When crises like the painful, incomprehensible deaths of Alton Sterling or the brutal, up close video of Philando Castile dying near his family, we look to our leaders for answers. Leaders serve the purpose of contextualizing chaos; they serve as an anchor against the brutality of the world by placing themselves in the line of fire, shining a light on the uncomfortable aspects of society we’d rather sweep aside.

Rather than court a neutral middle ground that will avoid detracting their audiences, many black mainstream musicians have turned their music into a platform that breaks the cyclical acceptance of violence, legitimizes rage, supports the strength of black people, questions the status quo, and calls for change in their listeners. Instead of shying away from their blackness, artists like Beyonce, Chance The Rapper, Kendrick Lamar and D’Angelo (to name only a few) lean into their race. In the process, they’ve created some of the most interesting and politically-potent art in years.

We are living in a peak of black artistry and it is more important than ever that we acknowledge it, praise it, and hope this artistry causes ripple effects for other artists both big and small. An impactful leader will levy their visibility or wealth or intelligence to lead when others can not. In the 21st century, our most popular and prominent leaders are entertainers and musicians; their millions of followers and repeated appearances in the public eye make them key figures for navigating the broader world. Their visibility ensures that someone–anyone–is listening.
It is important to remember that these artists did not have to do this. In 2014, producer Pharrell Williams called himself “New Black” in an interview with Oprah, stating, “The New Black doesn’t blame other races for our issues. The New Black dreams and realizes that it’s not a pigmentation; it’s a mentality. And it’s either going to work for you, or it’s going to work against you. And you’ve got to pick the side you’re gonna be on.” Williams was swiftly criticized for the statement, which places blame on black people rather than looking at the cultural forces like hypersegregation, systemic racism, generational poverty, and microaggressions that often limit the livelihood of black people.
Two years later, many of our most prominent pop culture figures have loudly rejected Williams’ narrative, “picked a side,” and dropped seminal works of art that engage with larger questions of personhood and survival in a world actively against the black body. This is black artistry at its peak; it leans in to its blackness, speaking for black people on micro and macro levels, plays with conventional structure or genre and defends itself rather than apologizing for its existence.
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Consider, for instance, the popularity and fandom of Beyonce. She has slowly and methodically built a unified fanbase that finds purpose and drive through her music, and uses it as a necessary balm to survive in today’s world. Most recently, she has used her Formation tour–which has grossed over $120 million already–as a place of protest. Recent shows include moments of silence for the lives lost to police brutality or murder. And even on social media (a form of technology Beyonce prefers to use sparingly), the singer has taken a stand by making her opinion known. On July 7th, she posted a simple image on her Instagram that said, “We all have the power to channel our anger and frustration into action.” She captioned the image with a link to her website offering information for fans to contact legislators and council members.

Beyonce’s transcendence over the last few years from pop entertainer to cultural icon was not an overnight phenomenon. Instead, through her last three music releases–2011’s 4, her 2013 self-titled album and 2016’s recently-released Lemonade–she has spoken truth to power. In particular, Beyonce’s latest visual album, magnum opus, and masterpiece Lemonade examines the cycles of abuse faced within the black female community and offers solutions and hope for the future. From the incorporation of prolific poet Warsan Shire’s poetry to the utilization of the next generation of black female performers (Quevenzhane Wallis, Amandla Stenberg, Ibeyi), she unifies the lineage of our collective black female past while beaming hope forward toward a brighter black female future.
But make no mistake–Lemonade is not an easily digestible work of art. This is a necessary album, one that perhaps no other black woman in the mainstream has even attempted to present on such a global scale. That a television network like HBO premiered it speaks to the importance of both the artist and the art itself. In her actions, we see a cultural figure who not only understands the challenges of living as a black woman in the real world, but a figure who chooses to convey just how deeply she relates to that experience–even on the most tangential or personal levels. Artists like Beyonce don’t ask for their artistic narratives to fit into the mainstream even if, by being mainstream artists, their choices and their creations are products for the mainstream. Instead, it requires the mainstream to fit into the artist’s narratives. Great art pushes us beyond what makes us comfortable.
If we are to break the pain of the present, we must learn from the past and move forward. Strains of this can be heard on Lemonade. Beyonce returns to traditionally black art forms like gospel, rock and country to shape her album. By standing out compositionally, she also allows the lyrics and visuals of her album to stand out, too. The listener is taken aback by the genre of the music. It requires a second listen for sheer strangeness alone.

In response to the controversy surrounding the music video for “Formation” and her Super Bowl halftime performance in which her group of black backup dancers wore black berets in the vein of the black panthers, Beyonce defended her actions in Elle. “I’m an artist and I think the most powerful art is usually misunderstood,” she told the magazine. “But anyone who perceives my message as anti-police is completely mistaken. I have so much admiration and respect for officers and the families of the officers who sacrifice themselves to keeps us safe. But let’s be clear: I am against police brutality and injustice. Those are two separate things.” Later, she doubled down on her feelings regarding the matter, saying, “If celebrating my roots and culture during Black History Month made anyone uncomfortable, those feelings were there long before a video and long before me. I’m proud of what we created and I’m proud to be part of a conversation that is pushing things forward in a positive way.”
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For Chance the Rapper, that push means sandwiching songs with lyrics likes, “How Great Is Our God?” right next to songs that assert “If one more label try to stop me, there gon’ be some dread-head niggas in yo lobby.” On his latest mixtape, Coloring Book, Chance brings the gospel choir into the rap world. Because he is not signed to a major label, Chance straddles the line between the mainstream and the underground. But as one of the most popular rappers on the scene regardless of label (headlining at the Pitchfork Music Festival, acquiring guest verses from Lil Wayne, Future, and Kanye West, among others), Chance’s mixtape is still a somewhat risky mixtape that, at least for the moment, appears to have paid off with praise from critics and fans alike.

