Category Archives: Black studies

The Music of Black Lives Matter

 

Following is a timeline of writings on the relationship between music and the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. This timeline is selective–sourced from various scholarly writings and music journalism currently included in RILM Abstracts. We encourage the reader to add additional relevant readings, and links to other sources, in the comments section. We hope that this compendium of readings, with textual extracts entirely in the authors’ own words, can serve as a jumping off point for anyone interested in learning more about the crucial relationship between BLM and music. Again and again, authors and activists have observed the undeniable power of speaking, chanting, and singing the names of lives lost to human rights violations and encounters with the police. Links to additional information about the named victims–there are unfortunately far too many to include here–and the music made in tribute to them, are included throughout.

 

July 13, 2013

“The twenty-first-century Movement for Black Lives began to stir in 2013 after a jury acquitted George Zimmerman of the murder of Trayvon Martin. In reaction to the acquittal, Alicia Garza wrote a love letter to Black people, and she ended the letter by writing, “Black people. I love you. I love us. We matter. Our lives Matter.” Patrisse Cullors, her friend, put a hashtag on it, and Opal Tometi helped to build a network of folks who wanted to unite under that message: #BlackLivesMatter.”

Stay Woke: A People’s Guide to Making All Black Lives Matter by Tehama Lopez Bunyasi and Candis Watts Smith

 

December 4, 2013

“When Anthony D.J. Branker heard about Trayvon Martin, he could not help but think of an experience he had in his early 20s, just after graduating from Princeton University. “I was stopped by police at gunpoint because it was believed I broke into someone’s home”, he said. “I fit a profile. Police surrounded my car”. Branker, who celebrates his 25th anniversary this year as founder and director of the program in jazz studies at Princeton, has composed a piece of music that draws on Martin’s story, which he said “moved me to the core”. Ballad for Trayvon Martin for Orchestra and Jazz Quartet, written in honor of the 17-year-old who was shot in 2012 in Sanford, Florida, by neighborhood watch coordinator George Zimmerman, will receive its world premiere tomorrow.”

”Princeton Jazz Professor Composes Ballad for Trayvon Martin by Ronni Reich, The Star-Ledger

 

March 4, 2014
The Department of Justice today released its investigation of the Ferguson [Missouri] police, which found a pattern and practice of discriminatory policing. The report includes seven racist emails sent by Ferguson officers. In its review, the Justice Department also found 161 use of force complaints against the Ferguson police from 2010 to 2014. Only one case was founded and no officer was disciplined…The conclusions come nearly seven months after a confrontation with officer Darren Wilson left 18-year-old Michael Brown dead. In the wake of the controversial slaying of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin, Brown’s death reignited a national debate over race in America and sparked protests across the country. Separately today, the DOJ announced that Wilson will not be charged in Brown’s death.”

”Ferguson Report: Rampant Racism and Other Scathing Findings From Probe”, ABC News

 

October 6, 2014
“It was a protest of an altogether different sort. Rather than take to the streets of Ferguson, these demonstrators took their demands to the seats of the symphony. As the St. Louis Symphony returned from intermission Saturday night and readied to launch into Brahms’ ‘Ein deutsches Requiem’ (A German Requiem), two audience members stood up and began singing an old protest song–modified for a new cause. “Justice for Mike Brown is justice for us all, Which side are you on friend? Which side are you on?” Then, others slowly joined in–in the balcony, on the floor, in various parts of the auditorium. The protesters unfurled banners. “Mike Brown 1996-2014”, said one. “Racism lives here”, said another. The reaction was mixed. There was applause among many in the audience. Other patrons remained unimpressed. “He was a thug”, a man was captured on camera saying.

Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old African-American, was shot to death by a white police officer in August, fueling protests and spurring a debate on police use of force.”
”Ferguson Flash Mob Disrupts St. Louis Symphony with Michael Brown Requiem” by Saeed Ahmed, CNN

