As the country marches to the twilight of 2016, an already dreary year is hit with a storm that puts Hurricane Matthew to shame. The fog of discordant hatred ushered in by Donald Trump's election to the presidency of the United States seems like an appropriate stamp on 11 months marred by unchecked police shootings of unarmed black men and women, continued mass incarceration of people of color, and abnormally abundant deaths of celebrated icons (Prince, Maurice White and Muhammad Ali among them).
But as time has proved over and over, black musicians refuse to allow social turmoil to go undiagnosed. From Beyoncé's unleashing of "Formation," Michael Kiwanuka's "Black Man in a White World" and Solange Knowles' A Seat at the Table, our artists have, one by one, begun to call out the prejudices of society while also celebrating their blackness. As our people continue to emerge from the matrix known as the "post-racial" era, music serves as the scripture to draw knowledge from. Thus, 2016 is without a doubt a watershed year for black social music and rallying cries for the woke.
Black musicians have always been an X-ray of the psyche of American life. From Marvin Gaye's beautifully bleak "Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)” (1971), right up to the head-nodding righteous indignation of De La Soul's "Stakes Is High” (1996), artists have been reacting forever to the systematic attacks on African Americans. However, the gaudy bliss of "shiny-suit-era" rap signaled unprecedented financial upticks and assimilation for black people. The music reflected that change, later transitioning to the "bling-bling" days and soon moving to gangsta rap's offspring. The frantic and broody trap music exacerbated a culture of drug dealing and debauchery. Without definitive social flashpoints—e.g., the Rodney King beating—to react to, matched with societal indifference and loudening post-racial rhetoric, conscious black music entered a dark age.
With the 2012 death of Trayvon Martin, the black community went into a period of outrage that only intensified with the deaths of Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice and countless others, not to mention the ongoing contaminated-water crisis in Flint, Mich. As always, such social upheaval forced the hands of our most creative people, and slowly, artists like D'Angelo and Kendrick Lamar began to make bold statements with their music, striking a nerve and winning awards along the way. Soon, people like Gary Clark Jr. and Janelle Monáe began to follow suit, often combining musical protests with physical protests.
At the top of 2016, Beyoncé shocked fans and critics with the sudden release of "Formation," a song and video in which the superstar singer flaunted her "Negro nose and Jackson 5 nostrils" while visually jabbing at the government's slow reaction to Hurricane Katrina victims in New Orleans. When she performed it at the Super Bowl halftime show in February in black military garb (influenced by Michael Jackson), over 100 million people saw black female dancers pay homage to the Black Panthers while moving into an "X" formation. Once the biggest star of them all was compelled to wear her heritage on her sleeve, a flood of unapologetic blackness and political commentary sprang forth.
Just one week after the Super Bowl, Kendrick Lamar's showstopping Grammy performance blurred the lines between mass incarceration, African heritage and exacting retribution on our murderous oppressors. It was an eye-opening illustration that reminded all watching that you can "trap our bodies, but can't trap our minds!" This exclamation point on Lamar's 2015 To Pimp a Butterfly album was an inspiring agent for fellow rappers.
MCs you'd never expect to hear political statements from began contributing to the cause. Roc Nation artist Vic Mensa has provided a trifecta of social songs: "16 Shots," a vengeful reaction to the police shooting of Laquan McDonald; "Shades of Blue," an indictment of the shameful water crisis in Flint; and "Free Love," a pledge of solidarity and understanding for the LGBTQ community.
West Coast rapper YG also took a reprieve from rhyming about life as a Blood to lash out at the unforgivable racist hyperbole of the now president-elect with "FDT” (an acronym for “F—k Donald Trump”). Schoolboy Q took a page from labelmate Lamar on his verse for "That Part (Black Hippy Remix)," damning those who taped the murder of Alton Sterling instead of helping him, and speaking to the hypocrisy of inner-city citizens allowing black-on-black crime to persist while police officers killed without consequence.
The bravery of these artists' decisions can't be overstated. Sadly, it's rare for an artist, black or white, to make any kind of political statement without receiving backlash from critics, labels and fans alike. For instance, police departments threatened a Beyoncé boycott after "Formation" was released. It's a testament to the performers that they feel compelled to stop sweeping injustice under the rug, no matter what it might cost them.
Rapper T.I. made himself and his label millions by glorifying drugs and promiscuity, but this fall he put his conscience above his reputation and dropped the EP Us or Else—six explosive tracks declaring that black Americans shall no longer allow disrespect, violence and systemic oppression. His video for "Warzone" reverses roles, reimagining the killings of Eric Garner and Tamir Rice as involving black cops and white victims. It's one of the most blatantly defiant musical declarations in years.
Perhaps no other artist in 2016 has captured the aesthetic of the woke better than Solange. Her album A Seat at the Table was full of affirmations of cultural ownership, and songs like "Don't Touch My Hair" and "F.U.B.U." served as a warning to potential appropriators of said culture: "Don't be mad if you can't sing along/Just be glad you got the whole wide world/This us/Some [s—t] you can't touch." With such seething, timely lyrical commentary over timelessly soulful instrumentation, Solange, who was seemingly stuck in her sister's shadow, has become a new leader of the zeitgeist, and her album debuted at No. 1.
It's fate that the year is closing with music that beams with a message of change. The always conscious rap legends Common and A Tribe Called Quest dropped their most definitively and most angry political music yet via Black America Again and We Got it From Here … Thank You 4 Your Service, respectively. Each album evokes the need to embrace spirituality, enlightenment and accountability in an effort to endure. Tribe's "We the People … " abhors the divisive tactics designed to place minorities back into subservient positions. Common's "Black America Again" is a call to action for us to start "rewriting the black American story."
Profound, considering how long black artists have been giving us a melodic textbook of American history. And as the future of this country appears uncertain at best and miserable at worst, we can now confidently look to our musicians, singers and MCs for reflection, guidance and solace.
Matthew Allen is a music journalist and television producer based in New York City. His work can be found in Ebony, Jet, the Village Voice, Red Bull Music Academy, Revive Music and Wax Poetics magazine.