A Station for Everyone
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

2020 Was The Year Of Protest Music

Photo Illustration by Renee Klahr / NPR / Getty Images

In 2020, there were many ways to understand the year in music; this week, we're considering four. One of the most striking ways we'll remember the music of 2020 — a year of serious social reckoning, especially during the resurgence of Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May — was by the sounds of protest. Artists across styles and genres expressed rage, resolve, mourning and solidarity. Some continued career-defining legacies of pushing back against state violence; others began using their voice and platform to decry entrenched systems of power. These 20 songs and albums represent some of the best protest music of 2020.

Lil Baby, "The Bigger Picture"

The biggest rapper of the year wrote, recorded and released this protest anthem less than three weeks after the killing of George Floyd and two weeks after protestors took to the streets in Atlanta, and it sounded like something a pop perfectionist could have worked on for months. The reconciliatory verses might have been easy to tune out coming from someone whose star power aligned with corporate interests or high horses, but Lil Baby is a self-made superstar, the realest deal in ages, and the messenger matters as much as the message. —Otis Hart

Ambrose Akinmusire, "Hooded procession (read the names outloud)"

Though he usually has a trumpet in his hands, on "Hooded procession (read the names outloud)" Ambrose Akinmusire brilliantly plays a Fender Rhodes, all by himself, with profound reverence. With each keystroke and chord, hammers strike internal tuning forks, or tines, creating an ethereal, celestial resonance. This instrumental is a soundscape to honor all Black men and women who have been killed by police, become victims of vigilantism, racism, hatred, violence, the list of atrocities is too long. Please remember these souls and say their names out loud. —Suraya Mohamed

Dinner Party, "Freeze Tag" (ft. Cordae, Phoelix & Snoop Dogg)

The video for The Dinner Party's "Freeze Tag" brought back some not-so-fond childhood memories. Over a 9th Wonder drum loop, Phoelix sings, "They told me put my hands up behind my head / Then they told me if I move, they gon' shoot me dead." The lyrics are simple and straightforward although I'm fixated on the they he sings about. It could obviously be the command from a cop. But could they be the Black parent who has that first "talk" with their child about what to do when they encounter a police officer in order to stay alive? In any case, I've played this song a lot in 2020 and it's a reminder that the relationship between law enforcement and the Black community has yet to be repaired. —Bobby Carter

Noname, "Song 33"

In 70 seconds, Noname reminds us to focus. "When it's people in trees? / When George was beggin' for his mother, saying he couldn't breathe / You thought to write about me?" she raps over a jazzed low-tempo beat. In protest of both tone and institutional policing, "Song 33" carves out space to revolt, breathe and reflect: revolt against the man who wanted to muffle her, breathe in the realization that there's a long road to equity and reflect on her role moving forward. It's a grounding anthem, a reminder that the work is generative and exhausting, wholly necessary but potentially isolating. —LaTesha Harris

Tyler Childers, Long Violent History

Much of Tyler Childers' Long Violent History is delivered without words. Surprised-released this fall, the album consists of eight instrumental tracks and its titular song, an original composition that unambiguously positions the artist in a place of solidarity with those fighting for racial justice. Lest those lyrics and their intent be misconstrued, Childers does the explaining elsewhere: In an accompanying video message, he explains, "If we didn't need to be reminded, there would be justice for Breonna Taylor, a Kentuckian like me, and countless others." —Lyndsey McKenna

Juicy J, "Hella F*****' Trauma (Enough Is Enough)"

Juicy J unleashed the self-produced, unflinching "Hella F*****' Trauma" in June, at the peak of 2020's protests against physical and institutional violence against Black people. By flipping his own material as a member of revered Southern rap crew Three 6 Mafia — as hip-hop's leading emcees have done with fervor in the past few years — Juicy includes his voice in the alarm being sounded across the globe: "Enough is enough," he chants throughout the track. —Kiana Fitzgerald

Chris Pierce, "American Silence"

2020's protest playlist is as diverse as popular music itself, but there's still room for a good old folk music broadside. This one hits hard by confronting its likely audience. "Will our song arrest you?" L.A. singer-songwriter Pierce inquires, a chorus of his fellow Black men driving home the double meaning of the verb. "American Silence" is the song white allies need to hear because it so beautifully says that loving protest songs isn't enough. —Ann Powers

Ana Tijoux, "Antifa Dance"

Last year, Ana Tijoux "Cacerolazo" sounded the cazuelas in solidarity with the Chilean population protesting economic strain under President Sebastián Piñera. In March, Ana Tijoux's "Antifa Dance" arrived at the flashpoint of a year since defined by a pandemic, a volatile global economy and social uprising. Always matching urgent action with urgent celebration, "Antifa Dance" follows up the sound of protest with its movement in a dynamic collision against fascism and colonialism. —Stefanie Fernández

Adia Victoria, "South Gotta Change"

"South Gotta Change" functions as both an ambivalent love letter and a statement of purpose. Adia Victoria presents a defiant vision of dragging her home into a more equitable future in the form of a classic Southern rock jam — complete with foot-stomping drums and roaring slide guitar — which also makes this a reclamation of a genre that is built on Black musical traditions but has come to be associated with Confederate flag concert backdrops. — Jon Lewis

Starlito, "Paternity Leave (Intro)"

Starlito sounds exhausted on "Paternity Leave Intro." Understandably — he took time off from music to raise his new daughter, and during his return, the world erupted in flames. It's a cycle he raps about having seen before — the marches, the looting, the police violence, the incremental reform. And with corporations swiping the rhetoric, he doesn't feel better, but "war-torn and tormented." The song becomes protest by probing at the very concept, and by Starlito speaking his truth even if he doesn't have all the answers. —Mano Sundaresan

Jyoti, Mama, You Can Bet!

