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Top Ten Protest Albums Of 2019 (So Far)

*The following is a collection of some of the best albums of protest music released in 2019 (so far). They were selected by Kevin Gosztola and C.J. Baker, who publishes writing regularly at Ongoing History Of Protest Songs. They are in alphabetical order by artist.

Kishi Bashi — Omoiyari

The Japanese word “Omoiyari” involves universal concepts of compassion and empathy.

Kishi Bashi explores these concepts on his brilliant concept album built around the true-life experiences of Japanese Americans who were placed in internment camps during World War II. It is rooted in history and draws parallels with the anti-immigration policy of President Donald Trump’s administration.

On the album’s Bandcamp page, Bashi explains how the current political climate contributed to
the creative process. “I was shocked when I saw white supremacy really starting to show its teeth again in America. My parents are immigrants. They came to the United States from Japan post–World War II. As a minority, I felt very insecure for the first time in my adult life in this country. I think that was the real trigger for this project.”

Bashi’s deep-rooted personal connection elevate the songs beyond dry recollections of history. The tunes resonate because of the sad reality that current events mirror disturbing instances of past xenophobia. In the face of hate toward minorities, Bashi’s music attempts to build empathy and challenge that dynamic.

(C.J. Baker)

Evan Greer — she/her/they/them

Because Evan Greer’s main focus is her activism,  her music pursuits have taken a backseat. But thankfully she decided to release her first studio album in over a decade.

The album, which is named after her chosen pronouns, is a potent collection of political folk-punk gems. Each song contains stirring messages of anti-fascism, anti-conformity, anti-capitalism and anti-police brutality. It also eloquently addresses the issue of gender identity and the challenges of
being queer in America.

The album was co-produced by fellow singer-songwriter and activist Taina Asili. Asili lends her vocals to the gorgeous track “Ya Estamos.” The bilingual English-Spanish tune translates to “we’re all ready,” and it’s a galvanizing anthem of defiance in the face of adversity.

The album is deeply rooted in the spirit of activism. That spirit is well expressed in the anthemic track, “Last iPhone.” The lyric “When the last iPhone dies, we’ll sing we’ll harmonize. We’ll fight and we’ll survive this one.” It captures the important role music plays in rallying activists, and Greer is a vital composer of music that forms the soundtrack for modern protest movements.

(C.J. Baker)

Tracy Howe – Things That Grow

Bearing witness to neocolonial poverty and violence while acknowledging the resilience of the human spirit, Tracy Howe creates social gospel music inspired by collective struggles for liberation in the United States and throughout Latin America.

“Things That Grow,” was recorded with several musicians in Memphis, and the title track is about choosing to build a world in which we want to live.

She righteously confronts the environmental injustice of natural gas fracking with “Frack Me.” “When I sing that song, I see really dark things in my head, and they’re things that have already happened. It’s not like I’m looking at a future apocalypse,” Howe shared.

“Bury Me,” was inspired by the protest ritual of saying the names of people killed by state violence. “Bury me in the struggle for freedom, in the arms of those who know my name. Cover me in love as the struggle it goes on. Say my name ‘til something beautiful is born.” Her time in Ferguson, when she engaged in solidarity work with the movement for black lives, inspired the song.

The artwork on the album speaks to injustice at the U.S.-Mexico border, and the theme of renewing, seeding, and growing represents a promise, particularly to children. She recognizes the horrific violence done to children in our name and how we owe it to up-and-coming generations to be so much better as human beings.

(Kevin Gosztola)

Last Poets – Transcending Toxic Times

The Last Poets have been rapping about injustice and oppression for 50 years. In the era of President Donald Trump, their sharp truths confront the resurgence of hate while agitating for liberation that can transcend the racism.

“Toxic Times” outlines America’s deepening descent into a dystopian abyss. “These are toxic times shrouded by a veil of chemical waste.” They survey the destruction caused by climate disruption and make yet another appeal for revolution.

