Jamelle Monae’s “Hell You Talmbout.” Jamila Woods’ “Blk Girl Soldier.” J. Cole’s “Middle Child.” Beyonce’s “Formation.”
If you are unfamiliar with that list, it includes what I consider the best bangers to come out of music in response to the first wave of Black Lives Matter. Or the Movement for Black Lives.
If I had made an earlier Top 5 list, those songs would have all tied for the number one spot. Why? Because they were the most interesting, intriguing, challenging, insightful, which is to say non-cliche, non-generic, non-superficial, speech acts representing, creating, expanding, challenging, and reshaping the fundamental assertion that Black Lives Matter.
But I didn’t. So, to kickoff 2021, I present to you a different but related list: 2020 pro-Black anthems ranked from most cliche, to least cliche, to mid cliche. If you’re wondering why I’m doing it that way…well….you’ll have to stay tuned.
Now, I am of course not unaware that there are a lot of potential issues with me, a white person, ranking pro-Black anthems.
For one, the label “pro-Black anthems” is imperfect. But calling them “Black Lives Matter songs” felt too official and songs rather than anthems felt underwhelming. Also, not all of my picks are protest anthems to the letter. Protest anthems, typically, have to agitate for change. Some of my picks are more about empowerment. But who is to say, in a world that is built on the widespread denigration and oppression of Black people, that empowerment isn’t protest?
For two, should white people be talking about race and Blackness and Black issues? If they have a valuable contribution. If not, then yes, shut the fuck up. I guess we’ll find out soon enough which one I am. So without further adieu…
2020 pro-Black anthems ranked from most cliche, to least cliche, to mid cliche.
Starting at Number Five or most cliche we have 2020 Riots: How Many Times by Trey Songs
2020 Riots didn’t get the number 5 spot because it is “a bad song.” Cliches aren’t in and of themselves good or bad–they’ve just got pros and cons like any other rhetorical strategy.
2020 Riots got the number 5 spot because it’s the most cliche, which means, among other things, that it is the most comforting, the most familiar, the easiest to process. Those are all assets in the wake of tragedy, of trauma. He invoked a kind of rhetorical call-and-response structure that is common for other civil rights anthems. And the rest of the song, which we didn’t hear, calls out many acts of violence against Black America that are general enough to feel uniting and specific enough to pay tribute to lives lost.
None of that is bad. In fact, 2020 Riots demonstrates the power of cliche, which is to reassure, to cohere, to unite. It’s like the protest song version of being rocked like a baby.
But the downside is that it doesn’t advance our critical thinking on the issue. 2020 Riots uses one strategy over and over against which is the repetition of the same rhetorical question: how many times? And when you see the same terrible shit happening again and again, that is probably the strategy that exactly captures the sentiments of the moment: incredulity, anguish, disbelief, torment.
The trade-off of a cliche is always that you trade the discomfort of new thought for the comfort of familiar thought. It’s not a bad thing. It’s just a decision.
So, depending on your criteria, my number 5 might be your number 1.
At Number Four or just-a-little-bit-less-cliche we have SOTL (Silence of the Lambs) by Lil’ Wayne and Ludacris.
Now, to say that SOTL is one spot higher than 2020 Riots, once again, doesn’t make it better. In fact, you might notice that as we moved up a notch, we also lost that sense of reassurance and comfort from 2020 Riots.
I would argue that now we are in the realm of pretty straightforward banality. The references to Black empowerment and oppression–Bill Huxtable, Kaepernick, Gandhi–they come and go in service of the rhyme. Take the line, “I love R. Kelly but around my daughters, I’m not comfortable”…? All so he could rhyme Huxtable. And he’s not comfortable how? As in he’s no longer comfortable around HIS daughters because he loves R. Kelly? Or he is no longer comfortable having R. Kelly around his daughters?
It’s quippy but it’s banal. “Either in control or getting fucked no abstinence”—quippy. It’s not reassuring or processing your pain. It’s not challenging your thinking.
SOTL is just kind of rolling around different signifiers in a pleasant package. And half of the song isn’t even about civil rights issues–those are held together with the tritest of hip hop: Ludacris in the club blah blah. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good ‘in the club’ song but here it feels like complete filler.
When this song dropped I posted kind of a mini version of this rant on Facebook. Another culture critic wrote the following comment:
“Wayne has said on multiple occasions that he doesn’t experience racism. Ludacris convinced his now wife to quit med school before they got married. Forgive me if I’m not looking for insight on liberation from these two…”
Indeed, Wayne has said not only that he doesn’t experience racism but also that it just, like, isn’t a thing. Here’s The Guardian:
“Lil Wayne told the Associated Press that one of the reasons he feels this way is that a white police officer saved his life when he was 12, after he accidentally shot himself in the chest. “Yeah, he was a cop, and my life was saved by a white man. I don’t know what racism is,” Wayne said.”
