Rallying cries

Artists on both sides of the border protest police brutality in America

As demonstrations continue across the United States against police killings of unarmed black Americans, musicians on both sides of our border continue to release songs in support of the protesters.

During her Sunday night show at Lee’s Palace, Toronto-born soul singer Cold Specks worked the words “Hands up! Don’t shoot!” and “I can’t breathe!” into her song Holland – the former the adopted rallying cry in support of Ferguson’s Michael Brown, who was shot after surrendering to authorities by putting his hands in the air the latter the last words of New York City’s Eric Garner, who died after being put in a chokehold by an NYPD cop.

Here, three of the best new protest songs from artists we love. 

1. Glory, John Legend and Common 

Rapper Common and singer John Legend’s orchestrally backed track can be heard over the closing credits of Selma, the new Martin Luther King historical drama in which the conscious emcee also stars, but the song has particular resonance in the climate of injustice on the front burner right now. With lyrics like “Hands to the heavens / No man no weapon” – the song’s first lines – and “That’s why Rosa sat on the bus / That’s why we walk through Ferguson with our hands up,” it’s just as much about Brown and Garner as it is about MLK. 

Common plays the Kool Haus with Jay Electronica Thursday (December 11). 


2. America, Ian Kamau + Big Sproxx

Toronto emcee, spoken word aficionado and artist Ian Kamau and producer Big Sproxx (of Freedom Writers) are working on an album to be released in 2015. Given recent events, the pair decided not to sit on one track written immediately after Brown’s murder in August. The song is about social and political violence against the black community in the form of police brutality, says Kamau. Channelling the jazzy throwback spirit of Freedom Writers 2013 album NOW (on which Kamau was featured), the track is one of the most tightly spat tunes of the year, told from the perspective of someone who witnessed the shooting:

Police in a circle as the kid lays in the centre

Tiny holes inside his flesh where the bullets entered

Where the bullets burst out his skin ripped like a paper bag 

Red lines on a white tee not unlike the nation’s flag.

Is it that you want us dead?

Is it that you fear us?

You don’t want to know us?

You don’t want to hear us?

Can you claim not to judge the same person that you criticize?

Can you hate the same person that you fetishize?

Ian Kamau and Big Sproxx’s full-length drops in 2015. Find the track at iankamauxbigsproxx.bandcamp.com/releases.


3. January 28th, J. Cole

North Carolina-bred rapper J. Cole was one of the first celebrities on the scene in Ferguson this year, participating in protests, attending Brown’s funeral, all the while refusing to do press lest attention be deflected from the cause at hand. His August-released song Be Free was a direct tribute. But Ferguson is also dappled throughout his new album, Forest Hills Drive, released December 9. 

“What’s the price for a black man life? / I check the toe tag, not one zero in sight,” he sings on opening track January 28. “I turn the TV on, not one hero in sight / Unless he dribble or he fiddle with mics / Look out the window cuz tonight the city lit up with lights, cameras and action.”

J. Cole’s Forest Hills Drive is out now on Sony.

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