*The following is a collection of some of the best albums of protest music released in 2020 (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.

Fiona Apple — Fetch The Bolt Cutters

In March, Fiona Apple announced that the recording of her long-awaited album was completed. The record company planned to release it in October, but Apple insisted it come out sooner. So fans were treated to a release on April 17, amidst a global pandemic.

The timing was appropriate, as the songs encapsulate feelings of anxiety that are compounded by a sense of isolation. It is one of the best-reviewed albums of the year, and Apple addresses themes of empowerment and encourages listeners to get out the metaphorical bolt cutters to release themselves from oppression.

Also, it is a prime example of how the personal is often political. For example, on “Under the Table,” Apple sings, “Kick me under the table all you want. I won’t shut up.” This relates to an uncomfortable dinner party, where Apple decides to call out one of the other guests for their offensive remarks, but it can apply to any situation where someone tries to silence your voice.

Apple shows empathy for the trauma of others. For instance, “For Her,” was written, with permission, about a friend who used to intern for a Hollywood producer. The disconcerting line, “Good morning. You raped me in the same bed your daughter was born in,” resonates in the #MeToo era.

At the bottom of the tracklist, the back album cover reads, “Made on unceded Tongva, Mescalero Apache, and Suma territories.” This is Apple acknowledging the land on which she recorded belonged to indigenous people.

(C.J. Baker)

Algiers — There Is No Year

The album cover arranges textures and images like some abstract version of the front page of a newspaper. It takes poetic fragments and articulates a world of gloom while at the same time saying, “We’ll be ok with the darkness.” And the final words allude to Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, or any demagogue thriving off chaos to amass and consolidate their power.

It was released in January before a pandemic shut down the entire world and way before resurgent Black Lives Matter uprisings spread globally. This gives the music a stark prescience as it ruminates on the collective fear of civilization collapsing.

Algiers is from Atlanta, Georgia, and their music is a combination of gospel, soul, and industrial styles. The name of the band connects it to anti-colonial struggle and the need for a global consciousness that can supplant the elite cosmopolitanism that dominates society.

We have all felt like, “There is no year,” in 2020. It is a somber yet perfect mantra for grappling with how we survive the rest of this year.

(Kevin Gosztola)

BL Shirelle – Assata Troi

This was the first album released by Die Jim Crow Records, the first nonprofit record label for current and formerly incarcerated musicians. It translates to “she who struggles is a warrior,” and it was released on Juneteenth.

BL Shirelle, who is the deputy director for the label, put together an intensely personal album. It partly reflects on her time in prison while seeking to transcend that chapter in her life.

On “SIGS,” an acronym for “shit I gotta say,” and “Generational Curse,” Shirelle spits lyrics that deal with breaking a cycle. She grew up as the child of a crack addict and sold crack to her mom at the age of 12. That put her on a path that she does not want for her children. 

“Conspiracy,” Shirelle describes, is a “cinematic” song that tells an incarceration story specific to Pennsylvania, where she lives. It focuses on a juvenile, who is sentenced to life in prison after making some choices that put them in a situation that results in conspiracy charges. The beat is grimy, and the track ends with a guitar solo.

Each entry on the album is sonically diverse enough to create a tapestry that brings out both the joy and pain, which inspires BL Shirelle to make music and collaborate with artists who remain behind bars.

(Kevin Gosztola)

Steve Earle – Ghosts Of West Virginia

Centered on survivors of the Upper Big Branch coal mine explosion, most of the music on “Ghosts of West Virginia” comes from a play called “Coal Country” that was performed at the Public Theater in New York until the coronavirus pandemic shut everything down. 

Songs like “Time Is Never On Our Side” and “If I Could See Your Face Again” humanize residents of Appalachia Country in a manner that creates solidarity by introducing their lives and experiences to metropolitan communities, who may know very little about what rural West Virginians endure.

Earle blends styles of folk, bluegrass, and American to reinforce the pride workers have for their labor, their land, and their sacrifices and their families’ sacrifices. It honors their blood, sweat, and tears, and through “Devil Put the Coal In the Ground” and “It’s About Blood,” the music acknowledges their indignation and resolve to fight on in spite of decades of exploitation.

(Kevin Gosztola)

Irreversible Entanglements – Who Sent You?

Irreversible Entanglements 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. The ensemble’s second album builds on the free jazz sound they developed to restore the genre’s connection to Black liberation.

The ensemble describes the album as an “entire holistic jam of ‘infinite possibilities coming back around,’ a sprawling meditation for afro-cosmonauts, a reminder of the forms and traumas of the past, and the shape and vision of Afrotopian sounds to come.” 

Camae Ayewa (a.k.a. Moor Mother), Keir Neuringer, Aquiles Navarro, Tcheser Holmes, and Luke Stewart collectively reckon with past demons while agitating for a better future for humanity.  “At what point do we stand up? At the breaking point? At the point of no return?” declares Ayewa on “The Code Noir/Amina.” “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?”

Another track “No Más” revolves around the concept of Africans fleeing Earth to escape oppression. “No más. No more. No longer will we allow them to divide and conquer, divide and oppress, define our humanity.”

It’s provocative and invigorating jazz, both sonically and lyrically, that pushes boundaries as the best music should.