It just goes to show that no one is immune to cliched thinking, even victims of oppression. We have to guard against that shit at every turn or else it roots like a Kudzu vine and then you’re on Reddit threads copying and pasting the same tired ass lines at 3 am.
And Gandhi never said “Be the change you wish to see.” Gandhi was an agitator. It doesn’t make sense that he would conflate the work of fighting systems of oppression with individual action. In the words of fiction author Brian Morton: “Displayed brightly on the back of a Prius, it suggests that your responsibilities begin and end with your own behavior. It’s apolitical, and a little smug.”
The closest verifiable Gandhi quote is this:
“If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change.”Gandhi (actually)
Not quite the same is it?
Alright, up next at Number 3 or kind-of-cliche-kind-of-interesting we have… a tie!
I thought about turning this into a Top 6 list so I wouldn’t have a tie but honestly I couldn’t figure out how to rank these, so I’m just going to leave them hanging out in the middle.
At Number Three are Get Up by T-Pain and Rooted by Ciara and Esther Dean
First, let’s look at “Get Up” by T-Pain.
I really wanted to rank this song higher because of the choral structure. Without turning this into twenty minutes on the rhetorical of pop music, suffice it to say that most “inspirational” pop songs have a soar and a beat drop. Think of “Sweet Nothing” by Calvin Harris featuring Florence Welch of Florence + the Machine, which is about surviving domestic violence.
There’s a verse, the verse builds, the chorus soars, and then it resolves into the next chorus. The song structure creates the kind of “overcoming” that reinforces the lyrics.
If you want to know more about this read, Robin James’ Resilience & Melancholy: Pop Music, Feminism, Neoliberalism
T Pain’s Get Up does a similar thing. There’s this beautifully orchestrated move toward climax that drops into this near melody-less repetition of “get up.” It doesn’t really satisfy. It kind of gets you all revved up to basically go nowhere. The beat just drops off. It repeats that process two or three more times.
I love this twist on the typical soar/bass drop structure especially when it’s paired with a semi-gospel chorus feel that T Pain brings into the mix.
The song structure of Get Up captures the frustration and disappointment of protest. It’s not either empowerment or oppression, triumph or devastation–it’s both, all the time.
But the chorus gets me stuck. “The only thing that matters is what you gon’ do when you get up.” I mean…I guess. But lots of people don’t get up…that’s wort of the whole point. And also it often doesn’t matter what you do when you get up. Going back to the thing Gandhi never says–a movement is never a larger expression of individual action. A movement is a synergy of individual action and then also a bunch of shit.
The chorus is so clever at undermining this whole individual resilience schtick that it makes me wonder if T-Pain is doing something ironic here? Like maybe we’re supposed to experience this weird disconnect between the cliche chorus and the structure of the truncated soar? If that’s the case, Get Up gets the #1 spot on the list. But my guess is that the song itself brings out a contradiction that the artist hasn’t yet reconciled. So I’m leaving it at #3, where it ties with the other #3 pick: Rooted by Ciara feat. Esther Dean
In a behind-the-scenes video on Instagram, Ciara said:
“‘Rooted’ is a song that celebrates Black joy. It celebrates our uniqueness and strength.”
And, as you’ve just heard, that’s precisely what it does.
Also, if this were a list that also considered the music videos, Rooted would be much higher. Ciara did the whole video, the dancing and everything, way pregnant with her belly just chilling and gyrating around. She was legit two days from delivery for some of the filming.
It’s the kind of video you could put on in like a public gym and you’d immediately know the racists because they’d huff and get off the treadmills. That, by the way, comes from an event I actually witnessed many years ago involving the video for D’Angelo’s “Untitled How Does it Feel”
Rooted is also notable because it was done by two women. I looked HARD and there weren’t very many options.
For example, even though I saw it mentioned, I chose not to include Megan Thee Stallion’s single “Savage.” That might be surprising because Meg made a big splash on Saturday Night Live singing the track to a video montage about protecting Black women. She even had a silent interlude to play audio from BLM activists. For a list of 2020 pro-Black performances, that’s a top hit but for a format limited to audio only, “Savage” didn’t make the cut.
The reason “Rooted” isn’t higher on the list isn’t because it’s bad, it’s because it strikes a balance between familiar and challenging. You will understand this better once you hear the #1 pro-Black Anthem of 2020 Ranked by Cliche.
