Originally published for NPR on September 2, 2020
From Despondent To Defiant, Dua Saleh’s ‘body cast’ Stomps On Everyday Injustice
May 30, 2020
Dua Saleh — Black, nonbinary, Sudanese and Minnesotan — is driven by the generative work within their communities. They released “body cast” at the close of May, stating that they “intended to save it for a project in the future, but I can’t wait that long with what is happening in my city of Minneapolis.” Over sparse production, they pack in dense couplets, wailing, “Lately I’ve had plaster on my mind / County ain’t on s*** they got bodies on the line / Lately I’ve been analyzing time / Y’all been dodging cameras like they bullets over crime.” In the course of two and half minutes, they veer from despondent to defiant, sinking into angst only to rise back up in rage. The final moments include audio from a viral video of Angela Whitehead asserting her right to refuse the police entry into her property — a vignette that is breathtaking for its utter recalcitrance and almost mythic in its seeming implausibility.
Originally, the song came from their grief over how the murders of Jamar Clark and Philando Castile were handled. The single’s artwork presents a towering list of names of Black lives taken by the hands of police, with George Floyd and Clark at the base — there’s an overwhelming and agonizing sense that it barely scratches the surface.
Dua Saleh doesn’t identify as an activist, but is informed by their sociopolitical framing of community and amplifying community calls for liberation. Stated simply in their own words: “The arts are instrumental avenues for healing and justice. The arts can be used to center the narratives of people at the margins of society. It provides us supplements of joy and gives us mantras to build upon a movement. The role of the artist is to be there for the community in the same way that others are. We all have a role in our collective liberation.”
With A Nod To N.W.A. And Nipsey Hussle, Rapper YG Says ‘FTP’
June 2, 2020
In 2016, the Compton-based rapper joined forces with Nipsey Hussle to release the DJ Swish-produced anthem, “FDT (F*** Donald Trump).” Filming the music video on Crenshaw and 71st in solidarity with the local Mexican community, the music video opens with a message: “As young people with an interest in the future of America…we have to exercise our intelligence and choose who leads us into it wisely. 2016 will be a turning point in this country’s history… the question is…in which direction will we go?” Both spontaneous and earnest in spirit, the homegrown authenticity of the musical uprising caught on like wildfire, prompting censorship attempts by the Secret Service.
Four years later, YG aimed to recapture the energy with “FTP (F*** the Police).” Both an expansion of the protest cadence that he had created in his collaborations with Nipsey as well as a nod to the N.W.A classic, the beats are similar, down to the Swish-tapped production. The video opens with a somber, poignant quote from Martin Luther King Jr. on a black screen as the performance is interspersed with actions of protest, closing with a monologue from Sedan Smith.
There is something remarkably grim, however, to watch a staged spectacle being put on in the center of protests for Black lives. Celebrity appearances are flagged in the video with the same poignance as burning cop cars; organized video ops of empowering chants are superimposed with spontaneous bursts of grisly police brutality, giving a tonal whiplash that is hard to acclimate to. In the wake of criticism from both supporters and peers, YG, for his part, has stood behind his message and march as advocacy, documenting his protest as a part of history. “FDT” has been identified as a song that defined a decade; in this moment, as people continue to fight for their right to exist, to have their humanity be recognized. Only time will tell whether the dramaturgy of “FTP” will be held in the same regard.
DaBaby Jumps On Black Lives Matter Bandwagon With ‘Rockstar (BLM Remix)’
June 12, 2020
DaBaby’s omnipresence over the last year threads a thin line between overnight celebrity and over saturation; he drops new musical content almost as often as his altercations and antics make their way into the headlines. Nothing is more emblematic of this delicate dance than the rollout of the song “Rockstar,” originally a collaboration with Roddy Rich centered around largesse and extravagance.
During June’s BET Awards, however, he premiered a new version of the song, titled the “BLM Remix.” DaBaby performs the opening verse lying on the ground, under the knee of a faceless white body, tying his own life’s trials and tribulations with those of George Floyd. It’s a startling image that strikes a dissonant tone: DaBaby invokes Floyd, a man unable to breathe during the last moments of life, as the rapper’s own words escalate in volume. He raps about his vilification by hometown authorities and challenging their right to seizure of his property; he boasts about buying a Lamborghini as an action of resistance as opposed to a transparent display of grandeur. But the concept of rockstardom, as nebulous as that may be, is not affixed to the average Black person in America nor is that dynamic present in average interactions with law enforcement. Ultimately, this is why fastening “BLM Remix” to the track flies in the face of the song’s greater temperament. With this new framework, the hook (“with the pistol on my hip like I’m a cop”) becomes increasingly discomfiting the more you listen.
On ‘Perfect Way To Die,’ Alicia Keys Attempts To Approximate Black Anxiety
June 19, 2020
“Of course, there is NO perfect way to die,” Alicia Keys said upon releasing the song. “That phrase doesn’t even make sense. Just like it doesn’t make sense that there are so many innocent lives that should not have been taken from us due to the destructive culture of police violence.” This tweet is indicative of the contradictions that burden the song: “Perfect Way to Die” says a lot while saying nothing at all, aiming for somewhere between metaphor and allegory and ultimately landing somewhere around vague fiction. The song alludes to Sandra Bland and Michael Brown, but in a fabricated narrative about an unremarkable day that descends into violence, chaos and grief.
The lyrics, in isolation, technically speak towards the current moment gripping Black America — there are references made to blood in the streets, flashing police lights, a mother’s pain and unfulfilled promises — and they are underscored by a solemn piano ballad that has become a signature of Keys. Despite hitting all of the marks, the end result falls flat — aimless, unfocused and untethered to the palpable, defiant energy of the current youth-driven movement. In an uprising, there is no such thing as a perfect martyr, nor is there a perfect approach to unrest, but the art generated during this time should strive to reflect the energy of the moment.