Hear Us Out: June Saw Musicians Imagining — and Advocating for — a Better World
Nationwide Black Lives Matter protests have inspired new music and industrywide changes
This is Hear Us Out, a column charting the storylines and releases that mattered — to us, and hopefully you — in the world of music over the past month.
The nationwide protests over the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks and countless other Black people in America at the hands of the police touched nearly every facet of our lives in June. “Defund the police” — once considered a radical idea — has become a rallying cry as outraged citizens demand action from politicians. BIPOC journalists also spoke out about the systemic racism they’ve encountered within their industry, with outlets like Bon Appétit and Refinery 29 forced to reckon with their past mistakes. Confederate monuments are finally coming down (only about 155 years too late), and HBO Max recently pulled another ode to the antebellum South, Gone With the Wind, from its streaming service. Even Aunt Jemima, the 130-year-old maple syrup brand with origins steeped in racist stereotypes, is no more.
It makes sense, then, that the music world would be equally impacted by current events, and June saw artists imagining a better world in the form of protest songs as well as reevaluating the one they’ve been inhabiting, and in some cases examining and grappling with their own privilege. With that in mind, these are the biggest storylines and most notable releases from the past month.
Black Lives Matter
The death of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests across the country made it clear this month that there are plenty of decades-old songs about racism that are sadly still relevant today, but we got a slew of new ones as artists were inspired to speak out. Beyoncé celebrated Juneteenth by releasing “Black Parade,” while Leon Bridges shared “Sweeter,” writing, “I cannot and will not be silent any longer. Just as Abel’s blood was crying out to God, George Floyd is crying out to me.” Anderson .Paak tackled the protests on the moving “Lockdown,” singing, “You should have been downtown/The people are rising/We thought it was a lockdown/They opened the fire.” Usher dropped “I Cry,” Lil Baby examined police brutality on “The Bigger Picture,” and Public Enemy returned to fight the power with “State of the Union (STFU)”.
Perhaps most moving was Keedron Bryant’s “I Just Wanna Live.” The 12-year-old gospel singer’s plea — which includes lines like “I’m a young black man/Doing all that I can to stand/Oh, but when I look around/And I see what’s being done to my kind every day/I’m being hunted as prey” — went viral shortly after Floyd’s death and earned him a record deal with Warner Records, and Bryant’s already going what he can to give back. All of the net profits from the studio version of the song are going to the NAACP.
Across the industry, other artists and entities did their best to raise funds for the cause as well; Bandcamp donated its share of Juneteenth sales to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy pledged that five percent of his songwriting royalties will go to organizations working towards racial justice, writing, “To industry leaders: please join me in forming a coalition. My small contribution alone is a sincere but insufficient gesture. Hundreds of us joining together could provide some tremendous relief. Thousands of us committing to a reparations initiative could change our business and the world we live in.”
Beyond songs and donations, though, many artists were forced to confront their own privilege and past failings. Country group Lady Antebellum announced they would stop romanticizing the slave-era South and drop the word “antebellum” from their name. “We are regretful and embarrassed to say that we did not take into account the associations that weigh down this word referring to the period of history before The Civil War, which includes slavery,” the band wrote in a statement. “We are deeply sorry for the hurt this has caused and for anyone who has felt unsafe, unseen or unvalued. Causing pain was never our hearts’ intention, but it doesn’t change the fact that indeed, it did just that. So today, we speak up and make a change. We hope you will dig in and join us. We understand that many of you may ask the question ‘Why have you not made this change until now?’ The answer is that we can make no excuse for our lateness to this realization. What we can do is acknowledge it, turn from it and take action.”
Of course, the action they took was to rename themselves “Lady A” despite the fact that a Black blues singer has recorded and performed under that moniker for over 20 years. “How can you say Black Lives Matter and put your knee on the neck of another Black artist?” the original Lady A, real name Anita White, wrote on social media. “I’m not mad..I am however not giving up my name, my brand I worked hard for. #GodWillFightMyBattle #TheRealLadyA #LadyABluesSoulFunkGospelArtist #TheTruthIsLoud.”
The Dixie Chicks followed Lady A’s lead and ditched the “Dixie.” Now known simply as The Chicks, they released “March March” and an accompanying music video full of footage from the protests. Ben Folds wrote a statement about his deeply problematic yet popular cover of Dr. Dre’s “Bitches Ain’t Shit” — announcing that he’s pulling it from streaming services — and released a timely new song called “2020” (Sample lyrics include “We’re not repeating history, just the parts that sucked/2020, what the actual fuck?”).
“Those who have read my memoir may be familiar with the chapter where I explained why I stopped performing a particular Dr. Dre classic a few years ago,” Folds wrote. “My management and I have now also asked my former record label to take the next step and remove the recording from any streaming platforms where it has been placed. That process began today…I can now understand the harm in covering a song like ‘Bitches Ain’t Shit.’ I have no interest in shaming audiences who have enjoyed this cover song the same as I naively enjoyed performing it. I think Dr. Dre is a musical genius and I’m proud of my melody, But, nevertheless, I’d like to apologize for putting it out and readjust course. For all the turmoil of 2020, this moment in our history affords us a once in a lifetime opportunity to become more aware, and admit when we’ve been part of a problem, so we can instead be part of the solution.”