For “If We Only Knew What We Could Do,” one of the few tracks where they sing the lyrics, they counter feelings of powerlessness. “If the light was on in our minds, we wouldn’t dis ourselves so much all the time.” They add, “We’ve got the power to change what’s before our eyes.”

But it is the sprawling second track, “For the Millions,” that takes note of the history of slavery and racial oppression and those who overcame, which is the album’s masterpiece. Over a funky rhythm, with repetition, it recalls the freedom fighters and revolutionaries who struggled for justice. It lays out those who have sacrificed and why we cannot give up on creating a just world.

(Kevin Gosztola)

Damon Locks/Black Monument Ensemble – Where Future Unfolds

Recorded at the Garfield Park Botanical Conservatory in Chicago, “Where Future Unfolds” is a gorgeous and sweeping live performance of avant-garde jazz and gospel music for black liberation.

The Black Monument Ensemble features Angel Bat Dawid on clarinet, Dana Hall on drums, percussionist Arif Smith, and alumni from the Chicago Children’s Choir. Samples from civil rights speeches are worked into the compositions. The performance included a dance troupe too.

On “Sounds Like Now,” the ensemble sings about how the more things change, the more things stay the same. “Every morning there’s more talk of murder. Every morning at least one less alive.” It is the same lies. “Movie show apocalypse. We’re living through the sequel.”

That pain runs throughout the entire project, but the album progresses into songs of black affirmation and self-determination. On “Rebuild a Nation,” Rayna Golding sings, “I can rebuild a nation no longer working out.” The finale “From A Spark To a Fire” speaks to all the potential that lies within those who society constantly seeks to disempower.

Locks was driven to produce the project by his work as an art teacher at the Stateville prison in Illinois and research he conducted on the criminal justice system after Michael Brown was murdered by a white police officer. He drew inspiration from the framework of music by Sun Ra Arkestra and the Freedom Singers, “the latter of which was a big musical draw at civil rights rallies,” something that could speak to these toxic times.

Both lyrically and musically, its grassroots energy shakes you to the core.

(Kevin Gosztola)

Our Native Daughters – Songs Of Our Native Daughters

Rhiannon Giddens is not only a talented musician and singer, but she also plays an essential role
as a historian and music archivist. As a solo artist and member of acclaimed roots group Carolina Chocolate Drops, she has effectively taken a fresh approach to preserving past music
traditions.

She continues that trend with Our Native Daughters, a roots music supergroup, which
features Leyla McCalla (former member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops), Amythyst Kiah,
and Allison Russell (Po’ Girl and Birds of Chicago).

Thematically, the album shares similarities with Giddens’ excellent 2017 album “Songs of Freedom” which dealt heavily with slavery and the civil rights movement. This time around
the subjects are explored from the perspective of black women. The tracks address the racism
and sexism their maternal ancestors faced.

The tunes are mostly original, with all four members contributing their songwriting talents. One
of the exceptions is a powerful reworked cover of Bob Marley’s “Slave Driver.”

“Barbados”  features lyrical contributions from the poem “Pity Poor Africans” by 18th Century poet William Cowper and a modern update by Dirk Powell. The tune highlights the commercial motivation behind slavery and how the modern-day exploitation of child and prison labor is driven by greed.

So much of the political climate is a result of a failure to learn from history. Instead of whitewashing past transgressions, Our Native Daughters provides timely lessons to help us move onward.

(C.J. Baker)

Snotty Nose Rez Kids – Trapline

The third album by the Canadian indigenous rap duo sees them exploring a new sound which
they refer to as “indigenous trap” music. Even though the banging trap beats may represent a more mainstream hip-hop sound, the lyrics contain hard-hitting political statements.

Just like their previous albums, the tracks address environmental concerns and Canada’s abysmal track record dealing with Native communities, and several songs aim to lift up women.

