Sabrina Chap had been avoiding protests in the city due to health concerns when she had a vision, mid-shower, of New Yorkers dancing simultaneously in their apartments to the music of Nina Simone. To the musician, it seemed like a workable alternative to traditional in-the-streets protest.
When New York City set its historic curfew on June 1, she saw an opportunity. “I felt that they were trying to intimidate us inside and quell our voices,” Chap said, “and I was like, well, fuck that, let’s just turn up the volume in our homes.” So Chap created @audioprotest.
The account, largely headquartered on Instagram, features nightly hour-long playlists starting at 7 p.m. with music by Black and other POC musicians.
The Spotify playlists are curated by about 20 volunteers and led by Filipinx-American DJ Cynthia Malaran (DJCherishTheLuv) who hosted the group’s livestream when it was on Twitch. (The group is now solely on Spotify due to copyright issues.) Inspired partly by the nightly 7 p.m. claps for essential workers, Chap hoped people would sync up with the livestream and blast the music all at once. While most people tend to listen on their own, Chap was pleased early on when she heard the playlist ringing out in her Crown Heights neighborhood.
Music has always been a fixture in the Black Lives Matter movement. As such, the largely non-Black @audioprotest team — the core is made up of seven people, two of whom are Black — is following in the footsteps of a long-held tradition.
“That tradition of expressing a desire for freedom is one that is long-standing in African-American music,” said Maureen Mahon, a cultural anthropologist and professor at NYU. She refers to the original sounds of the Freedom Movement (the civil rights movement) as Freedom Songs and said they date back to the spiritual folk music of the early 1900s.
Many scholars, Mahon explained, pinpoint Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” — which she first performed in March 1939 at Greenwich Village’s Cafe Society — as the first explicit protest song sung by an African-American artist. The song unmistakably laments and admonishes the lynching of African Americans in the U.S. Following that performance, Mahon said, the song was linked to the NAACP’s push for anti-lynching legistaltion. Legislation that has still not come to pass.
In the past month, countless contemporary artists from Lil B to Meek Mill have released songs and freestyles inspired by the ongoing BLM protests against decades-worth of police brutality. On June 9, DJ Suede the Remix God and DJ iMarkkeyz remixed a viral video of Johnniqua Charles telling police officers detaining her “You about to lose ‘yo job.” It’s now a protest staple.
Local musicians are also throwing their music into the political ring.
Paperboy Love Prince is running for congress in New York’s 7th congressional district under the Brooklyn-based rapper’s “Love Party.” In the June 23 primary, they garnered over 8,000 votes, according to the NYC Board of Elections’ unofficial count.
They favor freestyle rap when it comes to communicating their platform. “What other politicians drop freestyles explaining their policies?” they wrote in an Instagram caption on June 17 with the release of their song “Defund the Cops.”
View this post on Instagram
“defund the cops” new video/song coming soon. What other politicians drop freestyles explaining their policies? We need more food,housing, education,a green planet, healthcare and LOVE ❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️*Sound On*❤️❤️❤️❤️vote Paperboy June 23rd! ❤️❤️❤️❤️💜💜💜💜💜👍👍👍🥰🥰🥰😍😍😍😍😍😍❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️shot @behappyforonce @j_soul26 Dir @behappyforonce song prod by @boogie.mashina ❤️❤️❤️❤️🙏❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️ #hahapaper #paperboy2020 #riots2020 #blacklivesmatter #justiceforgeorgefloyd #nycprotests #nypd #defundthepolice
Many of their tracks like “UBI” (Universal Basic Income) and “Cancel Rent” have gone viral, too.
Paperboy hopes their freestyles will galvanize their constituents to political action. In the past year, through their PaperboyPrince.com music festival in Brooklyn, they’ve registered over 400 people to vote — mainly young, POC, and first-time and immigrant voters which they said make up the majority of their constituency.
For Paperboy, hip hop and politics are inexorably linked. In the past month they’ve led over 15 marches and direct action events, and music is always involved. “Joy and happiness is a form of protest. Right? Celebration and dance is a form of protest all over the world, all throughout history,” they said.
With Covid-19 far from over, Chap, Malaran, and the rest of the @audioprotest team hope their ongoing playlists — which they’re planning to maintain until late August — can help ready-to-learn listeners hear music that has not only shaped the movement, but also American music culture.
“There’s always been some critical mass of people who aren’t African-American, there’s always been an interest in African-American music,” said Mahon. “There hasn’t always been an interest in African-American history or U.S. history, and the history of race and power relations and structural racism.”
Malaran (DJCherishTheLuv) jumped at the opportunity to join @audioprotest when Chap posted on the Willie Mae Rock Camp email listserv where she teaches. She’d spent most of the Covid-19 lockdown curating livestreams for organizations like the American Cancer Society.
Initially, Malaran felt frustrated to find that most of the commenters in the Twitch livestream were white people who had never heard most of the music. But she reevaluated. “Our first students are the ones who don’t know about music, about Black culture. And this is the time where white people who are very open-minded and scared to not know really jumped in,” she said.
Although it can be enjoyable in and of itself, Mahon cautioned, learning the history is critical, too. It also takes time. “I don’t think we just turn it on and get it. I think we learn through exposure over time.”
Still, music seems to have a visceral effect.
When Malaran put together an Aretha Franklin night on June 24 she listened to the final track, “Amazing Grace” with the @audioprotest team and “it was like my molecules shifted,” she said. Paperboy feels the same. Music, they said, creates a “reaction in the body,” and it can spur people to action.
Naveh Halperin (Subway DJ) has been a DJ since he started playing in the subways of Boston nearly six years ago. On Friday, May 29 — just three days after the the murder of George Floyd by police — a friend told him about a protest starting at Barclays Center. Halperin grabbed his rig (a simple hand-trolley outfitted with a battery-powered speaker and a microphone), and headed out for the protest. He stayed out until 1am.
For over a month, Halperin has been playing alongside protesters daily — on June 30, he said, he and all of the protesters were up for nearly 40 hours straight for the Occupy City Hall demonstration. Paperboy was also in attendance.
Halperin said he’s still going to protests as a DJ almost every day, and he takes his cues from the crowd. “I’m able to kind of accelerate or amplify the mood that’s already there,” he said.
When there’s a standoff with protesters and the police, he’ll put on NWA’s classic “Fuck tha Police”; when people are feeling more celebratory, he might play McFadden and Whitehead’s “Ain’t No Stopping Us Now.” Lately, he said, people have been chanting “cut it” in reference to the NYPD’s budget, so when the chants rise, he plays O.T. Genasis’s “Cut It” to match — much like Paperboy, who performed their song “Defund the Cops” at a defund-the-police rally in June.
DJ Subway, like Paperboy and everyone else, uses music to keep up the energy. “The marches kind of last forever, so part of it is, I think, keeping the momentum going,” he said.
Malaran hopes @audioprotest — and the tradition of protest music more broadly — will leave an impression on listeners. “I think what I would love most of all is, years from now, anyone who sat with us and listened remembered that this was a way to protest.”