Making Black history: Modern musicians use song as platform for change

Illustration by Marisa Stratton

Annie Phan, Contributing Writer

As social activism spans from demonstrations and sit-ins to online petitions, Black musicians are turning to lyrics and recording studios to bring awareness to social and racial injustices. 

Drawing inspiration from observations and personal experiences, here are five songs by Black artists that touch on the social and political issues affecting Black communities. 

“Blue Lights” by Jorja Smith (2016) 

English R&B artist Jorja Smith released her debut single “Blue Lights” on SoundCloud in 2016, and the singer’s following increased after the song was featured on rapper Drake’s “OVO Sound” radio show. Smith collaborated with Drake in 2017 on “Get It Together” before releasing her debut album, “Lost & Found,” in 2018 to critical acclaim. The album includes “Blue Lights,” which discusses police brutality against the Black community.  

The song’s title refers to flashing lights on police cars and explores the anxiety-triggering emotions Black individuals face during police encounters. Throughout the song, Smith serenely sings in the chorus, “There’s no need to run/ If you’ve done nothing wrong/ Blue lights should just pass you by.” 

However, there is a drastic change in tone in the bridge toward the end of the song, signaling the problematic history between Black communities and law enforcement. Smith sings, “Better run when you hear the sirens coming/ When you hear the sirens coming/ The blue lights are coming for you.” 

“Peng Black Girls” by ENNY and Amia Brave (2020) 

To capture the strength of the Black women in her life, Nigerian English rapper ENNY collaborated with fellow English artist Amia Brave to compose an anthem to uplift Black women by promoting self-acceptance and encouraging them to rise above societal pressures. 

The soulful duet between the rapper and singer breaks down negative stereotypes surrounding Black women and explores the multidimensional issues Black women face such as colorism, body shaming and lack of accurate representation in the media.

ENNY introduces the song’s message with, “Thick lips, got hips some of us don’t/ Big nose contour, some of us won’t/ Never wanna put us in the media, bro.” 

“Peng Black Girls” refers to the physical diversity of the Black female community and speaks on how mainstream beauty standards glorify Black physical features, such as full lips and lifted butts, but do not embrace dark complexions. 

“Brackets” by J. Cole (2018)

J. Cole has gained recognition as a rapper who often speaks on the injustices that young Black Americans face while growing up in the U.S. In “Brackets,” Cole criticizes one-sided American education and the lack of funding for predominantly Black schools. 

Cole raps, “And the curriculum be tricking them, them dollars I spend/ Got us learning about the heroes with the whitest of skin/ One thing about the men that’s controlling the pen/ That write history, they always seem to white-out they sins.”

The theme of control and the symbol of writing reflected throughout the song speak to the glorification of U.S. history and ignorance toward the harsh treatment of people of color through the education system. 

“Becky” by Aminé (2020)

This Ethiopian American rapper explores the nuances of being in an interracial relationship with a white woman in his song, “Becky.” Having to explain his unique experiences as a Black man to his significant other, Aminé expresses his frustration from having to deal with societal judgement surrounding interracial relationships.  

In the chorus, Aminé echoes, “I’m fed up with the looks that we get in restaurants/ And no, it’s not a law, but you know we ain’t the same/ I’m fed up with a world that I know I can’t change.”

Although laws have been passed to allow interracial relationships, Aminé speaks on how society shuns his relationship and how judgement affects their ability to grow as a couple. Wishing he could be with his significant other without facing discrimination, Aminé’s frustration with societal pressures exhausts him.

“XXX” by Kendrick Lamar, featuring U2 (2017)

Kendrick Lamar has become a household name with his strong messages conveyed through eloquent lyrics. In 2018, the Compton-born rapper became the first Pulitzer Prize for Music recipient outside of the classical or jazz music genres. Capturing the complexity of Black life, Lamar released his fourth album, “Damn,” in 2017. One song in particular, “XXX,” features Irish rock band U2 and touches on gun violence and disproportional mass incarceration rates in Black communities.

In the second verse, Lamar raps, “You overnight the big rifles, then tell Fox to be scared of us/ Gang members or terrorists, et cetera, et cetera/ America’s reflections of me, that’s what a mirror does.” 

The song criticizes the hypocrisy of American politicians and media portraying Black people as violent, while citing the U.S. government’s role in drug and gang violence in vulnerable Black communities. Between the war on drugs and mass incarceration, this perception of Black Americans is skewed. 

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