Features, Music Reviews, Race + Culture

Social Justice in Music: Emerging Indie Artists of the Pandemic

By JD Brant // Contributing Writing By Saliek Ruffin

Hip hop has come a long way since the OG days of “Rapper’s Delight.” The track was the first hip hop song to reach Billboard’s Top 40 at a time when music by young black musicians was easily misunderstood. Now, almost 40 years later, hip hop still dominates Billboard charts. Streaming numbers have nudged the genre, yet again, into familiar hybrid pop/rock territory (Does anyone remember Blondie’s “Rapture”? That’s where it all started). 

At its core, hip hop is a political movement, and contemporary artists’ attempts to smash the status quo offers glimmers of hope for Gen Zers, millennials, and other lost generations. Here we’ve compiled a list of standout artists who’ve emerged victorious during the COVID-19 pandemic and have taken on social justice causes as influencers in the music industry. We will post one new artist a week throughout the summer. 

1. H.E.R.

Gabriella Sarmiento Wilson is her government name. Her stage name, articulated “her,” is an abbreviation for Having Everything Revealed. The Filipino/African-American vocalist and musician rose to prominence at the height of the pandemic, and has been soaring ever since. 

After initially releasing music under her government name, Wilson reappeared in 2016 with the H.E.R. persona, delivering her introduction EP H.E.R. Volume 1. She at that point delivered resulting EPs H.E.R. Volume 2 (2017), The B Sides (2017), I Used to Know Her: The Prelude (2018) and I Used to Know Her: Part 2 (2018). 

2020 was the year of H.E.R. She was designated for five honors at the 62nd Annual Grammy Awards, including Album of the Year for her album, I Used to Know Her, and Song of the Year for “Hard Place.” In September, she sang Prince’s tune “Nothing Compares 2 U,” for the 72nd Primetime Emmy Awards, and during the pre-game celebrations for Super Bowl LV, H.E.R. performed “America the Beautiful” while playing guitar. 

What makes H.E.R. a beautiful soul is her passion for activism. Laced throughout her discography are reflections of her beliefs. “I Can’t Breathe” was the singer’s premiere social justice song, an emphatic statement on the current global policing crisis. She also contributed a song to the soundtrack of Judas and the Black Messiah titled, “Fight For You,” last August. 

Listen to “Fight For You” here:

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