Movement music is used to tell the stories of everyday people experiencing oppression. Written to be part of cultural and political human rights movements around the world, lyrics written by artists to take issue with the government and express the pain of marginalized communities have been around for centuries. In 1939, Billie Holiday’s song, “Strange Fruit,” became popular, drawing in listeners with its dark melody under lyrics written about the lynchings of Black people. Twenty years later, the term “freedom songs”—in reference to movement music— was coined. Black musicians like Nina Simone, Sam Cooke, James Brown, and Marvin Gaye are some of the artists who performed music to inspire listeners to take action and reflect.
“Mississippi Goddam” became an anthem of Black political protest, surrounding issues of desegregation and everyday injustices Black people faced. In 1964, Sam Cooke released “A Change is Gonna Come.” And in the 1970s, Marvin Gaye released “What’s Going On.” Freedom songs and movement music is still present today. Kendrick Lamar, Solange, Lauryn Hill, D’Angelo, Tupac, Michael Jackson, Common, Nipsey Hussle, Nas, and Jay-Z are just some of the musicians who have used their sound to tell the stories of modern day human rights issues like mass incarceration, capitalism, poverty, world hunger, and homelessness.
Themes of police brutality in hip hop music were heard in the late 1980s and early 1990s, driven by the popularity of songs like N.W.A.’s “F*** the Police” and 2 Pac’s “IDGAF.” These songs and others were part of the movement seen on the ground after the 1991 Los Angeles riots that happened as a consequence of the brutal police beating of Rodney King. 2Pac also used his voice to talk about the war on drugs and its impact on Black communities in his hit record, “Changes.” Other artists like The West Coast Rap All-Stars, Meek Mill, and Kendrick Lamar followed suit, speaking on the same issue. In general, hip-hop is a movement driven by the concerns of poor and working-class people. Oftentimes the messages of rap music are geared towards capitalism, but there are times when rappers decide to be socially conscious and shine a light on economic insecurity and poverty.
…hip-hop is a movement driven by the concerns of poor and working-class people.
The Dream Defenders and other grassroots organizations who do similar work have used music from these artists to help fuel organizational campaigns. Now, the Dream Defenders and Smoke Signals Studios have released the FreeTape, a mixtape created with the purpose of continuing the deeply historical tradition of using music and song to “bolster courage and foster a spirit of revolution.” Aja Monet and Phillip “Umi Selah” Agnew spearheaded the album and over 13 other artists—all Black identifying musicians—can also be heard on the compilation. Two years ago, Monet, an American contemporary poet, writer, lyricist and activist, and Agnew, an activist, speaker, and a co-founder of the Dream Defenders, brought together organizers, musicians, poets, and singers to create the FreeTape. The record is a collaborative music and video project aimed to highlight issues of mass incarceration and criminalization.
“Our goal—above all else—is to move, educate and organize masses of young people towards political power and independence. We have built a powerful infrastructure that takes advantage of both old and new tactics and technologies that allow us to reach and organize our people directly,” Monet said in a caption on an Instagram post promoting the project. “Arts, music and culture have become one of our most valuable tools and successful tactics.”
The tape was inspired by the Dream Defenders’ Freedom Papers. “They’ll tell you that hell on earth is just a temporary pain to be eased in the bosom of their credit and cars and clothes and customs,” the Freedom Papers say. “We know better. We know about their eviction letters and rent hikes. We know about the cut hours, the unpaid overtime, the no insurance. We know about the crumbling schools, their police and prisons and our empty wallets, stomachs and refrigerators. We can build a state that gives raises to all public school teachers and bus passes to all our children.”
“We are in a battle of ideas and in order to drastically transform our society, people need a new vision for what is politically possible. We need a new normal. This is what the Freedom Papers is all about,” Monet said. “The Dream Defenders and Smoke Signals Studio are using arts and culture to expand what is politically possible for our movements, shift the narrative towards a new vision of safety and freedom, and inspire our generation to action.”
The mixtape has a total of 8 songs—Black Mirror, Don’t Lie to Me, Everyday Passions, Klownz, Miami Times, Toyz, Wrong Way, and Yemaya. For more information on the project, visit thefreetape.com.
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