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How ‘The Way It Is’ Became an Unlikely Soundtrack to the Black Lives Matter Movement

Bruce Hornsby made his name in the easy-listening/adult-contemporary world. But his civil rights ballad has been the musical bedrock for two generations of hip-hop anthems that dissect racial injustice and police brutality from the inside.

Bruce Hornsby has never been cool. In 1987, when he and his band the Range won Best New Artist at the Grammys, he bounded on stage, rocking an aw-shucks demeanor and a ridiculous ponytail. Lanky and a bit awkward with his 6-foot-4 frame, he grinned goofily and thanked family members, label executives and “my big brother and our head cheerleader Huey Lewis.” That Hornsby gave a special shout-out to Mr. Hip to Be Square was indicative of his amiable, un-edgy persona. 

Indeed, the Virginia native had long been a favorite of a certain kind of bar-band rocker. Adult-contemporary superstar Michael McDonald saw him perform in 1978, back when Hornsby was still in his early 20s, and encouraged him to move out to L.A. to make his name. Once on the West Coast, Hornsby befriended Jeff Baxter, a guitarist for McDonald’s group the Doobie Brothers, and palled around with Lewis. When Hornsby got signed to RCA in the mid-1980s, he was thrilled, but he also felt very out of step with modern music. “The Range was not at all trying to be a hit act,” he would say later. “We were trying to be more of a modern version of the Band. Accordions, mandolins, fiddles and hammer dulcimers abounded in that first record.”

One of the songs on that first demo was “The Way It Is,” an earnest paean to marginalized Black Americans who face racism and poverty. “I wrote the song based on having grown up in a small Southern town where certain narrow-minded attitudes were fairly common and impactful on local events,” he said. Indeed, “The Way It Is” wasn’t just about bigotry — it was about the callous behavior that those in power exhibit to those less fortunate. In the song, a woman in a welfare line is sneered at by a passerby: “Just for fun, he says, ‘Get a job.’” The epochal Civil Rights Act and Economic Opportunity Act are referenced — both of which sought to help provide more opportunity for struggling Black Americans — but Hornsby acknowledges, “It only goes so far / ‘Cause the law don’t change another’s mind.”

The lyrics to “The Way It Is” came to Hornsby first, and then he tried to find the right music to accompany it. “I remember being in my garage and coming up with this little lick that I liked,” he said. “I kept playing it over and over again. And the melody? It’s very strange. I’m not trying to be mysterious about it, but I just can’t really remember how I wrote it.”

In the mid-1980s, deep in the Reagan years, there were plenty of protest songs from punk rockers and hip-hop artists. (And, every once in a while, you’d get something more mainstream, like Bruce Springsteen’s angry “Born in the U.S.A.,” which some people still don’t know is a protest song.) But the easy-listening world where Bruce Hornsby and the Range resided didn’t really have a ton. (The whole point of the genre is to make the listener feel good, after all.) But, somehow, Hornsby snuck a very sobering message about intolerance and cruelty into a very pretty piano ballad.

“‘The Way It is” was a wonderful accident, a great fluke,” Hornsby said earlier this month. “A song about racism with two improvised solos is hardly the formula for pop success then or at any time. Everyone thought it should have been a B side.” And, in fact, Hornsby’s label went with “Every Little Kiss” as the group’s first single — an uptempo, finger-snapping love song that wouldn’t have been out of place on a Steve Winwood or Huey Lewis record. But once BBC Radio started playing “The Way It Is,” the ballad quickly gained momentum, and soon it was No. 1 in the U.S., riding high on the charts alongside “Walk Like an Egyptian” and, ironically enough, “Hip to Be Square.”

It was easy at the time to be touched by the song’s sentiment but also roll your eyes. “The Way It Is” is an anthem of white liberal guilt, reducing systemic racism and economic inequality to a jazzy, peppy melody. And the chorus — “That’s just the way it is / Some things’ll never change / That’s just the way it is / Ha, but don’t you believe them” — suggests that, hey everybody, we can make a difference if we just put our minds to it. A simplistic sentiment, to be sure, but what saved “The Way It Is” was its genuineness, decency and modesty. Hornsby’s plainspoken, melancholy observations were the furthest thing from being proud of themselves — he was just some guy speaking out about what was bothering him. 

