Elijah Blake Talks New Single 'Hanging Tree': 'I Needed to Use My Voice'

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Tom Cubis
Elijah Blake

Elijah Blake’s powerful song “Hanging Tree” outlines how inequality and oppression still exist in the 21st century.

Enlisted by Harry Belafonte’s social justice organization, Sankofa.org, the track was initially featured earlier this year as part of Sankofa’s EP17, which also features music by Ty Dolla $ign, Raphael Saadiq and Mali Music. Today (May 25), Sankofa announces its visual collaboration with Blake: the searing video for “Hanging Tree,” available exclusively June 1 on Vevo.

“Hanging Tree” also doubles as the first single from Blake’s new album, slated for July, and will be available via all digital service providers on June 1 as well. The Grammy winner’s upcoming album will be the follow-up to his 2015 Def Jam album Shadows and Diamonds -- featuring the single “I Just Wanna" -- and his 2016 mixtape Blueberry Vapors.

Blake, who has also penned songs for Rihanna, Rick Ross and Keyshia Cole, talked to Billboard about “Hanging Tree,” and his involvement with Sankofa.org.

What is the backstory behind your writing this song?

I recorded this song shortly after the release of my album Shadows and Diamonds. It was kind of surreal to just go in the booth to basically vent and freestyle all my feelings and thoughts in regards to black rights, equal rights, Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice and countless others.

As I walked away from the mic, there was a heaviness in the room. My A&R felt it, the engineer and even the runner. But I didn't have a project to put the song on at the time. I played it for a friend of mine, Jodi Blum [former executive director of the Recording Academy’s Grammy U], who explained to me what Sankofa was doing and how it would be perfect for the movement.

What does the song mean to you, especially given the new world order under the Trump administration?

One of my all-time favorite quotes happens to be from Nina Simone: "How can you be an artist and not reflect the times?” I started to feel like marching wasn't enough, blacking out my Instagram wasn't enough. I needed to use the greatest gift God has given me, given us all: My voice, our voice. Scream, shout, sing until we are heard; don’t just sit back and wait for what we believe is the inevitable. Because we are the change.

How hands-on were you in the creation and production of the video?

Director Sean Alexander and I sat in the basement level of my building forever, coming up with different ways to paint this picture without being too literal. We came up with this one, which shows that you can dress up an ugly system with a suit and tie. But as society and media continue to tear away at it… underneath it all the fact still remains that there's still a whole lot of scarring, bruising and blood that needs to heal. I also wanted show that although we've come a long way as a people, we're still not as far from the corruption to black lives that occurred in slavery as some would like to believe.