A Historical Journey of African-American Musical Activism
Black Lives Matter!
"Stay out of politics! You're about music and culture, so it's better not to mix these things", they say.
Yes, we are about music, culture, bringing the beauty that is music to the masses, promoting the power it has on bringing people together and the love and joy it sparks in our hearts. This is precisely why, this current topic is one we don't want to ignore. Caring about all life is not political! It is human, it is a matter of the heart and soul. And when some kinds of life are not regarded as sacred, then we must work together to change that.
So, in this context we will do what we do best, talk music!
Musical Cries of Slaves in US America
Music has the power to reach people's hearts, to inspire and spark revolution. Music communicates, from the deepest pain of the heart, to powerfully expressing the most obvious emotions and issues of the moment. The history of blacks in the US has been accompanied by music from the beginning, when slaves sang during their hard labour, both to express their hardships and yearning, and to communicate between each other. The lyrics of such songs were sometimes akin to prayers and cries for help to the heavens:
"Oh, when I'm in trouble,
Down on my knees,
When I was in trouble,
Lord, remember me"
and others expressing hardships and longing for freedom:
Oh freedom over me
And before I'd be a slave
I'd be buried in my grave
And go home to my Lord and be free"
Jazz and the Civil Rights Movement
Jazz music developed in the late 19th and early 20th century. Based on the music of African American Slaves, it merged with western musical styles, forming it's own distinctive style of music.
Artists such as Louis Armstrong, Billie Holliday and John Coltrane, were among musicians who fuelled the fires of the civil rights movement. Armstrong, while often criticised for performing in front of segregated audiences, utilised his platform with words such as "my only sin, is in my skin, what did I do, to be so black and blue...".
Billie Holiday repeatedly sang the incredibly emotional song, based on the 1930 lynching of two black men, "Strange Fruit". It became an anthem of the early civil rights movement.
The entire Jazz scene eventually became "the soundtrack of the civil rights movement", as expressed by The Black Music Scholar. The genre was popular among black and white communities and the perfect platform to promote the cause for racial equality. Musicians tended to be the first to express themselves when horror struck and the first to be listened to by the population at large. In the 1950s almost every Jazz musician was creating political songs. John Coltrane performed "Alabama", mourning the 1963 bombing of a church in Birmingham, Alabama. "The Freedom Suite" by Sonny Rollins was recorded as a declaration of musical and racial freedom. Nina Simone's entire musical work of the time was an expression of her pain and disappointment in the state of the nation, one of her most famous pieces being "Mississippi Goddam".
Voices for Racial Justice
The movement sparked change but racial inequalities did not end with its historical achievements. They continue until this day and thus musical voices of all times are echoing the vast landscape of emotions involved with this injustice.
Aretha Franklin was vocal from the time of the Civil Rights Movement including her claim to fame song "Respect" and continued to sing for equality with "Lift Every Voice and Sing".
If we're talking politically and socially active musicians, we have to mention Tracy Chapman. She promotes equality, justice and change in her music and beyond. "Talkin 'bout a Revolution" would be her most famous song written as a means for political consciousness and liberal activism.
Hip Hop music, starting in the 1970s, has been a massive expression of social injustices, originating in African American Communities of the Bronx, experiencing police brutality, poverty and mass incarceration. Countless artists in this genre have written powerful lyrics and music on this including " 2Pac's "Violent" and "Sound of Da Police" by KRS-One.
And the BLM movement we see today, the modern version of the Civil Rights Movement, has its musical anthems as well, promoting the cause and enforcing the efforts to make the seeds of equality grow strong in people's minds and hearts. These include "Freedom" by Beyonce feat. Kendrick Lamar and"Spiritual" by Jay Z. Last but not least is Lauryn Hill's powerful song "Black Rage", which is a capturing piece on how acts of hatred can make you spiral to dark places.
Music has a power to transcend the mood of millions, it touches on our deepest fears, pain and reaches places of our humanity often lost in this world of greed for materials and fear of the other. It can give us a glimpse into the pain of the performer and of entire population groups, sparking compassion and unity. It reminds us that all people, regardless of colour, religion or gender are connected by the same dreams, wishes and yearnings, that ultimately define us into one single race - The Human Race.