Perfect Sound Forever


J. Cole Lauryn Hill

By Doris Schmidt
(June 2015)

Music has the power to bring people together and help them heal, even when the wounds are deep and painful. But when the same wounds are reopened again and again, the music had better be extraordinarily powerful.

This has been the challenge facing musicians in the wake of the shooting death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black man killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo. in August 2014. The violence in Ferguson has continued through March 2015, raising a question: When Brown's family asked the public to "channel your frustration in ways that will make a positive change," was anybody even listening?

Luckily, the answer is yes. Many musicians did exactly what the Browns asked, writing songs to honor the family's most heartfelt request, "Let's not just make noise, let's make a difference." Here are 10 songs inspired by the Ferguson protests and intended to make a difference.

10. "Same as It Ever Was (Start Today)" by Michael Franti

With this song, Franti chose to focus on overcoming injustice rather than blaming people for it. "I really wanted to write something that would touch hearts, make people think and be moved to work for change in our country," Franti explained. He takes the issue personally, as he made clear in lyrics that ask, "If the world's full of anger/And everybody's got a gun/Then what should I say y'all/To my teenage son?" And his listeners take the song personally, as they made clear in comments such as, "This country is desperately in need of an anthem that captures this moment in our history. Franti offers us this beauty." The song's conclusion is simple, and perfect: "When we all see justice/Then we'll all see peace."

9. "Black Rage" by Lauryn Hill

In this bitter twist on the sweet "Sound of Music" tune "My Favorite Things," Hill makes it clear that racial oppression is not one of her favorite things. Her rage is slow-burning and thoughtful, expressed with a halting restraint more chilling than a scream. The lyrics describe economic, legal and social discrimination throughout history in a way that's simple and real: "Black Rage is founded on two-thirds a person/Rapings and beatings and suffering that worsens/Black human packages tied up in strings/Black Rage can come from all these kinds of things." Hill had actually been performing "Black Rage" for a couple of years before the violent protests, but dedicated the song to Ferguson in a tweet calling for "Peace for MO."

8. "Marching on Ferguson" by Tom Morello

Just a few years ago, Morello was marching on Wall Street as the voice of the Occupy movement. With "Marching on Ferguson," he put his money where his mouth is, donating all funds raised by the track to help pay the legal defense of Ferguson protesters. The track itself evokes sounds of the protest, with guitars wailing like sirens over a blues beat. The urgency expressed in the lyrics is real; as Morello explained, "I've witnessed countless incidents of racially motivated police brutality in my lifetime and it's time to say 'Enough!' in the name of those wrongfully killed and abused."

7. "Be Free" by J. Cole

The song couldn't be more direct, the delivery couldn't be more emotional, and the rapper's visit to Ferguson two days after releasing the song couldn't have been more timely. Hailed by one music critic as "the first fully formed protest song I've heard addressing the death of Mike Brown," "Be Free" had a quarter-million listeners within a day of being posted to SoundCloud. J. Cole's call to "break the chains off ... be free" struck a universal chord, and his message to fans was heartfelt: "Rest in Peace to Michael Brown and to every young black man murdered in America, whether by the hands of white or black. I pray that one day the world will be filled with peace and rid of injustice. Only then will we all Be Free."

6. "Black Messiah" by D'Angelo

Not content to write a single song protesting a single tragedy, D'Angelo released a full protest album that was dedicated to Ferguson but went much further. "It's about people rising up in Ferguson and in Egypt and in Occupy Wall Street and in every place where a community has had enough and decided to make change happen," the R&B singer said. With lyrics like "All we wanted was a chance to talk/‘Stead we only got outlined in chalk" from the track "The Charade," D'Angelo's album has been praised by music critics and Ferguson activists alike, marking a triumphant comeback for the singer.

5. "We Gotta Pray" by Alicia Keys

Making a plea for peace and understanding, Keys brings the power of understatement to her ballad. Inspired by her response to Ferguson protests and the Eric Garner grand-jury decision, "We Gotta Pray" puts out the call to "save somebody tonight." The singer, whose video includes quotes from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. along with protest footage, said in an interview, "I hope that this is our 21st-century civil rights movement."

4. "Ferguson's Burning" by Ezra Furman

Like many folk songs, this one tells a story and ends with a message. And like many folk songs, the story is fueled by anger ("Michael Brown died in the Ferguson streets/Officer Wilson got weeks of paid leave/The message was clear, broadcast over the nation:/Kill a young black man, win a vacation") while the message is cautionary ("So keep a close eye on our laws and our leaders/No justice for Mike Brown, there's none for you either"). There's a reason for this time-honored structure: It draws listeners into the story and leads them to discuss the message. As Furman wrote on his blog, "We need to talk more about racism is America... The more we talk about our troubled past and present, the better chance we have of creating a more just future."

3. "Don't Shoot" by The Game feat. Rick Ross, 2 Chainz, Diddy, Fabolous, Wale, DJ Khaled, Swizz Beatz, Yo Gotti, Currensy, Problem, King Pharaoh & TGT

To everyone who criticized major hip-hop artists for going silent on Ferguson: This song's for you. Some of the genre's biggest stars collaborated on the ambitious track, which calls on all rappers to come together and do something more meaningful than the ice-bucket challenge (which is mentioned twice). The Game said that he felt a responsibility to speak out on Michael Brown's death. The artists who collaborated on "Don't Shoot" dare listeners to join them in working for real change, saying, "I challenge you to use your talents to/Speak up, and don't you ever let them silence you... Unity is a blessing/So it's time to come together, use our voice as a weapon."

2. "I Am Mike Brown" by G.A.G.E.

Offering an unflinching look at both the protesters and the system they're protesting, G.A.G.E. starts the song with an indictment of his own: "We gotta stop all the rioting in the streets/We ain't doing nothing but proving we're animals to police." Worse than animals, though, are demons – specifically, "these demons hidin' behind a badge" – leading to the conclusion that "It's not a black and white thing, it's about abusing the law." The best way to stop the abuse, G.A.G.E. believes, is to change the system through political awareness and action.

1. "Edge of a Revolution" by Nickelback

What compelled Nickelback to take on such a weighty topic? Well, as frontman Chad Kroeger explained, "You turn on CNN and it's like, 'Wow!'" Responding to news footage from Ferguson that showed "rioting like crazy," Kroeger shared his insight with the lyrics, "We'll all be dead if this... don't change/Hey hey hey hey." Clearly, it's time to make a change.

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