Testing the Post-COVID Waters
While most in the industry spent June imagining a racially just world, others tried to picture what live music might look like post-coronavirus. The BET Awards proved that an awards show with remote performances was possible, and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that MTV’s VMAs will be held in person with “limited or no audience” at Brooklyn’s Barclay’s Center on Aug. 30.
Knicks owner James Dolan expressed his (extremely dumb and unsafe) desire to host a benefit concert at Madison Square Garden with an audience that has been tested for COVID-19 antibodies, and country singer Chase Rice sparked controversy by playing a show in Tennessee to several thousand people — none of whom appeared to be wearing masks or practicing social distancing. As The Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle observed, “The people in this audience, along with the presenters of this show, are assuring that conscientious musicians won’t be able to work their jobs for a while, and that conscientious audiences won’t be able to see shows for the foreseeable, and to be blunt, that fucking sucks.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has been devastating financially for musicians, but the countless canceled tours and festivals have also meant lost revenue for the music publications those events are typically advertised in. Add to that the fact that Stereogum had recently returned to its independent roots, being bought back from its former parent company by founder/editor-in-chief Scott Lapatine, just before the virus hit, and you’ve got a potentially fatal situation for the music blog. To save itself, Stereogum launched an Indiegogo campaign where fans can purchase an album of ’00s covers by the likes of The National, Ty Segall, Hamilton Leithauser, Best Coast’s Bethany Cosentino, Jeff Rosenstock, Death Cab for Cutie and Sharon Van Etten to help keep the site alive.
Even if you’re not interested in preserving independent music journalism (which you should be), the compilation features a killer lineup of artists (check it out in full here) offering up rare covers that won’t be streamed or reissued elsewhere. Plenty of fans have already jumped at the opportunity to get their hands on it; the site is already more than halfway towards its fundraising goal of $250,000 after a little over 24 hours.
This month at InsideHook, we took a look at how independent music can survive without live concerts, examined how the internet saved yacht rock and wondered why Gen Z loves Jimmy Buffett. (As always, you can find all of our music coverage here.) But there were plenty of fascinating reads outside of InsideHook HQ that are equally worth your time: Patterson Hood’s thoughtful essay for NPR about Drive-By Truckers’ problematic name, “Now, About the Bad Name I Gave My Band”; Hilary Hughes’s interview with Killer Mike and El-P for Esquire about releasing their new album in the middle of nationwide protests over the death of George Floyd and “capturing the sound of American rage”; David Browne’s Rolling Stone piece “Man Out of Time: The Music and Mystery of David Blue,” which looks at the life of the late singer-songwriter who befriended Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell but never was able to reach their levels of success.
Key Album Releases
Bob Dylan, Rough and Rowdy Ways
When Bob Dylan first announced his first album of original material in eight years, we weren’t sure what to expect. It turns out that even though he’s pushing 80, the legendary songwriter still knows how to pen a real stunner, whether it’s the sprawling “Murder Most Foul,” which uses the JFK assassination to examine how we find comfort in music during times of national crisis (surprisingly relevant today!), “I Contain Multitudes,” which sees him confronting his own mortality, or the poignant “Key West (Philosopher Pirate),” which finds him headed South for one last hurrah.
Haim, Women in Music Pt. III
Haim’s latest effort is more than just a clever title and one of the best album covers in recent memory: it’s a bold statement from the trio that finds them juggling a wide variety of influences (from Wilson Phillips and Fleetwood Mac to ’90s R&B girl groups) and tackling industry sexism head-on with “Man from the Magazine.” Tracks like “Don’t Wanna” and “The Steps” are among the strongest the group’s ever written, while “3 am” offers a side we’ve never seen before.
Phoebe Bridgers, Punisher
It’s impossible to choose a few songs to highlight from Phoebe Bridgers’s outstanding sophomore album because they’re all that good, full of emotion that’ll knock you on your ass as well as lyrics that’ll make you laugh through the tears. “Sunset’s been a freak show on the weekend/So I’ve been driving out to the suburbs/To park at the Goodwill and stare at the chemtrails,” she sings on “Kyoto.” On “Moon Song,” she references Eric Clapton and admits that, “We hate ‘Tears in Heaven,’ but it’s sad that his baby died, and we fought about John Lennon until I cried.” Bridgers gets some solid assists from her boygenius bandmates Lucy Dacus and Julien Baker, as well as her Better Oblivion Community Center collaborator Conor Oberst, but it’s hard to pay attention to anyone but her on Punisher.
Other notable album releases: Neil Young’s long-lost Homegrown (read about that and other “lost” albums here); Run the Jewels’ excellent and very timely RTJ4; Khruangbin’s groovy Mordechai.
Songs You Need to Hear
Bill Callahan waxes poetic on marriage on “Pigeons”; John Legend gives us a modern take on doo-wop with “Ooh Laa”; John Prine’s estate released the last song he ever recorded, the moving “I Remember Everything”; The Fiery Furnaces returned with their first song in 11 years; Kamasi Washington, Terrace Martin, Robert Glasper, and 9th Wonder formed the supergroup Dinner Party and released their first single, the extremely relevant “Freeze Tag”; Jonsi announced his first new album in a decade and gave us a taste of it via “Swill”; Mikal Cronin reimagines his “Guardian Well” with a vintage synthesizer for the “Switched On” version of the track. You can listen to all that and more in the playlist below.