Feature by Rodell Jefferson
I read a tweet the other day that said, “2016 was a terrible movie with an amazing soundtrack.” The year of 2016 will forever go down in history as the year that exchanged many of the world’s heroes for one big orange villain with a toolkit of oppression and disrespect. For myself and many others, recent political events have been not so much surprising, as it has been unsettling to the very core.
In my ongoing struggle to remain active, aware, and inspired, 2016’s soundtrack has been helping to keep me afloat. When I find my own voice choked up in the back of my throat, it has been Solange speaking for me, or Vince Staples, or one of the many other artists caught up in the times. Resistance comes in many forms and it can be heard in the melodies and rhymes of this year’s music.
Nina Simone believed that it was an artist’s duty to reflect the times. I don’t think any song better reflected the times than YG’s “FDT (Fuck Donald Trump)”. “He too rich, he ain't got the answers / He can't make decisions for this country, he gon' crash us,” YG raps. “FDT” is political diss track — a crowd of protest signs packed into one four minute-long single.
If hard times make for good music, then we could quite possibly have a musical renaissance on the horizon. 2016 has already brought us a slew of fiery protest music from everyday household names, to artists still lurking under the radar, to legends whose voices bring nostalgia to our ears.
2016 is the year that A Tribe Called Quest sparked back to life. 2016 was also the year that took Phife Dawg, making their final album all the more meaningful. The Tribe wastes no time bouncing from one political topic to another, and showing that they’ve still got their rapping chops while they’re at it. In an interview with Beats 1 Radio, Q-Tip explains that the Tribe tries to paint pictures and speak to a climate in hopes of inspiring young folks that could be the next “Jimmy Carter” or “Angela Davis.” How many people were possibly inspired and influenced by Tribe tearing down walls and denouncing “Agent Orange” at the Grammy Awards?
Black women in particular have made their political voices loud and clear this year on the musical landscape. If you’re still using the “no women in hip-hop” excuse to not seek out women in hip-hop, you’re long behind the curve. From Solange’s A Seat at the Table to Noname’s Telefone, black women were undeniably present.
Rapsody, who you may recognize from Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, released one of my favorite songs of the year on her Crown EP. “Fire” is a five minute-long reflection on the state of America, and a passionate dedication to justice and equality. “We’re living in America but ain’t paying the same rent / We need progress and they still talking past tense,” she raps — one of the many profoundly quotable moments throughout the song. If you happen to be putting together a revolution and resistance playlist, Rapsody’s “Fire” deserves that first spot.
But as I said, resistance comes in many forms. For myself, this very article is a form of resistance and a coping mechanism for stressful times — a political act in the form of a journal feature. Artists are soundtracking resistance, but not only through their charged lyrics. Some artists have found themselves tapping into the sounds of older Black music to express themselves.
Perhaps Kendrick’s jazz-infused To Pimp a Butterfly from the year before helped to open the door to this trend — the saxophone just as present on the album as his own voice. This year brought us Chance the Rapper backing his rhymes with the power of gospel music on Coloring Book, making for a joyful testament to Chicago, his newborn daughter, and the musicality of Black worship. Elsewhere, Anderson .Paak and Knxwledge (the duo known as NxWorries) crafted their album Yes Lawd! out of pure nostalgic soul. My dad would describe it as “grown folks” music and turn up the volume before exclaiming that I “don’t know nothin’ ‘bout this!”
Childish Gambino (a.k.a. Donald Glover), one of my favorite artists, also helped to push this trend along. When Childish Gambino’s “Awaken My Love!” released I was quick to find my time with the project. I played it through my roommate’s stereo system, sitting under the dim glow of string lights. I found myself hypnotized by sounds that felt both familiar, and like nothing else I had heard before. I was suddenly a child again in the backseat of my dad’s car with funky chords spilling out of the speakers — only to look outside the window to a different planet made of different sounds.
The same way I found voices to support my own in some music, I found a familiar comfort in the sounds of others. “There’s something about that ’70s black music that felt like they were trying to start a revolution,” Glover said in an interview with Billboard. If Glover is trying to start a revolution through his music, he isn’t the only one. In times like these, it is important that we do not forget how to feel; there can be no change — no revolution — without handling our emotions in their rawest forms. Artists, with their music, paintings, and poems, are there to offer us constant reminders of our emotions.
There is something revolutionary about keeping these sounds — these feelings, these hopes, these histories — alive. Going into 2017, I am wearing my heart on my headphones as artists continue to remind us the realities of where we are, and the possibilities of where we could be. If you don’t know what the revolution will sound like, then you might not be listening hard enough.