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.

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

Album Review: Childish Gambino – 3.15.2020

On his FX show Atlanta, Donald Glover and company have mastered the art of wrapping the political in a veil of surreal comedy and a distinct lack of concern. It’s a show where little happens, and yet says more about race and class in America than a whole month of The Daily Show. Take the skit about a black teenager who wants to transition into “a 35 year old white man” or the quite horrific season two scene where a frat boy tries to impress rapper Paperboi by eulogising Pimp C as “one of the last true prophets” while smoking a joint in front of a confederate flag.

When asked about white people watching the show Glover said to The New Yorker that “I want them to really experience racism, to really feel what it’s like to be black in America… 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!”.

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I mention all of this before even arriving at Glover’s new album as Childish Gambino because this is the new mould of his music too. Just like there is no scene in Atlanta where Earn turns to the camera to eulogise about race in America, there are no protest songs on 3.15.2020, and nor do I think he wanted these songs to be more than jams if the listener didn’t want them to be – but this music is also very much a product of the world as it stands in 2020. Continue reading “Album Review: Childish Gambino – 3.15.2020”

The Sorry Scholar’s Best Tracks of February 2020

Well well well, what a month. The Strokes return. The Avalanches return. New music from Perfume Genius, Dirty Projectors, Car Seat Headrest, US Girls, La Roux, Kesha, Carly Rae Jepsen, Phoebe Bridgers, Gorillaz, Grimes and Mark Kozelek… what is going on?? Newcomers DJ Knuf, 100 Gecs, Emma Jean-Thackray and Ian William Craig drop gorgeous new songs and that’s all without mentioning a multitude of slaps from Denzel Curry, Nicolas Jaar and Pop Smoke, who we sadly lost this month… This one’s for him 💨 Find the Apple Music and Spotify playlists below: 

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https://music.apple.com/gb/playlist/best-of-february-2020/pl.u-Nb6kTm0ZPDr

We love all of these songs, but here’s more on five of the standouts: Continue reading “The Sorry Scholar’s Best Tracks of February 2020”

The Sorry Scholar’s Best Tracks of January 2020

We are happy to introduce The Sorry Scholar‘s Best Tracks of the Month playlists! And what a place to begin: January was a remarkable start to the new decade featuring gorgeous pop from Rina Sawayama and Westerman, new rap classics from Roddy Rich and Max Miller, rich soul from Jeff Parker and The Milk and driving techno from Squarepusher and Nicolas Jaar. Find the Apple Music and Spotify playlists below: 

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https://music.apple.com/gb/playlist/best-of-january-2020/pl.u-gDKlt54XLqA

Continue reading “The Sorry Scholar’s Best Tracks of January 2020”

Our Favourite Albums Of 2019

This final End of Year list of the decade reads like a microcosm of the chaos of the nine years which went before it. Here there are pop albums made by underground musicians who can’t have expected anyone near a chart to hear them, R&B records made by rappers, pop records by rock bands and a million experiments in sound: from an album made of the sampled sounds of pieces of plastic to bluegrass revival. We are now in a place where it doesn’t seem absurd to place bandcamp sweethearts next to house DJs and chart-topping millionaires because we all listen to music on platforms which have them just a click apart anyway. 

We leave the decade with new icons whose names are scattered throughout this list: musicians like Blood Orange, Tyler The Creator, FKA Twigs, Danny Brown and Charli XCX who we simply hadn’t heard of ten years ago, and the behind-the-scenes revolutionaries like the producers of PC-Music who started the decade pastiching commercial music from their bedrooms and ended it writing the genuine commercial hits of today, reshaping the sound of chart music for the better. We also leave this year with new stars, from Billie Eilish to Little Simz and Floating Points, who we may well be speaking of in the same terms in ten years time. We celebrated the 80th anniversary of Blue Note records (which the header of this year’s list pays tribute to) while passed icons Miles Davis, Prince, Leonard Cohen and Arthur Russell had works unearthed which added to the depth of their legacies. We lost a few heroes too: João Gilberto, Scott Walker, David Berman, Kieth Flint and Bushwick Bill being just a few names among many. Many of the narratives which have emerged around music journalism are represented here, from the burgeoning London jazz scene, the reggaeton revolution and the grime takeover, but some of the most telling stories are not: the unstoppable ‘Old Town Road’ for example was a history maker specifically because it has nothing to do with albums. Most of all though, music is a perpetual provider of hope – giving voice to the forgotten, allowing the ideas of the future to be taken for a spin, providing resilience in the face of tyrannical forces, or simply daily reassurance from songwriters who capture the essence of what’s means to be alive and – in clubs, gigs and living rooms – make the living fun.

This list was compiled by a music fan with nothing better to do, based only the albums I managed to hear this year, featuring bias and ignorance of critical consensus. It is instead based solely on the music which impacted us, and which we enjoyed and listened to the most. From top to bottom, we consider all of these albums to be produced by incredibly talented individuals whose music this year will provide pleasure and inspiration for many more to come.

100. Plastic Anniversary – Matmos

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99. Flamboyant – Dorian Electra

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98. Odds Against Tomorrow – Bill Orcutt

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97. GINGER – Brockhampton

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Continue reading “Our Favourite Albums Of 2019”