50 Songs for the Black Lives Matter Movement

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.


Continue reading “50 Songs for the Black Lives Matter Movement”

“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.

When Will The Democratic Party Become Tired of Donald Trump “Winning”?

This time in February 2016 – the last election year in America – at a rally in South Carolina, Donald Trump said this: 

“We’re going to win so much. You’re going to get tired of winning. you’re going to say, ‘Please Mr. President, I have a headache. Please, don’t win so much. This is getting terrible.’ And I’m going to say, ‘No, we have to make America great again.’ You’re gonna say, ‘Please.’ I said, ‘Nope, nope. We’re gonna keep winning’. 

It was one of a multitude of comments spouted by Trump which was clipped, soundbite-d and replayed across Twitter, MSNBC, Have I Got News For You and hundreds of other smug panel shows alike. Back then, it rang with a delicious preposterousness on too many levels to list: the fact that it could be uttered by an elderly adult, a presidential candidate no-less! That “winning” could be used as a measure of success for an entire nation at all, while surely only the people of America could win by being graced by a leader would fight to make the lives of the majority palpably better; and ahistorical too: in the 20th and 21st centuries, hawkish Presidents’ attempts at ‘winning’ normally equated to country losing to a devastating degree. Continue reading “When Will The Democratic Party Become Tired of Donald Trump “Winning”?”

The ‘New’ Iranian Stand-Off Is Just Business As Usual for the USA

In recent months, news coverage has again become dominated with reports from Iran, with President Trump and his counter-part President Hassan Rouhani stuck in a now-familiar war of words in response to Trump escalating sanctions against the beleaguered Gulf nation, with Rouhani recently calling the Trump “mentally retarded”. Retarded… maybe not. Simple? Most definitely. Yet the US administration’s latest escalations with Iran are not the birth of a new conflict but exhaustively predictable behaviour from a nation which has been behaving this way for decades, even when it was ruled by much sharper minds than Donald J. Trump.

It is notable that Iran can take credit for being one of the few prizes for aspiring rulers of any international hegemony which has resisted subservience to America, the dominant world power. The country has become economically crippled and a fundamentalist, autocratic Islamic theocracy along the way. The Republican administration of 2019 has not radically hardened America’s response to their resistance: Democratic and Republican administrations alike have pursued the same neo-realist approach which requires rebellious, resource-rich and strategically important states such as Iran to be brought in line or duly punished. Continue reading “The ‘New’ Iranian Stand-Off Is Just Business As Usual for the USA”

#MeToo in Indie Music, and the Pinegrove Example

In a year which has heaped upon us a depressing deluge of exposés of revered figures in our popular culture, from Michael Jackson to Rolf Harris (okay, not always that revered either…) there are few of us music fans who haven’t been touched by the dilemma of separating art from the artist. In music especially, it has become impossible to ignore that fact that some songs which have formed the soundtracks to some of the best days of our lives were made by humans whose actions we abhor. In the last week, many Morrissey fans may have found themselves struggling to listen to his new LP over a different moral quandary, thanks to his appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon wearing that badge.

At least the medium, sound, was always innocent in all this: there are no liberal chords and fascist riffs. Imagine that you come across a 1970s flamenco album on a spurious random internet blog, you download the ZIP file and find that it touches you deeply. You don’t speak Spanish, but the music is joyous and you want to share that joy, by hijacking playlists at parties and sending a link to your mother. Then, years later, you make the mistake of sharing your little find with a Spanish-speaking friend, who is shocked to find you endorsing an old album with lyrics which can be best described as rampantly fascist. You are horrified, but what are you meant to do? It’s too late, you’re already in. You may loathe the politics, but nothing has inherently changed about the music itself.  Continue reading “#MeToo in Indie Music, and the Pinegrove Example”