‘I feel good for speaking up’: YG on his 2016 protest anthem that goes after Donald Trump
On the Wednesday evening after the election, the streets of downtown L.A. shook with anger. Thousands of young protesters took to the Historic Core to show their opposition to a Donald Trump presidency.
And on nearly every corner, one song set the tone.
For weeks leading up to the Nov. 8 election, YG and Nipsey Hussle’s single “FDT” was a warning shot at a candidate whom many in the hip-hop community saw as a racist demagogue. After Trump won, however, the song became something else — a defiant cry for scared young people. When they hit the streets in protest, many found that the song’s profane, unsparing chorus hook directed at Trump was the only thing left to say.
But for YG, there is no joy in having written what has become the defining protest song of 2016. Trump’s election only reaffirmed YG’s longstanding fears about America and how people of color fit into it.
“It’s not our land, it’s not made for us,” YG said via phone in his first interview since the election. His voice had the weary resignation of a man whose pessimism had proved accurate.
“It’s America, that’s how it was designed,” he said. “We came here as slaves. It wasn’t designed for us to win.”
The last two years have prompted some of the most vital black protest music of a generation, with searing albums from D’Angelo, Beyoncé, Kendrick Lamar and Solange Knowles drawing on the Black Lives Matter movement and the struggle for America’s soul. Just a few days after the election, A Tribe Called Quest performed “We the People ….,” from its 18-year comeback record, “We Got It From Here...Thank You 4 Your Service.” on “Saturday Night Live.”
Many musicians, including Jay Z, Beyoncé and Pharrell, rallied to Hillary Clinton in the final days of the campaign, but YG stood out as one of the few who’d taken Trump seriously from the start.
In the aftermath of the election, “FDT’s” lyrics have become less of a sneer and more of a warning. “He got me appreciatin’ Obama way more / Hey Donald, and everyone that follows / You gave us your reason to be president, but we hate yours.”
“The situation is [screwed] up, but I feel good for speaking up,” he said. “We spoke up because no one else was speaking up. That’s what rap is made for. Too many rappers keep saying [stuff] with no substance. I told Nip that if we do this together, we gotta speak on Trump and go right to the streets.”
When YG performed “FDT” with Tyler, the Creator during his set at the recent Flog Gnaw Carnival, there was a feeling of communal catharsis for young hip-hop fans, many of whom came of age in the Obama era and were struggling to reckon with the ramifications of the election, in policy differences as well as the national conversation on race.
YG, a lifelong Angeleno, recalled similar feelings in the ’90s when he was growing up around South L.A., a place where hope for change would always seem to be thwarted by forces — police, government, economic — beyond his control. Last year, he was shot in the hip by intruders while he was recording his album “Still Brazy,” an incident that gave songs like “Don’t Come to LA” and “Who Shot Me?” their sharp, lived edges.
“FDT” explicitly evokes that era of churning gang warfare — “Have a rally out in L.A., we gon’ [mess] it up / Home of the Rodney King riot.” But it also holds out hope for solidarity in a diverse city. “And if it’s time to team up …let’s begin / Black love, brown pride in the sets again / White people feel the same as my next to kin.”
YG says Trump’s election stirred up every old suspicion that he, as a young black man, had about America and power. And he isn’t quite sure where to go from here. “Knowing my rights, chasing my dreams and taking care of people” is about the best he can do at this point, he said. When he added, “I’m on that positive [stuff] now,” it still sounded as if he were steeling himself for a coming storm.
From an artist who wrote the most prophetic, wrathful and unifying protest song of 2016, there’s no comfort for him in knowing that it’s going to stay relevant for many for years to come.
“We’re playing for keeps, for survival. We’ve got to play chess, we can’t be playing checkers,” he said. “We have to motivate [people]. But we’ve also got to make our own moves and fight out there to keep our heads above water. What else can we do?”
For breaking music news, follow @augustbrown on Twitter.
From the Emmys to the Oscars.
Get our revamped Envelope newsletter, sent twice a week, for exclusive awards season coverage, behind-the-scenes insights and columnist Glenn Whipp’s commentary.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.