As I watched Shabazz Palaces repeat “black is you, black is me, black is us, black is free” at their excellent concert at Gabe’s on April 25, I got a nice reminder of something that I have been thinking about for a while: the political power and hope of music. This is something that can be seen throughout history as well as across the African diaspora.
If one looks back at the peculiar institution of slavery, music provided the power and drive for many to make it through the day. While many of these songs are now sung by many in their Sunday services, the negro spiritual did much more than talk about their love of Jesus; these songs were a way for them to express their displeasure with slavery and those who oppressed them within it. Through coded language, songs like “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” reference the want of slaves to escape from their misery and get free through the Underground Railroad.
The desire for a better life becomes clearer within the diaspora as time moved forwards and black citizens across the globe wanted equal rights. The 1950s and ‘60s was the most politically charged era in African-American history. Although the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution guaranteed African Americans equality in society, it was clear that wasn’t the case when Bull Connor turned dogs and fire hoses on non-violent protesters, or when black families moving for jobs were railroaded into living in segregated communities with poor quality, overpriced housing and helicopter policing. Living in such conditions caused many people to lose their spirit and curse their blackness.
Music kept the dreams, hopes and spirits of an entire people alive during this time. Those who were on the front line used spirituals and protest songs to express their want for freedom and respect. Songs like “This Little Light of Mine” and “We Shall Overcome” became anthems of the activists who risked their lives on marches and as Freedom Riders. While these songs were nationally popular, their message did not resonate in quite the same way within northern urban spaces as they did in the rural south. The concerns of urban citizens were better addressed by the music of James Brown. Preaching a message of self-reliance and racial pride, Brown’s songs such as “I Don’t Want Nobody To Give Me Nothing” spoke to the frustrations felt within urban black communities because the city did not deliver all that it promised.
The failed dreams of black people in the inner city have been echoed by the struggles within Africa during the Neocolonial era. Following the victories of Kwame Nkrumah, Patrice Lumumba and Sekou Toure in gaining their countries’ independence, Africans across the continent thought that there would be a positive future, a possibility to take their countries back from the European colonizers. These dreams were immediately dashed following the 1961 assassination of Congolese Prime Minister Lumumba—only 12 weeks after being elected—and the assent of Mobutu, one of the most vicious dictators in global history. Mobutu’s violent reign over the Congo—renamed Zaire—came to represent the reality in many different countries, like Uganda where Idi Amin ruled with an iron fist and killed without remorse.
Music became the outlet for all of the anger that citizens had with their governments. The most infamous rabble rouser was Fela Anikulapo Kuti. A vocal critic of the Nigerian government, Kuti released songs like “Zombie” and “Unknown Soldier” that directly attacked the military leaders of the country in the 1970s and ‘80s. Miriam Makeba attacked apartheid in South Africa with her soulful renditions of South African music. While both of these musicians spoke truth to power, they also had to suffer the consequences of their actions. Kuti’s dissenting led to him being perpetually surveilled by the government. It also led to several brutal attacks happening to him as well as the death of his mother—which became the inspiration for “Coffin for Head of State.” In 1960, Makeba lost her South African citizenship for her critiques and spent three decades in exile.
While there is always danger in standing up to power, there are great benefits. Kuti and Makeba brought international attention to the issues that plagued their home countries. Sierra Leone’s Refugee All-Stars follow in the mold set by these legends. As symbolized in their name, this group of musicians met in a refugee camp in 1997 to provide entertainment and hope for all of those who were fleeing from the horror of Sierra Leone’s civil war. Like those who came before them, the music of SLRAS speaks to the violence that surrounded them, but comes with a message of peace and hope for their country as well as the world. They will be bringing their spirited, infectious music—which mixes reggae and African styles such as High Life and Afrobeat—to The Englert on May 25.
Although I’ve focused a lot on political music in Africa, the U.S. has its own political form of black music, too; it’s called hip hop. While the socially conscious strain does not get as much attention as it did when artists like Public Enemy were at the forefront, it is slowly making a comeback through the music of the Black Hippy Crew, a quickly rising hip-hop troupe from Los Angeles led by the critically loved Kendrick Lamar. One of its members is Schoolboy Q, and he will be at Gabe’s on May 10. A reformed gangbanger, Q’s lyrics cover the spectrum from hanging out at the club to keeping his kids from eating too much fast food. While his persona is complex, the one thing that is clear from his releases is that Schoolboy Q is a prodigious talent who, I believe, we will be hearing more from over the next year.
A.C. Hawley’s favorite political songs are “Zombie” by Fela Kuti and “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” by Gil Scott-Heron.