black music
The Witness

Our Family Soundtrack: The History of Black Music and Social Politics

LySaundra Campbell

Strange Beginnings

I remember the first time I heard Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit”. I sat, waited, and listened to an introduction that seemed to last a lifetime. A voice, filled with melancholy and grief, emerged and demanded my undivided attention.

The lyrics written by poet Abel Meeropol, a white Jewish high-school teacher from the Bronx, continue to haunt me. Meeropol’s words and Holiday’s voice paint a vivid picture and commemorate the reality for Black Americans and the practice of lynching in the Jim Crow South. Holiday followed the style of Black Americans that came before her – through Negro spirituals and the Blues, respectively. This tradition, music as a tool for sociopolitical critique, remains a theme for most of Black music.

Throughout history, Black music has served as a platform for Black Americans to express and heal from past and present injustices. Through the use of narrative, Black music – Negro Spirituals, the Blues, Jazz, Rock, Soul, and Hip Hop – has long revealed and critiqued current social and political environments. If you want to look into the lives, struggles, and resilience of Black Americans, seek the audio yearbook that is Black music.

Slave Songs Set the Tone

Music was a traditional art for many Africans prior to the transatlantic slave trade and was central to everyday life. Observing similarities between popular Bible stories of the enslaved and oppressed children of Israel inspired many Negro Spirituals during chattel slavery.

Negro spirituals communicated the stark brutality of slavery with songs like, “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen,” a longing to experience eternity with Christ (Swing Low, Sweet Chariot), and an earthly freedom and liberation. Many songs like, “Go Down, Moses,” which was used by Harriet Tubman, demanded earthly freedom from slavery.

Songs were so ingrained into a slave’s life that people who argued in favor of slavery said that slaves were happy, pointing to the fact that slaves would often sing while they worked. Frederick Douglass opposed this thinking outright, saying:

“I have often been utterly astonished, since I came to the north, to find persons who could speak of the singing, among slaves, as evidence of their contentment and happiness. It is impossible to conceive of a greater mistake. Slaves sing most when they are most unhappy. The songs of the slave represent the sorrows of his heart; and he is relieved by them, only as an aching heart is relieved by its tears. At least, such is my experience. I have often sung to drown my sorrow, but seldom to express my happiness. Crying for joy, and singing for joy, were alike uncommon to me while in the jaws of slavery. The singing of a man cast away upon a desolate island might be as appropriately considered as evidence of contentment and happiness, as the singing of a slave; the songs of the one and of the other are prompted by the same emotion.” -Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

Listen to “Go Down, Moses” (performed by Louis Armstrong).

The Harlem Renaissance – The New Negro & the Blues

The emergence of the Harlem Renaissance began in the late 1910s and continued until the end of the 1930s. The purpose of the Harlem Renaissance, or the New Negro Movement, was to challenge racism and stereotypes in society and promote progressive politics, and racial and social integration through intellect as well as the production of literature, art, and music.

The Great Migration brought thousands of Black Americans to big cities like Philadelphia, Chicago, and New York. Race riots and other civil uprisings began throughout the United States during, what is commonly known as, the Red Summer of 1919. This reflected the economic competition over jobs and housing in many cities, as well as tensions over social territories. During the Harlem Renaissance, blues and jazz music communicated a longing for social mobility through intellect, music, and art.

Artists and many of their listeners endured Jim Crow and social inequality. Music directly addressed the impact of this on their lives. It also imagined the end of this oppression by providing more celebratory lyrics.

Throughout this period, Blues was the soundtrack for many working-class Black Americans during an era where, for the first time, they had autonomy over their bodies. The Blues highlighted stories of travel and migrating north, political unrest, mass incarceration, and sexual exploration. It also critiqued the political efforts to take away any bit of freedom they had through mass incarceration, Jim Crow, and gender-based violence.

Listen to Jailhouse Blues(performed by Bessie Smith).

The Civil Rights Era

A pinnacle in the lives of Black Americans following the Harlem Renaissance included the passing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which outlawed any major form of discrimination against racial, ethnic, national and religious minorities, as well as women. Despite a nationally proclaimed equality, Black music highlighted flaws in government efforts and fought for equity and the deconstruction of internalized oppression. During this time, music was more explicit in addressing the struggles of Black Americans.

The 40s-70s brought more jazz and blues, along with the emergence of Soul, Traditional Gospel, and the emergence of the Black Arts Movement. This era of Black music produced a backdrop for marches, protests, and demonstrations through hits like, “Say It Loud,” “We Shall Overcome,” “Young, Gifted, and Black,” and “A Change is Gonna Come,” – just to name a few.

Voices like Marvin Gaye, Nina Simone, Mahalia Jackson, and international artists like Bob Marley and Miriam Makeba, challenged systemic racism, the effects of internalized oppression, and colonization. Music turned from not only addressing sociopolitical issues, but confidently, unapologetically proclaiming the value and dignity of Black identity, bodies, and lives.

Listen to We Shall Overcome(performed by Mahalia Jackson).

The Birth of Hip Hop

The mid-70s to early 80s brought the birth of Hip Hop. Disenfranchisement of Blacks and Latinos was a major issue, but particularly in the Bronx, New York. From this, a new musical style, referred to as Hip Hop, became popular among the youth.

Hip Hop created a new culture and became a reflection of the poverty experienced in the Bronx. Hip Hop used the tradition of narrative to talk about daily experiences of micro and macro injustices. One of the most popular early Hip Hop songs to encapsulate these injustices was “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five. The late-80s and early-90s ushered in the Golden Era with conscious artists like Rakim, Public Enemy, and more women, like Queen Latifah and MC Lyte, using their voices to break gender stereotypes and push against sexism.

Listen to U.N.I.T.Y(performed by Queen Latifah).

The Audio Yearbook That Never Ends

Some would say the art is dead, but many artists continue to use Hip Hop, Jazz, Soul, and Gospel music to dissent and fight against oppression. This is an aspect of the life of Black Americans through music that produces pride, but also a major question. Black music continues to document our experiences and our pain. From “Go Down, Moses” to Solange’s “Mad,” how much has really changed? Black music, a tool for political and social dissent, has become somewhat of a traumatic spectacle.

The commercialization of the music industry may try to archive the old Negro Spirituals, but songs like “Alright,” “Black Gold,” “Blk Girl Soldier,” and “Facts” prove that we’re merely just singing the same old, yet new Negro Spirituals. Black Americans continue to lament, plea, object, and defy, and somehow create hits that tell our story and, note by note, promote change.

Listen to the Tune In, Tune Out Playlist.

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