Editor’s Note

Shadowproof has always had a space on its website that covers musicians who are speaking to present social and political moments, and in the past weeks, the world has witnessed an explosion of music that grapples with racial injustice and amplifies the movement for black lives.

There is no lack of lists featuring artists who have recorded songs with lyrics that name-check Black Lives Matter or use the protests as a backdrop for their music. However, we put this particular list together to acknowledge musicians (primarily Black musicians), who are using their influence and platforms to amplify activism.

The list of ten artists is by no means exhaustive, and undoubtedly, there will likely be a need for another list to acknowledge artists we missed. But this will hopefully introduce music lovers who have a passion for social justice to some new artists that deserve to be in rotation.

You can find a playlist on Spotify. Some of the tracks are only on Bandcamp so we selected another song from the same artist to still include them. The cover of “Everybody’s Got A Right To Live” is not on Spotify so we included the original.

Irreversible Entanglements – The Code Noir/Amina

Moor Mother (Camae Ayewa) is a poet in Irreversible Entanglements, which describes itself as a liberation-oriented free jazz collective. They formed at a Musicians Against Police Brutality event after the New York Police Department murdered Akai Gurley, and on March 20, 2020, the ensemble released the album “Who Sent You?” featuring “The Code Noir/Amina.”

Over an uptempo rhythm and foreboding horns, the ensemble reckons with past demons. Moor Mother pays homage to Black ancestors who withstood, endured, and survived centuries of exploitation. Then her poetry turns to agitation for action from humanity. “At what point do we stand up? At the breaking point? At the point of no return? At what point? At what point do we pull each other up, up out of the void, up out of a hell? At what point? At what point? At what point do we give a shit? Do we stand up and say something?”

While the coronavirus spread through communities, Moor Mother launched a collaborative series called “ANTHOLOGIA” that featured freestyle poems she wrote in March. The series raised money for the Afrofuturist Affair’s Futurist Fund, which was put toward disability justice.

Durand Jones & The Indications – Everybody’s Got A Right To Live

The modern soul group, which formed at Indiana University in Bloomington, consistently sought ways to show solidarity with protests for Black lives. On May 30-31, the group donated all proceeds from their online store to the Minnesota Freedom Fund in order to ensure protesters were bailed out of jail. They dedicated their protest song, “Morning In America” to the movement, lamenting the fact that it was just as relevant as when they wrote in 2017 and would have been relevant in 1992, 1965, 1955, etc.

For the Poor People’s Campaign’s massive Digital Justice Gathering on June 20, the group recorded a cover of “Everybody’s Got A Right To Love,” which Rev. Frederick Douglass Kirkpatrick and Jimmy Collier sang in 1968. The song became the “central message” of the campaign.

The group transforms the earnest declaration into a finespun groove. Durand sings, “We are down in Washington fighting an age-old sin—systematic murder done by age-old men.” With lyrics from the 1960s, it grounds present struggles for justice in the history of action for human rights.

Watch Durand Jones and the Indications perform “Everybody’s Got A Right To Live” on Facebook.

Nnamdi – Rage

Based in Chicago, Nnamdi Ogbonnaya is an experimental hip-hop artist, who recorded an EP called “Black Plight.” He raised more than $10,000 by selling the EP on Bandcamp and donated $4,000 to Assata’s Daughters, a group organizing black women on the south side, and $4,000 to EAT Chicago, which works to build social and economic equity among Black Chicagoans in the informal economy. Nnamdi also donated $2,000 to support those in the community who were in immediate need of food and housing.

“They kill us dead in the street, outside so everyone sees,” Nnamdi raps over a grimy guitar riff. Referring to cops, he adds, “They stand and watch while we bleed.” He concludes, “Had to burn it all down just to be heard, but we still ain’t heard.”

The track represents the anger and exhaustion Nnamdi and so many other Black people in the United States feel daily. “It comes from years of racial discrimination, police brutality, media sharing snuff films, peaceful protests ignored,” as Nnamdi previously shared.

