Three days after the murder of George Floyd, hundreds of Atlantans pulled up to Lenox Mall, the site of past protests, blasting music. They weren't listening to the protest songs you hear in Hollywood films or find on year-end lists. Instead, they were blaring Chief Keef from an arena-ready sound system. Hundreds of people gleefully collided with each other, rapping:
Gas what I smoke, n-a
Feds at my door, jump out the window, n-a
No, you can't get no money, silly ho
I just hit a stain, faneto
A similar scene broke out when the same song, "Faneto," played during the burning of the Minneapolis Police Department's third precinct. In the live video, one can see the bright flames coming from the police station as youth jump on cars, rapping together. The song's colossal beat fits with the celebratory atmosphere of the crowd, moshing together in delight. But Chief Keef's lyrics offer a counterpoint to this current of joy. Although they aren't explicitly topical, they capture a feeling of living outside and against the law, fitting in front of the burning precinct:
"Run for the po', n-a
Gas what I smoke, n-a
Feds at my door, jump out the window"
"Faneto's" dual spirit of joy and defiance has made it a go-to song at protests across the nation, alongside other drill and trap songs with similar messages. Alphonse Pierre wrote about the late Pop Smoke's "Dior," which has been played in the streets of Brooklyn. Elijah C. Watson reported that Future's "March Madness" was getting play in Minneapolis and Louisville.
Although drill and trap have served as the soundtrack of youth uprising this summer, mainstream accounts of "protest music" still usually leave these genres out. The reason is simple; white journalists prefer protest music that makes them feel optimistic.
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Scott Richards of The Washington Post spells out this logic by arguing contemporary protest music fails to match up to political anthems of the past, like "We Shall Overcome," which "promised victory just over the horizon." He closed his article by describing his vision of protest music in more detail, writing, "That's how every protest song should be measured—by its empathy, its imagination, and its utility. It has to be compassionate enough to get inside your head, visionary enough to help you dream up what's possible, powerful enough to shake the public airspace."
This rubric for what makes effective protest music may seem familiar or innocuous, but it hides a dangerous premise. Richards implies that protest music should always be palatable to its (white) listeners, overlooking anthems that validate the anger of the oppressed and challenge people with power. If one were to take Phillips' claims at face value, songs like Rage Against the Machine's "Killing in the Name," which rails against those complicit in police violence, couldn't be defined as protest music.
In a year with a relentless onslaught of catastrophes, from the ongoing state-sanctioned murder of Black people, to the slow violence of COVID-19, to the omnipotent threat of climate disaster, protest music should not be expected be optimistic. If anything, this year's epidemic of police violence has shown just how entrenched and protean anti-Blackness is throughout the nation's culture.
The Minneapolis Police Department that murdered George Floyd had, for many years, advanced a 'community policing' model. Atlanta Police officer Garrett Rolfe was trained in de-escalation and 'cultural awareness' before he murdered Rayshard Brooks. Many abolitionists are calling attention to the intractable nature of police violence, which remains impervious to minor structural reforms. The insights of the abolitionists demonstrate why incendiary trap songs are capturing the attention of youth, and why protest songs that make promises, like those that Phillips covers, are not those heard on the ground today.
Critics' demands for protest songs that are "visionary enough to dream up what's possible" ignore political music that reflects on the bleakness of current circumstances, suggesting that white critics would rather be assuaged by political music than challenged by it. Phillips' allusions to "We Shall Overcome" and Kendrick Lamar's "Alright," are representative of larger trends in mainstream white coverage of protest music, which often favors songs that can be interpreted as uplifting, like Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come" or Beyoncé's "Formation."
But these songs register differently when the audience is Black. Phillips' characterization of "Alright" as 'compassionate,' shows what happens when white critics overhear messages that aren't meant for them. Whereas "Alright" communicated a crucial message of resilience for predominantly Black protestors in 2015, and "Formation," an empowering affirmation of Black women and Black queer people, white critics err when describing these songs as holistically tenderhearted or optimistic.
As Allison P. Davis points out, "Formation" is about "unabashed [B]lack female pride." Its message empowers Black women specifically; it's not directed toward people outside of that identity, especially those complicit in misogynoir. In a similar fashion, "Alright" should be recognized as an intraracial call for resilience. The song reflects on Black communal perseverance in the face of the unwavering threat of police violence. When Kendrick raps "We been hurt, been down before," the "we" is not universal.
In The Devil Finds Work, James Baldwin shows us why a more conciliatory brand of "protest" is most appealing to white audiences. Baldwin analyzes the ending of In The Heat of The Night, a 1967 race drama which follows a northern Black cop (played by Sidney Poitier) who is racially profiled and falsely arrested for murder. When Poitier is finally released, he offers to help the small-town Mississippi police chief find the true culprit. The movie ends with a maudlin farewell scene between Poitier and the chief, who, hours earlier, tried to force him into a confession. Despite the horrors Poitier has faced, he smiles at the sheriff and wishes him well. Baldwin shows that this ending is quintessential among race dramas of the period, which always centered feelings "of reconciliation, of all things now becoming possible."
Rather than seek songs that validate legacies of pain or justify feelings of revolt, critics like Phillip hunt for a narrative of reconciliation, imagining themselves landing that coveted invitation to 'the cookout.' They look for anything that fuels feelings of blamelessness and constructs a comforting future.
With this dynamic in mind, it's no wonder that openly confrontational trap and drill songs like "Faneto" don't get coverage. Yet, whether critics acknowledge it or not, these songs have bled into the consciousness of this summer's rebellion, capturing crowds through their fusion of righteous anger and unbothered celebration.
These messages of celebration and defiance gain even more power given the intense criminalization many trap and drill artists face. For instance, as Pierre notes, although "Dior's" lyrics are celebratory, the song also functions as a dirge for Pop Smoke, who experienced intense police surveillance and passed away as he was gaining nationwide fame. When played at protests, "Dior" carries the weight of Pop Smoke's unjust death, signaling that his artistic legacy continues on despite the persecution he faced.
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Future's "March Madness" possesses a similar depth. On its surface, "March Madness" radiates invincibility. Rapping on an implacable 808 Mafia beat, Future sounds determined, almost heroic. When the drums kick in, it's hard not to react like LeBron did at the 2015 NBA Finals. Yet the song takes on more weight considering Future made it shortly after his close friend DJ Esco spent 56 nights in a Dubai jail. A more in-depth look reveals the urgent roots of Future's lyrics, born out of resentment with police violence and criminalization ("all these cops shooting a n-a, tragic"; "these fuckin' police can't touch me"). Like "Dior," "March Madness" registers as a testament to enduring the carceral state and celebrating life despite the specter of the police.
These songs cannot fit into a limiting conception of protest music defined by compassion and optimism. "March Madness" expresses the deep, numbing pain of living in the police state, but it offers no grand solution to the violence it witnesses. Similarly, "Faneto" validates feelings of rebellion, but could never be described as healing. These songs refuse to offer a panacea for the ills of anti-Blackness. They recognize the limits of protest music, which cannot abolish systems of terror or build foundations for a new world by itself. These songs know that our systems cannot be purified through an uplifting mantra, a catchy tune, or even a structural reform—only a committed, unrelenting program of insurgency could begin to address the atrocities at the core of the state. And for the minutes that "Faneto" plays, protestors can experience a defiant energy together, despite the conditions of terror surrounding them.