Alicia Keys, LL Cool J and the new wave of protest songs

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Warning: Some of the songs featured in this article contain explicit language.

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Alicia Keys:

The death of George Floyd has prompted one of the biggest movements against racism since the civil rights era.

Protests were held globally after video footage from Minneapolis showed a white police officer kneeling on Mr Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes.

The 46-year-old could be heard repeatedly telling the officer, “I can’t breathe”.

Around the world, music became a crucial way for people to express their grief and anger.

Bob Marley’s Get Up, Stand Up and Bill Withers’ Lean On Me soundtracked several protests, while streaming figures for songs that call out police violence soared: from Childish Gambino’s This Is America and Kendrick Lamar’s Alright to NWA’s visceral hip-hop track [Expletive] Tha Police.

The latter was also used by hackers to disrupt police scanners in Chicago during the protests.

In a more unifying moment, protestors in Atlanta encouraged the National Guard to join them in performing the Macarena.

As the Black Lives Matter movement continues, the record industry has been paused to examine its own history of racial exclusion, and the inequity between black artists and the mainly white executives who profit from their work.

Meanwhile, artists have channelled their frustration and anger into a new wave of protest songs, directly inspired by Mr Floyd’s death and its aftermath.

Here are some of the most striking examples – but please be aware that many of these songs contain explicit language.

Alicia Keys – Perfect Way To Die

Sung from the perspective of a mourning mother whose son has been shot to death, Alicia Keys’ new single was released on Juneteenth – a holiday celebrating the emancipation of enslaved people in the US.

It was originally written in response to the deaths of Mike Brown and Sandra Bland, the former killed by police in Missouri in 2014, the latter who died in a jail cell in 2015 after Texas police stopped her for a minor traffic violation – but Keys said the message was “never not going to be relevant”.

“Of course there is no perfect way to die,” she wrote in an Instagram caption, as she premiered the song. “This phrase doesn’t even make sense but that’s what makes the title so powerful and heartbreaking because so many have died unjustly.

“We all know none of these innocent lives should have been taken due to the culture of police violence.”

H.E.R – I Can’t Breathe

“Just by the title, you know that it means something painful,” said Grammy-nominated R&B artist H.E.R. as she debuted her new song in a living room concert.

“These lyrics were kind of easy to write because it came from a conversation of what’s happening right now, what’s been happening, and the change that we need to see,” she said before her performance.

“I think music is powerful when it comes to change and when it comes to healing, and that’s why I wrote this song, to make a mark in history.”

The sombre, guitar-led song asks: “What is a gun to a man that surrenders / What’s it gonna take for someone to defend her / If we all agree that we’re equal as people / Then why can’t we see what’s evil?

H.E.R. said the track tackles the question that’s been plaguing her over the last few weeks: Why is there so much hate?

“My favourite line in the song is, ‘How do we cope when we don’t love each other?'” she told TMZ. “I think we’re all questioning that now.”

LL Cool J – Untitled Freestyle

From the very first bar, you can tell LL Cool J won’t be holding back.

For 400 years you had your knees on our necks,” he raps. “A garden of evil with no seeds of respect“.

The 52-year-old goes on to ask what would have happened to former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, had he not been filmed by bystanders during Mr Floyd’s fatal arrest.

Watching that man die slow left a hole,” he says, “If it wasn’t for them phones, Chauvin would be at home / Feeling justified because of George skin tone / I’m telling those with melanin, you’re not alone.”

Dua Saleh – Bodycast

Minneapolis artist Dua Saleh originally wrote Body Cast in response to the deaths of Jamar Clark and Philando Castile, who were fatally shot by police in separate incidents in 2015 and 2016.

“Unfortunately, I could have written the song at any point in my life and it would have been relevant, which is frightening to say the least,” they told the Switched On Pop podcast.

The intro samples clips of Angela Whitehead, a woman from Montana who went viral last year when she rebuked two police officers for entering her home without a warrant or viable cause.

Saleh later references the stand-off in her lyrics, singing: “You must be crazy, coming up in here talking about you heard something / You heard me talking, I talk loud and I’m aggressive and guess what? / You did not knock on my door.”

“I just don’t trust police officers in general,” the singer said. “I was just like disgusted at the thought that policing was a safe and viable option for black communities.”

Proceeds from the song’s download are being donated to the Minneapolis-based organisation, Black Visions Collective.

Terrace Martin feat. Denzel Curry, Daylyt, Kamasi Washington, and G Perico – Pig Feet

“Someone asked, how do I feel?” Terrace Martin wrote, as he introduced his response to George Floyd’s death.

“I told them hurt, fearless, angry, aware and fully ready to protect me, my family and my people at all cost. I got together with black men that felt the same way and created a work of truth.”

The result is Pig Feet – a frenetic and urgent collision of jazz and hip-hop, where Kamasi Washington’s fidgety saxophone emphasises lyrics about structural racism and police brutality.

It was first released on YouTube, accompanied by a video compiling clips from recent Black Lives Matter protests, followed by a list of victims of police violence that scroll silently up the screen.

Keedron Bryant – I Just Wanna Live

Twelve-year-old Keedron Bryant gave voice to the feelings of thousands when he uploaded a simple, a capella performance of the original song I Just Wanna Live to Instagram three weeks ago.

“I’m a young black man / Doing all that I can / To stand, oh but when I look around / And I see what’s being done to my kind/ Every day, I’m being hunted as prey,” he sang, looking directly into the camera.

His performance, and the directness of the lyrics, written by his mother, won praise from Barack Obama, LeBron James, Janet Jackson and Katy Perry, who reposted the song to her followers with the message #BLACKLIVESMATTER.

On Friday, record label Warner Bros announced it had signed Keedron to a recording contract.

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