This week I wrote about the gratitude I feel for having received such an education on systemic racism in America and the UK simply through to having an interest in music. Exploring new music as a teenager, I sought out the songs rather than the political and emotional understanding yet gained both at the same time, and now I would like to return the favour to those who are coming at things from the opposite perspective: abruptly awakened to the state of race relations in modern America and seeking to expand the depth of their understanding. Alongside myriad feature films, documentaries and books (fictional and academic), I believe one of the finest ways to do so is by exploring eighty years of black music from America and the UK.
Let’s not beat around the bush: black people invented popular music. From blues to jazz, from rock ‘n’ roll to rap, from disco to house, from soul to R&B: myriad white musicians have released fantastic music in what is ultimately a black form. It’s no coincidence; when black people in America couldn’t express themselves at the ballot box, they could express themselves in song. This is a playlist of fifty songs from across the past eighty years of African American musicianship. Many of them are well known, some have been overlooked or are simply too old to be remembered by most. They’re largely listed in chronological order with some exceptions, and are mostly American with a handful of songs from the UK.
Jim Crow Blues – Lead Belly
Recorded sometime in the 1930s, this song by blues icon Lead Belly – a man born on a plantation on 1888 – is a small window into the life of African Americans in the first half of the 20th Century; a response to the segregationist laws enforced until 1965 in the Southern United States. Jim Crow laws made black American’s second class citizens in their own country, forcing segregation in all public services and removing the few political and economic gains made by African Americans in the wake of the abolition of slavery in 1865. Hullie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter urges in his rumbling baritone to “get together, break up this old Jim Crow”, and the reference to Bunk Johnson, a jazz trumpeter from New Orleans, is testament to the unifying power of song for a uniquely disenfranchised population.
Black, Brown & Beige Part IV (Aka ‘Come Sunday’) – Duke Ellington & His Orchestra Featuring Mahalia Jackson
The pioneering pianist and composer’s Black, Brown & Beige suite debuted at Carnegie Hall in 1943. Ellington’s most ambitious symphony was introduced as “a parallel to the history of the Negro in America” and contained three titular movements, with each part broken into different periods of African American history; from the 700 Haitians who came to the aid of African Americans during the Revolutionary War to the influence of West Indians, the emancipation and the contemporary Blues period. The enchanting vocals of Mahalia Jackson – who later performed at the March on Washington and Martin Luther King’s funeral – elevate this portion of the music, which went on to become a traditional spiritual on its own terms. It captures the healing power of Christianity for many disenfranchised African Americans, including Ellington’s own faith. William McClain has noted the importance of Sunday to black Americans, even in secular music: “To the Christian, Sunday is, or should be, another Easter, in which God’s victory in Christ over sin and death are celebrated in work, word, song, prayer, and preaching. After all, even [slave] masters and owners tried to be more human on Sunday”.
Fables of Faubus – Charles Mingus
Written in 1959 in direct reaction to the Governor of Arkansas, Orval Faubus – who sent out the National Guard to prevent the integration of Little Rock Central High School by nine black teenagers – “Fables of Faubus” is the both one of bassist and jazz composer Charles Mingus’ most strikingly political songs, and testament to sweeping censorship enacted by white label bosses against their black musicians. Columbia Records refused to include the lyrics Mingus wrote for the song, forcing the classic album Mingus Ah Um to be released with only the instrumental version included. When the version of the song featuring call-and-response vocals by Mingus and drummer Dannie Richmond was finally released, it became apparent what the label bosses were so scared of: “Name me someone who’s ridiculous, Dannie / Governor Faubus! / Why is he so sick and ridiculous? / He won’t permit integrated schools / Then he’s a fool! Nazi fascist supremists!” They may have been silenced, but they weren’t wrong.
Strange Fruit – Nina Simone
Recorded originally in 1939 by Billie Holliday, this haunting ballad compares lynched African Americans to fruit on a tree, and in doing so declared war against the perpetrators of these pubic executions, and in effect began the civil rights movement in earnest. The words were written by Abel Meerpol, in reaction to the 1930 lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith. Equally iconic is Nina Simone’s cover of the song, released on her 1965 album Pastel Blues in the midst of the same movement. Simone’s incredible barritone gives the song the same twisted darkness of it’s subject matter, the moment when the instrumental falls to silence as Simone howls the line “strange and bitter crop” surely being one of the most shocking in modern music.
A Change Is Gonna Come – Sam Cooke
Blessed both with one of the finest voices of the original soul era and soaring string orchestration, “A Change Is Gonna Come” became emblematic of the entire Civil Rights era, taking all the nuance and division of the first post-war movement for the fight for equitable rights of black Americans and placing them in their plainest and most hopeful terms: “there have been times that I thought I couldn’t last for long / But now I think I’m able to carry on / It’s been a long, a long time coming / But I know a change is gonna come, oh yes it will”. Upon the election of the first black President, Barack Obama, in 2008, the song was played widely in the nation’s capital, however the failings of the President to create the manner of society Cooke sung of over half a century earlier show the extent to which racism is ingrained in every American system and institution.
Mississippi Goddam (Live In New York, 1964) – Nina Simone
This somewhat jaunty tune masks a deep well of anguish captured in the words of Nina Simone, a woman who is almost singularly representative of the experience of the African American artist in the first half of the 20th century. Firstly there’s the title of the song, released at a time when ‘Goddam’ was considered a raging obscenity never to be uttered on the airwaves. The outrage over the use of a word is is made even more obscene considering the heinous murders the song was written in response to: the killing of Medgar Evers in Mississippi and the Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama which killed four black children. She sings: “this is a show tune/ But the show hasn’t been written for it, yet / Hound dogs on my trail / School children sitting in jail / Black cat cross my path / I think every day’s gonna be my last”. Simone considered it her first civil rights song, but her increasing commitment to the cause of black power – which would see her write other classics such as “Backlash Blues” and “Young, Gifted and Black” – would cost her much in the industry and, as civil rights leaders were assassinated in quick succession, her mental health deteriorated throughout the 1970s at a time when her bipolar could be more easily be dismissed as the rage of a black woman.
Alabama – John Coltrane
A second response to the Birmingham bombing came from John Coltrane who, in November 18, 1963, went into Rudy Van Gelder’s Studio in New Jersey and recorded the tune Alabama. He did not tell anyone in the studio, including the members of his legendary quartet, what the tune was about. The band played five takes of the moving piece of music, of which the last one found its way into Coltrane’s record Live at Birdland. Coltrane kept his thoughts and feelings to himself, but it later became clear that he was playing a eulogy for the victims of the bombing that took place in Birmingham two months prior. The sorrowful melody captures the sadness not only of that tragic event, but the entire human injustice which allowed it to come to pass.
In September 1964 Martin Luther King spent two days in West Berlin and gave a speech at the Berlin Jazz Festival in which he said: “Jazz speaks for life. The Blues tell the story of life’s difficulties, and if you think for a moment, you will realize that they take the hardest realities of life and put them into music, only to come out with some new hope or sense of triumph. This is triumphant music. Modern Jazz has continued in this tradition, singing the songs of a more complicated urban existence. When life itself offers no order and meaning, the musician creates an order and meaning from the sounds of the earth which flow through his instrument. It is no wonder that so much of the search for identity among American Negroes was championed by jazz musicians. Long before the modern essayists and scholars wrote of “racial identity” as a problem for a multi-racial world, musicians were returning to their roots to affirm that which was stirring within their souls”.
