bernice Johnson Reagon, founding member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s (SNCC) Freedom Singers and southwest Georgia native, recalled to PBS, The Staple Singers toured with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and Mahalia Jackson organized fundraisers with the civil rights leader.

Amid the current social justice movement, popular artists are once again creating new protest records and participating in other forms of activism. Olu and other local artists like Usher and Janelle Monae are among those who released new music amid protests against police brutality this summer.

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Perhaps most notably, south Atlanta rapper Lil Baby released “The Bigger Picture” less than 24 hours before the police killing of Rayshard Brooks sparked protests in his hometown. The song, which opens with media clips from protests and reports about Floyd’s death, topped the Billboard Hot 100. Lil Baby eventually said he wasn’t interested in becoming an activist, but having one of the biggest rappers of the year secure a hit by candidly speaking about social justice issues was still significant.

Fighting the power

While there has been an uptick in the release of protest songs this year, they certainly aren’t the first songs of the Black Lives Matter movement. Founded following George Zimmerman’s 2013 acquittal in the killing of Trayvon Martin, the organization has aimed to fight for racial equality in America, focusing on issues such as police brutality toward the Black community. Amid the deaths of Martin and other Black people including Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Mike Brown and Philando Castile, a number of artists, including Kendrick Lamar and Beyonce, released songs that became rallying cries for Americans taking to the streets to protest.

Harvard professor Ingrid Monson is currently exploring this topic with students in a class titled Music in Motion and Social Justice. She says today’s artists tend to be in tune with the music from previous eras so much so that they often quote from or pay homage to past songs. “As artists, they’re very much aware of the history from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s,” she says.

A major difference from previous movement music and the music being released today, Monson adds, is the speed at which songs and videos can be released. Now, an artist like Lil Baby can film a music video at a protest and upload it to YouTube before the uprising has ceased. “I’ve been fascinated that people have put footage from the protests and are singing the songs with the slogans and the demands of the movement in the background,” she says.

Rapper Lil Baby released “The Bigger Picture” as the police killing of Rayshard Brooks sparked protests in Atlanta. The song, which opens with media clips from protests and reports about George Floyd’s death, topped the Billboard Hot 100.
Rapper Lil Baby released “The Bigger Picture” as the police killing of Rayshard Brooks sparked protests in Atlanta. The song, which opens with media clips from protests and reports about George Floyd’s death, topped the Billboard Hot 100.

Monson says artists have a bit more license to speak on controversial issues today, too. “I think the later artists have a little more freedom to be more confrontational without as much backlash as the outspoken ones received in the ’60s,” she says, referencing jazz musician Max Roach, who had trouble getting work after releasing the album “We Insist: Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite.” Nina Simone’s career also suffered after she released songs such as “Mississippi Goddam” and became increasingly outspoken about racial injustices.

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Atlanta-based NPR hip-hop reporter Rodney Carmichael says there are still risks for Black musicians today, though, even as genres such as hip-hop dominate popular music. “I think the stakes are always high when you’re Black in this country and you’re being vocal against the power structure.” A new podcast from NPR, “Louder Than a Riot,” takes a look at this by examining the link between hip-hop and mass incarceration. Carmichael said the title of the podcast is a nod to the famous quote from Martin Luther King Jr. that says, “a riot is the language of the unheard.” “To me, hip-hop has been representing the unheard since day one. It’s the soundtrack of the unheard,” Carmichael says, citing Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five’s “The Message” as an obvious example of this from the early ’80s.

The NPR host notes that, while “The Bigger Picture” might be the most overtly political song Lil Baby has released, it’s certainly not his first song to address social issues. “If you grew up trapping (selling drugs) and you’re rapping about that experience now, you better believe that a lot of political forces have shaped your life and your lack of opportunity in ways that trapping was such an alluring, and maybe even one of the few options that you felt like you had. That’s political,” Carmichael says. “In a city like Atlanta where we celebrate so much about what it means to be Black and the level of opportunity that we have, to represent that underbelly and the voiceless in a city like this, that’s political. Just because an artist doesn’t scream fight the power on the hook doesn’t mean that they’re not fighting the power.”

