“How It Feels To Be Free”: Learning About Race Through Music

Like the Star Trek geek and the stamp collector, I’m often self-conscious about my obsession with music. I know that I’m far from the only one. Music is surely the most popular medium art comes in, and even though I know friends who could barely name a song, I don’t know anybody who doesn’t listen to music ever. But for me it’s most of what I do. I get bored attempting almost any task without it, it’s all I write about, read about, listen to podcasts about, and most of what I post on social media is about music. At times it leaves me worried; worried about looking like a hipster, worried about being a snob and nervous about the thought of boring people by ranting on about something I truly feel would improve their lives in the way the music I love enriches mine.

But then at a time like this – in the midst of a genuine historical reckoning – I’m also very grateful. While some white people were hearing Rodney King’s name for the first time, and becoming newly incensed at injustices perpetrated by systems of authority in America and worldwide now impossible to ignore, I found myself feeling bizarrely familiar with a struggle which has in fact been raging for decades, to which I have no physical connection. I was aware of the history of oppression lasting long past slavery and Jim Crow; in the prison-industrial complex, the war on drugs, racial profiling and economic disenfranchisement up until this very day. For a white 24 year old from rural Shropshire, who went to a Grammar school and studied nothing but a few very cursory lessons on the Civil Rights movement in class – told through a passivising, reductive lens no less – it made no sense. I’ve come to realise that it was all thanks to the music.

I had an unusually good foundation for avoiding ignorance, being born in Wolverhampton – one of the most racially diverse cities in the UK – and my father being an anti-racist campaigner as far back at the late 1960s – but I still came to much of this learning accidentally. One of the first African American pieces of music I sought out was Nina Simone’s “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free”, after hearing it at the end of an episode of the BBC drama Life On Mars when I was a kid. I fell in love with her music, and by extension 1960s and 70s soul, and as a result I eagerly consumed “What Happened, Miss Simone?”, Liz Garbus’ phenomenal documentary on the singer’s life, when it arrived on Netflix in 2015.

Simone was one of the most talented performers in modern American history but it’s impossible to watch the documentary about her life without being made incredibly aware of how race impacted upon every aspect of it. She was one of the most proficient classical pianists in the country, and yet was still rejected from the Curtis Institute of Music. She became involved in the Black Panther movement, and it almost cost her her career. I only watched to discover more about her music, but I learnt so much more. 

My interest in music grew exponentially, and likewise you can’t become a fan of Marvin Gaye and A Tribe Called Quest without being aware of police brutality in the inner-cities of America, listen to Archie Shepp and Nina Simone and remain ignorant to the worst violence and murders perpetrated against black citizens in the 1960s or listen to Run The Jewels and Erykah Badu and be blind to the incarceration rates which recreate slavery still, in 21st century America.

I will never understand what it’s like to be somebody living on the receiving end of these systems of ingrained and explicit prejudice and oppression, but I am grateful that by happenstance I fell in love with an art-form which can help me learn about the historical precedents and political forces which inform African American music. It is also one of the most rewarding lessons a person can receive: learning about painful injustice through songs which are emotionally charged, brave, pioneering, liberating and fun.

In a year when many people are approaching from the other side – looking to understand systemic racism in a way our schools and our circles fail to do – I would like to share some of the music and musicians I have encountered over the course of ten years of listening to music fanatically: 50 Songs For The Black Lives Matter Movement, stretching from Lead Belly in the 1930s to Run The Jewels fourth album, released last week. It is available on Spotify and Apple Music, and it comes with a companion article with in-depth analysis of all fifty songs exploring the musicians behind them and their historical and political context. I hope that it helps those looking to learn more about race-relations in America do so, and shines a light on some overlooked or undiscovered African American musicians which people can also fall in love with, enriching their lives more ways than one.

The playlist:

Apple Music Link

A MASTER DOCUMENT OF SOURCES PERTAINING TO THE BLACK LIVES MATTER MOVEMENT CAN BE FOUND HERE. Including equational resources, charitable causes, advice to protestors and much more. I have chosen to donate to Black Lives Matter UK and the Bail Project in the US. 

Words by Liam Inscoe – Jones.

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