(Kevin Gosztola)

Pink Siifu – NEGRO

The rapper’s second full-length album is a departure from his 2018 full-length debut “ensley.” It also does not feature much rap. Instead, it features intense growls, which Pink Siifu effectively uses to express black rage. The eclectic album is a hybrid of several genres, including hardcore punk and free jazz. 

The confrontational album heavily addresses systemic racism and police brutality. This is best exemplified with the back-to-back tracks “ameriKKKa, try no pork” and “run pig run.” The first of those two tracks features news soundbites of police murdering black people, and the next track addresses the potential backlash that will come if the system is not overhauled.

The songs express the natural desire to see a reckoning for those who abuse power. At over 20 songs that last 37 minutes, Pink Siifu does not waste any time in taking aim at his targets.

(C.J. Baker)

Run The Jewels – Run The Jewels 4

Killer Mike and El-P’s rap duo never shy away from the political. On their fourth album, their music is more relevant than ever. It also has had quite an impact in the two months since its release, making it a momentous album.

Many of the songs were composed before 2020 and written before widespread protests against police brutality. Yet the album perfectly encapsulates the current political climate.

A prime example of the prescient nature of the album is “walking in the snow.” Killer Mike raps, “And every day on the evening news, they feed you fear for free. And you so numb, you watch the cops choke out a man like me. Until my voice goes from a shriek to whisper, ‘I can’t breathe,’” referring to the dying words of Eric Garner. He could’ve been referring to the murder of George Floyd.

Likewise, the tune “JU$T” features the lines, “Where murderous chokehold cops still earnin’ a livin’. Funny how some say money don’t matter. That’s rich now, isn’t it? Get it? Comedy. Try to sell a pack of smokes to get food. Get killed and it’s not an anomaly.”

That same song, which features vocals from Pharrell Williams and Zack de la Rocha, is a pointed examination of the link between capitalism and systemic racism. The lyric “Look at all these slave masters posin’ on yo’ dollar” packs a lot of weight.

(C.J. Baker)

SAULT – UNTITLED (Black Is)

Over 20 tracks, SAULT weaves a sonically rich and spiritually affirming tapestry for an era, when more people than ever seem to be throwing off the chains that have oppressed them for so long.

SAULT is a collective that in the past has presented their music anonymously. This album credits Inflo and Cleo Sol, an R&B singer-songwriter, and the collective presented it to “mark the moment in time where we as Black People, and of Black Origin are fighting for our lives.” They connected it to the murder of George Floyd and “all those who have suffered from police brutality and systemic racism.”

There has been an eruption of music centered on Black experiences, especially as they relate to policing and protests. But “UNTITLED” distinguishes itself by having so many collaborators and a diverse sound that truly represents what is a global movement. Each track, like “Hard Life,” “Don’t Shoot,” “Bow,” or “Monsters,” plays like a dispatch from those on the front lines of struggle.

And this incredible album is SAULT’s spiritual contribution to Black people, and those of Black Origin, facing everything from trauma and hardship to cracks in political structures that finally present them with openings for revolutionary change.

(Kevin Gosztola)

Special Interest – Passion Of

The New Orleans anarcho-glam band aptly describes their sophomore album as “a precise and deranged vision of punk, an apocalyptic celebration, a step forward into a perverse and uncertain landscape.” 

Gloomy soundscapes provide the backdrop for lead singer and lyricist Alli Logout to express the emotions many feel in the current state of upheaval.

One of the album’s highlights is “All Tomorrow’s Carry,” which Shadowproof highlighted as a “Protest Song Of the Week.” It addresses how gentrification contributes to systemic poverty and homelessness (“Arise from the rubble. Another tawdry condo. And a high rise suite. Yeah, they were pushed out. Soon evacuated. House was near dilapidated.”).

The song calls attention to the prevalence of apathy (“We were willingly blind”). Similar issues are explored on “Homogenized Milk” (“What happens when there’s nothing left to gentrify. And genocide is on your side”). Altogether, the album is an intense and urgent wake-up call.

(C.J. Baker)

David Strickland – Spirit Of Hip Hop

David Strickland has had a successful career as a producer, mixer, and engineer. After spending over two decades behind the scenes, he finally received prime billing with his debut album. 

Strickland heavily taps into his Mi’kmaq heritage, a lineage that can be traced back five generations. It explores indigenous themes, yet many of the subjects resonate across several demographics.

For example, multiple tunes address the issue of policing. Lyrics such as “Fuck em, we need less cops” (“Times Running Away”), “Ain’t nothing new on the block, getting shot by the cops” (“Turtle Island”) and “Looking so cold outside, remind me of the po-po, when they beat my ass that night and threw me in a chokehold” (“Rez Life”)  call out brutality.

It is a powerful album, which educates the mind and moves the body. And while his name appears on the album, he still provides a platform for other artists to shine, as he has done throughout his career. Hip-hop luminaries, such as EPMD, Def Squad, and young and upcoming Canadian and American indigenous hip-hop artists like Que Rock, Supaman and Snotty Nose Rez Kids are featured.

(C.J. Baker)

HONORABLE MENTIONS: “The Long Goodbye” – Riz Ahmed | “South Somewhere Else” by Nana Grizol | Else”Amazones Power” by Les Amazones d’Afrique | “Notes From A Failed State” – David Rovics | “We Are Sent Here By History” – Shabaka & The Ancestors | “Heavy Light” – U.S. Girls
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