By Eddie Wong.
Summer 2020 is not what we wanted it to be. Like you, I had high hopes in early May that shelter-in-place orders would be removed by summer and that we could go to the beach, enjoy some mountain scenery, and gather again with friends. Alas, that was not to be. Instead of hearing the sounds of joyous concerts, we hear muffled cries of desperation as families struggle to put food on the table, pay the rent, and wonder how they will find medical care if they become deathly ill.
In the strange summer of 2020, the terror deepens as infection rates soar and the death rate mounts. All this sorrow while our callous, clueless President spews more hate and vicious lies. As Michelle Obama said so aptly, “It is what it is.”
The sounds of summer 2020 include cries of “No Justice, No Peace,” and “Say Their Names” as millions marched across the global to protest police murders of Black people and the entrenched inequality that is once more revealed by the pandemic. Musicians of all genres have responded to this moment with impassioned social critiques. They have also provided musical respite for weary souls.
These following video clips are just a fraction of all the work established artists and talented newcomers are producing. Musicians all over the world are “out of work” but also hard at work using their art to navigate the myriad emotions that toss us between hope and despair. I picked pieces that resonated with me for different reasons, not only for the quality of the music, but also for the emotions conveyed by the presenters. So, I offer this to you as we did back in the day when we shared mixtapes as a way to share our faves from old and new artists. Feel free to add your musical recommendations in the comments section of this article.
Protest is Powerful
The following pieces offer street-level analysis of the turmoil and people’s anger. I’ll start with Anderson .Paak’s “Lockdown.” This song just pulls me as the drums and vamps on the piano taking us on a cruise downtown where the protest is going down. The mellow but insistent beat melds into Anderson. Paak’s non-didactic, casual observations:
Oh my! Time heals all, but you outta time now
Judge gotta watch us from the clock tower
Little tear gas cleared the whole place out
I’ll be back with the hazmat for the next round
We was tryna protest and the fires broke out
Lookout for the secret agents they be planted in the crowd
Said it’s civil unrest
But you sleep so sound like you don’t hear the screams when we catchin beat downs
Stayin quiet when they killin niggas
But you speak loud when we riot got opinions comin from a place of privilege
Sicker than the covid how they did him on the ground
Speaking of the covid is it still goin around?
Oh why don’t you tell me bout the lootin what’s that really all about?
Cause they throw away black lives like paper towels
Plus unemployment rate what? 40 million now
Killed a man in broad day, might never see a trial
The drums drop out and subdued, plaintive chords on the piano usher in Jay Rock as he testifies:
Look at the world we’re living in
They got us shook in it
You go on your jog, then your color might get you took in it
The man in the mirror can’t look away you gotta look at it
Black lives matter so what it means when they shoot at it?
Generation genocide, what happened to enterprise
Heard the man infiltrated, Black Panthers reenergize
Ain’t nothing to figure out
They trying to kill us out, if I take a knee,
I see my fist I’ma kill it now
Just think, bullshit you gotta filter out
Are you really ready for the smoke like a swisher house?
Ready for the revolution
who ready to riot?
It won’t be televised, so tell me who ready to die?
If downtown going up, where we at with the shits?
We at the liquor store nigga, bout to get us a fifth
Know they boutta start looting, get the gloves and masks
Watch out for them tanks when they rolling past
“Lockdown” tells us that repression will be met with resistance, because “Who said it was a lockdown, got damn lie (Ooh wee)Lockdown we ain’t gotta stop cause they tell us to…You shudda been downtown, the people are rising.” We’re going to be singing this song all year long.
Chicago artist Wyatt Waddell builds his song “Fight” solidly on a gospel foundation. He described the origins of the work on his website: When all the protests were happening, I spent a lot of time trying to process everything that I was feeling. I noticed that I always make songs from my point of view. It is the artist’s job to reflect the times that they live in. I knew that was something I always wanted to do, but I had to grow into that role. This song is me looking at what’s happening and what I’d tell the people protesting. I had to look outside of myself at what’s going on and how people are being affected. Hearing people’s fears, anxieties, and watching everything happening on TV really helped me write the song. I hope that it can be an anthem for my people as they’re fighting for a better America.
Finger snaps and hand claps set the rhythm. And then, boom; it’s on!
They got tanks coming through right here
Through right here
Through right here
They got tanks coming through right here
And there ain’t nothin else we can do
But to fight
Nothin to do but fight
Stand up to fight
It’s your moral right
To stand against divide
All the proceeds from this single are dedicated to Chicago Community Bond Fund -Black Lives Matter Chicago -Greater Chicago Food Depository.
Terrace Martin, Kamasi Washington, and Denzel Curry wrote Racism on Trial for “Black Power Live,” an evening of spoken word and music hosted by Patrisse Cullors, a co-founder of Black Lives Matter. Funds raised at the June 27, 2020 performance and livestream support the work of Crenshaw Dairy Mart, Trap Heals, Transgender Law Center, Sankofa.org, and Black Men Build.