At No 1 is Beyonce’s Black Parade
Black Parade was a surprise release the final hours of Juneteenth 2020. If you are unaware, Juneteenth is the oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of the end of slavery in the United States.
Among all of the critical reviews of Black Parade that I have read, one phrase came up again and again: “an unapologetic celebration of Blackness.” And that is precisely what it is.
But now, so is Rooted. In fact, you might have noticed some similar signifiers used in both songs. So why is Black Parade at #1 and Rooted is at #3?
It has to do with accessibility. Remember that one of the benefits of cliches is accessibility, translatability. Things that are cliche are very easily understood. They get you maximum meaning. That doesn’t mean it’s nuanced or sophisticated meaning, just the greatest amount of available.
When you’re talking about anything pro-Black in America, you’re going to run into a crossroads between making Black culture accessible, translatable to White hegemony or making it about elevating and celebrating Black culture in its distinctness from Whiteness. There is no right answer here. It’s just an ever-present decision.
For example, in 2016, President Obama invited Black Lives Matter leadership to the White House.
Aislinn Pulley, a co-founder of Black Lives Matter Chicago, was on the invitee list but she declined and also wrote in an Op Ed for Truth Out that her attendance “would only serve to legitimize the false narrative that the government is working to end police brutality and the institutional racism that fuels it.”
It’s a never-ending tension between working WITH White hegemony and standing against it, or disrupting it to use a verb borrowed from the now-deleted “What We Believe” page of the Black Lives Matter Global Network.
And how that tension is navigated comes down in many contexts to how frequently cliches are deployed. And when you juxtapose Rooted and Black Parade, you notice that Black Parade is a little more untranslatable for White hegemony. The signifiers require a little more research. The proper nouns come and go. It’s not impossible to translate everything in the song into white-mainstream experience but it’s more challenging than Rooted.
That doesn’t make Black Parade the better song; it just makes it a little bit different. If the Black Lives Matter Global Network can’t solve the never-ending tension between disruption and appealing to the status quo, I don’t expect Ciara or Beyonce to figure it out if it even CAN be figured out.
Cliches are like any other rhetorical strategy. They need to be used strategically. Hence the word strategy. It all depends on the goal.
And finally at Number 2: Tiggs Da Author, We Ain’t Scared
What immediately struck me about this song is the strong sense of Juxtaposition. Simply put, juxtaposition is like compare and contrast happening at the same time. In We Ain’t Scared, the beat and the lyrics have been made to fit together, comparison, by the artist, but they also strongly contrast. So it puts your brain in this weird place where these two things fit together and they don’t fit together.
In other words, you get a music performance of what WEB Du Bois and Frantz Fanon and Obama has each described as the “double consciousness” of Black America–the simultaneous sense of being apart of and apart from.
Tiggs said in an interview with Scottish Music Network:
“I like the idea of a beat doing one thing and you’re saying the complete opposite. For me, what’s important is making songs with a message that gets through, whether immediately or eventually”
We have essentially a tighter version of that unsettledness from T-Pain’s Get Up but this time I’m more certain that the intrigue of the layout was done on purpose. But T-Pain, if you’re listening and I’m wrong let me know–I’ll tie you for #2.
There are, of course, lots of other songs that could have been considered and I am not the only person ranking pro-Black and Civil Rights Anthems this year. Billboard’s list of “10 Black Lives Matter Protest Songs that You Have to Hear” was different from my list, other than our mutual appreciation of Get Up. But their list doesn’t have any women on it, which I find troubling. Also, a lot of their choices depended on the music video or, in the case of The Killers “Land of the Free” they tacked on new lyrics related to the Floyd murder, which, while appreciated, doesn’t qualify.
You can also check out my Spotify playlists that includes some of my older favorites and some newer picks that didn’t make my Top 5 list:
In the end, the point of the ranking isn’t really the ranking. I’m not the Oscars. It’s a thought experiment to demonstrate the tensions constantly plaguing civil rights protest and it also demonstrates the pros and cons of cliches as a rhetorical strategy.
I think that all 6 songs offer different values. Taken together, they demonstrate a wide range of possibilities for reacting to, processing, and shaping the tragedy and violence that, unfortunately, will continue to call for our attention in 2021 and beyond.
The question isn’t which one is the right answer–none of them are–but how together they carve out a set of options for standing up and speaking out for what you believe in.
Phew. That episode gave me the feels. As always, I hope you found it thought provoking. If not, please reach out to me on social media or by email and let me know. I’m @rhetoriclee everywhere including gmail.
If you enjoyed the blog or the podcast episode, please screenshot and share on your social media and tag me. Help other potential rhetoric nerds find us and join the conversation.
Happy new year, take care of yourselves, and Black Lives Matter