Song of the Hour: “Hell You Talmbout” by Janelle Monáe & Wondaland Records

With “Hell You Talmbout”, Wondaland Records has stripped down protest music to its barest form, chanting names of black people killed by police (and some that were simply the victims of hate crimes dating all the way back to Emmett Till in 1955) over syncopated rhythms and imploring us to say their names, with interspersed choruses of “Hell you talmbout?” sung in the style of a wailing African spiritual.  It doesn’t go anywhere. It’s repetitive. There’s no artistry to speak of, really, nothing especially creative to commend.

And yet the song is undeniably affecting. Repeating the names, names we’ve heard over and over, removes the numbness we’ve developed to them. I’m reminded of the Plastic Ono Band song, “Give Peace a Chance”. There’s very little to it besides the chorus of “All we are saying / Is give peace a chance!”. The very act of repetition has a way of getting into your heart.

The passion with which these artists beg us to say their names is contagious. The decision to include a variety of artists rather than just one (Monáe is the big name, but she’s only got one segment just like everyone else) reflects the necessity of community for protest. By the end, “Hell you talmbout?” becomes a rallying cry, a shared exasperation about those who pretend these things aren’t happening, and a call to speak up on behalf of those that no longer can.


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