The Pandemic, the Protests and the Police: Songs of the Summer 2020

A still from Anderson .Paak's 'Lockdown' video, released on Juneteenth, 2020. (Directed by Dave Meyers )

I can’t tell you if it’s music for the movement, music for “the moment,” or just music to make money. But I can tell you artists have been working. And I’ve been listening.

Between the COVID-19 pandemic, the nationwide protests and the push for defunding the police, a wave of songs has arrived, all of them documenting the beginning of summertime in 2020.

Last week, Beyoncé released the track “Black Parade,” a lil’ southern flavor to accompany the Juneteenth holiday. Queen B doubled down on its message of Black empowerment by teaming up with stylist Zerina Akers, who runs the @black.owned.everything page, to create a Black business directory called the Black Parade Route.

J. Cole and Noname had a back-and-forth, during which Cole dropped “Snow On The Bluff,” a call for Noname to make her message accessible to the masses. Noname responded with “Song 33,” a track that pretty much asked J. Cole why he was rapping about her, asking her to change her "tone," when there are far more important issues to be addressed.

In the past month, Lil Baby, Tee Grizzley, Trey Songz, YG and Meek Mill all dropped songs about police brutality and systematic racism. Wale released a six-song EP, The Imperfect Storm, which covers those issues and more. DaBaby released a “Black Lives Matter Remix” to his chart-topping song “Rockstar” featuring Roddy Ricch.

And Anderson .Paak crossed off all the boxes on his “Summer Song 2020” bingo card—he put out a song called “Lockdown,” on Juneteenth, that managed to mention COVID, police brutality, looting, slavery, protests and the unemployment rate.

Up here in the Bay Area, one of the most politically engaged and artistically inclined regions in the country, you already know artists have been getting active.

E-40’s new track “Give Me 6” is a musical request that suggests maintaining the proper physical distance for pandemic socializing. Oakland's Damian Lillard dropped “Blacklist,” a track about the racism he faces, even as a wealthy African American man. And Berkeley's Rexx Life Raj released a single about police brutality simply called “War”.

But it's the artists who aren't as popular who've really been talking that shit.

I saw Oakland's ST Spittin' in traffic recently, where he said he had something for me. His latest single "Huey P. Malcolm Martin" features a sample of Stevie Wonder's "Visions"—and I was sold on it from the first note.

Berkeley’s Netta Brielle shifted the tempo with her new release, “Get To You,” a song that’s more about embracing love than protesting hate—a needed sentiment in these times. Another track using R&B to express emotion during tumult came from Oakland's Tai Marie, who recently put out a soulful R&B single titled “Warzone.”

Dipping her toes in the classical-piano realm is San Francisco's Angélica Ekeke, who just put out the song "Modern War." She says the track is inspired by her upcoming film on African American contributions during WWII at one of the nation's largest shipyards, right here in Marin. But the words she sings, in her trademark soprano tone, are eerily relevant to today.

From Sacramento, Rob Woods' The Black Tape mixes rap lyrics about hope and oppression over R&B vibes, and an undertone of that church feeling throughout the project. (He even incorporates a cold saxophone on the song "Stuck.") And Pittsburg's Hotboikal shot the video for "Hands Up, Man Down" in the middle of a protest march in Santa Rosa, with lyrics about racial profiling and police brutality.

Sharing that sentiment is Richmond's Wallah Umoja, who dropped a new video for an older track, Senses, delivered in a boom-bap cadence. Following that flow is Dom Shalom’s “The Next,” a chill vibe that I'd also describe as boom-bap rap.

And if you like music that bends genres, Oakland's Dom Jones came through with soulful jazz-rock for the spirit. Her latest track "Sayin' Nothin'" is the stuff movie soundtracks are made of.

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Speaking of movies, the content in Nicholas Easter’s "Native Tongue" video isn’t a song as much as it is a compilation of speeches and interviews from the civil rights era to today's Black Lives Matter movement—featuring the likes of Maya Angelou, Ryan Coogler and Tupac, all layered on top of modern-day footage.

Want more spoken-word quotes? Clif Soulo offers a new release titled Bunchy Carter Grooves that's full of clips from interviews with former members of the Black Panther Party.

Want something more militant? Oakland's Beastella got a verse from Jay Jonah, and dropped "1825." The track is up there with the most aggressive songs I've heard all month, and I'm here for it. As Jay Jonah says on the track: “She Harriet and I’m Nat,” comparing the duo to well-known abolitionist Harriet Tubman and rebellion leader Nat Turner.

So yeah, I've been listening. I caught the a capella Twitter post from San Leandro's Casey Cope about being a Black man in these times, and I slapped Oaktownsoul’s trippy-hop bass-heavy joint “Mask Up.” I soaked in Gina Madrid’s "Dame La Mano" and was reminded the need for unity across different demographics. And through Coco Peila’s track "Whose World?" I was reminded that in the midst of everything, global warming is still an issue.

I listened to Redtone Records’ “Right Now!,” a bouncy jazz track with some New Orleans flavor, out of East Palo Alto. Man, I even listened to We Will Break Free, written by Byron Au Yong and Aaron Jafferis and performed by an acoustic ensemble over videoconferencing:

A body isn’t made for a jail, or a box.
A body will defy all the fences, all the locks.
We will break the walls that lock us into cells.
We will break the laws that keep us from ourselves.
We will break free.

Taking in all these songs was like reading reports from a classroom full of students who all got the same assignment. There was no wrong answer. In fact, the only wrong would be not saying something.

Chances are, the real "song of the summer"—dubbed so by the music industry itself—will probably be a pop hit. (I've got $10 on something that incorporates that Hip Hop Harry remix.)

It likely won't be a protest song, or a song of Black celebration, and for sure not Black liberation.

In spite of that, there are many artists, all across this nation, making music that documents what it means to be living right now.

I hear ya'll.

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