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Continental Drift: 20 Club Tracks That Embody The Spirit of Protest

For his May and June roundup, columnist Gabe Meier showcases footwork, kuduro, ambient and more that expand the palette of protest sounds.

Words by Gabe Meier
Published on July 9, 2020 16:33 Berlin Time

In the era of big streaming and woke capital, protest music has become a formalized genre. Traversing hip hop, punk, reggae, and soul, the grouping will be familiar to anyone who has been at a march over the past month. And while, for protestors, this genre conglomerate possesses very real galvanizing power, its commercial viability is also being capitalized on by the music industry’s reigning entities: Apple Music and Spotify now have official protest playlists, and it is not uncommon for multinationals to bastardize radical anthems in commercial spots. 

Within dance music, a similar tendency has taken hold. Artists with an explicit anti-police and anti-capitalist ethos are as relevant as ever, and from my vantage in Chicago, the music of house luminaries like Frankie Knuckles, Jessie Saunders, and Larry Levan has been a constant at marches and blasting out of car stereos. Revolt and uplift are the defining traits of the protest genre, but it would be a mistake to narrow the form to its most didactic, linear elements.

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In a Facebook post dated June 9, music and cultural critic Greg Tate wrote that it may be time for the Afrofuturist paradigm to give way to Afrosurrealism. Coined by Amiri Baraka and later articulated by D. Scot Miller, Afrosurrealism is differentiated from European surrealism in its departure from empiricism and its embrace of the mystical and metaphorical. It is a perspective that recognizes that nature, and specifically human nature, “generates more surreal experiences than any other process could hope to produce.”

The ability and willingness to unearth the surreal in the everyday could not be more relevant to our moment. It is embodied in a video of a young man footworking on top of a cop car in Chicago’s Loop and in the very music of Big Floyd. In their focus on dance in public spaces—a practice that explicitly reclaims space from the encroaching police and carceral states—sounds like flex dance music, litefeet and footwork can all take on Afrosurrealist forms. They articulate a rejection of quiet servitude and embrace ambiguity, qualities outlined in Miller’s “Afrosurreal Manifesto” and previously realized in the work of poet Bob Kaufman, shapeshifting rapper Kool Keith and novelist Samuel R. Delany.

In an introduction to Henry Dumas’ Ark Of Bones and Other Stories, Baraka wrote that the writer, who was also murdered at the hands of the police, had a skill for “creating an entirely different world organically connected to this one.” This act of creation is not world-building so much as elucidating the spatial and temporal present. It is a quality that pervades Iceboy Violet’s elegiac Gunna and Young Thug edits and the haunted force of DJ Aaron’s “6 MILLION WAYS.” It runs deep in the mystical braggadocio of NÍDIA’s “CHEF” and Kelman Duran’s smudged, anthemic take on Roddy Rich’s “Boom Boom Room.”

In a segment from John Akomfrah’s epochal The Last Angel of History video essay, Tate “contends that Black existence and science fiction are one and the same.” Afrosurrealism is the flipside to the same coin of the demands, anger, and uplift of traditional protest music. It functions as a way of expressing that which is impossibly weird and inexpressible. Its music has the potential to speak to the now.

  1. Tracklist:
  2. 645 AR – YOGA (BSNYEA REMIX)
  3. Jorja Smith + Burna Boy – Honest (CalvoMusic Edit)
  4. DaVincii – Exoticism (The Donn)
  5. DJ Aaron – 6 MILLION WAYS
  6. DJ Delish – Shut Up
  7. DJ Jalen TAKEOVA – Burn This Mfa
  8. DJ Manny – Get The Money
  9. DJ Noir X Sonic D X Jae Drago – State Of Emergency
  10. FAUZIA – Progression
  11. Foreigner – Touch Ground
  12. Iceboy Violet – Eyes Drippin 2 Hard (Lil Baby, Gunna & Young Thug)
  13. JANA RUSH – Like Dis 2003
  14. RODDY RICCH – BOOM BOOM ROOM (KELMAN DURAN EDIT)
  15. Mixmasters X Short Dxck Man (KG Edit)
  16. LiL LIVE – ADRENALINE
  17. Mixbwé – BALADA II
  18. NÍDIA – CHEF
  19. Nkisi – Cosmic Power
  20. Sissy Nobbyy – Porkchop Slash Beat
  21. UNIIQU3 – DIGITAL DIVA 2.0

Artwork by Ekaterina Kachavina