Not for Sale: The Protest Music of Jordan Montgomery
Recording compelling protest music can be something of a tightrope walk for songwriters – one that rapper Jordan Montgomery does to great effect. Ahmed Ragheb dives into Montgomery’s Thank You 4 Ur Purchase But We R Not for $ale and hears from the artist about his album.
Protest music is tricky. In fact, I’d argue it’s just about the trickiest type of music an artist can set out to make; it involves the kind of tightrope walking that very few other endeavors do. It has to be political (every protest is political to at least one group) yet must somehow retain its artistic credibility; no one is going to be swayed by a song that feels like a campaign ad. It has to – by its very nature as protest – be critical yet somehow not be overly pessimistic; the listener cannot, by the end of the song, be so overwhelmed by the state and scope of the issue being addressed that they throw up their arms and give up (even if it really is that bad) – protest music must be a call to action, after all! It has to be angry – righteously, justifiably angry – yet it has to retain its beauty as art in so far as it remains enjoyable to listen to; the power of a song lies, in part, in its ability to be replayed, shared, and covered; no one wants to share a song they don’t enjoy listening to and pure anger (even when justified) is not exactly enjoyable. This all sounds like an exhausting (and frustrating) balancing act – so why bother? Because protesting is not only about shouting in the street and sharing infographics on Instagram, it’s not only about voting and educating yourself (all those things are necessary though!), it’s about creeping (and forcing, if need be) your message – the message, the truth – into the mainstream and into the everyday lives of the yet unconvinced masses and communities in power – and song is one of the absolute most effective ways to do that. The unquestioned father of American protest music and the singer most famously associated with Vietnam- and Civil Rights-era protest music is Bob Dylan – you just cannot discuss protest music in the United States without discussing the 1960s and you cannot discuss the 1960s music scene without discussing Dylan. “The Times They Are A-Changin’” and “Blowin’ in the Wind” are easily two of the most covered and most popular protest songs ever recorded, and that’s just the start of a long and illustrious career. But the times have changed and so has protest music.
In honor of Bob Dylan’s 80th birthday, several musicians recorded covers of some of his more famous songs for Pittsburgh’s WYEP. Among them was Jordan Montgomery. “I’m always looking for ways to challenge myself as a songwriter so I figured I’d take a swing at it,” Montgomery said. His rendition of that essential protest anthem, “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” struck me as something completely different – indeed he rewrote and reworked the lyrics to match his style, rapping to those chord and harmonica backings that I, and so many around the world, know implicitly. “I chose this song because the meaning of it still resonates today,” he explained. “Despite our cultural or political differences we as people are all looking forward to a better tomorrow. We might not know when the change will come or what it will look like but keeping the hope alive is enough worth fighting for.”
I wanted to know more about Montgomery, the 26 year-old Pittsburgh native and founder of Driving While Black Records, so I downloaded his latest release: Thank You 4 Ur Purchase But We R Not for $ale. Even before listening to the first track I could tell what I was in for; everything about the album seemed jam-packed with meaning and intention. The title is unflinching and declaratory (yet polite-ish), delivering with it a heavily implied, multi-faceted criticism of, among other things, gentrification – a rebuke especially poignant to Pittsburgh listeners: the transaction has occurred without the consent of the “purchased.” In this way, an uncomfortably straight line is drawn from the purchasing, and subsequent resident eviction, of a building (Penn Plaza, let's call it) through our history to a time where human beings were bought and sold based on the color of their skin. It may seem pedantic to harp on the title before discussing a single lyric but there is a boldness and cohesion that runs through this album, from the phrasing of its title to its closing track, that really ought to be highlighted – celebrated.
When I finally listened to the album in its entirety, there it was: the balancing act, the tightrope walking, the contradictions and potency of quality, well-crafted, and genuine protest music. “I try to make my music as relatable as possible whether I’m performing in front of a crowd of avid hip hop fans or people who would normally turn their noses up at the thought of rap music,” Montgomery said of his writing process. “I do talk about some heavy topics on this album so I had to rely on my use of storytelling and imagery to make these topics more digestible. I can’t say that I always know how a song will be accepted by my audience but I am truly grateful that I have been able to develop such a diverse fanbase over the years.”
The tone of Montgomery’s album presents a viciously dichotomous view of Pittsburgh, and by extension America; there is an obvious pride in his city (“Put the ‘Burgh on the map” and “Ain’t nobody better than Pittsburgh veterans”) but the Pittsburgh of Thank You 4 Ur Purchase – the Pittsburgh as often experienced by its Black and Brown residents – seems like nothing to be proud of; it is a land of violence and predators – the Wild West itself as Montgomery refers to it on the aptly titled “Wild West.” “Welcome to the jungle,” he spits as the track opens, “no Axl Rose / Same city where they shot down Antwon Rose / Where they tote more guns than roses. Foes is / Shaking in they boots.” It’s a cutting introduction to a city we get to know as we ride along with Montgomery and several collaborators (Livefromthecity, Hubbs, Deej, E.L.B.A., and Sierra Sellers), dodging bullets, eating fast food, falling in love, avoiding cops, following the life of a dollar bill, attending a protest, and much more. Through all of it the spirit of protest is alive and well, kicking and screaming, implicit in the very descriptions of the city and city life that Montgomery dishes out. However, it is in the overt and explicit criticism that the album really comes alive as protest.
