Radio Free Baltimore: The songs that soundtracked the Baltimore Uprising

City Paper

By Wednesday, April 22, just three days after Freddie Gray’s death, Sandtown-Winchester was nearing 48 hours of national news media occupation, and residents and protesters were already sick of it, as a prescient video of resident Shaun Young grabbing the microphone from some CNN dweeb and yelling “Fuck CNN” the previous day suggested.

But if the national news was going to market and brand these protests as “the new Ferguson” and force all of the details into that narrative, residents, it appears, would at least soundtrack the protests themselves.

As Rev. Westley West took a group of 50 or so onto Pennsylvania Avenue that Wednesday, I noticed a black car creeping behind the protest with its windows down. The driver quickly skipped tracks on his stereo trying to find the correct one, finally stopping on Shy Glizzy’s ‘Funeral,’ a haunting song in which the Washington, D.C. rapper and Baltimore favorite, who views his death as coming sooner than later because he is young and black in America, imagines a baroque funeral for himself.

“I want all shooters at my funeral/ Only real niggas at my funeral/ It’s gonna be 10,000 bitches at my funeral/ Niggas gonna have them pistols at my funeral/ It’s gonna be some superstars at my funeral,” Glizzy squeaked from the stereo, in between a cacophony of car horns honking in solidarity with Rev. West.

There were grander musical gestures from outside Gilmor as well. On Wednesday, April 29, following the violence of Monday and Tuesday nights, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra played outside of the Meyerhoff at noon for free. Addressing the crowd of a hundred or so, Michael Lisicky of the BSO noted this was a “historic and interesting time” in Baltimore and respectfully acknowledged that it was something some people in the city had been “dealing with [for] weeks” and others, “for years.” Then, he added that the BSO, “just want[s] to play music for you.”

In this context however, it isn’t “just music,” and the BSO beginning and ending the performance with ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’ a rather loaded song as the National Guard moved into the city, was a disappointment—neutral only if you weren’t thinking hard enough about these events, and arguably an affront to much of the city if you were thinking hard enough. Scheming cameramen nudging their way through the crowd to get the perfect shot and move on because this story told itself loved it, though. You know, peace and healing and classical music and all that.

The cast of Center Stage’s upcoming musical “Marley” struck a better balance when they ended rehearsals early and went over to Pennsylvania Avenue and North Avenue for a brief concert on Saturday, May 2, following a few days of chaos surrounding the curfew. Vocalist Mitchell Brunings, who plays Marley in the play, spoke to Baltimore half in character and encouraged peace but also demanded that the city never let itself be silenced again. With the CVS that was burned on Monday night behind him, he dutifully shouted Marley’s ‘Redemption Song.’

On Tuesday, April 29, Baltimore’s Future Islands returned to ‘The Late Show With David Letterman’ to play new song ‘The Chase’ to much anticipation given their 2014 career-making performance. It began with vocalist Sam Herring using his theatricality toward a different end, this time. He paced the stage and declared, “This song is going to go out to the people of Baltimore, let us not discount their voices or all the voices in the cities that we live in and love.” Then, he pounded his chest. It did not go viral or lead to any memes though it should have.

Also, Prince wrote a song about Baltimore?

Although all of these high-profile musical calls for peace and community matter, the most significant moments in which music and protest met were found on the ground, often stemming from inside this Gilmor Homes-grown movement.

As a group on Saturday, April 25 marched up Mount toward the Western District police precinct, a protester played Kendrick Lamar’s ‘The Blacker The Berry’ from a speaker hanging off his backpack.

Over a boozy, blunted Bomb Squad-like beat Lamar lets loose: “You hate me don’t you?/ You hate my people, your plan is to terminate my culture/ You’re fucking evil I want you to recognize that I’m a proud monkey/ You vandalize my perception but can’t take style from me/ And this is more than confession, I mean I might press the button just so you know my discretion/ I’m guarding my feelings, I know that you feel it/ You sabotage my community, making a killing.”

“Without that badge you a bitch and a half.” Those lyrics from Louisiana-based, Baltimore favorite Lil Boosie’s song ‘Fuck The Police’ were a frequent chant, along with “All I wanna say is they don’t care about us,” from Michael Jackson’s 1995 R&B rager, ‘They Don’t Care About Us.’ Later in the evening, following Saturday’s violence downtown, a car idled and blasted Boosie’s burst of understanding, ‘I Feel Ya,’ a song that could’ve been speaking to all of the city or maybe just those few that felt the need to break some cop cars and bust some racist-ass baseball fans’ heads, even though they certainly should’ve known better.