Respect – Aretha Franklin
Any black woman born in a certain year and living to a certain age saw remarkable changes within America, and Aretha Franklin saw them more blatantly than most; starting a career in a segregationist country and later singing at the inauguration of the first African American President almost 70 years later. Civil rights leader Rev. Joseph E. Lowery said that Franklin “not only provided the soundtrack for the civil rights movement, Aretha’s music transcended race, nationality and religion and helped people from all backgrounds to recognize what they had in common”, and her father’s church was the first place Martin Luther King gave his “I Had A Dream” speech in 1963. Her stardom was also key to the civil rights movement’s financial continuation, Andrew Young of the SCLC saying that “almost every time we needed money, there were two people we could always count on: Aretha Franklin and Harry Belafonte, they would get together and have a concert, and that would put us back on our feet”. Franklin recorded “Respect” on Valentine’s Day 1967, when African Americans were still a year away from the Fair Housing Act. Just months after the song was recorded, it would go on to become an anthem as cities across America – including Franklin’s hometown of Detroit – burnt with rage at police brutality, unequal living conditions and job opportunities, anger at a thousand injustices but continuing today as the quest for one simple thing: respect.
We’re A Winner – The Impressions
By 1967 only a few other songs by mainstream black musicians had addressed the subject of civil rights, but Curtis Mayfield of The Impressions decided to capitalise on a predominantly African American audience in the writing of “We’re A Winner”, one of the early black-pride anthems, which capitalised on the energy of a live crowd during it’s performance in Chicago, Illinois. Mayfield’s lyrics suggested that the time for self-pity was over, and urged his audience to acknowledge his or her worth, even in the face of opposition, asking them to “keep on pushin’/like your leaders tell you to”. The song became a de facto anthem of the civil rights movement, and opened the door to decades of black-empowerment anthems to come.
Say It Loud, I’m Black & Proud – James Brown
One of these came the following year from James Brown, a living testament to the African American musical traditional of perpetual invention. One of the progenitors of funk, Brown and his band Africanised the sound of rhythm and blues music to create a new style which contained a loose drum break and interlocking syncopated parts: strutting bass lines, syncopated drum patterns, and percussive guitar riffs which launched the sound of funk on hit single “Cold Sweat” and went on to define the sound of the 1970s in myriad acts such as Sly & The Family Stone, Funkadelic, Booker T, Edwin Star and Michael Jackson. The sound formed the basis of this outright expression of black pride, perhaps matched only by Nina Simone’s “Young, Gifted & Black”, which proclaims “we demand a chance to do things for ourself / we’re tired of beating our head against the wall / and workin’ for someone else”.
Don’t Call Me N****r, Whitey – Sly & The Family Stone
The bizarre and relentlessly creative Sly & The Family Stone may have wrapped their other racial messages in colourful allegories, but with “Don’t Call Me N****r, Whitey,” they left little room for reinterpretation. The song is mantra-like in construction, repeating the hook time and time again as a show of frustration and provocation: the rest of 1969’s Stand! was bright and optimistic but here Sly Stone and his sister Rosie sound just about done with it all. This is without word of course of the Afro-futurist sound-play of the song, which warped the vocals and instrumentals alike in a sea of vocoder and distortion, predating P-Funk by half a decade.
Is It Because I’m Black? – Syl Johnson
A simple question, and one many Americans had known the answer to intuitively by the time of the release of this Civil Rights classic in 1969. They knew the answer when they saw themselves rejected from jobs which they saw their fellow white citizens obtain with a fraction of the qualifications, or rejected from Universities, like when Nina Simone found herself declined for entry to the Curtis Institute of Music despite being one of the most accomplished classical pianists in the country. It’s a question teased out of Mabel Carmichael in this remarkable interview clip with her son, prominent activist Stokley Carmichael, when he presses her on why his father was the first to be laid off from his factory job. “Like a child stealing candy for the first time, and got caught / Thiefing around life’s corner somewhere I got lost / Something is holding me back / I wonder, is it because I’m black?” It’s a question many Americans, and people of colour, find themselves asking in nations across the world to this day when they’re stopped by the police, or shot by them.
Wake Up N*****s – The Last Poets
During the civil rights movement, there were several schools of thought when it came to African American liberation, from the peaceful protests and labour strikes of Martin Luther King to the black nationalism of the Black Panthers, a young Malcolm X and his acolytes The Last Poets. With a name taken from a poem by the South African revolutionary poet Keorapetse Kgositsile (father of Odd Future MC Earl Sweatshirt), who believed he was in the last era of poetry before guns would take over, their approach was revolutionary, and songs such as this urged the coming together of black Americans to reject white society alongside white violence. Their uncompromising and acerbic poetry was revolutionary in another sense also, as they are often cited as progenitors of rap: Jason Ankeny wrote “with their politically charged raps, taut rhythms, and dedication to raising African-American consciousness, the Last Poets almost single-handedly laid the groundwork for the emergence of hip-hop”, in 1970 no less.
The Revolution Will Not Be Televised (Live at 12th and Lenox) – Gil Scott-Heron
Written in response to the opening line of The Last Poets‘ debut album – that “when the revolution comes some of us will probably catch it on TV” – released earlier the same year, Gil Scot Heron’s most famous song is both one of the most iconic of the revolutionary wing of the civil rights movement, and a reminder that the movement was a living enterprise, in constant evolution and dialogue with itself. With a name taken from a popular slogan among the 1960s Black Power movements, it’s message – beset only by congas and bongo drums – is one against half measures and meagre liberalism, a witty and lacerating reminder that “you will not be able to stay home, brother / you will not be able to plug in, turn on and cop out… The revolution will be no re-run, brothers / the revolution will be live”.
Attica Blues – Archie Shepp, Romulus Franceschini and Carl Hall
It’s testament to the number of instances of violence against black Americans that so many of these powerful acts of documentation and reaction came in response to them. Avant-garde jazz composer Archie Shepp responded on his 1972 album Attica Blues to a massacre which had occurred on the morning of September 13th 1971, when mostly white state troopers opened fire on the prison in an attempt to end a four-day rebellion by mostly black inmates held in protest of the inhumane conditions they were forced to live under. The brutality of a siege enacted while negotiations for its end were ongoing, leaving 39 people slain by police gunfire, hit nationwide as an unspeakable horror. It’s this event which propels the afrocentric energy of Attica Blues, and this opening track eschews most of what we even recognise as jazz, with Archie throwing it down with wah-wah rhythm guitar and a baseline straight out of a blaxploitation film, and gospel singer Carl Hall (who felt the need to use the alias Henry Hill when being credited for his inclusion on the song) sings with great anguish “I got a feeling that something ain’t going right / And I’m worried ’bout the human soul!”
Harlem – Bill Withers
Harlem, New York is one of the centres of African American art and activism. Originally a Jewish/Italian community, the Great Migration of black Americans from the south to northern cities saw it transform from a 10% African American neighbourhood to a 70% one. NAACP leader James Weldon Johnson was from there, as was Dr. Kenneth Clark and later Malcolm X, where the boulevard in his name now resides. In the 1920s and 1930s the outpouring of African American theatre, music, literature and art was so distinct, the term “The Harlem Renaissance” was born, setting a precedent for much of the music which appears on this list. A new way of playing the piano called the Harlem Stride style was created during this time in Harlem; merging the brass collective and the piano to create the basis of jazz music as we know it today. This borough and history are captured in typically succinct style by Bill Withers on this song from his debut album – capturing the artistic tradition and economic deprivation alike: “Winter night in Harlem
/ Oh, oh, radiator won’t get hot / Well, the mean old landlord / He don’t care if I freeze to death or not / Saturday night in Harlem, everything’s alright / You can really swing and shake your pretty thing / The parties are out of sight”. This isn’t a protest song, but simply one of the great American songwriters singing about home.
Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holla) – Marvin Gaye
The closing track from one of the most iconic albums in American history, What’s Goin’ On, a record from a soul-man turned political sage stepping back from a nation in distress to offer this cool document of it’s struggles: cool and heated at the same time. In 1972 the Civil Rights movement stepped back from the mainstream, the Vietnam War was spiralling into its ninth, seemingly endless year, and drug use and police brutality started to take over economically depressed inner cities. The album was a hard turn for the clean cut lover-man of the 60s; told from the perspective of a Vietnam veteran returning from Pacific and witnessing the nation which lay before him. The tone is decidedly mournful, but Gaye’s voice is beauteous and pained, singing “crime is increasing / Trigger happy policing / Panic is spreading / God knows where we’re heading”, words from half a century ago which have barely aged a day.
Hurricane – Bob Dylan
The only white man on this list was central to the culture of civil rights music in the 1960s, where racial activism often came hand in hand with anger at US imperialism and economic deprivation – causes which Dylan songs such as “Masters of War” and “The Times They Are a-Changin'” became anthems for. 1975’s “Hurricane” became an iconic song in the struggle for racial justice, taking the specific case of the imprisonment of the boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter for murder and compiling, in Zimmerman’s imitable style, the myriad examples of racial profiling which put him in a cell. Written in part by theatre director Jacques Levy, the song details the dozen concessions which need to be made to put convict an innocent man for the colour of his skin: “to the white folks who watched he was a revolutionary bum / And to the black folks he was just a crazy n****r / No one doubted that he pulled the trigger / And though they could not produce the gun / The D.A. said he was the one who did the deed / And the all-white jury agreed”. In 1985 Judge H. Lee Sarokin, who refused to hear the song when it was released, ruled that Carter had not received a fair trial and overturned the conviction, resulting in Carter’s release and commenting that he had been jailed “based on racism rather than reason and concealment rather than disclosure”.
Black Man – Stevie Wonder
Released as part of his expansive 1976 magnum opus Songs In The Key Of Life, Stevie Wonder’s “Black Man” was testament to the great strides which had been made in popular music since Mayfield’s “We’re A Winner” almost a decade earlier; the Impressions were a popular act, but after Talking Book, Innervisions and Fulfillingness’ First Finale, Wonder was one of most popular musicians on the planet. Songs In The Key of Life became a number one album in several nations was certified Diamond in America. Wonder then was delivering racially conscious music to an unprecedented audience, with 1973’s “Living In The City” being one of the first pop songs to deal explicitly with systemic racism. “Black Man” takes a different angle. Approaching the bicentennial anniversary of the United States, Wonder lists black American heroes and martyrs written out of history books in the 200 years prior, opening with reference to Crispus Attucks, a dockworker of African and Native American descent who was the first person killed in the Boston Massacre and so the first American killed in the American Revolution. The revolutionary edge of the early 70s had retreated, but Wonder’s dream of a racially equitable world continued defiantly.
Chocolate City – Parliament
Bizarro king George Clinton is one of the overlooked figures of American music, the kind of master who would have been carved into a musical Mount Rushmore if he was a little whiter, a little a more timid and a lot less weird. Clinton was just too ahead of his time for the big leagues, but thankfully for us, his music endures. Clinton was the leader of the musical collective Parliament-Funkadelic, two collaborating super-groups consisting of a revolving cast of musicians who released 21 albums between 1970 and 1980. Alongside Sly Stone and James Brown, Clinton was a progenitor of a funk which mixed his bass-heavy sound with science fiction imagery, surreal humour, outlandish fashion, psychedelia and plenty of racial commentary – with albums titled America Eats Its Young and One Nation Under A Groove, perhaps this comes as no surprise. Chocolate City came from the Parliament collective, the title referring to the majoritively black cities of America, naming them his “chocolate cities” and imaging what an African American White House would look like, with Muhammad Ali as President, James Brown as Vice, Reverend Ike as Secretary of the Treasury, Richard Prior of Secretary of Education and Aretha Franklin as First Lady.
Sign O’ The Times – Prince
Like Marvin Gaye before him, Prince set out to make an expressly state-of-the-nation record with his ninth LP in 1987, a sprawling double album spanning the styles of psychedelic rock, R&B, soul and electro – a combination of styles Prince had come to make synonymous with his name in the space of the 80s. For African American musical icons, Prince occupied a similar space to George Clinton: freaky, queer, flamboyant and, as an added bonus, outlandishly popular. Prince thrived by being on the cutting edge, and the opening track from his opus spoke to inner-city crime, drug use and AIDS with nothing but the backing of the a Fairlight sampling synthesiser, using the pre-settings alone. “A skinny man died of a big disease with a little name / By chance his girlfriend came across a needle and soon she did the same / At home there are seventeen-year-old boys and their idea of fun / Is being in a gang called ‘The Disciples’ / High on crack and totin’ a machine gun / Time / Times”. The 1980s were in many ways brighter than the Civil Rights era, with more black visibility and room at the top of the charts for a provocateur like Prince – but equally these were the Reagan years, a time when police militarisation had begun and crack cocaine offences were given sentences 1 to 100 in length compared to those for possession of powdered cocaine, despite only slight material differences between the two – the main relevant difference being that poorer African American inner cities couldn’t get hold of powdered cocaine, but they could crack.
Talkin’ Bout A Revolution – Tracy Chapman
Tracy Chapman was 24 when she wrote one of the most iconic protests songs of the century, and sung it infront of an audience of 600 million during the Nelson Mandela tribute concert at Wembley Stadium, in London. The pain of the segregationist Apartheid regime, which at the time showed no guarantee of abating, was transposed onto Chapman’s songs; her open lyrics allowing plenty of room for the pain of the regime to be represented by the rich depth of Chapman’s voice. “While they’re standing in the welfare lines / Crying at the doorsteps of those armies of salvation / Wasting time in the unemployment lines / Sitting around waiting for a promotion / Don’t you know / They’re talkin’ ’bout a revolution”. Her words were a message of resilience to the people of South Africa, but for several decades since they’ve been open enough to offer both solidarity and a firm message; that there is no contentment in discontentment, and a disenfranchised population will always be just one spark away from revolution.
Fuck Tha Police – N.W.A.
A sentiment which has found itself scrawled on walls and printed on t-shirts across the three decades since it’s 1988 release, the N.W.A’s anti-police anthem carries the same visceral energy it did when it was first laid to wax – fuelled by a furious opening verse by Ice Cube and ignited by MC Run and Eazy-E. Recorded after the members of N.W.A were forced by police to lay face down in the street with guns to their heads, the song is a parody of court proceedings, with Dr. Dre presiding as judge hearing a prosecution of the entire LA Police Department. Of course, Ice Cube indicting them straight away with one of the most iconic verses in rap: “fuck the police comin’ straight from the underground / A young n***a got it bad ’cause I’m brown / And not the other color so police think / They have the authority to kill a minority!” Unsurprisingly, the jury finds the police department guilty of being a “redneck, white-bread, chickenshit motherfucker”.
