As the world had just begun to adjust to the disastrous impact of the COVID-19 disease pandemic, another more insidious global phenomenon came to focus— that of systematic racism and injustice. In the United States, the recent deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and George Floyd brought attention to the unjust treatment of, and lack of accountability within, the criminal justice system for Black lives. In response, those outraged by the cases took to the streets to denounce institutionalized racism and to demand justice for all those failed by the criminal justice system.
Protests on behalf of Black people is nothing new, however, the ubiquity of social media has made spreading information far easier, especially when many feel they cannot trust mainstream media sources. In addition to information, people are also turning to the arts, as it gives a more humanistic perspective on the issue at hand.
Politically relevant music from Kendrick Lamar, Beyonce, and Childish Gambino have seen massive upticks in plays. There are also several viral videos of regular Black men and women putting their experiences into song. In this installment of the Folklore's Sounds of the Month, The Folklore team is highlighting the Black musicians of the past and present who utilized music to bring awareness to and to resist against unjust systems.
Music has long been used by members of Black liberation movements to deliver messages and empower its people. During the Civil Rights era of the 1960s, Black activists recontextualized folk music and spirituals created by enslaved African people into protest chants. Popular protests songs like "Oh Freedom" and "Go Down Moses" are some of the many songs that pulled from ancestral folk music and spirituals.
A number of highly regarded artists in the 20th century also began to use their music to expose oppressive systems. Nina Simone explored injustices in the American South, while Marvin Gaye both contributed to the anti-Vietnam War sentiment and envisioned a brighter future for Black Americans, and South Africa's Miriam Makeba addressed the nation's racists apartheid regime.
Through Afrobeat and Reggae, iconic musicians like Fela Kuti and Bob Marley took a Pan-African approach to their protest music by advocating for the uplift of Black people around the world. In the late 1970s, Hip-Hop music emerged from Black communities and reflected the bleak realities of Black American life. Hip-Hop group Public Enemy directly criticized racist policing, while contemporary hip hop artist Kendrick Lamar's music thrives on empowerment.
To discover more about Black opposition music, listen to The Folklore's latest playlist and read more about the musicians that have contributed to this movement below.
Before her music became a favorite for Hip Hop sampling, Nina Simone was a fierce soul singer and pianist from North Carolina. She got her start in the Nightclubs of Atlanta and made her way into the mainstream not too long after. During the Civil Rights era, Simone transitioned from pop to making socially conscious music. She wrote "Mississippi Goddam" in response to the death of a civil rights activist and the bombing of a Black church in Alabama. Although the song was controversial and (according to Simone) contributed to the downfall of her career, she continued to make civil rights-focused music as well as supporting a militant approach to civil rights activism. Today, she is remembered as a complex figure who nonetheless made an indelible impact on modern music.
Recognized as the face of Motown, Marvin Gaye was a beloved singer and songwriter and the aptly titled "Prince of Soul Music". Throughout the 1960s he made several mainstream successes as both a writer and singer. In the 1970s, with war escalating in Vietnam and domestic unrest with respect to the Civil Rights Movement, Gaye released his album What's Going On, which departed from the Motown sound and is now considered one of the greatest albums in American history. The title track "What's Going On" was an intensely personal take on the Vietnam war, as much of it was based on Gaye's own brother's experiences serving in the war. Other songs on the album like "Inner City Blues", focus more on the issues experienced by Black people living in impoverished, inner-city communities.
Miriam Makeba was a Johannesburg-born vocalist, who spent much of her career in the United States. Her outspokenness against the Apartheid government of South Africa led to her exile from the country for several years. She performed pieces like "Soweto Blues," which celebrated Black South African students who resisted unjust school policies. While in the U.S., she crossed paths with many influential people such as Harry Belafonte and Kwame Ture, whom she later married. During her career, Makeba became a symbol for Pan African unity and received goddess-like reverence from her followers. In the 90s following the release of Nelson Mandela, Makeba was allowed to return back to her home country.
The father of Afrobeat music, Fela Kuti was a Nigerian musician who fused music from across the African diaspora. His political music was inspired by Black American leaders like Malcolm X and the Black Panthers, as exemplified by songs like "Zombie." Some of his music was less specific and was more visceral in nature, such as "Black Man's Cry," which reflected the frustration felt by those apart of marginalized groups. The club where he performed was often raided as he performed for oppressed classes using songs that criticized the Nigerian government. Nonetheless, Kuti continued to make and perform politically charged music as well as develop the Afrobeat sound, which combines jazz, blues, funk, and West African chants.
Jamaican born singer-songwriter Bob Marley is largely attributed with bringing reggae music to the mainstream. He got his start as the lead singer of The Wailers in the 1960s and went on to sell 20 million records worldwide. Marley's music became entrenched in Rastafarianism, which was a religious social movement advocating for the liberation of Black people. Songs like "One Love" envisioned a peaceful, loving future, while songs like "Get Up, Stand Up" encouraged audiences to take political action. His musical legacy continues through his children, many of whom are accomplished musicians themselves.
Gil Scot-Heron was known for combining spoken word poetry with jazz music in order to promote his political messages. His writing was often sharp and critical, feeding off of militant civil rights leaders such as Malcolm X. His most notable piece was "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" on which he recited a poem over drums. The song encourages Black Americans to rise up against unjust systems, as only they had the will and ability to do so. Many consider his music to be a precursor to Hip-Hop, particularly the socially conscious rap music made by artists like Mos Def and Common.
Long Island-based group Public Enemy is one of the most politically charged and controversial Hip-Hop acts in music history. Their first mainstream success It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, featured singles like "Don't Believe the Hype" which was largely inspired by the works of thinker Noam Chomsky and denounced negative stereotypes of Black men. The group has also worked with prominent Black director Spike Lee. His breakout film, "Do The Right Thing" featured "Fight the Power" a song that was critical of the treatment of Black men within the criminal justice system.
The Philadelphia-based group The Roots began as the brainchild of rapper Black Thought and drummer Questlove. They achieved mainstream success after the release of the album Things Fall Apart, which explored the current state of Black music and of Black life in general. They've gone on to release several successful albums including How I Got Over in 2010, which was considered by many to be one of the best albums of the decade. The album explored themes of self-determination, existentialism, and Black middle-class angst. The title song "How I Got Over" borrowed from old soul music and documents the experience of moving on after hardship.
While Solange Knowles has long been associated with her pop mega-star sister Beyonce, the Houston based singer has paved a path of her own in R&B. She released the highly successful album A Seat at the Table in 2016. The album deals with themes of healing and empowerment, featuring songs like "Don't Touch my Hair," which serves as a self-love anthem for Black women. The title refers to a common plea from Black women against the disrespect and fetishization often aimed at them for their uniquely textured hair. In "Mad" she breaks down the angry Black woman stereotype and argues that Black people have every right to be mad considering the struggles they face.
Perhaps the most highly regarded, socially conscious musician of the current generation, Kendrick Lamar has spent his career making music about contemporary urban Black life. His most successful albums include good kid, m.A.A.d. City, To Pimp a Butterfly, and DAMN, the latter of which was the first Hip-Hop album to win a Pulitzer Prize. The lessons he learned growing up as a Black man in Compton, California inform all of his music, resulting in songs like "Alright," which serves as a hopeful rallying cry for Black people. The song has even become a common chant for Black Lives Matter protests as it explores police violence in Black communities.
Written by Natalie Jarrett