Tracing the fight for racial equality through black music’s rich legacy.
When 12-year-old singer Keedron Bryant lifted his voice to poignantly decry the senseless murder of George Floyd in a May 29 Instagram post that’s since drawn nearly 3 million views, the pre-teen joined the countless voices that have been fighting to end racism for the last 400 years. Music has always played an integral role in black people’s fight for equality and justice. So as that hard-fought struggle boils over onto city streets across the country, this year’s celebration of Black Music Month arrives at a crucial turning point.
When black people were uprooted from Africa to become slaves in 1600s America, one of the things they brought with them was call-and-response music. It not only helped while away hours of back-breaking field work but also doubled as a coded means to send news and other information across the slave network. Out of that came the spirituals that strengthened slaves’ unyielding faith, hope and perseverance. The lyrics of two such spirituals, “Steal Away” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” have been viewed by some as references to the Underground Railroad, which helped slaves escape to the North and Canada.
Since then, the long march toward equality has been fueled by other musical touchstones. Early civil rights activist and songwriter James Weldon Johnson penned the liberation poem “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” in 1900. Set to music by Johnson’s brother a few years later, the song — included on Beyoncé‘s 2018 Coachella set list — is now popularly known as the black national anthem. Jewish civil rights activist and teacher Abel Meeropol protested racism through his composition “Strange Fruit,” using the South’s lynching of black men as a metaphor for fruit hanging from trees. Billie Holiday’s stark yet visceral interpretation of the song, which she recorded in 1939, still resonates.
Sam Cooke (“A Change Is Gonna Come”) and Nina Simone (“Mississippi Goddam”) helped sound the rallying cry (along with the spiritual “We Shall Overcome”) as the civil rights movement pushed beyond the ’50s into the mid-60s. Then James Brown picked up the baton with the August 1968 anthem “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud” — four months after calming Boston fans with a live televised concert the night after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4.
More voices joined the chorus in the ’70s, including Curtis Mayfield (“We the People Who Are Darker Than Blue”), Marvin Gaye (“What’s Going On”), Gil Scott-Heron (“The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”) and Simone again (“To Be Young, Gifted and Black”). In tandem with the 1972 Watts Summer Festival, Stax Records organized the benefit concert Wattstax to commemorate the seventh anniversary of the ’65 riots in L.A.’s Watts community. Featured performers included the Staple Singers, Isaac Hayes and Otis Redding‘s backing band the Bar-Kays.
Rap took root in the ’80s with groups like Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five (“The Message”), Public Enemy (“Fight the Power”) and N.W.A (“Fuck Tha Police”) handing down no-holds-barred stories about life straight from the streets — putting a contemporary spin on the oral history tradition of African griots. Fast forward to 2015 and Kendrick Lamar’s uplifting yet defiant “Alright” was adopted as the anthem for #BlackLivesMatter in the wake of the deaths of Tamir Rice, Michael Brown and others.
This month (June 17) marks eight years since the passing of Rodney King, who was brutally beaten by LAPD officers in 1991. Their subsequent acquittal sparked L.A.’s riots in 1992, a year that saw the release of the controversial protest song “Cop Killer” by Ice-T‘s heavy metal band Body Count and hip-hop group Da Lench Mob’s “Freedom Got an A.K.” And now here we are as history repeats itself yet again with the deaths this year of Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and many others. This time, however, a new march for civil rights is mobilizing.
As more voices across the country lift to join the young Bryant’s, it’s imperative that protests and initiatives to end systemic racism go beyond fashionable lip service. As a black woman and mother of a 26-year-old daughter and 24-year-old son, I stand in solidarity with others to nurture meaningful exchange and change moving forward. As a music fan and industry journalist for the last 20-something years, I’ve witnessed firsthand music’s power as a universal language to uplift, educate, empower and bring people together for a common cause. During the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Swizz Beatz and Timbaland’s Verzuz series on Instagram is just one example of how artists are using social media to engage and stay connected with fans.
So while we celebrate the rich legacy of black music’s past, present and future, it is also time for the industry to help double down on actions to ensure that inclusion and diversity, racial tolerance and cultural appreciation (rather than appropriation) can truly become the new normal. Four hundred years is enough time to wait.