That directness (along with that skipping piano riff, which you couldn’t get out of your head) resonated with listeners — as well as Grammy voters, who gave him and his band a standing ovation when they won Best New Artist. The late 1980s were Hornsby’s commercial peak, resulting in two hit albums — The Way It Is went triple-platinum, 1988’s Scenes From the Southside went platinum — and two other Top 10 smashes. (Meanwhile, Hornsby’s “Jacob’s Ladder” went to No. 1 for Huey Lewis and the News. And he co-wrote and co-produced Don Henley’s somber adult-contemporary ballad “The End of the Innocence,” which went Top 10.) Hornsby had another political song, 1988’s “Look Out Any Window,” sniff the Top 40, but by 1990’s A Night on the Town, Bruce Hornsby and the Range’s brand of tasteful pop just wasn’t as novel anymore, replaced by other uber-sincere, soulful MOR acts like Marc Cohn. 

In the 1990s, Hornsby did his own thing — recording solo albums, touring with his childhood heroes the Grateful Dead — as techno, dance-pop, hip-hop and alternative rock became the decade’s prominent sounds. But while his visibility was shrinking, “The Way It Is” was starting to cast a long shadow. Initially, you could feel its influence in similarly socially-minded songs that started zooming up the charts: Everything from “Luka” to “Fast Car” to “Another Day in Paradise” tackled issues like abuse and poverty with stark lyrics and hummable melodies. But, more importantly, Tupac Shakur was working on a track about a narrator who feels angry, desperate and sad as he faces the racism around him. The song was recorded in the early 1990s, but it wasn’t released until 1998, two years after the rapper’s murder at the age of 25. But first, his estate had to reach out to Hornsby because that song, “Changes,” sampled “The Way It Is.”

“A year after he was assassinated,” Hornsby recalled, “I got a cassette in the mail from the Shakur Foundation, saying, ‘We found this song, it’s going to be the single on his Greatest Hits album coming out.’ The original [‘Changes’] was a lot dirtier, had a lot of the N-word. They took that out for the single. I didn’t request it; it’s their creation, it wasn’t my place to say anything.”

“Changes” wasn’t the first time someone had remade “The Way It Is.” In 1993, a Scottish dance group called Undercover covered the song. New Age-y musician John Tesh did a cheesy smooth-jazz version. And in 1996, Bay Area rapper E-40 put out “Things’ll Never Change,” about a man looking back on his abusive father, as well as reflecting on social ills such as suicide and domestic violence. “Things’ll Never Change” bit Hornsby’s piano line and well as the original song’s chorus, but “Changes” was even more overt, serving as almost an answer song to “The Way It Is.”

If Hornsby’s hit voiced the heartfelt perspective of a white man who didn’t experience racism from the inside, “Changes” was a meticulous, candid chronicling of an impoverished Black man’s life. It’s a world of crime, drugs, violence, corrupt cops and dark thoughts. (“I see no changes / Wake up in the morning and I ask myself / Is life worth livin’? / Should I blast myself?”) The interpolated keyboard line offers a lightness to what is otherwise a despairing song, and the chorus negates Hornsby’s optimistic notion that the status quo can be changed. In Tupac’s version, life is hard, and it’s only getting worse: “That’s just the way it is / Things’ll never be the same.” During the bridge, he offers a plea — “Let’s change the way we eat / Let’s change the way we live / And let’s change the way we treat each other” — but whether such a change can even happen is left very much unresolved.

“Changes” wasn’t one of Tupac’s highest-charting hits — although it did earn him a posthumous Grammy nomination — but as with “The Way It Is,” it seemed to be a State of the Union-like address for its listeners, laying out all the ways in which the promise of America hadn’t come to fruition. And it spoke to an audience that might not have been big Bruce Hornsby fans, motivating them to do their part to remake the world around them. 

