The Clumsy, Beautiful Protest Songs Of Ferguson

The best argument isn’t always the tidiest.

November 25, 2014

My favorite song on Migos' Rich Nigga Timeline tape is the outro, "Struggle." It's not uncommon for tapes to end with soul-bearing, grandmother-pleasing tracks, but "Struggle" is quintessential. It starts with organs (producer Zaytoven has a regular Sunday church gig), and the sung hook goes like this: Everybody been through it/ Everybody used to it/ But ain't nobody new to it/ We all gone go through it/ And that's the struggle.

For much of the song, "the struggle" refers to the growing pains of each Migo. Quavo says he had to make money to make up for not having muscle, Takeoff looks back on a diet of chicken nuggets, Offset remembers being beat on by his brother. But "Struggle" isn't a diary entry, it's a call for Migos' fans to be together and stick together. Quavo is talking to all those fans, it seems, when he says: RIP to Mike Brown, I heard my nigga fuck with us/ Middle finger to the police, dare them niggas fuck with us. He sings like his own humanity is tied to Brown's, like the lives of everyone he's singing for have been threatened. By the next line, he's moved on to talking about his necklaces.

For a protest song in response to a crisis, "Struggle" is not a sophisticated or even cogent critique. But with its stubbornly succinct opposition to cops, it's as emotionally authentic as the wounded tweets that overflowed my timeline last night, after the news that Darren Wilson, the white cop who shot unarmed black teenager Michael Brown dead, would not even be indicted. One thing this senseless murder shows us is that the struggles we're up against are often determined by our race, age, gender, class, and more—not everybody goes through this. Still, last night everyone I know was swollen with heartbreak and imprecise anguish. On Twitter, some advocated for police body cameras or solicited donations to Ferguson's library, but people also struggled to find words, catching their emotions up in little packages like: "I'm sorry" and "The worst" and "Voices are powerful."

We tweet on nights like last night because we are sad, or want to show we are better than apathetic. "Lately it seems we (young kids, black kids, the next generation) are being willfully erased from history," a friend wrote today in an email blast, advertising the latest issue of his literary magazine, which was released today. My peers talk to each other incessantly to rage against that feeling that we might disappear, or to fight back the feeling that, for all our Instagram followers, Darren Wilson's team might always be more powerful than ours. At best, this social media conversation is a comfort, and at worst, it's something people (or brands) participate in opportunistically, in a race for hashtag-boosted visibility.

"Don't Shoot (Ferguson Anthem)," the all-star posse cut released back in August, felt transparently like a cash-in on a trending topic. Maybe that criticism is unfair—in the wake of Brown's murder, fans called incessantly for rap's top tier to call for justice, and heavyweights like Diddy, Rick Ross, Wale, and The Game stepped up to do that, together, with that song. But maybe the fact that they teamed up to do it makes the song seem less courageous than "Hands Up," from the unproven Atlanta rapper Yakki Divioshi. Produced by 808 Mafia, with goofy ad-libs and drums that might otherwise underscore day-to-day boasts, "Hands Up" is the song explicitly about Ferguson that I've listened to most. Well-researched shoutouts to Renisha McBride aside, its essential howled thesis is just "What the fuck is this world?" For better or worse, I find that reassuring. Maybe I love it so much because it sounds like songs I'd usually listen to, or it seems to me like what Mike Brown might have usually listened to. Ultimately, it's not a fully baked protest song, and Yakki's not a perfect politico. Like Migos on "Struggle," he's just stretching, with the rest of us, to make a collective feeling louder.

Lead image: Joe Raedle / Getty Images

The Clumsy, Beautiful Protest Songs Of Ferguson