Listening To The Roots' "You Got Me" While Minneapolis Burned
Cell Vision correspondent Marcus K. Dowling reflects on the new meaning that The Roots' 1999 single "You Got Me" has taken on for him in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. To him, the song has improbably—21 years after its release—become the anthem for the current movement.
On May 9th Erykah Badu and Jill Scott appeared on Instagram Live’s Verzuz battle series, which was conceived by superproducers Swizz Beatz and Timbaland. Throughout quarantine, Verzuz has pitted classic artists and producers against each other in friendly, three-hour "competitions" playing hits they either performed or produced. It has served as an entertaining quarantine respite for fans of Generation X and millennial era rap and soul music. Moreover, they have served as a celebration of Black culture—notable battles have included T-Pain vs. Lil Jon, Teddy Riley vs. Babyface, Beenie Man vs. Bounty Killer, and most recently Jadakiss vs. Fabolous.
I was enthralled as Erykah Badu and Jill Scott played their separate versions of The Roots' "You Got Me" and I unexpectedly felt the emergence of energy that I think could remedy America's hostility.
What made Jill Scott versus Erykah Badu noteworthy as a "competition" is that the two artists are regarded as the godmothers of ushering in organic, feel-good Afrocentricity, and earnest vocals into rhythm and blues via the neo-soul movement. This brought a less competitive vibe to their "battle"—it had more of the feeling of mutual appreciation between two all-time greats. In particular, I was enthralled as Erykah Badu and Jill Scott played their separate versions of The Roots' "You Got Me" (on which Scott originally co-wrote and sang the hook—only to be replaced by Badu on the final version), and I unexpectedly felt the emergence of energy that I think could remedy America's hostility.
The song ultimately represents how the United States best can best metamorphosize past its broken self—The idea that no matter what, as long as we have each other's backs, we all, in some way, survive.
"You Got Me" is inarguably one of neo-soul's pinnacle moments. Surprisingly to me—and soon perhaps, to you—it has come to represent something entirely new in the wake of George Floyd's murder at the hands of the Minneapolis Police department. The song ultimately represents how the United States best can best metamorphosize past its broken self—The idea that no matter what, as long as we have each other's backs, we all, in some way, survive.
Hearing "You Got Me" on May 9th spurred me to recall the last time I felt so passionately about music. In 2015, a year wherein no fewer than ten violent protests occurred nationally during the initial wave of the Black Lives Matter movement, I witnessed Kendrick Lamar perform "Alright," live at Washington, DC's Lincoln Theater, that November. The eight months of protests preceding the concert were so constant, vibrant, and powerful that the year was a blur of blazing Black discord. Lamar's show involved a live crowd chanting the chorus acapella for five minutes, unprovoked. It galvanized a movement. "Alright" was the anthem of the movement—it had that hook that made EVERYONE get that Black people just wanted to stop hurting and being hurt.
Fitting the energy of the fire-lit scene into The Roots' transcendent gospel allowed the song's deeper spiritual essence to overwhelm the moment. Lyrically, instead of sounding like a lonely girlfriend, either Erykah or Jill (depending on which version you hear) sound like a Black mother talking to their Black son.
I felt my relationship to "You Got Me" transform hearing it play as my wake-up alarm on May 29th while watching Minneapolis' Third Police Precinct being engulfed in flames on my television (still on and tuned in to CNN from the night before). Fitting the energy of the fire-lit scene into The Roots' transcendent gospel allowed the song's deeper spiritual essence to overwhelm the moment. Lyrically, instead of sounding like a lonely girlfriend, either Erykah or Jill (depending on which version you hear) sound like a Black mother talking to their Black son. When I buried my mother last March, it felt like I'd become permanently untethered from her protection over my life's journey. Now, similarly, I could feel—via images, Erykah Badu's voice, Kamal Gray's bass, and Questlove's drums—the pang of fear I felt about my future as my mother was lowered into the ground. This melancholy was now transposed into my concerns about America's next steps. With this as context, it sounds like Badu is promising that no policeman's bullet, looting, firestorm, or physical assault will keep her from holding her son close -- not in memory, but the flesh -- at the end of the night.
While seeing a 36" TV screen glowing orange set against a similarly bright orange sunrise, "You Got Me" recast itself, changing for me from a neo-soul classic to an all-time healer of a protest anthem. The serendipitous combination of music and image changed everything. Now it's more than just a great song. It's a darkly hypnotic and super-melodic spiritual moment that casts a hedge of protection around a people thrown into a dangerous abyss. It's impossible to emerge from its thrall without some measure of enlightenment. Erykah Badu is scatting over the funky swing, and when that sound is juxtaposed with the images of Black brothers with their fists held aloft, the sound of exploding glass, and the roar of flames, it's jarring. Later, when Quest switches out of that break into double-time drumming against a 4/4 rhythm Erykah's dark contralto promising that "no matter where I go, or, no matter who I saw or, what club I went to with my homies, baby don't worry, you know that you got me" is heavier sounding than usual. It becomes the equivalent of the feel of bodies freefalling through the concentric circles that ring hell's gates.
America is currently knee-deep in a transitional national moment similar to 2015. George Floyd's murder being avenged by the Black citizens of Minneapolis suddenly shifted Black people's energy into a state of revolted anger. The Black Lives Matter movement is resurgent but, unlike five years prior, lacks a soundtrack that could sow the seeds of healing and resolution. In circling back to Jill, Erykah, and The Roots' 1999 hit I found an essential lesson for how neo-soul resolves 2020's embitterment. In essence, "You Got Me" -- recast as a jazzy caterwaul into a burning ring of fire -- has evolved into one of the most haunting, yet healing hymns of all time. It ultimately shows us all that if we show up for each other with love and understanding, we're still going to be "Alright."
Marcus K. Dowling is a journalist, broadcaster and entrepreneur. As a freelancer, he regularly writes for the likes of VICE, Pitchfork, Bitter Southerner, DJ Booth, Complex, Bandcamp, Mixmag, ESPN's Undefeated, and more. You can find links to more of his work below.