When a security officer named Julius Locklear grabbed Johnniqua Charles earlier this year outside of a South Carolina strip club, the confrontation became a concert. In a video filmed on the scene, Charles repeatedly asks why Locklear is holding her without reason. Then, with a wiggle and a shimmy, she starts singing, “You about to lose yo job, because you’re detaining me for nothing!” At one point, she tells the camera to make sure to “get this dance.” Locklear seems to stifle a laugh even as he maintains a grip on Charles’s arm.
Charles’s impromptu protest happened in January or February, but amid nationwide fury about the over-policing of black people, it has now gone viral. On June 3, the DJs Suede the Remix God and iMarkkeyz looped Charles’s words to a hyped-up trap rhythm. An accompanying music video synced up footage of Beyoncé, the rapper Bobby Shmurda, and the muppet Elmo dancing to the beat—and included mugshots of the four officers charged in connection to the killing of George Floyd. Protesters in multiple cities began using “You about to lose yo job” as a chant, as a sign slogan, and as backing for dance routines worthy of a Super Bowl halftime show.
If the Defund the Police movement is to have a defining anthem, it may well be this track, which packs a shocking amount of profundity into what would otherwise seem like internet ephemera. The line “You about to lose yo job!” can be heard as a plea, a warning, and a desperate wish for the reality that today’s protesters seek to create—the reality in which authorities are reliably held accountable. Charles’s defiance proudly flaunts the individuality and humanity that racist systems ignore. Her performance also embodies the fact that survival, rebellion, and music-making have long been twined for black Americans.
Even before Charles’s song began to catch on, the recent demonstrations were, among many other things, spectacles of sound: lockstep stomps, syncopated shouts, the haunting rustle of silent vigils conducted with helicopters overhead. Political anthems began to spill forth almost as soon as Floyd’s death made headlines, with the results encompassing voices as new as the 12-year-old gospel singer Keedron Bryant and as veteran as the 52-year-old rapper LL Cool J. Such music joins a long artistic tradition—tying together slave hymns, soul ballads, and the past 40 years of hip-hop—decrying the state’s dominance of black people. You can hear all of this history at the recent protests, where Sam Cooke recordings mingle with Kendrick Lamar recitations.
You can also hear the way most any song can be turned into a protest song. A march isn’t unlike a dance club in the way it relies on rhythm—to keep pace, to sync voices, to regulate energy—and the George Floyd protests have brilliantly mined black America’s diverse catalog of backbeats. In Washington, D.C., crowds bop to the funky bustle of go-go. In Detroit, the nocturnal thrum of techno underlies the chanting. Police brutality is a serious matter, but music helps show that joy doesn’t have to be suppressed in the struggle for justice. When protesters shout the chorus of Ludacris’s “Move Bitch” at phalanxes of police blocking streets, you can tell the marchers are angry. But you can also tell they’re having some fun.
What’s especially profound is that hip-hop always revels in this sort of co-option and repurposing. The mid-’70s epiphany that a good DJ can turn any found sound into a party starter has, over decades, opened up new lanes for sly social commentary—and “Lose Yo Job” is an all-too-poignant example. The co-remixer iMarkkeyz is the same guy who sampled Cardi B saying “coronavirus!” earlier this year, in the defining viral hit of the pandemic. His collaborator DJ Suede the Remix God has scored internet-born hits by looping voices from gospel sermons and rude teenagers. Existing outside of the major-label ecosystem, these artists build off the grand lineage of regional mixtape DJs whose work is deeply ingrained in the communities that Black Lives Matter seeks to defend. One of the most pivotal of such DJs, Houston’s DJ Screw, collaborated with George Floyd using his rap persona, Big Floyd.
Sonic decontextualization, of course, has its dangers. In other circumstances, “Lose Yo Job” could become the sort of pernicious meme that makes jokes out of poor black folks in moments of distress. But so far, the story of the song has not appeared to be one of exploitation. As the tune started to gain traction, Charles’s sister, Andrea, created a GoFundMe page. Its description said that Johnniqua is “currently homeless and battling with an addiction” and that her 3-year-old child “is in care of family.” Andrea added that “all funds that have been donated will go towards seeking help [for Johnniqua] and to care for her child” and that iMarkkeyz and DJ Suede the Remix God had been contacted “so that she receives her profit from her hit single.” The page has raised more than $50,000, and the remixers have been supporting it.
On Sunday, Charles herself appeared in an Instagram live-stream to tell her story. Squinting into the camera warily, she said that she had been “walking the streets”—homeless—up until an hour or so before the live-stream had begun. Her family, whom she’d lost touch with, had located her and informed her she had become a viral sensation. In her telling of events, on that famous night she’d sung her song, the guard, Locklear, had apprehended her after she verbally humiliated him in front of other people. (Locklear, who still works in private security and as a bail enforcer, told Buzzfeed he’d stopped her for trespassing.) He let her go when police arrived, and the incident faded into memory.
As the live-stream went on, Charles’s demeanor went from stony to jocular, and then emotional. She said that if the video hadn’t gotten the attention it did, leading her family to come and find her, she may well have been headed to the morgue soon. “The donations, all that stuff that y’all have given me—y’all don’t understand that this is the breakthrough that I needed,” she said. Her song hasn’t made anyone lose their job, but unmistakably it has asserted a life that matters.