On Monday afternoon, not long after Freddie Gray’s funeral, many kids who were seemingly trapped by preemptive riot control near Mondawmin Mall danced to East Baltimore street-rap hero Young Moose’s ‘True Bill,’ a popular diss track that raised police concerns during the winter that nonetheless, in this context, was trollish turn-up music. Dig a little deeper and the song’s context is more profound: Throughout last week, Det. Daniel Hersl, the subject of a few Young Moose tracks on his latest mixtape, “O.T.M. 3,” was spotted out with other police during curfew enforcement, which is rather frightening. Hersl, an officer who has been accused by Moose and his lawyer of harassing Moose, has, according to The Baltimore Sun’s Mark Puente, been involved in a number of settlements, including for breaking a woman’s arm and breaking a man’s nose. This is who BPD allows to help “keep the peace.”

And 92Q, the city’s hip-hop and R&B station, became a sounding board for the community, allowing people to call up and vent. Local rapper Lor Scoota, from West Baltimore, delivered a couple of PSAs on the station expressing understanding for those who are angry and violent but also pleading to maintain the peace. And 92Q’s mix shows got both bold (a posi-rap run that included Jadakiss’ ‘Why,’ Kanye West’s ‘Jesus Walks,’ Talib Kweli’s ‘Get By,’ and Nas’ ‘I Can’) and playfully vitriolic (2 Chainz’s ‘Riot’). And CP managing editor Baynard Woods was hooked on Mike Nyce’s hip-hop remixes of speeches or pressers by SRB, Carl Stokes, and others.

I often heard Atlanta rapper Future’s burgeoning street hit ‘March Madness,’ a song that splits its time evenly between celebrations of drugging oneself into oblivion and bemoaning police violence: “All these cops killing niggas tragic/ I’m the one that’s living lavish,” Future warbles, as if he’s about to cry. Mainstream street rap as it were, it’s protest music, no matter how indelicate it might appear.

On Saturday evening as a group of violent protesters smashed windows of a police car and one kid launched the side-view mirror of a cop car up into the air, another protester in horror exclaimed, “It was all good just a week ago,” quoting Kanye West on the 2011 song ‘H.A.M.’ and presumably referencing a ’Ye-quoting meme about arrested New York rapper Bobby Shmurda. And just moments before that, as violence erupted between protesters and baseball fans, one of the bars on Washington Boulevard just happened to be blasting Jennifer Lopez’s 1999 dance hit ‘Waiting For Tonight,’ which was both absurd and prophetic. It also highlights the oft-talked-about two sides of Baltimore: one side deeply concerned with injustice in the city, and another side drinking and mindlessly partying to the party pop of their youth.

The Euro-thump of Lopez’s hit too is political. Hiding inside of its corpo-pop sheen are the sounds of black dance music pilfered by the mainstream: Chicago house, Detroit techno, Baltimore club. By the way, Bmore club icon Miss Tony is from Sandtown. Some of the most influential and significant music to ever come out of Baltimore comes from Freddie Gray’s neighborhood, which so many have written off as beyond hope.

A week later with the city under curfew, Miss Tony acolyte and political club-rapper Abdu Ali held a party at The Crown in Station North. It had to be over at 9 p.m. thanks to the curfew, which meant a lot of dancing, rapping, and catharsis from Ali, :3LON, DK The Punisher, Neru Isis, Butch Dawson, and Isabejja got crammed into three hours. The horrors of the police occupation in the city and the minor victory of the six officers being charged the day before were a given and the past two weeks’ events were the evening’s subtext. At least until Ali’s performance of ‘Keep Movin (Negro Kai),’ which culiminated with him screaming, “I just want to be free.”

Ali ended the night by playing spiritual house group Aly-Us’ 1992 hit ‘Follow Me’ (“I’m hoping to see the day/ When my people/ Can all relate/ We must stop fighting/ To achieve the peace”) off his laptop and the room collectively bawled together. Then, Ali announced he’d spin one more song and played Blaqstarr’s ‘Feel It In the Air,’ a song that seemed to suggest that this was not the end of the uprising but the beginning of something bigger, hopefully. Everybody danced and then rushed home to beat the curfew or join curfew-bucking protests.

On Sunday, once the ill-advised curfew was lifted, everything felt calm and the air was thick with denial, as if things seeming “back to normal” was a good thing. Like a good and proper capitalist, I filled the hole of confusion and rage and frustration with material things. I stopped at a local record store and purchased D’Angelo’s protest-soul album from late last year, “Black Messiah,” something I had been meaning to do for a few months.

I walked home, past National Guard gripping their guns with one hand and dicking off on their smartphones with the other, and observed news vans packing up. I got home, put “Black Messiah” on my turntable, and listened, with Twitter open, just in case. D’Angelo howled these lyrics from ‘Charade’: “All we wanted was a chance to talk/ Instead we only got outlined in chalk.”

Even though we were now allowed out past 10 p.m. again, I stayed in on Sunday night. 

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