A young woman is pinned to the ground Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2020, as she is arrested by Georgia State Troopers in front of the Georgia State Capitol Building in Atlanta. Demonstrators received a three-minute warning before arrests took place. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
A young woman is pinned to the ground Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2020, as she is arrested by Georgia State Troopers in front of the Georgia State Capitol Building in Atlanta. Demonstrators received a three-minute warning before arrests took place. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer/ Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer/ Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Olu agrees, noting the political nature of hip-hop is extremely apparent in Atlanta, a city with strong civil rights roots and hip-hop artists like Goodie Mob who have long spoken on societal ills. “They call it protest music, but I just call it reality. I just call it music,” he says. “In so many ways, we aren’t allowed to show realness. The great artists find a way to do that (and) make it digestible, fun (and) entertaining like Marvin Gaye did.”

Civic duties

At the beginning of this year, Olu and his groupmate WowGr8 had been in a constant state of touring before COVID-19 brought the live music industry to a halt. Forced to sit still, the group reconnected with their friends and fellow musicians to make an album that could speak to the present moment. Spillage Village, composed of EarthGang, J.I.D., Mereba, Hollywood JB, Jurdan Bryant and Benji, released “Spilligion,” after social distancing inside an Atlanta house together for two months. The album featured songs such as “End of Daze,” which nodded to the uncertainty of the current year and was part of the playlist for activists as they organized and strategized. WowGr8 says he sees the release of music that documents these moments as “a part of the job description, even if it’s not to explicitly tell people how to live, but to be the soundtrack and the memory capsule for when people remember these moments later.”

EarthGang has also been involved politically, which isn’t uncommon for the city’s rap stars. Ahead of this year’s presidential election, the rappers joined Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms on Instagram Live to talk about the importance of voting and the needs of Black entrepreneurs in underserved areas of Atlanta. Migos rapper Offset held a similar Instagram Live with voting rights activist and former state lawmaker Stacey Abrams before visiting polling locations to hand out food to voters on Election Day. In June, rappers T.I. and Killer Mike joined Bottoms for a press conference amid riots and looting throughout Atlanta in hopes of quelling the unrest. That same month, Mike released the politically charged album “RTJ4” alongside Run the Jewels partner and producer El-P. The album quickly became a part of the background sound of protests throughout the country.

Killer Mike, T.I. and PAWkids founder and Executive Director LaTonya Gates pose for photos during a food distribution event Wednesday afternoon May 6, 2020 on Donald Lee Hollowell Parkway. Every Wednesday and Friday, PAWkids distributes 500 meals donated by Mercedes-Benz. (Ben@BenGray.com for theAJC)
Killer Mike, T.I. and PAWkids founder and Executive Director LaTonya Gates pose for photos during a food distribution event Wednesday afternoon May 6, 2020 on Donald Lee Hollowell Parkway. Every Wednesday and Friday, PAWkids distributes 500 meals donated by Mercedes-Benz. (Ben@BenGray.com for theAJC)

Credit: Ben@bengray.com

Credit: Ben@bengray.com

The rapper, who says he’s been working as an organizer for the past 30 years, says the response to the album especially meant a lot to him. “As a musician, to make a record that people use as the soundtrack to their struggle is a humbling thing, but to have been an organizer, I know what Rage Against the Machine’s music did for me as an organizer," Mike said. “I know what Dead Presidents' music did for me. It didn’t only sound good, it helped me get through the organizational process. It encouraged me that what I was doing was right.”

Still, both T.I. and Killer Mike received criticism from some fans for standing alongside Bottoms in June, which only increased after Mike, who has become known for his progressive activism, met with Gov. Brian Kemp in September. At that meeting they discussed Kemp’s efforts to crack down on sex trafficking and Mike’s push to increase minority participation in state contracts, the AJC reported at the time.

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Mike says he views both encounters as parts of his civic duty. “Before I’m a rapper, before I’m a person of fame and influence, I’m a citizen of the country, I’m a constituent of that governor and I’m a constituent for and supporter of my mayor ... I have an opinion about what happens to my tax dollars. I have an opinion about what’s fair and (equitable) in my community,” Mike says about the backlash. “There’s no way in the world you’re going to get me to shut up about Atlanta politics, Georgia politics or the United States.”

Regardless of the backlash, “RTJ4,” which was recorded in 2019, featured songs such as “Walking in the Snow” that seemed to perfectly fit the moment when the album was released in June. “I’ve had similar messages for damn near a 20-year rap career, but now everyone is listening at the exact same time,” he says. “That’s a very powerful position to be in as an artist, and I take the responsibility of it very seriously.”

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