How nationwide protests brought older songs to the top of the charts

Protest music is a phenomenon older than America itself.

In the 1770s, revolutionaries used songs like “Yankee Doodle” and Joseph Warren’s “Free America” to rebel against Britain. Decades later, Harriet Tubman taught hymns to escaped slaves along the Underground Railroad.

Eventually, protest songs became widespread. From Billie Holiday to Marvin Gaye and N.W.A, the 20th century was filled with artists using their music to fight cruelty, inequality and oppression.

2020 is no different. As Americans nationwide have risen up against racial injustice and police brutality, our listening habits have followed suit.

Nielsen Music, in collaboration with MRC Data, analyzed streaming data for the earliest weeks of the 2020 protests — which began following the May 25 killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin.

Their findings showed a huge spike for several older songs, many of which are taking on new meaning amid the 2020 protests.

‘This Is America’ – Childish Gambino

Donald Glover’s juggernaut of a single felt vital the moment it arrived in 2018 — but it may be even more relevant today. The track, which was released with a striking, Grammy-winning video, saw a 268.5 percent increase in the week following Floyd’s death.

One reason for the track’s newfound popularity: TikTok. Remixes of “This Is America” have been omnipresent on the app since late May, with creators using the song to soundtrack videos recorded live at the scene of protests. A particularly popular version, which combines the track with Post Malone’s “Congratulations,” has been featured in more than 500,000 clips.

@aloisel21

This is America. ##fypage ##BLM

♬ Childish Gambino – This Is America / Post Malone – Congratulations – carneyval_

The trend has found its way to streaming, too. In the Know previously reported that TikTok now has a massive sway over mainstream music — and Glenn Peoples, a lead analyst for Billboard data with intimate knowledge of the Nielsen/MRC Data report, said the app could certainly be helping “This Is America’s” resurgence.

“What’s popular on TikTok is very often popular on streaming,” Peoples told In The Know. “If there’s a hit on TikTok, people will start streaming it.”

‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ – Sam Cooke

“It’s been a long time coming, but I know a change is gonna come,” Sam Cooke sings in his Civil Rights-era ballad.

It’s been 56 years since Cooke first uttered those lyrics, but his words are still being used to call for change. The track, released in 1964, was the oldest song in Nielsen/MRC Data’s analysis — drawing a 112.7 percent bump during the first week of protests.

Cooke wrote the “A Change Is Gonna Come” with the expressed purpose of making it a protest song, after hearing Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” in 1963. Its lyrics also reflect Cooke’s own work as a civil rights activist, in which he met with figures like Malcolm X and shared his own experiences encountering racism while on tour.  

Peoples isn’t surprised by the track’s reemergence. As he explained to In The Know, many songs saw a huge increase thanks to their appearance on thematic playlists — like Spotify’s Black Lives Matter collection. Those playlists, Peoples noted, are more about themes than any one genre or era.

“As long as there’s that theme, that’s gonna be an attractive playlist for people,” he said. “And services like Spotify have a really good sense of what’s gonna work for people.”

‘Alright’ – Kendrick Lamar

An anthem of the Black Lives Matter Movement throughout the late 2010s, “Alright” is likely the least surprising entry on Nielsen/MRC Data’s list.

The track, which touches on police brutality, gun violence and the American dream, has been soundtracking protests since it was first released in 2015. Kendrick Lamar even told Variety in 2017 that, due to its prevalence at so many public events, it might have been the “biggest record in the world.”

Its power has persisted, too. The song saw a 237.5 percent bump in streaming in the first week of June, which, Peoples noted, is a major boost “considering how much streaming Lamar gets [normally].”

‘Don’t Die’ – Killer Mike

“Don’t Die” is one of the most obscure tracks to appear in Nielsen/MRC Data’s analysis. The song’s lyrics, however, make it immediately clear why it saw a mind-boggling 7,616 percent increase in the first week of protests.

The track is on Killer Mike’s “R.A.P. Music” album, which he released in 2012 — just one year before he’d join the hip-hop supergroup Run The Jewels and record four full-length albums targeting racial injustice in America.

That purpose is present on “Don’t Die” as well. Killer Mike frames the track as a first-person narrative — one that opens with a dangerous encounter between the rapper and a violent police officer.

“Nothing changes, if they catch me today,” Killer Mike says as he concludes the song. ‘”F*** the police’ is still all I gotta say.”

‘Keep Ya Head Up’ – Tupac

Just like “A Change Is Gonna Come,” this 1992 track was written during a specific era in the fight against racial injustice.

Tupac was inspired by the 1992 Los Angeles riots, which began that April following the acquittal of four police officers in the excessive beating of 25-year-old Rodney King.

The song saw a 90.2 percent increase in early June, just days after Floyd died at the hands of four Minneapolis police officers. Its message, while true to a singular moment, is both broad and uplifting.

“And even though you’re fed up, huh, ya got to keep your head up,” Tupac asks his listeners.

If you liked this story, check out In The Know’s oral history of Grillz.

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