When it comes to transporting messages, music is a powerful conduit. Whether the lyrical theme is love, rage, jealousy, sorrow, humility, a damaged political system or how to do the hokey-pokey, lyrics arrive bundled with melody and rhythm, and the result is a sublime and potent mnemonic device.
In the L.A. area, messages of protest and defiance are whooshing into eardrums like the Santa Ana winds. Compton rapper YG struck the first match of the new era during the 2016 election, when he cussed about then-candidate Donald Trump in “F.D.T.” “Black students ejected from your rally, what?/ I'm ready to go right now, your racist ass did too much/I'm about to turn Black Panther/ Don't let Donald Trump win, that … cancer.”
Since then Kendrick Lamar has railed against the president — “Homicidal thoughts, Donald Trump’s in office,” he raps on “XXX” — while indicting the country that bore him, asking us to “pass the gin, I mix it with American blood.” He won a Pulitzer Prize for his efforts, which likely wouldn’t have happened had he been penning love songs.
Lamar and YG are two of the best known contemporary Los Angeles artists speaking out, but they’re part of a string of incendiary songs lobbed the administration’s way. Below are some notable works that focus on experiences in the here-and-now of American politics.
Charles Lloyd and the Marvels featuring Lucinda Williams, “We Have Come Too Far to Turn Around” (Blue Note). The longtime Los Angeles-based saxophonist’s new album, “Vanished Gardens,” is dense with instrumental messages that signal rebellion — it opens with an 8-minute song called “Defiant” — but one composition could be a new protest standard. It’s written and sung by Lucinda Williams for Lloyd’s record, but she’s been performing it on the road since 2017.
The song opens with a meditative Lloyd tenor solo, and Williams’ first lines echo spirituals from decades past: “We are weary of these trials and tribulations, we are tired,” she sings in a cappella, “but we have come too far to turn around.”
From there, Williams begins an indictment worthy of the Old Testament as Lloyd and his crack band the Marvels jump in: “We are here to bear witness/To this monstrous sickness,” she sings, repeating the titular phrase in call-and-response. “We have stared into the eyes of evil/We have slow-danced with the devil/We have sat down at his table/And shared with him in the feast.”
Williams never mentions the president’s name but doesn’t need to when she sings that America has “swallowed the liquid of his lies” and “tolerated the one we despise.” The song turns monumental in the third verse, when Williams expands to talk history: “For over 400 years we’ve been on this trail of tears — we have come too far to turn around.” Steeped in both musical and lyrical history, it’s an unflinching work from two American masters.
Dead Sara, “Unamerican” video (Atlantic). Less subtle but just as urgent is the new video from this longtime L.A. punk-rock concern headed by singer-guitarist Emily Armstrong. Like rapper YG’s “F.D.T.,” the chorus for “Unamerican” features a cussed three-word line ending with “Donald Trump.” Designed to enrage and engage all Fox News hosts save perhaps Shep Smith, the song feels more like a tantrum than Williams’ spiritual.
A straight-ahead rock song, “Unamerican” begins with Armstrong identifying as both a good Samaritan and a psychopath who “had to sweat off chemicals in a bubble bath” before attacking, as an “all-American girl, lesbo-gay maniac,” the so-called righteous citizens: “’Practice what you preach’ is a promise you can't keep.”
Niña Dioz featuring Lido and Ceci Bastida, “Tambalea” (Nacional). “What is it that you hate about me?,” wonders the singer-rapper Dioz in her native Spanish in the first single from her recently released album “Reyna.” Born Carla Reyna, the musician checks key boxes for use in anti-immigration rhetoric. She was born in Mexico, emigrated to Los Angeles and is a working female artist dedicated to speaking out for equality.
Rapping and singing en español, Dioz in the video for “Tambalea” (“Stagger”) asks questions of the anonymous trolls who incite from afar. “Look at the hate in you/What blocks your vision?” Elsewhere on “Reyna” she attempts to wrestle the land back from her ancestors by erasing imaginary borders: “America is a continent — and it belongs to my people,” she raps before concluding, “Your privilege has got to go / Your racism has got to go.”
Nik Frietas, “What a Mess” (self-released). The first song on the Alhambra-based Freitas’ debut solo album paints a pretty grim, and baffling, picture of America. “I’m running out of words to say, my friends,” he admits to open his new “Day & Dark,” an album-length meditation on contemporary life. Over gently strummed electric guitar, the artist, who is a member of Conor Oberst’s Mystic Valley Band, bemoans a time when “we had brighter days ahead of brighter nights/ And no reason to second-guess it or think otherwise.”