One of those listeners was Cynthia McKinney, who served in the House of Representatives for 12 years, becoming Georgia’s first Black congressperson. She was a big Tupac fan because of her son — and “Changes” had a profound effect on her. In Tupac Remembered: Bearing Witness to a Life and Legacy, she writes, “I was up all night playing that song and going line by line through the music on the CD to try and figure out the words he was saying. And every line was as important as the previous line … and the content was so technical and so political and so insightful that I couldn’t stop.”

Other hip-hop artists have sampled “The Way It Is,” including Snoop Dogg and Mase, but “Changes” is the one that feels definitive because it’s as sincere and eloquently blunt as Hornsby’s original. “Of all the different hip-hop and rap versions of the song … ‘Changes’ by Tupac Shakur is my favorite,” Hornsby has said. “I liked the message, I like the groove, and I like the checks.”

Ironically, Hornsby has spent much of his subsequent career pushing against the idea that he’s just the guy who did “The Way It Is.” Whether it’s playing with the Dead, scoring Spike Lee projects or teaming up with artists like Jamila Woods and Vernon Reid for his new album, he’s enjoyed flexing his considerable musical dexterity while challenging his audience’s expectations. In 2016, Hornsby admitted, “It’s funny — at a concert of mine, half the people are there to hear six or seven songs from 1986 to 1991, and half the people wish I would never even play those.”

Meanwhile, “The Way It Is” — or, rather, the Tupac song it inspired — is as relevant as ever. This summer’s Black Lives Matter protests were often punctuated with “Changes,” a fact that Hornsby celebrated on Twitter — and then got a retweet from Ice-T.

Sadly, the song’s survey of police brutality has made “Changes” timely again, and it provoked a younger rapper, Polo G, to pay homage on his recent album, The Goat. The album closes with “Wishing for a Hero,” which uses the same piano sample and addresses the societal oppression that was prevalent in Tupac’s era, too. (Some things are different from then to now, though: On “Changes,” Tupac rapped, “And although it seems heaven-sent / We ain’t ready to see a Black president.”) But in the BLM moment, “Wishing for a Hero,” with its gospel choir and electric rapping, somehow feels even more urgent and desperate than Tupac’s version. It sounds like a baton being passed from one hip-hop generation to the next.

Back in May, Polo G was asked about the inspiration for “Wishing for a Hero.” “Pac inspired my way of thinking and just making me be able to want to speak out on problems or not be afraid to speak up,” he said. “To me, Pac was a gangster and a revolutionist. I just try to represent myself in that same way, but still being able to be articulate and show my knowledge.”

Hornsby’s name didn’t even come up — which is understandable. For a young guy like Polo, “The Way It Is” is just some ancient relic. 

In early August, Hornsby was reflecting on “The Way It Is,” and how it’s morphed over the years. All these years later, he still doesn’t have a clue why that piano melody remains so indelible in hip-hop. “You’d think that, with all of my work with Spike Lee through the years, I’d have run into someone from that world who would be able to give me some clear answer about why,” he said. “What’s so attractive about this? I’d like to know, but I don’t have any idea.”

Pressed to come up with an answer, Hornsby suggested, “Well, the song’s about racism, so that may draw someone to it on a subject-matter level. The other possible way in is its very simple drum-machine feel. It doesn’t have that big, punchy sound of a Dr. Dre record or all the great-sounding hip-hop records, but it has a feel that lends itself to that music.”

There’s something endearing about the fact that Hornsby has become an unlikely creative fuel for so many hip-hop songs. Often the soundtrack to pleasant summer barbecues — or your latest trip to the dentist — his music never felt threatening or dangerous. (Even “The Way It Is” is more lament than angry provocation.) But that tuneful sensitivity proved to be the perfect emotional backdrop for rappers who wanted to show their softer side while decrying the world around them. Hornsby was never a critic’s darling or particularly hip. But in this year of mass protests and social upheaval, that song he wrote in his garage 35 years ago still is making some noise.