Black people are often told they cannot express rage. That only compounds the feelings of exhaustion, misery, and despair. “Rage” is a righteous expression of what it means to live in a country with no accountability for cops and what it means for black men to be killed repeatedly with no systemic change whatsoever.

Noname – Prayer Song (Featuring Adam Ness)

Fatimah Nyeema Warner, known as Noname, challenged “celebrity accounts” to match her $1,000 donation to the Minnesota Freedom Fund way before any corporations came around to sharing statements with the bare minimum they could say about “Black Lives Matter.” She routinely boosts the work of activists involved in jail support, direct action, and defunding the police. Abolition of police and prisons, along with “radical unity,” is central to her support for Black lives, and it comes with a critique of capitalism.

On “Prayer Song,” which appeared on her album, “Room 25,” Noname takes on the perspective of a cop and flows through several examples of how the cop gets off on committing brutality. “My mama finally seen her baby on Channel 2. She love me better when I be keeping the streets clean.” Noname specifically references how police murdered Philando Castile.
As Noname noted, “Every systemic structure existing for the purpose of human subjugation and exploitation is explained beautifully in a book somewhere, likely authored by a person of color.” Noname urged her followers to “consume more revolutionary content. Don’t allow this moment to be filtered through the establishment class media outlets. This includes social media. Read books about socialist revolutions. Watch documentaries/interviews about socialist revolutions. We become what we consume.”

 

Elise Okusami (Oceanator) – If You Miss Me at the Back of the Bus

A number of EPs and compilations to raise funds for groups have been produced since police murdered George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Elise Okusami, known as Oceanator, recorded a cover of “If You Miss Me At The Back Of The Bus” to support Survived And Punished New York, which is part of a coalition committed to “eradicating the criminalization of survivors of domestic and sexual violence and the culture of violence that contributes to it.”

Oceanator frequently produces cover songs that reimagine popular tracks but also help create space for Black musicians to defy expectations that are typically dictated by genre. This tune was written by Charles “Chuck” Neblett, a civil rights activist who was part of The Freedom Singers. It was written as organizers fought in the 1960s to desegregate a pool in Cairo, Illinois, and Pete Seeger recorded it.

Oceanator consistently promotes the work of activists while seeking ways to incorporate the joy of creating music and collaborating with artists, who also share her commitment to justice. She also has put together multiple threads to introduce people to independent black artists who deserve acknowledgment.

B.L. Shirelle – SIGS

Die Jim Crow is the first nonprofit record label that produces music by current and formerly incarcerated musicians. BL Shirelle is a deputy director who travels to prisons. “All we want to do is produce great music by talented artists who deserve to be heard—whether they’re on the inside or the outside,” Shirelle told Interview Magazine.

Her debut album, “Assata Troi,” was released on Juneteenth. It includes the track, “SIGS,” which stands for “shit I gotta say.” She spits lyrics that deal with growing up as the child of a crack addict and selling crack to her mom at the age of 12. So much of what she raps about involves breaking a cycle and realizing rights that people think should be given were never given to her.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Shirelle extended her work with incarcerated musicians to providing personal protective equipment to people trapped in prisons. Ten thousand masks were sent to eight prisons in seven states.

“As a survivor of police brutality— I was shot by the police multiple times and beaten while in handcuffs, I had the opportunity not only to live through it, but fight back and live through it,” Shirelle shared. “It gives me a feeling of survivor’s remorse and mental trauma every time I see this stuff but also a sense of responsibility.”

Moses Sumney – Rank-and-File

“More than half-baked gestures of love, more then a call for “peace” from both sides (as if “both sides” have equal power and antagonize equally), we need restorative justice,” Moses Sumney declared. “We need to demilitarize and dismantle the police force. We need convictions of the crooked cops in the George Floyd and Breonna Taylor cases. And we need white allies to proclaim BOLDLY that BLACK Lives Matter.”