The jazz opus is a four-part piece and I encourage you to view all the segments. The final segment “Pig Feet” is an explosive presentation of spoken word, video coverage of the world-wide protests in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, and mind-blowing music featuring the following: Denzel Curry – vocals; Daylyt – vocals; G Perico – vocals; Kamasi Washington – sax; Marlon Williams – guitar; Terrace Martin – keys; Robert Glasper – keys; Paul Cornish – keys; Trevor Lawrence Jr. – drums; Jonathan Pinson – drums; Allakoi Peete – percussion; Dominique Sanders – upright bass; Paul Cartwright – violin; Yvette Devereaux – violin; Molly Rogers – viola; and Peter Jacobson – cello.
British singer/songwriter Jorja Smith and filmmaker Samona Olanipekun collaborated on a remake of the St. Germain tune “Rose Rouge,” who copped lines from Marlena Shaw’s 1974 release “Woman of the Ghetto.” It’s the lead single for the upcoming release of Blue Note Re: Imagined. The masterful weaving of images from world-wide protests for Black Lives Matter with Jorja Smith’s impassioned plea for collective resistance create a compelling and soulful work. “I want you to put your hands together, Put your hands together one time” works like an incantation over the pulsating beats.
“We have to continue the conversation around injustices that are and have been inflicted upon Black people all over the world,” wrote Smith. “This video is a tribute to all the people who have paved the way for Black empowerment and freedom. We are not going to stay quiet – Black Lives Matter – they always have. Samona, who directed the video, captured the togetherness and power of the movement and I hope when you watch, you feel with us.”
The Personal is Political
The next set of music videos proceed from the inner thoughts and feeling of the artists as they adjust to this moment of great anxiety and pain. I’ve chosen a variety of artists to show how creative responses to this crisis abound across musical genres.
Alternative country artist Lucinda Williams offers a blues-drenched set of four songs from her new album Good Souls Better Angels in this Tiny Desk (Home) Concert. The last song, “Man Without A Soul” is about the fool and tool in the White House. Her deep revulsion towards Trump mirrors our feelings. We’ve had enough of this bullshit!
You bring nothing good to this world
Beyond a web of cheating and stealing
You hide behind your wall of lies
But it’s coming down
Yeah, it’s coming down
You’re a man without shame
Without dignity and grace
No way to save face
You’re a man without a soul
How do you think this story ends?
It’s not a matter of how
It’s just a matter of when
‘Cause it’s coming down
Yeah, it’s coming down
“Bad News Blues”, “Big Black Train”, and “You Can’t Rule Me” are also featured in the set with Lucinda Williams – vocals, guitar and Stuart Mathis – guitar.
San Francisco writer/musician Thao Nguyen usually performs with her high-energy band, Thao & the Get Down Stay Down, but in today’s shelter-in-place, she’s retooled some of her songs for the intimate setting of a Tiny Desk (Home) Concert. After she performs the first song, “Temple”, which is written about her mother’s experiences as a refugee, Thao Nguyen speaks candidly about how this period of time has led her to deep reflection. She speaks about the turmoil that ensued among her family and community when she came out as queer and about the need for Vietnamese Americans to look at the history of Black resistance to racism and how that paved the way for so many others. It’s a riveting, gutsy, and authentic expression of awareness and hope. Thao just pours her heart and soul into each song.
Oakland art-rock band Grex presents its new album “Everything You Said Was Wrong” in the online Lockdown Festival 3 on September 5. The concert features Grex, which is composed of Karl A.D. Evangelista (guitar and vocals) and Rei Scampavia Evangelista (keys and vocals), and collaborators such as Francis Wong (saxophone), Luke Stewart (bass) and Bay Area duo LOAN. The event is also a fundraiser for the ACLU and to continue the work of legendary percussionist Milford Graves. Check on Grex’s Facebook page for details on Lockdown Festival 3.
The following video highlights two selections from Grex’s new album. “Blood” and “Moon Baby” showcase the fierce beauty of Grex’s experimental songcraft. I enjoyed several songs on the album including “Walking Ayler in Tarzana,” which features Evangelista’s mellow guitar tones mixed with washes of moody synthesizer from Scampavia. On “Ikki”, Evangelista’s guitar covers a full range of tones from soft, rounded notes to bursts of distortion bound together with a soothing middle passage of Scampavia’s vocals. You can buy the new album at grex.bandcamp.com. Both Karl and Rei are political activists as well as artists. They’ve channeled their rage into some challenging music.
Joy and Beauty Make Us Resilient
Covid-19 is some scary shit, but we can’t let fear and anxiety paralyze us or rob us of our humanity which is best expressed by caring for one another. That message rings out clearly in “Stand Together” – African Anthem of Solidarity against COVID-19, a music video featuring artists from several African nations. The buoyant melody affirms the need to unite because “nobody is safe until everybody is safe.” The song also points to a future when the plague is defeated and we are no longer separated by social isolation.
The featured artists include: 2Baba (Nigeria), Ahmed Soultan (Morocco), Ben Pol (Tanzania), Teni (Nigeria), Yemi Alade (Nigeria), Amanda Black (South Africa), Stanley Enow (Cameroon), Gigi La Mayne (South Africa), Prodigio (Angola), and Betty G (Ethiopia). The song was produced by Cobhams Asuquo and the video was produced in partnership with MTV Base and the Nelson Mandela Foundation.
