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The 2010s Were the Decade When Black Protest Music Went Mainstream

Beyoncé, Solange, Kanye West, Frank Ocean, and Rihanna released provocative, forward-thinking albums during the rise of the Trump candidacy, solidifying Black music's legacy as protest music.

by Kristin Corry; illustrated by Hunter French
Nov 11 2019, 5:24pm

Images via Shutterstock

The 2010s were the decade where it felt like time sped up. As we reach a major mile marker during one of the most confounding periods in cultural and political history, we’re looking back at the artists, albums, and trends that best marked the changes over the past 10 years. Click here to read up on all of our end-of-decade ruminations.


For the past decade, America has been split between two versions of itself. With Barack Obama came the idea of a "post-racial" utopia, one that we watched unravel in 2015 when Donald Trump announced his presidential candidacy. Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly, released three months before Trump announced his run, was a grievance on the country's ambivalence to that split.

Told through the lens of rap, jazz, and funk—genres pioneered by Black musicians— Butterfly is the story of a deeply American standard: freedom. For over an hour, Lamar unearths the parallels between the slave trade and the entertainment industry, where, ironically, Black culture is still seen as currency. The songwriting, brutally honest and timely, captured issues like institutionalized racism with songs like "Alright" adopted as the de facto anthem for the Black Lives Matter movement. Throughout the album, a single phrase is repeated six times: "I remember you was conflicted, misusing your influence / Sometimes I did the same." Lamar's quest, however, was entangled with the responsibility that comes with being a Black artist during political and social unrest. "How Much a Dollar Cost?" wasn't just the title of a song, but a challenge to other musicians.

Following To Pimp a Butterfly's commitment to cultural commentary, Beyoncé, Solange, Kanye West, Frank Ocean, and Rihanna released provocative, forward-thinking albums during the rise of the Trump candidacy, driving home the Black music's legacy of being firmly grounded in protest music. Kanye West and Frank Ocean were no strangers to controversy, but for Beyoncé and Rihanna, these albums deviated from their apolitical pop star images. Why now?

The deaths of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, both unarmed teenagers, gave life to the Black Lives Matter movement, which questioned if Blackness could truly be protected. Lamar's "Alright" directly addressed this turmoil. "Nigga and we hate po-po / Wanna kill us dead in the street fo' sho'," he rapped. The names of Freddie Gray, the nine parishioners of Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, Sandra Bland and more were all added to the hashtags memorializing unarmed Black Americans gunned down for the perceived threat of their Blackness. Black Lives Matter was gaining momentum, with TIME naming it as a 2015 Person of the Year months after Brown's death. Despite the movement's growing visibility, Black people kept dying.

The organization's influence grew in tandem with the end of the Obama administration, putting the spotlight on the sitting president and the White House hopefuls. In 2015, Obama defended the movement. "I think everybody understands all lives matter," he said at a criminal justice panel held at the White House. "I think the reason that the organizers used the phrase 'Black Lives Matter' was not because the organizers were suggesting nobody else's lives matter." Most of 2016's presidential candidates felt otherwise. Republicans Ben Carson felt there was "plenty of blame to go around," with Ted Cruz calling the movement "disturbing" and "disgraceful." Democrats like Hillary Clinton danced around the topic, making Bernie Sanders the only candidate to explicitly say the phrase: "Black lives matter." But Donald Trump didn't mince his words on his stance. "I think they're trouble," Trump said in an interview with Bill O'Reilly. "The fact is, all lives matter." Trump's racist behavior is well-documented, and the prospect of transitioning to a White House led by his beliefs was anxiety-inducing.

Before running for president, Donald Trump was a New York City real estate mogul with an immense amount of power. In 1973, the Department of Justice filed a federal suit against Trump and Fred Trump, his father, and fellow real estate developer, for "misrepresent[ing] to Blacks that apartments were not available," breaking the Fair Housing Act of 1968. Two decades later, Trump's racial bias was no longer coded in a dog-whistle. He took out a full-page ad in four New York City newspapers after Yusef Salaam, Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Raymond Santana, and Korey Wise, now known as the Exonerated Five, were accused of the rape and assault of a jogger in Central Park. The ad called for the execution of the five teenage boys—despite the absence of DNA connecting them to the crime. "BRING BACK THE DEATH PENALTY. BRING BACK OUR POLICE!" he wrote, which, in hindsight, feels like a precursor to the "Make America Great Again" tagline of his presidency, representing a need to return to an imaginary historical past.

Trump's campaign was disguised as patriotism, and he spent the years prior trying to undo anything incongruous to his definition of America. Three years after Barack Obama took office, Trump began publicly questioning his status as an American citizen. "You're not allowed to be a president if you're not born in this country," he said in 2011. "Right now, I have real doubts." The real estate tycoon-turned-reality star claimed he'd launched an investigation to see the president's birth certificate and even inquired about his grades in college. Except Obama's birth certificate was real and Anderson Cooper could find no proof that Trump's investigation actually happened—and Trump provided no tangible evidence to suggest it did. His aim at the head of state, coupled with his longstanding bias against the Black community, created a looming sense of dread that even hip-hop's biggest stars were feeling.