Fight The Power – Public Enemy
It’s testament to the dissemination of racism from explicit segregationist polices to coded legislation, targeted policies, the war on drugs and police brutality that protest songs went from the “Jim Crow Blues” to 1989’s “Fight The Power”. The broader target doesn’t weaken the message though – rather Public Enemy’s iconic anti-establishment anthem is a dense and firm statement of intent, taking its title from the Isley Brother’s smoother original. Chuck D uses his booming, fricative flow to cast a long lens at American culture, and sticks up a firm middle finger to half of it: “Elvis was a hero to most / But he never meant shit to me you see / Straight up racist that sucker was/ Simple and plain / Mother fuck him and John Wayne / ‘Cause I’m Black and I’m proud… / Most of my heroes don’t appear on no stamps / Sample a look back you look and find / Nothing but rednecks for four hundred years if you check”. Public Enemy’s production team The Bomb Squad focussed on loops and samples to create the track, which features only two raw instruments: Branford Marsalis’ saxophone and Terminator X’s turnable scratches. Bomb Squad members such as Hank Shocklee wanted to eschew melody in favour of capturing a specific mood – opening with a clip of civil rights attorney and activist Thomas “TNT” Todd and built around samples of James Brown’s “Hot Pants” and songs from Bobby Byrd, Africa Bambaataa and Guy. Samples were key to the sound of hip-hop, formed in the 80s, around which the storied history of African American music were built into the songs, while making music production accessible to poorer young musicians coming up in the projects. Appropriately, “Fight The Power” was commissioned by Spike Lee for “Do The Right Thing”, the revolutionary director of Chi-raq, Malcom X and 25th Hour who said of the song “I wanted it to be defiant, I wanted it to be angry, I wanted it to be very rhythmic. I thought right away of Public Enemy”.
Astronomy (8th Light) – Mos Def & Talib Kweli (aka Black Star)
The coming together of Mos Def & Talib Kweli was the joining of two MCs so formidable it was almost unfair. The two rappers arose from the underground movement of the late 1990s, coming together as a display of unity in the wake of the killing of Biggie Smalls and 2Pac the year prior, creating a leadership vacuum in conscious African American much in the same way the CIA had in the Civil Rights movement in the late 1960s. Their debut album is a slick and soulful collection of lose rhymes and rebellious spirit, with a specific focus on rewriting of the language around race, with “Astronomy (8th Light)” seeing them trading bars redefining the meaning of the word ‘black’ to lend it positive connotations. It’s a rewriting of the white-written vocabulary laid bare in the scene of Malcolm Little’s enlightening in Malcolm X:”Black like my baby girl’s stare / black like the veil that the Muslimina wear / black like the planet that they fear, why they scared? / black like the slave ship belly that brought us here / black like the cheeks that are roadways for tears (Mm) / that leave black faces well traveled with years / black like assassin crosshairs / blacker than my granddaddy armchair / he never really got no time to chill there / ’cause this life is warfare”.
Changes – 2Pac Featuring Talent
A dramatic and theatrical intervention from one of hip-hops greats, “Changes” is the iconic indictment of the disenfranchisement of African American communities in 1990s America. Built around the chorus of “The Way It Is” by Bruce Hornsby and the Range, with vocals re-recorded by Talent, the song references police brutality, the perpetuation of poverty and the war on drugs, 2Pac rapping that “I’m tired of bein’ poor and, even worse, I’m black / My stomach hurts so I’m lookin’ for a purse to snatch / Cops give a damn about a negro / Pull the trigger, kill a n***a, he’s a hero / “Give the crack to the kids, who the hell cares? / One less hungry mouth on the welfare”/ First ship ’em dope and let ’em deal to brothers / Give ’em guns, step back, watch ’em kill each other”. Tellingly, the song still features lines 2Pac reused from other unreleased songs because he planned to record the final version at a later date, however in 1996 he was gunned down as part of the East Cost-West Coast rivalry which developed within rap, leading to the death of a generation of leaders in much the same manner as the 1960s, this time wrought from within. The circumstances of this rivalry were of course instigated from the outside.
Mathematics – Mos Def
The imprisonment rate of black American males in 2018 was 5.8x that of white American males. In 2018, the median income of black households was $41,361, compared to $70,642 for non-Hispanic white households. The poverty rate for African Americans was 20.8%, more than twice that for non-Hispanic whites at 8.1%. Mos Def (now Yasiin Bey)’s 1999 song “Mathematics” was all about laying out the facts hard and cold, and letting the youth draw the conclusions for themselves. Pulled from his album Black On Both Sides, and produced by DJ Premier with his iconic scratched vocals and samples of Eyrkah Badu, Fat Joe and James Brown, over which Bey raps in his drawling lucid style “the white unemployment rate is nearly more than triple for black / Some front-liners got their gun in your back / Bubbling crack, jewel theft and robbery to combat poverty / And end up in the global jail economy / Stiffer stipulations attached to each sentence / Budget cutbacks but increased police presence / And even if you get out of prison still livin’ / Join the other 5 million under state supervision / This is business; no faces, just lines and statistics / From your phone, your Zip Code, to SSI digits / The system break man, child, and women into figures / Two columns for “Who is” and “Who ain’t n***s” / Numbers is hard and real and they never have feelings / But you push too hard, even numbers got limits / Why did one straw break the camel’s back? / Here’s the secret / The million other straws underneath it / It’s all mathematics”.
A Song For Assata – Common Featuring Cee-Lo
After over a decade in the game, and a name change from Common Sense to simply Common, the Chicago-MC’s fourth album Like Water For Chocolate is a who’s who of the remarkable wave of black musicianship in the late 90s and early 2000s by the Soulquarians collective. A Clinton-esque collective of musicians, it included Questlove, D’Angelo, Erykah Badu, Bilal, J-Dilla, Talib Kweli, Mos Def and Common, creators of several of the best releases of the era. The funk-inflected and soulful style of the album was brought about by Questlove and J-Dilla, the storied producer whose style can be heard in almost every aspect of hip-hop production in the decade since his early death. Songs included a tribute to Nigerian legend Fela Kuti, and “A Song For Assata”, a track detailing the case of Assata Olugbala Shakur, a prominent member and activist at Black Panter Party and Black Liberation Army. She was charged with murder, attempted murder, armed robbery, bank robbery and kidnapping during the Turnpike Shootout, despite Assata being shot twice herself while her hands were in the air. Her case was publicised widely for her mistreatment by law enforcement officials, and she later escaped from prison in 1979, now living in Cuba having claimed political asylum. Assata Shakur was also 2Pac’s step-aunt, with Tupac’s stepfather Mutulu also a wanted man for helping his sister, Assata, escape from the New Jersey prison. The song’s has repurcussions long into the 21st Century, with Kean University disinviting Common as keynote speaker in 2015 after Chris Burgos, president of the State Troopers Fraternal Association of New Jersey, called Common’s invitation a “slap in the face” to police. Perhaps it didn’t occur to Burgos that the African American population have been dealing with slaps to the fact from State Troopers for decades, Assata herself closing out the song with an interview clip where she says: “Freedom? You’re asking me about freedom? You’re asking me about freedom? I’ll be honest with you. I know a whole more about what freedom isn’t than about what it is, because I’ve never been free”.
