As the Black Lives Matter movement grows around the deaths of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, John Crawford, Akai Gurley—and as of last night, Antonio Martin—where are our favorite artists in this conversation? Where are the protest songs of 2014?
"I think a lot of it is just due to fear of being blackballed and not making a living," Questlove of The Roots told Billboard, referring to the backlash the Dixie Chicks faced in 2003, when Natalie Maines told an audience that the band was "ashamed" that President Bush was from Texas. "We were like, 'Man, if a white woman can lose her career in the United States for speaking up for what's right, then shit, we'll get the electric chair.' I think that was the bottom line. And that just really rendered America silent."
Even though America is all about free speech, The Tonight Show band member says it took awhile for musicians to get over that blacklisting. He does point to D'Angelo's new record Black Messiah as a mark of change, which includes "1,000 Deaths" and "The Charade" about police misconduct, killings and brutality both in America and other volatile places like Egypt. Elsewhere J.Cole released the emotional "Be Free" following the death of Brown and Alicia Keys dropped "We Gotta Pray" after Garner was killed. Ben Harper's opening his shows with a new song "Call It What It Is (Murder)" and Tom Morello has penned "Marching on Ferguson." Still, there's nothing like Public Enemy's "Fight the Power" or Neil Young's "Ohio," which he wrote for Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young after the American military killed four students at Kent State in 1970.
Society and art are inextricably linked and while there's always room for mindless music—we all have the right to turn off our brains sometimes—not everything can be thoughtless. If the purpose of art is to push us in new directions, what are we actually learning or gaining from Billboard's Hot 100 artists?
Ultimately, unless someone releases a resounding jam touching on America's social ills within the next week or so, we're closing out this turbulent 12 months without a song. Still, I have faith that all of this unrest will push someone out there to do great work, and I'm patient enough to await its introduction.
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