Coloring Book makes the argument for black joy in the face of a criminally-unjust society that does whatever is in its power to eliminate that joy. “Angels,” a track from the album, is as much uplifting as it is poignant. The song appears halfway through the mixtape, where Chance’s message at its most distilled. “Wear your halo like a hat, that’s like the latest fashion / I got angels all around me they keep me surrounded,” he raps in the chorus. He is making change when he doesn’t have to, finding purpose beyond the noise of other people around him, and feeling blessed by what he has created and accomplished in the process. It is a heady reminder. Black mainstream artistry in the music industry means that all of these things can happen at once. They are not, as it seems, censoring themselves. As fully-formed human beings with narratives to give to the world, they can embody and showcase all of these aspects to their audiences.
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Kendrick Lamar’s untitled unmastered from earlier this year is a compilation album that also demands more of its listeners than the standard mainstream rap release. Leaning heavily into the same funk and jazz influences that structured his brilliant To Pimp a Butterfly from the previous year, the album highlights the effectiveness of incorporating black art forms of the past into the present. On both albums Lamar speaks frankly about black culture, depression, and racial inequality.

When “i,” the first single from To Pimp a Butterfly was initially released as a single, it seemed like an overly-jubilant grasp at palatable crossover music. Taken together with the whole of that album, it was instead a moment of respite in the face of unrelenting trauma, a call for radical self-care in the face of adversity. Lamar’s work is specifically rooted in the traditions of 70s funk which, post-Civil Rights Movement, served the same purpose for the American black community.
This practice is not necessarily postmodern. It connects the muscles of blackness from back then to right now. On To Pimp a Butterfly and untitled unmastered, those muscles of blackness stretch and mold against the same types of brutality in order to find self-love and a sense of true survival. History is not linear so much as it is a cycle, and how we interpret history is defined not by rote memorization of facts, but by what we learn from the past. Black art–from the church to the juke joint to the jazz club to the dance floor to our homes–is a source of refuge and possibility.
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D’Angelo took a similar stance in the creation of his third album, Black Messiah, his first in fourteen years. Inspired in part by protests of police killings of unarmed black men like Eric Garner and Mike Brown, D’Angelo and his label, RCA, rush-released Black Messiah. According to his tour manager, D’Angelo said, “The one way I do speak out is through music. I want to speak out.” And on Black Messiah we heard his clear thoughts on songs like “The Charade” and “1000 Deaths.” Each delivered their own walloping shocks, like a one-two punch. “Crawling through a systematic maze to demise / Pain in our eyes / Strain of drownin’, wading through the lies / Degradation so loud that you can’t hear the sound of our cries,” he sings on “The Charade,” summarizing the pain of global protests in support of black lives. He hones in on the way maneuvering through this world as a black person is literally a matter of life and death.

D’Angelo similarly incorporated historical genres into his new output. For every neo-soul jam like “Really Love,” there was a New Orleans fun-throwback like “Sugah Daddy.” And for every throwback, there was a markedly minimalist song that emphasized lyrics over production. By stripping his music of the sort of flourishes we’ve come to know and love–a feisty brass section, bouncy melodies that linger in the ear, falsettos that sound more like a coo than a croon– D’Angelo has shifted the conversation. I am doing something different here, he seems to be saying. Pay attention.
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As the black community continues to fight for our humanity, our struggle manifests in the forefront of American political consciousness. The week after the Fourth of July was one of the most painful and debilitating for black Americans and those in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. The back-to-back shooting deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile reiterated that the very ideas we’ve founded this nation on–freedom and equality for all–are still a work in progress. Targeted murders of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge do nothing but fuel anti-black rhetoric and distract from the very important, very real concerns of activists across the country. The non-convictions and dismissed charges of officers in the Freddie Gray case underscore the reality that even when advocates for black lives step into the forefront, their efforts can be for little.
Music is the art of the everyday. It is the form of art that is most easily accessible and digestible and the form of art that can quickly motivate and inspire its listeners. All art is necessary, but it is music that informs our lives and asks the necessary questions of living in this world on a consistent basis: What does it mean to be alive? What does it mean to be human? Why must we fight to find those answers? Because we can consume music everywhere–in our cars and on the streets and in our homes–we often take for granted the impact it has in our lives. Art is inherently political even if it is not expressed as explicitly as what we often see in galleries or museums. By challenging the conventions of the everyday–those same conventions that would ask us to not be who we are and to trust in the stifling ideals of the world–music transports us as much as it pleases us.
Illustration by Laura Resheske.

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