Get By – Talib Kweli
Produced in 2003 by a young Kanye West with a colossal sample of Nina Simone’s “Sinnerman”, Talib Kweli’s biggest single is an urgent message of African American resilience and community responsibility. Kweli lays down the impact of rap music on young black people, and placing great weight on his words and those of his peers: “we keepin’ it gangster, say “fo’ shizzle”, “fo’ sheezy”, and stayin’ crunk / It’s easy to pull a breezy, smoke trees, and we stayin’ drunk / Yo, our activism, attackin’ the system, the Blacks and Latins in prison / Numbers have risen, they’re victims lackin’ the vision / Shit, and all they got is rappin’ to listen to / I let them know we missin’ you, the love is unconditional / Even when the condition is critical, when the livin’ is miserable / Your position is pivotal”.
Crack Music – Kanye West Featuring The Game
Following in the footsteps of his production work with activist MCs such as Talib Kweli, this cut off his 2005 record Late Registration draws parallels between the crack epidemic which swept disenfranchised, predominantly African American inner-cities and the increasing predominance of rap music in American society, over three decades after the roots were laid down by the fiery spoken word of The Last Poets and Gil Scott-Heron, and fifteen years before it finally overtook rock and country as the nation’s most listened-to genre of music. Produced with Jon Brion – known at the time for his work with indie-rock musicians – and built around a brass sample from “Since You Came in My Life” by the New York Community Choir and featuring chopped and screwed vocal samples from long term collaborators The Game, Keyshia Cole, Charlie Wilson and Tony Williams, Kanye walks a fine line between the braggadocio of rap’s rising prevalence and it’s inherently African American nature – “that’s that crack music n***a / That real black music n***a” – with the the modern history of African American disenfranchisement since the civil rights era, where his own mother was arrested at six years old during a sit-in. “How we stop the Black Panthers? Ronald Reagan cooked up an answer / You hear that? What Gil Scott was hearin’ / When our heroes or heroines got hooked on heroin… Who gave Saddam anthrax? / George Bush got the answers / Back in the hood it’s a different type of chemical / Arm & Hammer baking soda raised they own quota”.
We Shall Not Be Moved – Mavis Staples
As hip-hop began to predominate as the foremost music of protest in America, the role of soul music in civil rights movements was kept alive in the use of samples by masters like J-Dilla and Madlib, who made their beats from iconic songs of the era. Others could never forget however, those who were there in the moment, such as Mavis Staples, a singer who has found a rich and eclectic career rebirth in the 21st Century, forty years after the performed as part of The Staples Sisters. The successful soul group was led by Roebuck “Pops” Staples who formed a close friendship with Martin Luther King, as they turned spirituals and pop songs into secular anthems of liberation. Mavis recalls: “We had made a transition back there in the sixties with Dr. King. We visited Dr. King’s church in Montgomery before the movement actually got started. When we heard Dr. King preach, we went back to the motel and had a meeting. Pops said, “Now if he can preach it, we can sing it. That could be our way of helping towards this movement.” It is moving then to hear Mavis record in the studio for the first time one of the most iconic and widely-sung anthems of the 1960s civil rights era; “We Shall Not Be Moved”, adapted even then from the old spiritual “I Shall Not Be Moved”, with a slowly tapped drum and loose rock and roll driving Staples’ unmistakable voice and message of hope.
Soldier – Erykah Badu
One of the heroes of the past few decades of American R&B, Erykah Badu’s style is far from restrained by the reductive label; “Solider” – the second single from New Amerykah Part One (4th World War) – was co-produced with drummer, DJ and MC Karriem Riggins, and the heavily conscious album spans hip hop, soul, funk, jazz, and electronica. The song itself boasts a remarkably smooth synthesis of those styles, with heavy hip-hop drums playing against a wistful melodic sample from “Theme” by Dutch prog-rock band Solution. Yet Badu’s eccentrically intoned words are harsher: “Now to my folks think they living sweet / Well they gone fuck around and push delete / To the girls on prescriptions pills / I know how you feel / To my boys in Iraqi fields / This ain’t no time to kill / To my girls in therapy / See im a tell you this for free / To my folks up on the hill / With the cake and dollar bills / You need to watch the dirty cop / They the one you need to watch / you need to watch the dirty cop / They the one you need to watch”.
Det.Riot – Moodymann
This song is not available on streaming services.
Dance music is black music. From disco to house, techno and dubset; these were sounds pioneered at the decks in African American clubs and discoteques, one of the few spaces in American society where, particularity in the early years of the 1970s and 1980s, black people could feel completely liberated. Frankie Knuckles, one of the founders of house music was both black and gay, and called the club a “church for people who have fallen from grace”. Techno music in turn emerged from house, and during the late 1980s and early 1990s, its hometown of Detroit was shaken by debilitating unemployment, inner city violence, and heroin and crack cocaine after the city was de-insutrialised by the rise of neoliberal outsourcing. Techno’s progenitors, the “Belleville Three” – Juan Atkins, Derrick May, and Kevin Saunderson – used this environment to create Afro-futurist dance music. But as house and techno arrived across the Atlantic in the mid-1980s, its European development quickly lost the genre’s original ethos of transforming black trauma into art.
Kenny Dixon Jr., the DJ known as Moodymann, therefore has a storied legacy behind him as one of Detroit’s most prominent house-musicians. Upon the release of his debut album, Silentintroduction, in 1997, he included in the liner notes a message to “all you white suburban kids, sampling black music all the time, try some rock ’n’ roll for a change, you’re making black music sound silly, weak and tired”. In 2008 Moodymann released Det.riot ’67, a reference to the 1967 Detroit riots which proved to be the bloodiest of that explosive summer. Like all of Moodymann’s music, the title track is a funky cut mixing analogue with digital clipped samples, but the tone is decided thick and eerie, with snippets of white reporters heard referring to the inciting incident as “routine police action”. Dixon Jr. transforms these naive words into something far more threatening, coming from a city where ‘routine police action’ can be lethal indeed.
Reagan – Killer Mike
Produced by underground veteran El-P, the first of the lethal coming together of the producer/rapper and the Atlanta heavyweight which would later become official under their four albums as Run The Jewels, “Reagan” is a story track like no other, documentary-like in it’s detail and unmatched in it’s anger and dynamism. “The end of the Reagan Era, I’m like eleven, twelve, or / Old enough to understand that shit’d changed forever / They declared the war on drugs, like a war on terror / But what it really did was let the police terrorize whoever / But mostly black boys, but they would call us “n****s” / And lay us on our belly, while they fingers on they triggers / They boots was on our head, they dogs was on our crotches / And they would beat us up if we had diamonds on our watches / And they would take our drugs and moneys, as they pick our pockets / I guess that that’s the privilege of policin’ for some profits / But thanks to Reaganomics, prison turned to profits / ‘Cause free labor’s the cornerstone of US economics / ‘Cause slavery was abolished, unless you are in prison”. A critique of Reagan the ideology as much as Ronald Reagan the man, the song needs to be heard to be fully understood, and exposes bear a neo-liberal ideological which discriminates against race almost as directly as colonialism before it.
Alright – Kendrick Lamar
Kendrick Lamar’s unparalleled career feels too vast, nuanced and impactful to condense to just a single song; his 2015 masterpiece To Pimp A Butterfly alone has spawned a thousand essays and is likely the defining masterwork on race and America in the 21st Century. However, ‘Alright’ is the closest the Black Lives Matters era comes to a universal song in keeping with the civil rights anthems of the 1960s, so much so that BET proposed the idea of “Alright” becoming the modern Black National Anthem. Perhaps it is unsurprising; for all of the nuance and complexity of Lamar’s verses, the chorus of the song, rapped in his typically melodic style, echoes the sentiment of “We Shall Overcome” almost exactly: “Nazareth, I’m fucked up / Homie, you fucked up / But if God got us, then we gon’ be alright”. This message of optimism comes in the wake of the ego despair of “U” in which Lamar holds himself personally accountable for divisions in the black community and death of his own family member.
