Days of Change: Looking Back At Acts Who Made A Difference

Cardi B
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Cardi B

Artists this past year proved to be among the most powerful of change agents.  They used their music, their voices, their financial resources, their social media platforms and their influence to respond to the challenges of this moment.  Here, we acknowledge events of the past year when artists made a difference.

March 10: “Shit got me panicking,” declares Cardi B on Instagram as COVID-19 spreads. As a remix of her rant by DJ iMarkkeyz goes viral on TikTok and Instagram, a fan on Twitter asks if royalties from the track could help “food banks or shelters that are probably flooded with new people needing help?” Cardi B tweets back: “YES ! THATS WHAT WE GOING TO DO! Keep in mind you don’t get your money right away ...but even months from now there would be families with financial issues for getting laid off due to the virus .We will Donate !”

April 1: Dolly Parton announces on Instagram she has donated $1 million in honor of her friend Dr. Naji Abumrad, professor of surgery at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, to fund Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine. By November, Moderna announces that its vaccine is 94% effective against the coronavirus. “I just felt so proud to have been part of that little seed money that hopefully will grow into something great and help to heal this world. Lord knows we need it, don’t we?” Parton tells the BBC’s The One Show.

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Dolly Parton

April 6: With the pandemic shutting down live performances — and her own recording sessions — H.E.R. launches Girls With Guitars, a weekly Instagram series featuring performances, covers and special guests like Tori Kelly, Alessia Cara and UMI. “It’s just about girls who are passionate about music and play guitar,” says H.E.R. “I don’t think there’s enough women supporting women, especially in this time. It is that time to show love to other people and show love to other artists.”

May 30: Jessie Reyez is among the thousands who take to the streets in Toronto to protest after the death of George Floyd. The Canadian-born daughter of parents from Colombia, Reyez later tells Billboard: “People told me, ‘You’re not Black, so why the fuck are you being so loud about this?’ [Her late grandfather was Black.] I was like, ‘Are you crazy?’ I can say every Latino has Black blood in them, but they just forget. If the oppressed are the only ones fighting against oppression, how is anything ever going to change? If you’re in a position of privilege, what the fuck are you doing with your mouth closed?”

June 2: “To every country artist not speaking up,” posts Mickey Guyton on Blackout Tuesday as Black Lives Matter protests spread nationwide, “now is your chance. We see you and need you to use your platform to be part of the change.” Six days earlier, on Instagram and Twitter, Guyton posted a 38-second clip of the song “Black Like Me,” which she had co-written in 2019, that concludes with the last two lines of the song’s chorus: “If you think we live in the land of the free/You should try to be Black like me.” The track was officially released June 1. In December, Guyton becomes the first Black woman to receive a Grammy Award nomination in a country category.

June 8: After protesting in Los Angeles alongside Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors, Melina Abdullah of BLM L.A. and actor-activist Kendrick Sampson, YG takes to Instagram to talk about the moment and his track “FTP (Fuck the Police).” He writes: “The real story here is me and Black Lives Matter brought out 50,000 people today to peacefully protest and unite for change. I wanted to document that so when they hear this song and think we are reckless and violent, they see a peaceful protest of all different people coming together for a common cause. That is history.”

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June 11: Jersey club music producer DJ Sliink — who creates what Skrillex has called “one of the most influential styles in mainstream music” — calls out industry gatekeepers at services including Spotify and SiriusXM for what he says is a lack of equal opportunities for artists making Jersey club, Baltimore club, soflo jook (Florida) and other styles largely created by Black producers. “I feel like we don’t get the recognition we deserve as a whole,” he tweets. “We get a little bit here, a little bit there, and I don’t feel that’s fair. How can we aspire if we’re not equal on these platforms?”

October 9: Killer Mike of Run the Jewels, together with Bounce TV founder Ryan Glover and former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young, announces the creation of Greenwood, an online banking system to support Black- and Latinx-owned and -operated businesses. “Today, a dollar circulates for 20 days in the white community but only six hours in the Black community,” says Mike in announcing the bank, which launched in January. “Moreover, a Black person is twice as likely as a white person to be denied a mortgage. This lack of fairness in the financial system is why we created Greenwood.” The bank is named for the Tulsa, Okla., neighborhood known in the early 1900s as “Black Wall Street,” which was decimated by a white mob in the Tulsa Massacre of 1921.

October 13: Three months after she was shot in an incident that led to charges against Tory Lanez, Megan Thee Stallion pens an op-ed in The New York Times, saying that her experience is an example of how Black women are disrespected and disregarded. Violence against women happens, she writes, “because too many men treat all women as objects, which helps them to justify inflicting abuse against us when we choose to exercise our own free will.” The op-ed was the culmination of months of the artist speaking out, from a TIDAL performance with a moment of silence for victims of police violence to a Saturday Night Live callout for protection of Black women and men.

October 30: The week before the U.S. election, Shakira — a Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF who has been vocal in get-out-the-vote efforts — publishes an essay in Time to draw attention to children who have been separated from their parents and detained at the U.S. border under Trump administration policies. Acknowledging that she is not an American citizen and could be “perceived as an outsider commenting on domestic policies,” she writes: “The United States’ decisions affect us all, even more so when children’s lives are on the line... Now is not the time to be silent.”

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December 22: Three days before Christmas, Beyoncé’s BeyGOOD foundation announces it will award $5,000 grants to families and individuals facing eviction or foreclosure, while the extension of a moratorium on evictions remains stalled in Congress. Earlier, the BeyGOOD Small Business Impact fund had given $10,000 grants to over 250 small businesses. “Beyoncé is continuing her heart of support and helping where needed most,” the foundation announced. “Phase two of the BeyGOOD Impact Fund will now help those impacted by the housing crisis. Many families are impacted due to the pandemic that resulted in job loss, sickness and overall economy downturn.”

This article originally appeared in the Jan. 30, 2021, issue of Billboard.