March 2015

“Sometimes a piece of music waits for its moment. Heroes + Misfits, the rock-and-R&B-steeped debut by pianist Kris Bowers, was released on Concord last March, and for a while I regarded it a bit warily: Though I admired its clarity of purpose and execution, I couldn’t fully embrace the album’s urgent, portentous air. Then I saw Bowers and his band at the Charlie Parker Jazz Festival, in Harlem’s Marcus Garvey Park. More to the point, I heard them play an electrifying version of “#TheProtester,” track three on the album, with an imploring ad-lib vocal by Chris Turner. “Who are we?” Turner sang plaintively. “What are we?/What are we to do?” He repeated those questions as a refrain, making meaningful tweaks-like “Who are we to you?”-before lowering the boom, with anguished allusions to the situation on the ground in an American city. It was late August, and I’m certain that no one in that age-diverse Harlem crowd needed to be told that Turner was invoking Ferguson, Mo., where citizen protests had been going strong in the wake of a police shooting, two weeks earlier, that took the life of an unarmed 18-year-old African-American, Michael Brown. Poignant and raw, the performance resonated with the national mood-and altered my perception of Bowers’ album, which no longer felt quite so overdetermined. By almost any measure we’ve been living through an era of deep tensions in this nation, driven in large part by institutionalized racial injustice. The slaying of Michael Brown came only weeks after Eric Garner, another unarmed black man, was choked to death by a New York City police officer. Mass protests across the country, sparked by a grand jury’s decision not to indict Garner’s killer, found a rallying cry in ‘Black Lives Matter.’”

“What Are We To Do?” by Nate Chinen, JazzTimes magazine

June 21, 2015

“Last year the director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention presented research demonstrating that “youth living in inner cities show a higher prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder than soldiers”. The report estimates that 30% of young people in urban “combat zones” suffer from some form of PTSD. When I mention this to Kendrick Lamar, he nods and says: “That’s real”…One reason that To Pimp a Butterfly [released on 15 March 2015, Top Dawg Entertainment] has resonated so powerfully is timing. Its complex reflections on identity and racism landed in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement and a string of cases in which unarmed black men died at the hands of the police. “The timing of both was kind of uncanny”, the R&B singer D’Angelo said recently, comparing it to his own similarly weighty and panoramic Black Messiah album. “It was almost a sign: motherfuckers are making some shit that’s relevant to the times”. But Kendrick started plotting the angriest song, “The Blacker the Berry”, long before his last album and wrote the first draft in a furious burst after 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was shot dead by vigilante George Zimmerman in February 2012.”

”Kendrick Lamar: ‘I Am Trayvon Martin. I’ll All of These Kids’” by Dorian Lynskey, The Guardian

 

August 14, 2015
“During a company conference call with financial analysts last week, Tom Brown, the chief executive of LRAD, a military contractor, informed investors that sales were rolling in, not just from Chinese government agencies and the U.S. Navy, but also from American law enforcement. LRAD manufactures an acoustic cannon that can be used either as a mounted loudspeaker or as a weapon to fire deafening noises at crowds of people. Over the last year, following a wave of protests over officer-involved killings of black Americans, LRAD has seen an uptick in inquiries from police departments around the country…Videos of the NYPD using the LRAD cannon to manage the demonstrators were widely circulated on YouTube, company officials boasted. “So we have been getting good press”, Brown noted, adding, “depending on which side of the press you’re looking at, but we’ve been getting very strong press from law enforcement”. Notably, the LRAD-100X was deployed against Ferguson protesters last year, and has made appearances at other Black Lives Matter events over the last 12 months. In Ferguson, the LRAD cannon was fired on protesters who had assembled in the street. The LRAD device can reach 152 decibels, a level that can cause permanent hearing damage.”

”Acoustic Cannon Sales to Police Surge After Black Lives Matter Protests” by Lee Fang, The Intercept

 

August 14, 2015

“After leading a Philadelphia march against police brutality on August 12th, one-time Atlantan Janelle Monáe has released a moving new #BlackLivesMatter protest song through her label Wondaland Records. In the song, “Hell You Talmbout”, Monáe and her label mates (Jidenna, Deep Cotton, St. Beauty, Jidenna, Roman GianArthur, and George 2.0) invoke the names of Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, Walter Scott, Sean Bell, and Emmett Till, among others. The track, which implores listeners to “say his/her name!” is a “vessel”, said Monáe on her Instagram: “Silence is our enemy. Sound is our weapon. They say a question lives forever until it gets the answer it deserves…Won’t you say their names?”

Jennifer Rainey Marquez in Atlanta magazine

 

October 13, 2016

“The arts scene in Baltimore is really rich and very vibrant. It’s one of the untold stories of the city. Trauma takes away people’s power, and part of our collective work is to help people reclaim their power at the individual level and restore power at the system level. Art and music has a role to play in that. I think about so many people for whom music is one of the ways that they process the world, the way they’ve understood their own gifts, the way they’ve relearned or learned anew how to believe in themselves, or how they’ve been exposed to new ideas and new perspectives. In liberation work, it’s a conversation about how we process the world to make it better.”