The song begins as a spoken-word treatise quoting Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Color Purple, before launching into an amorphous beat thick with jazz horns, skittering drum beats and Lamar’s melodious flow. The hopeful message of the Pharrell-sung hook isn’t a break from the headiness of the album whole but the conflict of the verses too, as Lamar struggles against an exploitative industry and the psychological toll of police violence: “when I wake up / I recognize you’re looking at me for the pay cut / But homicide be looking at you from the face down / What MAC-11 even boom with the bass down? Schemin’, and let me tell you ’bout my life / Painkillers only put me in the twilight / Where pretty pussy and Benjamin is the highlight / Now tell my momma I love her, but this what I like, Lord knows”! In 2015, several youth-led protests against police brutality across the country were heard chanting the chorus to “Alright”, and the same has been heard in 2020’s protests in the wake of the death of George Floyd. It’s a key song in the understanding that, in the struggle for justice, hope isn’t an act of naivety but one of rebellion.
The Space Program – A Tribe Called Quest
One of the most iconic and progressive rap groups of all time, formed in 1990 and comprising of MC/producer Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, DJ Ali Shaheed Mohammad and Jarobi White, A Tribe Called Quest returned in 2016 for their sixth and final album, a victory lap and tribute in the wake of Phife Dawg’s early passing. Featuring Q-Tip’s trademark style of immediate, satisfying kick drums looped around a psychedelic collage of samples as wide as blaxploitation film William Dynamite, Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” and Andrew Hill’s “Lift Up The Stars”, the song acts of a state-of-the-nation appraisal of African American position in US society, “they’d rather lead us to the grayest water, poison, deadly smog / Mass un-blackening, it’s happening, you feel it y’all? / Rather see we in a three-by-three structure with many bars / Leave us where we are so they can play among the stars / They taking off to Mars, got the space vessels overflowing / What, you think they want us there? All us n***s not going / Reputation ain’t glowing, reparations ain’t flowing / If you find yourself stuck in a creek, you better start rowing / Used to see the TV screen as the place to land my dream in”. While colorful and cosmic, the central hook of the song “There ain’t a space program for n***s / Yeah, you stuck here, n***a” has a very real historical precedent; when America first landed on the moon in 1969, in LA the Watts Riots were breaking out in African American communities in the face of police brutality, leading many to ask how the USA could put a man on the moon, but can’t provide for their own communities of colour on Earth.
Sandra’s Smile – Blood Orange
As Blood Orange, New York-based Londoner Devonte Hynes’ is the 21st century’s answer to Prince’s queerness and sonic eclecticism, boasting smooth R&B and hard funk, often concerned with the diversity and complexity of black identity in the 2010’s. “Sandra’s Smile” is one of his more esoteric songs; an ode to Sandra Bland, the 28-year-old black woman found dead in a jail cell in Texas after being detained for a minor traffic violation in 2015, and by inference all the victims of America’s prison-industrial complex, asking “who taught you to breathe, then took away your speech/ Made you feel so loved, then shook your hand with gloves?” It’s also a song for mothers like Samaria Rice, Lesley McSpadden, Sybrina Fulton and Geneva Reed-Veal whose children were killed in the early years of their life by police officers in unprovoked killings. Away from the anger of “Do You See My Skin Through the Flames?”, another more outwardly furious Blood Orange song, “Sandra’s Smile” maintains a certain grace with a glittering R&B bad of sound, driven by Hynes’ saxophone solos, programmed beats and distant background singers. At one point, he quotes Sabrina Fulton – the mother of Travon Martin -‘s words specifically: “I mean, why should she forgive?/ Do we lose you if we don’t?” In this, Hynes turns the grief of a mother into a display of strength in the face of brutal systems of authority.
Mexican Chef – Xenia Rubinos
Classically trained jazz singer Xenia Rubinos was born to a Puerta Rican mother and Cuban father, and has aligned herself with the Black Lives Matter movement. “Mexican Chef”, a song from her funk infused second album Black Terry Cat, is a fierce and funky cut about the hidden worlds of non-white communities, including the hispanic, African American and native American population of America, who make things run, but remain in the shadow of a predominantly white culture: “Brown walks your baby / Brown walks your dog / Brown raised America in place of its mom / Brown cleans your house / Brown takes the trash / Brown even wipes your granddaddy’s ass”. About the song Xenia said: “I was walking around Brooklyn, and I was seeing all these people setting up for the night shift. Inside the restaurants, there were these hipster waiters playing best-of indie music. The kitchen doors were open and the cooks, who were mainly Latinos, were cleaning and blasting rancheras and bachata. I kept seeing it over and over again, and I’m mumbling these words to myself. So I wrote down this poem, which became the lyrics”. The song references the hispanic community specifically, but whether in our restaurants, shops or history books, it’s testament to whole cultures and communities overlooked because of their race and economic status: “we’re the ones that make sure / the tree falls down / When the tree falls down / It don’t make a sound”.
1000 Deaths – D’Angelo
Returning with a third album after fourteen years away from the spotlight, D’Angelo’s career tells one story of the way America treats it’s black artists in the limelight, but a greater story was written by the man himself. Black Messiah is a soulful, quirky and dense album with an immediate message to send. The album was supposed to be released in 2015, but after the unarmed Michael Brown was shot by a police officer in Ferguson, instigating weeks of protests and riots, D’Angelo and his label RCA spent a month working all-nighters to finish the album and release it in December of that year. On the most directly political song on the album, the military adage that “a coward dies a thousand times / But a soldier only dies just once” is inverted into a message for every supposed anti-racist person complicit with their silence. The song opens with a sample from a speech by New Black Panther Party chairman Khalid Abdul Muhammad and another by Fred Hampton. Despite these words and D’Angelo’s impassioned, contorted vocals, the most powerful moment of the song comes as the instrumental drops out, leaving only Questlove’s motorik drums beating for a dozen seconds alone. Much of D’Angelo’s music is romantic and sexy, but those pummeling drums sound angry indeed.
FDT (Fuck Donald Trump) – YG Featuring Nipsey Hussle
One of the most upfront songs on this list, Compton rapper YG’s 2016 single ‘FDT’ is an exhilarating anthem which was somehow the first to use the phrase bubbling in the consciousness of many Americans and observers worldwide as Donald Trump’s campaign to become US President waged on. Opening with soundbites from several black protesters who were ejected from a Trump rally in Valdosta, Georgia, YG ties it’s abrasive chorus line to clear rebuttals of the core tenants of Trump’s Make America Great Again campaign – which many considered tantamount to “Make America White Again” – including the tight relationship between the Mexican immigrant population of Southern American states and African American communities. “Have a rally out in L.A., we gon’ fuck it up / Home of the Rodney King riot, we don’t give a fuck / Black students, ejected from your rally, what? / I’m ready to go right now, your racist ass did too much / I’m ’bout to turn Black Panther / Don’t let Donald Trump win, that n***a cancer”. The song is made more poignant by the death of Nipsey Hussle, one of the most prominent community activists in rap music, in 2019. The US Secret Service attempted to halt the album’s release because of the lyrical content of this song and, when Donald Trump became the 46th President, YG embarked on a tour with the song’s title as its name.
