February is Black History Month
This month’s columns will be about Black music, artists and issues.
BLACK HISTORY MONTH:
SONGS OF PROTEST AND FREEDOM
The history of black people’s oppression and their artistic culture are tightly woven
Protest music – which includes Black struggle songs of resistance and freedom – has occupied a larger and smaller niche on the airwaves and hit music charts over the years depending on the era.
Today, in-your-face political messages live strong in the music and videos of the two most popular musical genres of the last 25 years or so – rap and hip-hop.
True that a lot of this music and its videos feature mindless themes, obsesses about money and features hypersexualized, booty-shaking women twerking to (mostly male) boasting raps.
But the smart and urgent political messages in hip-hop and rap are as important and prevalent today – maybe more so – as the anti-war, anti-establishment musical messages of the ‘60s and ‘70s and then punk and new wave later in ‘70s and into the ‘80s.
Last year, rapper Kendrick Lamar won the Pulitzer Prize for Music becoming the first non-jazz or classical musician to do so. The genre is vital and respected even though a lot of us can’t hear it and don’t get it.
In 1939, North America first heard Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit, a seminal protest song about lynching which became her signature tune.
“Southern trees bear a strange fruit.
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root.
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze.”
This Is America
WARNING: The official video for this song shows several instances of gun violence.
Last week, Childish Gambino’s This is America took top honours at the Grammy Awards with a sentiment and visuals as harsh and relevant as those evoked by Holiday.
This is America is touted as the first rap piece to win a Grammy for song of the year (plus three other awards).
Its significance goes well beyond that. Sure, it’s the most overtly political Grammy Song of the Year winner ever– not a high bar.
Importantly, it signals that a mainstream cultural and political consensus has formed around the themes and issues the song presents: gun violence against blacks must stop; mass killings at schools and churches too; glorifying the pursuit of money and empty social distractions while ignoring brutal social realities is not okay.
I accept that Grammy Awards often elevate the banal. Not so with This is America. In this instance, the broad acceptance of what were once radical ideas – ones that wouldn’t before have found a place in conventional channels – represents progress.
This is a leap for the middle-of-the-road members of Grammy organization. It’s been notoriously slow in recognizing the impact and presence of hip-hop and rap despite more than two decades of popularity.
There are a number of interesting videos online offering interpretations of the circus-like array of images in the This is America video. Check them out. Here’s one.
With a few exceptions, these songs are from around the ‘60s when the civil rights movement became a potent force for change. A certain slice of the history worth spotlighting in Black History Month.
Stay tuned and enjoy,
13 February 2019