by Jed Gottlieb
This summer there will be no “Party Rock Anthem.” We won’t get a “Fancy” or “Blurred Lines” (thank the Lord!). This season, art taking on systemic injustice returns to turntables and playlists, minds and hearts. It’s a welcome return. Listen up.
“I Can’t Breathe,” H.E.R. — Built from a legacy of pop protest music, “I Can’t Breathe” echoes messages and aesthetics from Billie Holiday and Stevie Wonder to Chuck D and Janelle Monáe. But the ballad-shot-through-with-epic-hip-hop-interlude stands firmly in this moment. Before debuting the anthem last month on iHeartRadio Living Room Concert Series Presented by State Farm, H.E.R. said, “These lyrics were kind of easy to write because it came from a conversation with what’s happening right now, what’s been happening, and the change that we need to see.” And those lyrics don’t blink: “Destruction of minds, bodies and human rights/Stripped of bloodlines, whipped and confined/This is the American pride/It’s justifying a genocide.”
“Pulling the Pin,” Run the Jewels — New album “RTJ4” features Killer Mike and El-P delivering a masterclass in art-meets-politics and takedowns of injustice. One standout, “Pulling the Pin,” has the pair attack everything from gerrymandering to capitalism’s failures. After each verse, the mighty Mavis Staples comes in singing, in her wounded, glorious voice, “There’s a grenade in my heart and the pin is in their palm.”
“Love,” Jesse & Joy — The Mexican-American duo declared “love es nuestro idioma” (“love is our language” in the middle of Pride Month. The breezy folk-pop ballad and its video called attention to violence directed at the LGBTQ community in Mexico and around the world. With help from an army of Latin artists (Mon Laferte, Natalia Jiménez, Ángela Aguilar, Alejandro Sanz, Laura Pausini, Kany García, Ana Bárbara, Luis Fonsi …), the video makes an unequivocal statement at the end: “Sexual orientation is nothing something that should be cured. Conversion therapies are acts of torture and violation of privacy.”
“Mister Holland,” Gregory Porter — The new single from his forthcoming album “All Rise,” “Mister Holland” thanks the white father of Porter’s high school love interest. “It’s about the desire for mutual respect and the desire for a young man to be treated like an average teenager,” Porter said. It’s also a sweet slice of soul complete with Stax-style horns.
“Wake-Up Call (Black Like Me),” John Ellison — The leader of Soul Brothers Six (“Some Kind of Wonderful”), Ellison just released a thundering protest song, at age 78. The singer/songwriter’s grandfather was born a slave and, looking at slavery’s lasting legacy, he sees a country failing to make all people equal. The deep soul track carries his strong voice reminding America that, “Things have changed, new laws have been passed/But in the race for equality, we still come in last.”
“Stars,” Bootsy Collins — The Funkiest Man Alive (note: he’s tied with George Clinton) has a hippie jam he wants the world to hear. On the track he teams with 16-year-old singer EmiSunshine, philosopher Cornel West, banjo ace Béla Fleck, drummer Steve Jordan and singer Olvido Ruiz. Sonically and spiritually, the plea for unity lands somewhere between flower children folk, Top 40 pop and Parliament grooves. All proceeds from streams and downloads of “Stars” go to MusiCares’ COVID-19 Relief Fund.