For 2020 protest songs, turn to Lil Baby and Meek Mill

Lil Baby performing at the Openair Frauenfeld festival in Switzerland, July 2019. Music critic Craig Jenkins says Lil Baby has become a political voice. Photo by Frank Schwichtenberg (CC BY-SA 4.0). 

Streams for Kendrick Lamar’s hit song “Alright” skyrocketed as protests broke out following the death of George Floyd. That song came out five years ago — after the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson and other high profile police killings. It was hailed as an anthem for the protests that followed.

But now Craig Jenkins, music critic for New York Magazine, says we need a different anthem. 

KCRW: What is Kendrick Lamar saying in “Alright,” and why do you think it's not a fitting protest anthem for now?

Craig Jenkins: “He's talking about the sort of future where there's justice. I don't feel like it's the song for this moment because it is a little bit too gung-ho about things. It's a little bit too excited about the end game — when it's going to take a lot of feet in the streets, when it's going to take a government action, and when it's going to take a lot of just perseverance. It's the song you play at the party when everything is over. We've got many rivers to cross before we get to that.”

The refrain, ‘we're going to be alright,’ is that what you particularly take exception to?

“We're not there yet. We will be. But five years ago, that seemed like it was right around the corner. And another five years later, we're still fighting the injustices. We're still having the same issues happen. I like the song, but the last time I tried to listen to it, it was a little difficult. It's like ‘we're not alright’ yet.”

Tell us about Meek Mill’s “The Other Side of America” and why you think it’s more appropriate for this moment.

“He’s the Philly rapper who came up under Rick Ross, the Miami rapper, who has a label called Maybach Music Group. Meek Mill had a promising career and got sidelined by some pre-existing law enforcement issues. He ended up back in jail for a long time. It felt like the judge was really trying to throw the book at him. ... 

So when he came back, he immediately turned into ... an outspoken prison reform activist. That's been sort of the story with him for the last three or four years. 

‘The Other Side of America’ is basically the story of how a guy ends up in jail and the story of the conditions that lead someone into a life on the wrong side of the law.

... It speaks to the floor under which all the stuff that's happening right now is leveled on. There's injustice, a lack of opportunities. On top of that, all the issues with policing. It's a powder keg. I feel like Meek really sets the scene for everything that's going on right now. Why it's happening and why there's outcry against policing and various racial disparities.

... What I like about it is, if you weren't paying attention to the lyrics, then it sounds just like workout music. So it's a reflexive analogy.”

Talk about “The Bigger Picture” by Lil Baby from Atlanta, Georgia. 

“I think a lot of artists have just gotten into the studio just to clear their heads. Lil Baby is a fascinating character because he's not necessarily your political kind of a rapper. 

But that song speaks to the way in which you kind of are — by nature of being a voice from certain neighborhoods — a political figure. It’s a clearheaded political analysis of a particular situation. I'm actually proud of the guy because he gets written off as one of the goofy younger trap guys. But he's written one of the most poignant songs in the protest’s moment.”

Do you see younger artists as more politically attuned, more politically angry, and ready to talk about these issues than older artists?

“I think it's a constant. There's always a kind of socio-political awareness in hip-hop, whether or not it's pronounced and specific, or just the guy on the street describing conditions. By nature of the conditions being unfair, he [Lil Baby] becomes a sort of political voice. So it's always happening. I think this particular guy has one of the more solid songs of the moment.”

The videos for the songs  use a lot of footage from the protests, which is powerful.

“True, even stuff that's not necessarily overtly tied into the movement. For instance, the Dixie Chicks, now The Chicks, their new video is a collage of protest footage. 

The rapper YG from Compton, he put out a song “FTP,” which is an anti-police anthem. I think he shot it at a protest. It's powerful stuff and it's evocative.”

Is there one anthem like “We Shall Overcome” for the current protest?

“I think it's just whatever is most ‘on the nose,’ whatever is most popular. There's stuff that's getting repurposed for protests, like the New York rapper Pop Smoke’s song “Dior.” It’s not necessarily about politics at all. But by having a few words about the unfairness of incarceration, it’s been played at a lot of protests. 

So far, no one has written the one just yet. Lil Baby, I think, will have the number one album in the country. So he may come closest to it.”

You also like a song from a kids’ TV show called “Hip Hop Harry.” Harry is this yellow bear with a red shirt and bucket hat.

“He's a giant rapping and dancing anthropomorphic bear. It was on the Discovery Channel in the 2000s. Weirdly, the clip outlived it [the show] by many years. But this particular song, “Who’s Next,” resurfaced as people and corporations tried to speak out on Black Lives Matters with mawkish, sentimental statements from companies that hadn't really had a track record to match what they were saying. That video would resurface as if to say, ‘You're getting cancelled. Who's next?’ Then it just took on a life of its own for a couple of weeks.”

Another interesting thing is remixing viral moments that happened during the protests or police arrests. Talk about “Lose Your Job.” 

“There was a woman who was apparently getting arrested outside of a club. I don’t exactly know what the circumstances are, but she broke out into an impromptu song behind the cop. People were filming it. Someone took that footage and put a beat under it. It picked up some traction over the last couple of weeks.”

These things happen so fast, and then disappear. It's tough to keep up and winnow it down to a singular anthem that captures it all. Maybe that's just the way it is these days. 

“That is the nature of the protest movement, and so it's fitting that the music would be that way. It's decentralized, and it's happening everywhere at the same time, and different regions have their own different spin on it. There's a song for every sub-genre of music out, from country music to hip-hop. The rock guys haven't gotten too active yet, but we'll see. There's pockets everywhere, and everyone's getting active and using their voice.”

—Written by Jennifer Wolfe and Amy Ta, produced by Rosalie Atkinson