–DeRay Mckesson, Black Lives Matter organizer, quoted in ”Black Lives Matter’s DeRay Mckesson on the Power of Protest Music”, pitchfork.com

 

November 2016

“Race is a visual phenomenon, the ability to see “difference”. At least that is what conventional wisdom has led us to believe. Yet, this book argues that American ideologies of white supremacy are just as dependent on what we hear–voices, musical taste, volume—as they are on skin color or hair texture. Reinforcing compelling new ideas about the relationship between race and sound with meticulous historical research, the author helps us to better understand how sound and listening not only register the racial politics of our world, but actively produce them. Through analysis of the historical traces of sounds of African American performers, Stoever reveals a host of racialized aural representations operating at the level of the unseen–the sonic color line–and exposes the racialized listening practices she figures as “the listening ear”. In the process, the author radically revises the established historiography of sound studies, and sounds out how Americans have created, heard, and resisted “race”, so that we may hear our contemporary world differently.”

–Book summary for The Sonic Color Line: Race and the Cultural Politics of Listening by Jennifer Lynn Stoever

 

June 13, 2017

“Algiers are releasing a new album, The Underside of Power, on June 23 via Matador. They have previously shared the album’s title track. Now they have shared another song from the album, “Cleveland”. The song references Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old African American boy who was shot to death by police in Cleveland in 2014 because he was playing with a toy gun in a playground. The song also mentions other “victims of state sanctioned violence” as a press release puts it, including Kindra Chapman, Andre Jones, Lennon Lacy, Sandra Bland, Roosevelt Pernell, Keith Warren, and Alfred Wright.”

Christopher Roberts in Under the Radar magazine

 

July 26, 2017

“Baltimore’s Lafayette Gilchrist is a jazz pianist, but when his band the New Volcanoes backs him up, listeners also get something different: a go-go beat. Gilchrist describes go-go, a style native to Washington, D.C., and its environs, as “almost like a slowed-down James Brown, but you have a combination of African rhythms”. Blended with his jazz piano playing, that’s the sound of Gilchrist’s latest album, New Urban World Blues, released this May. The album’s powerful leading track is “Blues For Freddie Gray”, dedicated to the young West Baltimore man who died in 2015 of severe spinal injuries sustained while in the custody of the Baltimore City Police. Gilchrist is from the part of Baltimore where Gray was arrested.”
”Lafayette Gilchrist plays the ‘Blues for Freddie Gray’” by Phil Harrell, NPR Music

 

May 5, 2018
“I happened to listen to “This Is America”, the new single by Childish Gambino, a.k.a. Donald Glover, before I saw the eloquent, ultra-violent accompanying video concocted by Glover and the director Hiro Murai. One of the song’s three strands is set to a benign Afrobeat rhythm, with Glover and a backing choir echoing old, edifying dogmas of black striving (“Grandma told me / Get your money, black man”); in another, Glover assumes the tempo of a jazz poet as he declares, “This Is America”; in the third, the familiar voices of Quavo, 21 Savage, and Young Thug are incorporated into the song as ambient reverberations, rather than as discrete guest features. The song, which Glover performed during his hosting gig on “Saturday Night Live” over the weekend, seemed like a portal into a successful black man’s psyche, consumed as it is by guilt and by vanity. I liked it. The video, which was released online as Glover performed the track on live television, turned the single into a pessimistic statement on American entertainment–both the making and consumption of it…With the 2016 release of Awaken, My Love!, the funk album released under his Childish Gambino moniker, and the premier of the FX television series Atlanta that same year, suddenly Glover was being called the lodestar of a consciousness, with an uncanny insight into what it is to be young and black and uncertain. Rather than simply becoming a spokesman, however, Glover the musician has found ways to point to the absurdity of the celebrity worship that attends his fame. In his new video, he is the executor of carnage and chaos. “This Is America” is being analyzed on Twitter as if it were the Rosetta Stone. The video has already been rapturously described as a powerful rally cry against gun violence, a powerful portrait of black-American existentialism, a powerful indictment of a culture that circulates videos of black children dying as easily as it does videos of black children dancing in parking lots. It is those things, but it is also a fundamentally ambiguous document.”
”The Carnage and Chaos of Childish Gambino’s “This Is America” by Doreen St. Félix, The New Yorker