My Queen Is Doreen Lawrence – Sons of Kemet
The third album from London four-piece Sons of Kemet, Your Queens is a Reptile, is, first and foremost, some of the most compelling and distinct jazz released this century. It’s easy to forget that they’re just four players, consisting only of tuba, clarinet, saxophone and drums when half the time the band sounds like a whole damn carnival. The album also comes with a concept executed with rare clarity and purpose. The title of the album dismisses the monarch who supposedly reigns over these Londoners, and each song name begins ‘My Queen Is…’: naming a series of nine inspirational, but far less praised, women in her place Ada Eastman, Mamie Phipps Clark, Harriet Tubman, Anna Julia Cooper, Angela Davis,Nanny of the Maroons, Yaa Asantewaa, Albertina Sisulu and, on the closing track, Doreen Lawrence, mother of Stephen Lawrence, a black British teenager who was killed in a racist attack in 1993. She promoted police reforms, and in 2013 was awarded an OBE. On this final track, poet Josh Idehen joins the raucous four-piece to further the work of Lawrence, urging the listener to “Brush aside all notions of justice / Make good the engine for vengeance / To be surrounded by strangers / United in a wordless statement / It is frightening having this much presence / To belong to something bigger than a Jobcentre queue / See the world from a not-so-desperate point of view”.
With this simple idea the band embeds their music with an entire reading list of black history, and the passion of the music rises to serve them justice. This record rebukes the colonialist mentality which has found mainstream footing again in the wave of populism which continues to rock the liberal status quo in the west, and the system of aristocracy which never went away. Writing in the week where citizens of Bristol tore down a statue of slave owner Edward Colston, rolled it through the streets and sent it to the bottom of the river, it seems now is the time for people to choose who their own Queens are, and who they aren’t.
F.U.B.U – Solange Featuring The Dream and BJ The Chicago Kid
A Seat At The Table, the third LP by Solange Knowles, was a collage-like encapsulation on the sounds of Southern culture, with a central R&B style flitting between the crunk, hip-hop, funk and pop which would have filled car stereos and boomboxes across her childhood home of Houston, Texas. Recorded in New Orleans, Long Island and New Iberia, the album features a joyous menagerie of musicians from across genre lines, be it Lil Wayne, Saba, Q-Tip, Kelly Rowland and Dave Longstreth of Dirty Projectors. “F.U.B.U” is a black empowerment anthem of the most explicit kind. Solange said of the song that: “I named different incidents where I felt like society acted in fear of Black people and how that automatically escalates into violent, awful experiences along with the demonization of Black men and women. …I remember reflecting on the every day micro-aggresions that we experience on a daily and completely reconstructed the chorus, the track and freestyling that specific song. That song has resonated with so many people that have heard it because it is almost an allowance to just let it out. I named it “F.U.B.U.” because I wanted to empower, and I looked to people who have done that in their own ways. I thought of F.U.B.U. the brand, meaning “For Us By Us”, and what kind of power it had and how normalized it became to wear that kind of symbolism every day. I remember reading stories on the product placement, and seeing LL Cool J wearing a F.U.B.U. hat in a national GAP advertisement. F.U.B.U. exhibited Blackness in any space, on a huge global level, and that is what I wanted to do with the song”. It’s message is not a universal one, but rather an expression of community and solidarity which outsiders to Solange’s ethnicity can seek to sympathise with, but will never truly understand.
Smiling (Quirky Race Doc) – Open Mike Eagle
Much racially-discursive art of the past decade hasn’t pointed it’s fingers at the white clansman as much as the white liberal, parodied in Jordan Peele’s hit film Get Out and typified by the pin-point accurate words of that films racially-obsessed father figure who claims “I would have voted for Obama three times if I could”. Since Phil Ochs “Love Me, I’m a Liberal” from 1966, many true reformists have warned of the threat of the complicit liberal, who will concede to socially progressive causes only to hold many of the same fears of the white supremacist in practice. Chicago rapper and comedian Open Mike Eagle called out the white, indie-rap loving hipster for this hidden contempt in razor-sharp 2016 collaboration with UK producer Paul White, Hella Personal Film Festival. Over a buoyant and gorgeous pitched-up sample Michael raps that “I know full well every white’s not a racist / But every black man’s not a sex-crazed rapist / I was good in the hood / In college I was ruined / While walking I assumed you acknowledge the other humans / Try to walk big with my chin bone lifted up / Overcompensating like I really don’t give a fuck / Today I saw a lady say hi to a stranger / Then avoid my eyes like I’m a white-person strangler / Walking past voters in a democratic blocks that hit / The windows and the automatic locks… And to the guys in the flip-flop squad / Nobody needs your patronizing hip-hop nod / Just be a person / That’s the bottom line be a person / And fuck the rhyme scheme this time just be a person”.
LAND OF THE FREE – Joey Bada$$
From his 2017 album ALL-AMERI
KKKAN BADA$$, the New York rapper of the Pro-Era collective was one of the first of the Trump era to tie a sweeping indictment of the new administration to a long history of racial injustice in America, with the boom-bap style typical of Bada$$’ music being eschewed for a theatrical presentation, upon which he speaks that “In the land of the free, it’s full of free loaders / Leave us dead in the street to be their organ donors / They disorganized my people, made us all loners / Still got the last name of our slave owners”. Despite the rowdiness of his sound, Bada$$’ output puts great thought into the weight of rap’s ability to educate young African Americans; recounting a story of a time when “a kid came up to me, this really small kid, he was probably 7 or 8, and he was like, “Joey I heard your new song. Three K’s, two A’s in AmeriKKKa,” and that just keeps playing in my head. Like, “Wow. That kid is going to forever grow up and know that America because of me.”
This Is America – Childish Gambino
Alongside Kendrick Lamar’s ‘Alright’, Donald Glover’s “This Is America” is one of the few songs released in the last decade which seems destined to endure in the history books as an anthem of the Black Lives Matter era. Inexorably tied to it’s Hiro Murai-directed music video, the video is a successful attempt to capture American blackness in 2018, featuring background vocals by rappers Young Thug, Slim Jxmmi of Rae Sremmurd, BlocBoy JB, Quavo of Migos, and 21 Savage, and sees Glover adopting myriad viral dance moves and the posture of a Jim Crow caricature. Comprised of little more than a chorus of gospel vocals and crisp trap music, pock-marked by spattered ad-libs about blackness, gun violence and police brutality, many of the images from the video are now burnt into a generational consciousness and writ large on the streets of America in the midst of the biggest civil rights movement in America’s history. Glover is central to the portrayal of African Americans the 2010’s, creating Atlanta, a show where such experiences are central to the conceit.
In an enlightening 2018 New Yorker profile, Glover stated that for white people, Glover wants the catharsis of Atlanta to be an old-fashioned plunge into pity and fear. “I don’t even want them laughing if they’re laughing at the caged animal in the zoo,” he said. “I want them to really experience racism, to really feel what it’s like to be black in America. People come to ‘Atlanta’ for the strip clubs and the music and the cool talking, but the eat-your-vegetables part is that the characters aren’t smoking weed all the time because it’s cool but because they have P.T.S.D.—every black person does. It’s scary to be at the bottom, yelling up out of the hole, and all they shout down is ‘Keep digging! We’ll reach God soon!’”