Moses Sumney is a Black musician who has built an identity through music that defies binaries. “grae,” which was released in 2020, has garnered critical acclaim for its ambitious effort to explore the spaces in between and for redefining how artists may sonically construct a song. And Sumney also recorded an EP in 2018 called, “Black In Deep Red, 2014,” that was inspired by what he witnessed in Ferguson, Missouri, after a grand jury decided not to indict Officer Darren Wilson for murdering Mike Brown.

“Rank & File” evokes what it is like to be at a protest where militarized police forces are lined up ready to follow any order they are given to attack demonstrators. “Puppets, erect/With batteries set/They charge for a while/and fall right into rank and file/When they forget/That we cut the checks/They get really riled.”

Sumney has promoted the work of fellow black artists and encouraged people to donate to funds that support Black trans people because Black trans people are “more likely to be jailed and face higher rates of prison violence.” He understands people need to “get uncomfortable.” Black Americans have “contributed boundlessly to culture and infrastructure with little structural return,” and they are at least owed a population that finally recognizes why complacency with structures of white supremacy must be shaken.

Thee Sacred Souls – Give Us Justice

Thee Sacred Souls, a modern soul group that is part of the esteemed Daptone Records family, recorded a tune “in memory of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and the many other black lives lost to the hands of racism.” They pledged to donate 100% of proceeds to various organizations beginning with the Movement for Black Lives.

“Could’ve been me. It could’ve been me. Lying on the concrete, there’s a knee against my neck. Pleading for my breath. Pleading for my breath,” Black singer Josh Lane sings. “There’ll be no peace. There’ll be no peace. Until there’s justice. Until there’s justice.”

Lane acknowledged Floyd, Arbery, and Taylor each joined a “disturbingly long list of unarmed black humans taken away from us with a murderous rage disguised as American valor. Black people’s lives were stolen from them by white men who felt free to decide their fate, who felt they had the blessing of this country to murder in the name of justice.” Lane concluded, “We won’t accept the crucifixion of police and white vigilantes upholding justice!”

Wyatt Waddell – FIGHT

“When all the protests were happening, I spent a lot of time trying to process everything that I was feeling,” Black Chicago musician Wyatt Waddell wrote. “It is the artist’s job to reflect the times that they live in. I knew that was something I always wanted to do, but I had to grow into that role.”

Not only did Waddell reflect the times, but he composed a rousing toe-tapping rhythm called “FIGHT!” that took that pain and suffering and turned it into a shot of positivity one can inject into their soul to rejuvenate them in moments of exhaustion and despair.

Waddell sets the scene. Police tanks are lined up against protesters. Yet, as he sings, there can be no backing down from staring officers in the face and getting sprayed with mace because people are done seeing dead bodies in the street.

Through the track, Waddell raised more than $1,000 that was donated to Chicago Community Bond Fund, Black Lives Matter Chicago, and Greater Chicago Food Depository, and he is still using the track to raise money for Black lives.

Jamila Woods (featuring Noname) – VERY BLK

The infectious word play of “Very BLK” immediately grabs one’s attention as Jamila Woods affirms what it means to be a Black woman. She takes the possibility that a cop may turn her into a “chalk line” after she says “I can’t breathe” and disarms this dreadful prospect. Each lyric is delivered like a child jumping rope on a school playground, and it leads into Woods saying, “I’m very black, black, black,” and promising to fight back against racial oppression.

Woods has boosted efforts to defund the police and remove police officers from Chicago schools, as well as a campaign for cancelling rent. She has urged people to donate to Black trans organizations, Assata’s Daughters, community arts centers, Black artists, and Black-owned businesses.

More than anything, much of Woods’ music is a celebration of Black lives. Her album, “LEGACY! LEGACY!” paid tribute to Black icons from Betty Davis to Eartha Kitt to James Baldwin to Sun Ra. As she described, it was a collection of “sonic and lyrical monuments” that acknowledge the ways they pushed beyond the margins to make amazing cultural contributions.

 

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."