2016 marked the 20th year of Beyoncé's storied career, which had been meticulously manicured for mass appeal. She was sexy, sometimes silly, and dangerously in love, but never explicitly political until "Formation." The Houston singer released a stirring Melina Matsoukas-directed visual that was a spot-on depiction of the effects of police brutality on Black communities. Beyoncé crouching on top of a sinking New Orleans police car wasn't blindly provocative, it addressed the state-sanctioned violence causes like Black Lives Matter were rallying against while paying homage to the displacement of the city's Black residents a decade after Hurricane Katrina. One of the video's most poignant scenes features a row of policemen dressed in riot gear standing opposite a young Black boy dancing, illustrating the differences between a perceived threat and an actual threat. When she performed the song at the Super Bowl half-time show the next day dressed in a costume evoking the militant Black Panther Party from the 60s, conservatives construed her message as "anti-police." Beyoncé disagreed. "But let's be clear: I am against police brutality and injustice, those are two separate things," she said in a 2016 interview with ELLE Magazine.

"Formation" was only the prelude to Beyoncé's protest music, and the release of Lemonade, her sixth studio album, continued the breadcrumbs found on her lead single. "Freedom," which features Lamar, is the only other song that directly calls out social unrest. "I'ma riot, I'ma riot through your borders / Call me bulletproof," she sings. Instead of Beyoncé stacking Lemonade with political rhetoric like Butterfly, she tailored her activism to her natural language. Lemonade's most endearing quality is that it feels like Beyoncé's most personal album, stripping away at her flawless facade. The album centered around infidelity, leaving many guessing whether it was about her marriage to Jay Z. But her rage was abundantly clear. It bubbled up on songs like "Hold Up," and spilled over on the Jack White-assisted "Don't Play Yourself." The 12-track album was an ode to southern Black womanhood, and the most transparent we'd seen the Houston singer. It might not have been as blatant a protest as Butterfly, but she chose to celebrate Blackness and womanhood when the world wasn't doing the same.

While Beyoncé used Lemonade to address injustices on a grand scale, Solange's A Seat at the Table was more intimate, dealing with the daily microaggressions aimed at the Black community—and specifically Black women. She was "weary of the ways of the world," but possessed enough strength to swat off white hands in Black hair. The album was drenched with anxiety, with some songs, like "Cranes in the Sky," written eight years before its eventual release. Solange tried everything: she danced, she slept, she tried calling new states home, but she couldn't outrun the feeling of being Black in America.

"I remember thinking of ["Cranes"] as an analogy for my transition—this idea of building up, up, up that was going on in our country at the time, all of this excessive building, and not really dealing with what was in front of us," she told Beyoncé in Interview Magazine. "And eight years later, it's really interesting that now, here we are again, not seeing what's happening in our country, not wanting to put into perspective all of these ugly things that are staring us in the face."

Released weeks before Donald Trump was elected president, A Seat at the Table felt as mournful as Butterfly did. It was an album that found the words for the heartbreak of never knowing if you'd see another Black First Family in your lifetime. She used the album to quell the thoughts of the unknown, granting the Black community the power to believe that there was value and space for our stories, with vignettes from her mother, father, and Master P. Adopting the "For us, by us" mantra of the 90s streetwear line, Solange wasn't creating an album for mass consumption. "Don't feel bad if you can't sing along / Just be glad you got the whole wide world," she sang. "This us / This shit is for us / Some shit you can't touch."

Whether or not their messages were as deliberate as the Knowles sisters', Black artists encapsulated the chaos of 2016. Kanye West's The Life of Pablo experimented with gospel using elements of the Black church, known as a sanctuary for the community during political turmoil, on songs like "Ultralight Beam" and "Father Stretch My Hands." On "Pt. 2," he screams "I just wanna feel liberated," and we did too, but his meeting (and eventual friendship) with Trump that December was enough to question what the Chicago rapper was fleeing. Liberation was a thread that ran through Rihanna's ANTI, which felt in opposition to her previous highly curated pop persona. The album broadened the scope of what a Black woman in pop could do; she could make an album where she brandishes her Bajan patois like a badge of honor with a song like "Work," and she could also cover Tame Impala's psychedelic greatness. That same flexibility, exercised by an artist like Frank Ocean since the start of his career, is visible on Ocean's Blonde, released in August of that year. Even in Ocean's lyrics, though comedic at times, he's brought back to the heaviness of the world. "Pour up for A$AP, R.I.P Pimp C, / R.I.P Trayvon, that nigga look just like me," he sings on "Nikes." The albums that soundtracked 2016 were still capturing the elements of Black pain, even if those moments were fleeting.

Black music has always been a form of resistance and will continue to be even after the Trump administration. It resisted plantations, the Jim Crow era, and the Vietnam War. The commercial success of Marvin Gaye's pivot from the ultra-sexy "Let's Get it On" to the "What's Going On," a socially conscious record, paved the way for artists like Beyoncé and Solange to create magnum opuses that meant more than its position on the charts. "What mattered was the message," Gaye said. "For the first time, I felt like I had something to say." There's an old belief that great art comes out of greater turmoil, which seems to be upheld given what we saw in 2016, but it's hard to not also wonder: what would Black artists create if they were just allowed to be?

Kristin Corry is a staff writer for VICE.

Tagged:
Hip-Hop
Kendrick Lamar
Donald Trump
barack obama
Black Lives Matter
2016 election
Rihanna
kanye west
r&b
frank ocean
Lemonade
Beyoncé
Solange
To Pimp a Butterfly
protest music
The Life Of Pablo
BLONDE
Anti
A Seat at The Table