“I’m really excited to be representing women in African Hip Hop on the song,” said Gigi LaMayne, who is from South Africa. “It’s such a beautiful thing seeing Africans coming together in the form of one of the most powerful healing tools – music. I encourage Africans alike to use this time to envision an Africa beyond this pandemic. We are strong. We are able and we are royalty.”
Rodrigo y Gabriela have thrilled audiences around the world with their guitar pyrotechnics. Locked down in their home studio in Zihuatanejo, Mexico, they share their musical gifts with us via a Tiny Desk (Home) Concert. “Music is healing,” said Gabriela. “We’re doing this from the bottom of our hearts sending you the most great energy to you.” I defy you to resist clapping your hands to their amazing runs up and down the fretboard and the percussive beats on Gabriela’s guitar. The set list includes the following: “Tamacun,” “Diablo Rojo,” “Hanuman,” and “Mettavolution.”
It’s time for a little reggae into this musical mix, and rising star Lila Iké delivers the goods from Manchester, Jamaica. Her powerful vocals blend soul, hip hop and rhythm & blues over the pulsating reggae beat. Unable to tour this year, she promotes her new EP “The ExPerience”(RCA Records) via this Tiny Desk (Home) Concert. These are smokey love songs with a spine of steel and sass. And we certainly need some love in times like these. This stellar band includes Lila Iké: vocals; Kristoff Morris: drums; Dane Peart: bass; Wade Johnson: keyboard; Stephen Forbes: percussion; Stephen Welsh: guitar; Ovasha Bartley: vocals; Tori-Ann Ivy: vocals; and Sean “Ziah” Roberts: violin.
We move next to Gothenburg, Sweden and the home studio of Little Dragon, an electronic music band formed in 1996 with Yukimi Nagano (vocals, percussion), Erik Bodin (drums), Fredrik Wallin (bass) and Håkan Wirenstrand (keyboards). Little Dragon moves in many directions including downtempo, dream pop,rock and Yukimi Nagano, who was born in Sweden, ties it all together with her warm vocals. I first heard her on the jazzy, up tempo Koop track “Summer Sun” and later found out that she sang “Afloat”with the Japanese jazz band Sleep Walker. Even in the low-key confines of their rehearsal room (yes, there’s a tiny desk in front), Yukimi Nagano exudes a charming optimism and she signs off with “stay safe everybody, lots of love” and flashes a peace sign.
The Brooklyn-based band Dirty Projectors weaves a magical spell via the talents of Felicia Douglass: vocals, percussion; Maia Friedman: vocals, keys, guitar; Kristin Slipp: vocals, keytar; David Longstreth: guitar, bass, piano; Mike Daniel Johnson: drums. Trading lead vocals on various songs and blending their voices in blissful harmony, Dirty Projectors delivers on its promise. “I hope this music brings you a little bit of comfort, puts a smile on your face, just gives you a little bit of respite in your day,” says Maia Friedman. “Let’s all remember to be extra, extra kind and compassionate to one another right now.”
Switching moods, we go to Dallas, TX and the inner sanctum of Erykah Badu, high priestess of whatever she wants to be at the moment. And in this moment, she brings forth her “tribe” for several sessions that cover selections from her lengthy career. Her at-home concerts bring us joy and also raise funds to support the musicians she’s groomed over the years. It’s all about family for Ms. Badu. In “Quarantine Freestyle,” Erykah Badu reminds us that James Brown laid down the law: “Everything starts on the one,” and with that admonition, she’s off conducting her band and grooving to the beat. This concert almost runs 30 minutes, perfect background music for cleaning your house, paying the bills, or just chillin’. Enjoy.
I’m going to end with two shorter pieces that I hope will bring some joy and beauty into your day. “Parabéns” is a composition of Brazilian pianist Marcos Valle, an internationally recognized master of bossa nova, samba, and pop music. Joining him is jazz guitarist Tom Misch, a prolific creator of Quarantine Sessions (check out his YouTube channel). There’s such a generosity of spirit in this song and Misch and Valle blend perfectly even though Tom is in London and Marco is in Rio de Janeiro. Here are the opening lyrics:
To those who embrace peace
And help others whenever they can
To those who don’t ambition too much
To Dorival Caymmi and Tom Jobim
João Giberto, what an endless talent!
For everything that you taught me
Lastly, we have Jhené Aiko’s “Summer 2020,” which is a love song that references our current situation. Check out these lyrics:
i can’t wrap my head around what’s happening
i can’t sleep can’t get no peace of mind
tryna beat the heat and summer madness
only thoughts of you can get me by
and it feel like sometimes i cry cuz i feel so good to be alive
and there’s not a doubt inside my mind that you’re still here right here by my side
times are changing, strange is getting stranger
generations faced w/ genocide
tryna make my way through pain and anger
then i look into my baby’s eyes
and it feel like sometimes i cry cuz i feel so good to be alive
when i fall in line with my Divine
i can see a side the sun shines more
All the OGs are bobbing their heads and saying, “Oh yeah, Kool & The Gang, ‘Summer Madness’ that’s my jam.”