Quinton “Yung Trybez” Nyce’s mother narrates the album’s opening skit. Darren “Young D” Metz’s grandmother appears on another skit. Multiple female artists make appearances including Tanya Tagaq, Kimmortal, Cartel Madras and The Sorority. The chorus of “Son of a Matriarch” features the potent line “Son of, son of matriarch. Son of, fuck all that patriarch.”

Altogether, the duo marries a celebratory vibe with a spirit of defiance, creating an array of anthems that speak up for those getting by on the margins of society.

(C.J. Baker)

Mavis Staples – We Get By

Start with the album cover, featuring the 1956 Gordon Parks photo of six black children looking through the fence of a whites-only park. Given Trump was elected with the slogan, “Make America Great Again,” it reflects the era in which so many white Americans would like to return. It also represents the exclusion that has made black people feel like they are unwanted in this country.

For “We Get By,” soul music legend Mavis Staples collaborates with Ben Harper to sing messages of hope and salvation in a darkening and increasingly cruel world, as she’s done so well since the 1970s.

“We get by on love and faith. We get by with a smile on our face,” Staples and Harper sing on the title track. On “Brothers and Sisters,” Staples sings, “We belong to each other brothers and sisters,” and we’ve “got to be brave in a scary world.” Both are calls to persevere and stand with one another.

The opening track, “Change,” is Staples’ plea to not accept the direction, which the United States is going. Over a driving guitar riff, she proclaims, “Things gonna change around here.” And she asks, “What good is freedom if we haven’t learned to be free?” Can we change? Mavis Staples is not about to accept no for an answer.

(Kevin Gosztola)

Steel Pulse – Mass Manipulation

The roots reggae band has been making music for over 40 years. This is their first album in 15 years, and it is full of socially conscious reggae music.

“World Gone Mad” surveys natural disasters, corrupt politicians, plastic people, and threats of nuclear war, to name some of the ills mentioned.

“I’m choking, and can’t breathe,” they sing on “Don’t Shoot.” It grapples with what a black man must do to not be killed by bigots or police in this world. “Is it because I’m nappy? Why you so trigger happy?”

“Human Trafficking” confronts the horrors of human lives chained up in activity, forced into labor or sexual slavery. “This is a case of urgency, this crime against humanity.” Though it happened more than a decade ago, one of their best tracks is “Justice In Jena,” as they comment on racial injustice and the display of symbols of hate, such as nooses, in communities to spread fear.

However, they are not all bleak depictions of society. “Rize” and “Thank The Rebels” both celebrate the potential for people to achieve liberation. The rebels who show courage and defiance against politicians, who deny us freedom, are the one who will lead us out of this world gone mad.

(Kevin Gosztola)

Kate Tempest – The Book Of Traps and Lessons

The third album by the acclaimed English spoken word artist is a thought-provoking examination of
the anxiety caused by living in a world on the brink. It greatly benefits from the minimalist production of veteran producer Rick Rubin, which adds considerable weight to Tempest’s powerful lyrical poetry.

One of Tempest’s gifts is her ability to balance despair with optimism. That despair is expressed
throughout “All Humans Too Late.” The lyrics lament, “The racist is drunk on the train. The
racist is drunk on the internet. The racist is drunk at my dinner table. Shouting his gun shots and
killing us all. They still live. Those kind and their dead are still living. And yes, the anger is
rising, the fury.”

The darkness is never allowed to fully engulf Tempest’s compositions. On the album’s closing track, “People’s Faces,” Tempest says, “My country’s coming apart,” then adds, “There is so much peace to be found in people’s faces.” Regardless of how bleak realities may seem, Tempest finds some hopeful things to clean to in darker moments of struggle.

(C.J. Baker)

HONORABLE MENTIONS: “Resiliencia” by Taina Asili | “This Land” – Gary Clark Jr. | “The Capitalist Blues” – Leyla McCalla | “Nothing Great About Britain” by slowthai
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