“Angels” (my absolute favorite track on an album of gems) begins where the previous track left off: with audio of a speech recorded during a live event. Pittsburgh activist and poet Tresa Murphy-Green reads off the names of Black women who have been murdered in Pittsburgh and the names of Black trans women who have been murdered across the country. So begins a powerful meditation of the subjugation, sexualization, victimization and misuse of Black bodies. Montgomery does not mince words on this track, nor does he allow himself to sound relaxed on delivery; the subject matter deserves urgency – he knows it and so do we. The lyrics read like a stream – or river – of consciousness that springs forth from that single word: body. The listener can’t help but feel dread as the female voice of Murphy-Green, reading the names of women, fades away in favor of the male narrator making his first in a long list of sinister demands: “I want your body for love I want your body for lust / I want your body against my body ain't nobody but us.” We cycle through powerful, all-too-familiar images across a wide spectrum of experiences: from sexualized womanhood (“Probably paid your way through college with a body like that / Earn yourself a corner office with a body like that”) to womanhood under outright sexual assault (“Frat house party found her laying in the grass”); from manhood stolen by the War on Terror (“Veterans Day we all get a day off / Grenade hit his camp and blew his whole leg off”) to manhood stolen by the War on Drugs (“Disband your love ones can't touch through the glass / Trying to make bail so you run up with the mask”). It’s often difficult to listen to and the voice of Murphy-Green returns between verses to remind us that what we’re listening to is real, it is not hyperbole or poetic license, it is the lived experience of millions of Americans.
When asked if he considers himself a protest singer, Montgomery agreed. “I would consider all rappers including myself to be protest singers,” he said. “Hip hop is a naturally rebellious genre. The pioneers of the genre created an entire culture because they did not have access to the same artistic resources that predominantly white neighborhoods had. Even at hip hop’s most commercial state, artists like myself continue to challenge the status quo and speak up on issues that affect our communities.”
The album ends on an inspiring, albeit mindful, note with “Thank You 4 Ur Purchase.” “Look how far we done made it in a place we the most hated,” Montgomery declares, striking a balance between personal pride and clear-eyed criticism that appears throughout the album. Of the album on the whole, Montgomery added, “My goal with music is to create songs that can change your mood or your perspective on things. A song like ‘Paper Trails’ is meant to show how money is circulated throughout our communities and how its value can change depending on a person’s situation. ‘Favorite Rappers’ sheds light on some of the predatory practices of the music industry and how these influences can shape the trajectory of an artist’s career. Finally a song like ‘R&B’ encourages listeners to not forget about the little moments in our relationships with our loved ones as those are often the most important.”
Thank You 4 Ur Purchase But We R Not for $ale was released in the heat of the 2020 summer – and it shows – but it was conceived in the heat of the American experience. That experience is captured in part directly on the album’s cover, designed by Dakarai Akil: “A lot of his work focuses on Black Surrealism and Afrofuturism,” Montgomery said. “Each piece of his collages has the ability to tell their own story while being a part of something larger. I thought that the content of my album would fit perfectly with his style as each song fits into the larger theme of the project. He created the cover art for the first single ‘Favorite Rappers’ on his own then I flew out to LA to work with him on the art for ‘Paper Trails’ and the album cover. We sat in his studio for a couple hours finding old magazine clippings to make the covers. It was a great experience for me because I had never been that involved in the art for my previous projects.” In Akil’s design, which features a montage of black and white images from famous and infamous moments in U.S. history, printed horizontally in capital letters is the text: “I’VE DISCOVERED AMERICA!” On this album, maybe Montgomery has and he’s here to show it to you. It’s a complex picture, full of pride and sorrow, anger and positivity. It is a picture of life for young African Americans living in the 21st century – an experience inherently dichotomous. Perhaps this is what makes Montgomery so perfectly situated to deliver effective protest music and on Thank You 4 Ur Purchase he has. The album is not one you simply listen to, but one you experience and learn from. It’s an album that emboldens you and calls you to action, that makes you hug your mother a little tighter and hold your friends a little closer, one that points out your – our – enemies when they’ve become too difficult to see. ▲
Ahmed Ragheb is an independent filmmaker from Cairo, Egypt. He is now based in Pittsburgh and, with his partner, Lily, he is working on a series of short films. You can follow along with them on social media at @dogdoorfilms!