When the Chicago Police released footage of officer Jason Van Dyke killing Laquan McDonald last fall, local rapper Vic Mensa was one of thousands to hit the streets in protest. In a video shot shortly after the clip aired, Mensa marches down Congress alongside Father Michael Pfleger. In another, he scuffles with police.
The fallout from McDonald’s death marked a turning-point for the then-22-year-old. After a promising mixtape in 2013, he’d released a string of shallow (and occasionally gross) club bangers, stuck in post-breakout purgatory. Then came Ferguson. Then Baltimore, then Chicago. Gradually, Mensa’s Instagram turned from selfies and blunts to calls for body cams on police officers. He premiered a eulogy for McDonald, “16 Shots,” at a fundraiser for Flint, Michigan. His career gained new purpose.
The buildup culminated last week with There’s Alot Going On, Mensa’s first release since the McDonald fallout. To say nothing of its lyrics, the thing is dripping with political fire. Released for free to anyone who pledges to vote this November, its cover shows Mensa standing with a target on his chest, bordered by 16 bullet holes (the number Van Dyke left in McDonald). Lyrically, Mensa invokes marches down State Street, Chicago as Rwanda, and, at his most defiant, firing back at Van Dyke himself. Even when he careens into personal confessions—about getting strung out on Adderall, choking his girlfriend, and considering a dive into the Chesapeake—the album’s ruthless immediacy leaves it feeling political by nature.
The same militant urgency drives Jamila Woods’s “Blk Girl Soldier,” the singer’s lead single and an ode to history-making black women. In the video, released days after Mensa’s tape, Woods sings draped in a bandolier of hair rollers, buffered by young black girls. By song’s end, she’s eulogized Rosa Parks, Ella Baker, Audre Lorde, Angela Davis, Assata Shakur, Harriet Tubman, and Saartjie Baartman. Like Mensa’s nods to a Vietnam-era Muhammad Ali, Woods’s reverence for her forebears makes "Soldier” both a blazing protest song and studied account of history—a reminder that Chicago’s activist community isn’t just passionate, but educated and organized.
That the movement’s sharpest music is surfacing now makes sense. Good protest songs take time to write and disseminate, and their videos take time to film. With albums on the horizon from Lupe Fiasco and Mick Jenkins, there’s probably more to come.
But at another level, these songs stand out in a way they couldn’t have six months ago. When the McDonald footage aired, the world revolved around Chicago. Artists’ voices played a role in the larger outcry, alongside activists, the media, political leaders, and civilians.
Now, the marches are over. Insider Eddie Johnson is police superintendent. Jason Van Dyke is employed by the Fraternal Order of Police. And CPD has taken up its old practice of delaying records requests to the point of a lawsuit. But as things drift back to normal and the conversation moves elsewhere, it’ll be raw protest songs like these that keep the moment from passing.
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