August 2018

“In these perilous times, a new age of injustice, African American musicians in the blues scene are singing out louder than ever through verse and song lyrics. Given the current backlash against Black Lives Matter on social media, even by a few misguided people professing to be blues fans, it is important that a new wave of protest and social change songs has emerged. Protest songs are examined by Brooklyn-based singer Hubby Jenkins (formerly of the Carolina Chocolate Drops), deep roots banjoist and fiddler Rhiannon Giddens (former bandmate and current collaborator with Jenkins), Scandinavia-based acoustic blues musician Eric Bibb, and blues harmonica player, teacher, and songwriter Phil Wiggins.”
”Outrage Channeled in Verse” by Frank Matheis, Living Blues magazine

 

10 August 2018

“[I]n a forum at the 2015 annual meeting for members of the Society for Ethnomusicology [w]e held a roundtable discussion titled “Black Music Matters: Taking Stock” to consider the threats and challenges to black music scenes as well as the strength of black music and its ability to serve as an expression of black life in the midst of the Black Lives Matter movement. Since that moment, many other African Americans have died, many at the hands of police, but the killing of Michael Brown of Ferguson, Missouri, on August 9, 2014, a significant tipping point, catapulted the Black Lives Matter movement into plain view on social media sites and news networks. At the same time, musicians started releasing songs in tandem with the movement’s development. Songs like J. Cole’s “Be Free” (2014), D’Angelo and the Vanguard’s “The Charade” (2014), The Game’s “Don’t Shoot” (2014), Janelle Monáe’s “Hell You Talmbout” (2015), Usher’s “Chains” (2015), Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” (2015), and others provided a thematic soundscape the panelists could analyze and critique–activist music flooding the airwaves and heralding a new period of activism for the second millennium.

[…]

The Black Lives Matter movement is not the civil rights movement. It is something else. It is a motivating, dynamic movement still developing in the second millennium, mobilizing similar programs, organizations, and interested allies protesting racial injustice today to work together. Because black music and vernacular forms frame much of Black Lives Matter and Music, we strive to bring to light not just the unfinished narratives that are yet to be realized but rather the recurring or revitalized narratives that have been pronounced in epochs since enslavement, Jim Crow, the civil rights movement, and the Los Angeles uprising of 1992. From Trayvon to Mike Brown to Sandra Bland to Freddie Grey to Alton Sterling to Philando Castile to Stephon Clark, these are just a few names that have become shorthand points of reference, flash points created from grand juries’ nonindictment for the killing of black men and women in the early years of this new millennium.”

–from the Introduction to Black Lives Matter and Music: Protest, Intervention, Reflection by Fernando Orejuela

 

June 3, 2020

“BBC Radio 1 presenter Clara Amfo delivered an emotional anti-racism speech on Blackout Tuesday (2nd June), an industry-wide initiative demanding racial justice and structural change in the wake of the death of George Floyd. Amfo, who presents the mid-morning show on BBC R1, explained that she didn’t have the ‘mental strength’ to come into the station to broadcast on Monday (1st June), following the death of George Floyd. ‘I was sat on my sofa crying, angry, confused… stuck at the news of yet another brutalised black body. Knowing how the world enjoys blackness, and seeing what happened to George, we, black people, get the feeling people want our culture, but don’t want us’. She added that ‘One of my favourite thinkers is a woman called Amanda Seales, and she says this and I feel it deeply when she says, ‘You cannot enjoy the rhythm and ignore the blues’. And I say that with my chest’”.

”Clara Amfo: ‘You Cannot Enjoy the Rhythm and Ignore the Blues” in DJ Mag

 

June 4, 2020
“In the wake of George Floyd’s killing by a Minneapolis police officer on May 25, 2020, streaming numbers for protest songs have soared. Vintage tracks like N.W.A’s “Fuck Tha Police” that specifically call out police violence serve as a reminder that our current national crisis is nothing new. As Black Lives Matter resistance continues across the country, artists have channeled their anger and sadness into new protest anthems, directly inspired by Floyd’s death and its aftermath. Here’s how artists including YG, LL Cool J, Teejayx6, Terrace Martin, Conway the Machine, Hiss Golden Messenger, Wyatt Waddell, Trey Songz, and Nnamdï have responded to the latest chapter of an age-old crisis.”
New Protest Anthems: Songs of the Uprising for George Floyd” by Jonathan Bernstein, Kory Grow, and Hank Shteamer, Rolling Stone

 