The pandemic, for many, offered a time for contemplation and reflection. That was certainly no exception for Georgia Anne Muldrow. With Mama,You Can Bet!, she borrows from her rich jazz lineage to mine through the divisiveness that was 2020. Released under the pseudonym Jyoti, given to her by the late Alice Coltrane, the multi-instrumentalist melds West African polyrhythmic layers with deep rooted spirituality, as she envisions an Afrofuturistic domain—felt in the here and now. —Shannon Effinger

Soul Glo, Songs To Yeet At The Sun

Philly hardcore punks Soul Glo pack more catharsis into this 12-minute EP than most sprawling albums could dream of, cursing the wealth gap, the clout economy, racist police, spineless politicians, unfair cannabis sentencing, overpriced SSRIs and more with absurdism and piercing rage. —Marissa Lorusso

Beauty Pill, "Instant Night"

Chad Clark notoriously labors for years over his music, but was compelled to artistic action in the months leading up the election. "Instant Night," a lush fantasia in the middle of a nightmare, illustrates our doom-scroll nature in distracted non-sequiturs, capturing the mood instead of the moment soon passed. —Lars Gotrich

Immanuel Wilkins, "Ferguson - An American Tradition"

Immanuel Wilkins is an alto saxophonist with a glowing tone, a sharp working band and all manner of smart ideas about song form. On his exceptional debut album, Omega, he updates the postbop language for his generational cohort — and makes a point of speaking out about the long arc of racial injustice. "Ferguson - An American Tradition" reminds us that #BlackLivesMatter is rooted in a continuum, a cycle of oppression. The slippery convolutions in the song also speak to the power of resistance; not for nothing does this track come right after one titled "Warriors." —Nate Chinen

Amy Ray, "Tear It Down"

Now here's a truly resonant hillbilly elegy. To the mournful sound of a country guitar, Indigo Girl Amy Ray confronts the South that made her — and the white pride she was taught by antebellum romances, battle hymns and Confederate statues — and makes it clear that what needs to go in the grave is racism: "The epitaph I long to read is, here lies slavery." —Ann Powers

Pink Siifu, NEGRO

Hopping from hardcore punk to lo-fi hip-hop, from spoken word to sound collage, Pink Siifu's NEGRO presents a portrait of American racism as broad and incicisve as any piece of writing to come out this summer. The fact that Siifu released this album over a month before protests against racial injustice began sweeping across the nation speaks both to his prescience and to just how deeply rooted and constant these issues always have been. —Jon Lewis

Vivir Quintana, "Canción sin miedo" ft. El Palomar

Vivir Quintana wrote "Canción Sin Miedo" for her friend Sandra Rivera, a victim of femicide in Coahuila, Mexico, where they attended university together. On International Women's Day this year, the song echoed throughout Mexico City as Quintana and thousands of women marched and sang. The song has stayed in the air, not only in Mexico, but across Latin America in a year of protests against gender-based violence: "Que resuene fuerte: ¡Nos queremos vivas! ¡Que caiga con fuerza el feminicida!" —Stefanie Fernández

Model Home, "REV"

"REV" is a manifesto beamed from D.C.'s innermost sanctum of rap and electronic wizardry. In a presumably frenetic session where the band cut 15 other tracks, Model Home alchemized a call to arms out of anger, joy, Patrick Cain's synth magic, Dolo Percussion's rubbery drums and NAPPYNAPPA's voice flying above it all like airwaves. —Mano Sundaresan

Raye Zaragoza, Woman In Color

The social justice movement now shaping the future is fundamentally intersectional. Raye Zaragoza, whose mother emigrated from Japan and whose father is indigenous Mexican and Native American, intimately knows the multiple points of American identity. Her gorgeous, rousing ballads confront subjects ranging anti-immigrant violence and the murder of indigenous women to the racism within folk music itself. She also does joy beautifully — her love songs and freedom songs ring as true as her protests. —Ann Powers

Angel Bat Dawid & Tha Brothahood, LIVE

Angel Bat Dawid, the Chicago-based clarinetist, vocalist and composer, has argued that her very existence, as a Black woman, embodies an act of protest. But she went a good deal farther than that this year. Her multimedia piece Elijah Tha Prophet: A Myth Science Sonic Visual Sermon is a searing testament to the memory of Elijah McClain in Aurora, Colo. And a full-length album, Live, captures her band The Brotherhood at Jazzfest Berlin in 2019, merging spiritual supplication and free-jazz caterwauls with the raw confrontation of performance art. Hear her guttural, despairing exhortations on "Black Family" — "Affirm my family! You don't love us!" — and just try not to feel shaken to the core. —Nate Chinen

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.