The renowned nun, artist, and one-time Boston resident Sister Corita opined that art “does not come from thinking, but from responding.” Music exemplifies this notion. Call-and-response is ubiquitous at a live concert, a church sermon, or a New Orleans funeral procession, and the music it produces is one enriched by both human participation and rhythmic syncopation. 2020 delivered a call to action for Boston-based musicians to persist through resistance — and luckily for us, even grow artistically. Whether the conversation falls on communities of color, persons affected by state violence, or those disenfranchised by the current political system, the Boston music scene is armed with beats and strapped up with the intent to rabble-rouse.
These seven songs from some of the city’s best cut through a chaotic year.
Jazzmyn RED, “We Gon’ Make It”
Based in Boston and Taunton, self-described “hip-hop activist” Jazzmyn RED’s contribution to 2020 was the aptly named album “REDvolution.” Its standout track is “We Gon’ Make It,” the video of which sees RED staging a protest for social justice with a hint of social distance. RED was empowered to record and release the get-out-the-vote anthem thanks to a partnership with Jamaica Plain-based organization Black Ballot Power. The violence of 2020 may have precipitated the relevance of “We Gon’ Make It,” but the song has a longer history; according to RED, the melody came from a years-old session with Providence-based rapper Carlos “Loko Los” Rivera, who was lost to gun violence in 2016. Said RED via Zoom: “His influence reverberates through my entire music career. I make it a point to keep him with me.”
Jonn.Beatty, “Hot Lemonade”
If “We Gon’ Make It” is the lawful interpretation of civic participation, Jonn.Beatty’s “Hot Lemonade” introduces some chaos into that paradigm. The follow-up single to the 2019 EP “Free,” which explored racial justice, “Hot Lemonade” is a Black empowerment and civic engagement one-two punch. That said, “Hot Lemonade” is also a tall pitcher full of righteous anger directed at the political status quo, tackling the legacy of anti-Black violence from Emmett Till in 1955 through to this year. Beatty’s modus operandi is to enliven Black voters to, as he phrases it, “cop some delegates.” Beatty had this to say on the inspiration of the song: “Voting will not end systemic oppression today, and may never end it, [but] it’s our job to take a stand however we can.”
Genie Santiago, “Revelación”
Born into a Puerto Rican family in Massachusetts, Medford-based musician Genie Santiago has come of age as a queer Latina with a visionary edge. Her 2020 single “Revelación,” featuring ALGO, is a rhythmic breakdown of pervasive colonialist attitudes and a takedown of the political system that enables them. Santiago and ALGO, who is of Dominican descent, skillfully trade verses in English and Spanish; the video, directed by MassArt alum Guadalupe Campos, portrays the duo ensconced in footage from this year’s protests. Importantly, Santiago has pledged a portion of the single release sales to California-based direct aid organization Border Angels.
DJ WhySham, “Sin Justicia, No Hay Paz”
The premise of DJ WhySham’s debut album “Finally” — a gauntlet of rap talent manifesting “Boston drill” with all non-cis male collaborators — is the kind of effortlessly inclusive work that one expects from this era of the Boston scene. “Sin Justicia, No Hay Paz” (“No Justice, No Peace”) is an offering from the album that fuses Sham’s “social justice trap” with Caribbean bachata, managing to name-drop Breonna Taylor and Sandra Bland without sacrificing a pop sensibility. While Filipina-American singer-songwriter Sophia Islander chants the title of the song as a chorus mantra, it’s Boston’s own Eva Davenport who provides a standout vocal performance, all the while invoking #SayHerName. The call to action that results is one that brings the elegiac statement of “Rest in Power” fully to life.
Red Shaydez, “Buy All the Land Up!”
The inimitable Red Shaydez released her third album, “Feel the Aura,” in July. The rapper, who was recently crowned the 617Sessions Artist of the Year by the Boston Music Awards, ended the album by gunning for utopia on “Buy All the Land Up!” Here, she responds to the ongoing wealth gap for Black Bostonians swiftly and decisively: “We gon’ tear all the walls down/We won’t bend over backwards/We gon’ hit up the Congress/We gon’ get back our taxes/We gon’ buy all the land up.” Though she couldn’t tour behind the album because of the pandemic, Shaydez did stage one memorable performance: headlining the Activating ARTivism benefit livestream festival in August. The all-digital event managed to raise over $2,000 for community organizations MissionSAFE and Trans Resistance MA — a reminder, along with “Land,” that economic empowerment is a necessary form of resistance.
Healing is something Priscilla Azaglo, known as DZIDZOR (“jee-jaw”), has embedded herself in through her artistic practice. Previously, the Ghanaian-American poet and musician was a Boston University Arts/Lab Fellow, through which she conducted creative expression workshops at Rosie’s Place. On her debut EP, “Bush Woman,” DZIDZOR offers a studio version of “Uncomfortable/Sukane” — previously heard as an interactive performance piece. When the Twitter-sphere rages with social justice discourse and unlimited calls to action — in both righteous and polarizing ways — DZIDZOR brings us the musical space to respirate and meditate, to nourish the revolutionary spirit. The song dropped in April, as COVID was firmly setting in, but DZIDZOR remained steadfast: “A true bush woman is constantly embracing uncomfortable and learning to go through the process even if it isn’t what they expected.” She fits the song into a larger activist schema, one that Sister Corita would have valued: “It dropped just in time to capture the call for everyone to shift in and embrace a world where people are free, housed, and loved.”
ILL ADDICTS, “Gemini”
A parting note: The creative members of Boston’s communities of color have not only spent 2020 mourning and protesting, but also dreaming and scheming. If you need a shot of optimism, the rap collective ILL ADDICTS released two timely and irreverent albums this year, “Beautiful” and “Foundation.” “Gemini” is an example of that irreverence, but one with a political point: that in a year when Black death has made headlines, it’s also possible to center Black carefreeness and Black joy. Collective member PRO, who produced “Gemini,” had this to say via Zoom: “It’s a feel-good thing. Our genre is ‘fun.’ "