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Amid unrest, songs continue to voice the black experience

NEW YORK – After watching the ghastly video of George Floyd dying as a police officer pressed a knee on his neck, Grammy-nominated R&B singer Trey Songz couldn’t sleep. He felt a pain in his gut so heavy it brought him down to his home studio, where he began recording a new song.

Though Songz said the melody and lyrics came to him quickly, his voice cracked and he couldn't sing.

“As I tried to get (the lyrics) out, I couldn’t get them out," the 35-year-old said. “My voice would break, or tears would fall."

So he went into the Los Angeles streets to protest in solidarity alongside thousands grieving Floyd's death and demanding reforms to policing in America.

“It was so much love and good energy out there, like so much hope. Really looking to your right, to your left, seeing people of so many ethnicities standing for our cause — it gave me the strength that I needed to come back and finish the song,” he said.

“2020 Riots: How Many Times” was released Friday and features an-all black choir from Atlanta elevating Songz’ passionate vocals on the track.

“I was actually crying on some of them lyrics,” he said. “It’s pain. It’s sadness. It’s anger. It’s rage. It’s confusion.”

Other musicians have released songs in the last week in the wake of Floyd's death and those of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor. The artists include Meek Mill, Kane Brown, Ty Dolla $ign, Terrace Martin and Run the Jewels (a Spotify playlist of the songs can be found here ).

“How you gonna serve and protect with your knee on my neck,” T.I. raps on Nasty C’s “They Don’t,” released Friday.

YG, the platinum-selling rapper who released a hard-hitting diss song about President Donald Trump in 2016, dropped a punchy West Coast-flavored track last week called “FTP,” which stands for “F-- the Police.” On the song, the Compton performer raps: “It’s the Ku Klux cops, they on a mission/It’s the Ku Klux cops, got hidden agendas/It’s the truth, I won’t stop.”

LL Cool J posted a fiery freestyle on Instagram and hip-hop artist Jung Youth, who is white, tackles discrimination against blacks on “God Only Knows.”

“They killed a brother for the color of his skin again/Reminds me of how they treated Serena at Wimbledon,” he raps at the top of the song.

Mickey Guyton, one of the few black voices on the country music scene, wrote the song “Black Like Me” last year about her life story and experiences with racism. She released the song on Black Out Tuesday, and said that when she hears it now she thinks of “George, Ahmaud, Breonna.”

“I have been an absolute wreck since Ahmaud Aubrey (died). That’s the first one that just punched me in my gut because you could see him in that video scared for his life. Then seeing Breonna Taylor and having a sister ... I saw myself in her and that took me down a darker space. I’ve been crying for weeks. Then to see George Floyd...,” she said. “I couldn’t believe I had a song that expressed everything that we feel.”

“Black Like Me” is a poignant tune featuring the lyrics: “If you think we live in the land of the free/You should try to be black like me.”

“I wrote that song to heal my heart,” she said. “This is a song for people to understand what we’re going through. We need to talk about that.”

Like Guyton, Grammy-winning singer Leon Bridges pulled from a song he had previously written about black life and police brutality to relate to today’s grief and pain. On Monday, he released the track “Sweeter.”

“With that song, I want people to listen from the perspective of the black man. The black man in the grip of the oppressor. The black man in his last moments transitioning from life to death and literally his mind, body and soul is having a flashback to his murder essentially,” the 30-year-old said. “I’ve always struggled with how to write about some of the problems that we face in America as black men. I’ve always struggled with how to write about those things in a tasteful way. When I look at this song ‘Sweeter,’ I just feel like it’s a gift from God.”

Bridges said he originally planned to release another single, but decided to go with “Sweeter” this week because it was so relevant.

“When you constantly see black men die at the hands of police, it’s like a callus is formed over your emotions to where you can’t feel anything. I would say, for me, the straw that broke the camel’s back was seeing George Floyd,” he said. “It was the first time that I shed tears over a man that I didn’t even know, over a black man. I’ve always been aware but that was the first time I shed real tears because I saw myself, I saw my brother, I saw my sisters in that moment.”

Others who recently released tracks about the black experience include Eric Bellinger, Gramps Morgan, Fantastic Negrito, Polo G, Joy Oladokun, Breland, Mr. Killa, Cory Henry and the Funk Apostles, Wyatt Waddell, King OSF and Teejayx6.

Songz, who has released 20 Top 10 R&B hits, said that while protesting he heard classic black pride songs from James Brown, Marvin Gaye and others working as the soundtrack for activists walking the streets.

“You couldn’t be a musician and not address issues back then because you faced them so steadily. It just brought me to a place of, ‘This is what I need to be doing.’”

Being a new father also played a large role in the song’s creation: “Looking at my child is like, ‘Wow! I gotta do everything that I can to make sure I say I fought the fight, so you don’t have to go through that.’”