Black – Dave
Produced by frequent collaborator Fraser T Smith, “Black” by Dave is just a single example of the storied tradition of racially-conscious music produced by the UK grime scene:
“Look, black is beautiful, black is excellent
Black is pain, black is joy, black is evident
It’s workin’ twice as hard as the people you know you’re better than
‘Cause you need to do double what they do so you can level them
Black is so much deeper than just African-American
Our heritage been severed, you never got to experiment
With family trees, ’cause they teach you ’bout famine and greed
And show you pictures of our fam on their knees
Tell us we used to be barbaric, we had actual queens
Black is watchin’ child soldiers gettin’ killed by other children
Feelin’ sick, like, “Oh shit, this could have happened to me”
Your mummy watchin’ tellin’ stories ’bout your dad and your niece
The blacker the berry the sweeter the juice
A kid dies, the blacker the killer, the sweeter the news
And if he’s white you give him a chance, he’s ill and confused
If he’s black he’s probably armed, you see him and shoot”.
Rapped in a concise and pinpoint flow, the song and its instrumental build in intensity across it’s runtime, immortalised in last year’s instantly iconic BRIT performance of the song.
Barbados – Our Native Daughters
Bluegrass music has connotations of a certain time and place; a very white, quite hilly-billy movement which is known for it’s optimistic, nostalgic view of America’s former ‘glories’, of course of a time when African American’s couldn’t even vote on their country’s future. But in the 21st century, performers such as Rhiannon Giddens are reclaiming the music’s African American roots, restoring the tradition of the black string band that had almost entirely washed out of bluegrass history. Giddens is a singer, fiddle and banjo player and alongside her new all-female band Our Native Daughters, their 2019 debut album featured beautiful harmonising alongside unfiltered acoustic playing with songs about sexism, slavery, police brutality and hope, recorded in a pre-Civil War in Louisiana. The most powerful song however may be “Barbados”, a predominently instrumental track – an interpolation of a line of music said to be the first western notation of New World enslaved music, put down by D. W. Dickson in Barbados in the 18th century – bookend-ed by two spoken word readings by Giddens of a poem by William Cowper, who sought to highlight the tepid reaction of many who claimed to be against the horrors of slavery: “I pity them greatly, but I must be mum / For how could we do without sugar and rum? / Especially sugar, so needful we see? / What? Give up our desserts, our coffee, and tea?!” Giddens then sharply turns the words against the modern listener, who draws parallels between the 18th century character and our own lives in the West: “I pity them greatly, but I must be mum / For what about nickel, cobalt, lithium? / The garments we wear, the electronics we own? / What? Give up our tablets, our laptops, and phones?!”
The Colors That You Bring – Damon Locks and the Black Monument Ensemble
By 1965, the civil rights movement in America centred around Chicago, a predominantly black city where only a minority of the population could vote. In an effort to bring African music to the people of the city, trumpeter Kelen Phil Cohran founded the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians there, and his Artist Heritage Ensemble began to play an innovative mix of traditional rhythms and young jazz musician’s brightest ideas, bringing a cultural history and a sense of self-determination to the South Side neighbourhoods of Chicago. In an utterly modern sense, that is what visual artist Damon Locks attempts to recreate with his Black Monument Ensemble: a project which began with Locks sampling civil rights era speeches and traditional hymnals on his drum machine, and evolved into a 15-piece ensemble performing with great energy those very same songs as epic jazz and gospel suites live at the Garfield Park Botanical Conservatory on the West Side of Chicago. These live 2019 renditions clatter, devolve and build on the repeated chants of the core singers, but the compositions also have their eye on the present: the live instrumentation is intersected with clipped vocal samples and electro-synths. Built for and by a community, these tracks privilege collective action, and “The Colors That You Bring” does this most firmly with an instrumental which draws from dusty hip-hop, astral jazz, and bellowing gospel. Locks said that the work was inspired by his time teaching art to maximum-security prisoners and the song feels most liberated after a spoken-word sample of singer, activist, and Civil Rights Movement heroine Lena Horne declaring, “I’m not gonna stop.” At this exact moment all of the instruments drop out except for some light percussion, and the ensemble hollers a collective declaration of faith: “I still believe in us.”
Sins of the Father – KA Featuring Roc Marciano
KA is a firefighter from Brooklyn, New York, who moonlights as one of the most heady and conceptual MCs in the game – releasing thematically-centered albums from 2013’s chess-themed The Night’s Gambit to 2016’s Honour Killed The Samurai. This year saw the release of this fifth solo album, Descendants of Cain, with the biblical tale of Cain and Abel serving as allegory for black-on-black crime in impoverished African American communities. KA is joined on the mic by fellow New York MC Roc Marciano, who uses the biblical fable as allegory for the consequences of black incarceration: “it’s a dirty game of chess and checkers / Get paid or be left naked and desperate / I lit a candle and played Jamaican records / Prayed and rested next to my favorite weapons / Saved my bread up and then made my exit / I’m going back and forth with thoughts of quittin’ like table tennis / But what’s the game if the players ain’t in it? / Every pen ran out of ink on the day this was written / Cain killed Abel in prison, while upstate on a visit”. This isn’t protest music, but complex and literate lyricism with a documentary edge, wrapping broad systems of injustice and tragedy too broad to comprehend in imagistic and colourful storytelling. This is also a song which won’t be heard at Black Lives Matter marches or on many End Of Year lists, a reminder that there is a whole raft of underground music which I simply haven’t heard which discuss myriad aspects of race relations from black nationalism to black trans issues and questions of complexion.
Walking In The Snow – Run The Jewels Featuring Gansta Boo
Killer Mike and El-P brought forward the release of their much anticipated fourth album as Run The Jewels in response to the demonstrations and protests brought about by the murder of George Floyd on 25th May 2020. The statement they gave said: “Fuck it, why wait? The world is infested with bullshit so here’s something raw to listen to while you deal with it all”. Based around the crushing drums and erratic production style of El-P, and defined by the two MC’s unapologetic and revolutionary lyrics, dealing directly with the police brutality, conversations about which were coming to dominate the planet, let alone America. The Gangsta-Boo featuring “Walking In The Snow” is perhaps the most striking on the album, boasting a verse from Killer Mike which was a startling indictment of race in America, and capturing the public mood entirely:
“The way I see it, you’re probably freest from the ages one to four / Around the age of five you’re shipped away for your body to be stored / They promise education, but really they give you tests and scores / And they predictin’ prison population by who scoring the lowest / And usually the lowest scores the poorest and they look like me / And every day on evening news they feed you fear for free / And you so numb you watch the cops choke out a man like me / And ’til my voice goes from a shriek to whisper, “I can’t breathe” / And you sit there in the house on couch and watch it on TV / The most you give’s a Twitter rant and call it a tragedy / But truly the travesty, you’ve been robbed of your empathy”
There was much talk on the day of the album’s release about the prophetic nature of Killer Mike’s verse, but those comments missed the point and the tragedy: they were written in 2019, with the killing of another man in mind – Eric Garner, who died in 2014 with an officer’s arms round his neck, and his last words were “I can’t breathe”. The words rapped on “Walking In The Snow” would have been apt if they were released after the killing of Breonna Taylor, Mark Duggan, Trayvon Martin, Philando Castile, Stephen Lawrence, Rodney King and countless other black men and women killed because of the imbalanced dynamic between law enforcement and black lives. Racism is still alive and embedded in the very systems which govern our lives; implemented by different means, but wrought by the same dynamics which led Abel Meeropol to write “Strange Fruit” in 1937. One blessing is that since this time, African American and black British musicians have been writing songs which document, education on and inspire anger against the very injustice which inspired them, and can be used to inform and enrich the anti-racist movement as it strives on.
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.