In light of the recent violence and tensions in the United States, I am dedicating a Past Minute post exclusively to black music.
The seemingly senseless murders of African Americans, police offers, and other targeted groups that have occurred across the country are infuriating, but I do not believe that writing an angry social media post without further action is productive. I encourage everybody to vote for reform, research polices and write to your representatives, acknowledge your own misunderstandings of race and participation in racism, and have painful discussions with your loves ones (and those who disagree) about what's going on in this country.
I also encourage everybody to love black art and culture, and recognize which parts of the culture you consider your own are adopted from African or African American culture. This is where I hope that I can help, if only from the perspective of a reverent outsider. The records below are examples of black music that not only move the listener through sound, but also provide a lyrical glimpse of being black in America.
If these or any other works of black artists have shaped you in any way, please think deeply about how hard you are fighting for the people that gave them to you.
New Music: Jamila Woods - HEAVN
On HEAVN, Jamila Woods seamlessly weaves black life into the rhythm of her music, providing an authentic foundation for her powerful lyrics. Take, for example, the protest anthem "VRY BLK." Woods recounts a situation in which she and a few other black women that she had just met all remembered a schoolyard song/game called "Popsicle." The repetition and overdubbing of phrases in the chorus ("you take my brother, brother, brother, I'll fight back, back back") are reminiscent of these musical games that Woods calls "the best inside secret... one of my favorite things about blackness." The distinctive rhythms underline Woods' protests as well as the more poetic social commentary on Noname's verse: "Everything is everything, monstrous as a guillotine... A missionary commissioned misery into angel wings."
Later, on "Blk Girl Soldier," Woods exposes numerous institutions' racist tendencies ("the camera loves us, Oscar doesn't") while reiterating the resilience of African American women. The call-and-response chorus questions our progress towards equality by demanding, "look at what they did to my sister... last century, last week." She revels in the white patriarch's fear of black women and reminds the listener of impactful freedom fighters like Angela Davis and Assata Shakur, who are often erased from the mainstream civil rights narrative.
A thorough listen reveals that the finest moments on HEAVN are about love. We see that Woods herself is the apotheosis of a resilient and powerful black woman - a fighter who, despite the pressures of an oppressive system, finds love and uses it to mobilize a generation for change.
Ten From Back Then: Mos Def - Black on Both Sides
Okay, I'll concede that the real song that will get you hooked here is "Ms. Fat Booty." However, "UMI Says" is an incredibly raw and passionate outpouring of emotion which will sink deeper under your skin if you let it. The five-minute lyrical improvisation is rooted in Dante Smith's aspiration to free his people, a cause that he has no doubt put a dent in. Smith speaks freely and directly to the listener, reminding them "you better hold this very moment close to you," admitting in solemn earnesty, "sometimes I feel like dyin'," and repeating with poise, "I want my people to be free, to be free, to be free."
Smith, now known as Yasiin Bey, tackles capitalist greed on "New World Water," drinking culture on "Climb," and appropriation of black music on "Rock N Roll." On "Mr. N***a," Smith, alongside fellow legend Q-Tip, attacks racism holistically from the point of view of a famous black man. He lists a number of situations all-too-well-known to affluent African Americans, like receiving stares in nice restaurants and being asked if he was wrongly seated in first class. He then decries the insidious use of the n-word in close-knit white gatherings, including one example that I have personally been guilty of: singing it while listening to a song just like this. Seventeen years after Mos Def laid out a litany of the mechanisms of systemic racism, they are hardly discussed, let alone eradicated.
Classic You Should Know: Stevie Wonder - Innervisions
The first time I heard "Visions," it was the 1973 live version featured on Erykah Badu's excellent FEEL BETTER, WORLD mix. The live version is where this song reaches its full potential at a slow, contemplative pace and complete with a spoken-word introduction by Mr. Wonder himself. The cautiously hopeful, repetitive bass line lets Stevie's rumination seep fluidly into the mind of the listener. It centers around the question of whether the "milk and honey land" of freedom and equality reported by certain societal factions is real, or a vision in his mind. The question has a literal meaning to Stevie, a blind man since birth, as well as a heavy figurative meaning to the rest of us, who still cannot agree on what a free and equal society looks like.
The subject of systemic racism also appears on "Living For the City," a narrative piece beginning with a young black man moving from the south to New York City. He and his parents worked tirelessly to afford the opportunity, but even with an ironclad work ethic, the work he finds allows him to live "just enough for the city." Halfway through the song, a street scene interjects where the man is hurriedly told to "run this across the street." He is immediately arrested and placed in jail for ten years for drug possession. When the music returns, the man is released but roaming the streets homeless, giving an even darker meaning to "living just enough for the city."
Just like Yasiin Bey, Stevie Wonder proposes incarceration as a mechanism of systemic racism, yet we now have upwards of five-hundred percent more prisoners than we did at the time of Innervisions' release, forty percent of which are African American. Remembering that African Americans comprise only thirteen percent of the population reveals the astronomic scale of the injustice that Stevie highlights.
note 1: "Black Gold" was a term used to reference slaves, but this title refers to the re-appropriated, Afrocentric definition exemplified in Esparanza Spalding's song of the same name.
note 2: It's impossible to capture black music with three or even a hundred examples. If you'd like a wider lens, check out Fela Kuti's Afrobeat, Roy Ayers' Jazz-funk, Erykah Badu's Neo soul, the haunting blues of Robert Johnson, Mikky Blanco's queer rap, Mulatu Astatke's Ethio-jazz, or the prolific and genre-fluid discography of The Legendary Roots Crew. Better yet, search for yourself.