YouTube Music Professes “Black Lives Matter” with its Freedom Songs Playlist
The playlist is a success, but a tone deaf inclusion of Kanye West makes the track list one song shy of black excellence.
When I opened YouTube Music on Friday morning, just hours after Donald Trump accepted the Republican National Convention’s presidential nomination, I was greeted by a pleasant surprise. The San Bruno-based company published Freedom Songs, a 98-track playlist featuring decades of black inspirational music. Released on Aug. 28, Freedom Songs arrived on the 57th anniversary of the March on Washington, a day celebrated in 2020 with a rally at the Lincoln Memorial demanding racial equality.
Within seconds of starting the playlist, Ciara’s “Rooted” brings chants of black excellence and imagery of nappy hair and brown skin. The song, for which the then-34-week pregnant Ciara dropped a video on Aug. 13, features Esther Dean and is a much needed rallying cry for black women amid constant reminders of their existences as second-class citizens. “To all my Black boys and Black girls, my Black kings and Black queens, this song is for you,” Ciara said in a behind-the-scenes video.
What follows is a collection of cuts highlighting artists from the African Diaspora squarely focused on recognition, empowerment and progress. Listeners jaunt between fresh hits like Beyoncé’s “BLACK PARADE” and oldies like Curtis Mayfield’s “Move on Up.” As much as the playlist is offers a jovial outlook — songs like Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” and Jill Scott’s “Golden” are as much about black power as they are about the motivating power of pursuing freedom and equality — the playlist’s existence speaks to the unwavering injustices that show no sign of stopping.
“Freedom is a human right,” the playlist description reads. The claim accompanies cover art that, while employing an American, red, white and blue motif, appears to take less inspiration from the flag and more from Shepard Fairey’s iconic “Hope” poster, which was as much a symbol of the Barack Obama presidential administration as it was a beacon of black pride.
Though the thread of black excellence is clearly woven throughout the track list, one song’s certain inclusion is noticeably jarring. 24 tracks in, Kanye West’s “Ultralight Beam,” accompanied by it’s pale orange, Microsoft Paint-designed cover for The Life of Pablo makes an appearance.
Ye’s inclusion is tone deaf. While discussions of the virtuoso producer’s mental health have subsided, West continues to make headlines for disruptions to the 2020 presidential election. Most recently, he was accused of electoral fraud as his campaign team works to secure West’s name on ballots across the country.
The inclusion of “Ultralight Beam” on Freedom Songs is akin to the Confederate statues that litter the American south. As a piece of art, West’s song is inspiring. It swells from a trembling synth and bass piece into an elegant gospel arrangement. The song was an inspiration when it dropped. The same month TLOP released, the World Health Organization declared Zika virus a public health emergency and Black Lives Matter leader Deray McKesson, in response to the death of Freddie Gray, announced he would run for mayor in the city of Baltimore.
In the years since, West’s seventh studio album has given way to outbursts of self-hatred and the trivialization of the Black struggle. The track’s inclusion in Freedom Songs is a slap in the face of black power. West’s affluence allows him to reject his black identity whenever he chooses. But unlike the NBA athletes who boycotted the league to draw attention to the shooting of Jacob Blake Jr., West is fine reneging on the color of his skin when it suits him.
In a perfect world the Freedom Songs playlist wouldn’t exist. In our world, it’s another acknowledgement that the fight for racial equality isn’t resigned to marching crowds, tear gassed eyes and cardboard signs. As businesses continue to revert their blacked out logos to their pre-George Floyd counterparts, Freedom Songs is a reminder that every institution has a role to play in lobbying for equality.