Hell You Talmbout

Album: released as a single (2015)

Songfacts®:

  • This percussive protest song ties into the Black Lives Matter movement, specifically the #SayHerName and #SayHisName hashtags. The lyrics are chants, with Monáe teaming up with members of her Wondaland Arts Society to call out the names of Black Americans who have been killed by police or as part of hate crimes. After each name is recited, it's answered with the refrain, "say her (his) name," a reminder that these are people, not statistics. Names mentioned include Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Amadou Diallo and Emmett Till.
  • Monáe explained how this song came about when she spoke with Red Bull Music Academy in 2018. "It was just us giving a release to so many people, including ourselves," she said. "We needed to say that personally. We just felt like, 'How can we contribute?' We knew people were doing a lot of marches. There were people who were really out on the front lines, and I was not out there as much as some of the families and friends of these people were. We just thought, 'This song is a vessel. This is a tool for you. Use it. Say your loved ones name. This is how I want to contribute. When you want to give up, when you get tired, put this on, take it with you, speak it, and let it be therapy.' Let's honor them. Let's never forget them."
  • The song title is a contracted version of "The hell you talking about?"
  • Monáe dropped this song online August 13, 2015, the day after she and Wonderland singer Jidenna led a protest march in Philadelphia.
  • A different song with the same title appears as a bonus track on physical copies of Monáe's 2013 album The Electric Lady. That song is smooth R&B number with a lyric about life in the inner city. It alludes to police brutality and gang violence, but in general terms.
  • Weeks after this was released, Monáe posted the instrumental tracks and encouraged listeners to create their own versions of the song with their own lyrics. Many did, inserting the names of loved ones or other victims.
  • David Byrne performed this song in his Broadway play American Utopia, which debuted in October 2019 and ran until February 2020. David Byrne, the star of the show, he introduced it by explaining that it's a cover of a Janelle Monáe song that she agreed to let him use. Monáe gave Byrne permission and her full support.

    Byrne added names to the list to include some that were killed since the song was released in 2015. When he turned American Utopia into a film, he and director Spike Lee added even more names, including George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.

    "It reminds you of the humanity of these people who've been murdered," Byrne told Esquire. "They are not just numbers or something you read in the newspaper. This person had a name."

    "It's really a shame that we needed to add more names to that great song," Spike Lee added. "It's criminal."

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