7 June, 2020

“This year’s seniors are leaving academia amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and a global uprising against police brutality toward black people, and through it all, Beyoncé wants you to know: You’re already doing great. “Thank you for using your collective voice and letting the world know that black lives matter”, the singer tells students during YouTube’s Dear Class of 2020 streaming special, headlined by the Obamas. “The killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and so many others have left us all broken,” she explains. “Real change has started with you, this new generation of high-school and college graduates who we celebrate today.”
”Beyoncé Thanks Black Lives Matter Protestors, Talks Music-Industry Sexism in Commencement Speech” by Halle Kiefe, Vulture

 

June 8, 2020
“For those who are new to K-pop fandom, a fancam is a video closeup filmed by an audience member during a live performance by a K-pop idol group. Fancams have been the bane of many Twitter users, however, who often find their own viral threads hijacked by users posting fancams to capitalize upon the thread’s popularity. Following the murder of George Floyd by members of the Minneapolis police force, K-pop “stans” redirected their energies to posts on Twitter and Instagram made by police departments seeking to identify protestors against police brutality–jamming them instead with videos of K-pop stars. Other strategies used to subvert such efforts, and to promote Black Lives Matter, are described–including hashtag derailment, Rickrolling for justice, and weaponizing Disney’s heavy-handed copyright policing.”

”How K-pop fans are weaponizing the internet for Black Lives Matter” by Aja Romano, Vox

 

June 9, 2020
Rachel Berry, a 28-year-old from New Jersey, described the fears she often feels as a black woman at country shows and festivals: Being worried that if she stands up to dance, someone will yell a racial slur. The uneasy feeling walking through parking lot tailgates and seeing Confederate flags. Sometimes, she declines to go to concerts because she Googles the city’s name and “racism” and the search reveals racist incidents…Although the popular image of a country music listener is a white person from the South, and concert crowds are overwhelmingly white, the genre’s popularity has expanded from coast to coast in recent years; a 2016 Country Music Association study found that nonwhite and Hispanic fans were the format’s fastest-growing audience. Country music’s roots are also in black history: the banjo originated in Africa and was played by slaves when they came to America. Eventually, white artists started to use the instrument…Country music fans know that, for a lot of artists, speaking up does not come naturally. Nashville singers are frequently encouraged to stay quiet about topics deemed controversial, such as gun control or politics, so they don’t alienate fans or risk backlash (see: Dixie Chicks, March 2003). But the killing of George Floyd, who died 25 May 2020 in Minneapolis police custody after an officer knelt on his neck, sparked an unusually large public outpouring from country singers, labels and organizations…Mickey Guyton, who just released a powerful song called “Black Like Me” has faced racism at her own concerts; she said she was called the n-word in a meet-and-greet line and was told not to talk about it. Last week, Guyton participated in a Zoom call titled “A Conversation on Being African-American in the Nashville Music Industry.”
“How the Country Music Industry Is Responding to George Floyd’s Death–and Facing Its Own Painful Truths” by Emily Yahr, Washington Post

 

June 9, 2020

“A collective of senior black music industry executives from companies including Warner, Sony, Universal Music Group, BMG, Live Nation, Spotify, and the Music Managers Forum has published an open letter to business leaders calling for immediate action on racism and marginalization within the sector. The newly formed Black Music Coalition welcomed industry statements of support on last week’s #BlackoutTuesday, a music industry-endorsed day of reflection during the ongoing global Black Lives Matter protests sparked by the death in police custody of George Floyd in Minneapolis, but said that it was time to transform that support into “tangible changes”. The letter states: “The music industry has long profited  from the rich and varied culture of black people for many generations but overall, we feel it has failed to acknowledge the structural and systematic racism affecting the very same black community and so effectively, enjoying the rhythm and ignoring the blues”. Following #BlackoutTuesday, Republic Records, home to Ariana Grande and Drake, pledged to stop using the term “urban” to describe music made by black artists. The coalition’s signatories called for music companies across the board to cease use of the term and replace it with ‘black music’”.

”’Urban’ No More: Black British Music Execs Call for Industry Reforms” by Laura Snapes, The Guardian

 

June 9, 2020

“The British rapper, author, and podcast host talks to <NME> about education, solidarity, widespread activism, his recent BBC interview, and creating a level playing field for all–specifically, in relation to racially-based police brutality in the United Kingdom, and the nation’s legacy of colonialism. George Mpanga, a.k.a. George the Rapper. is a former schoolmate of Julian Cole, a man left brain damaged and paralyzed by British police after being “taken to the ground” by officers outside a Bedford nightclub in 2013.”
”George The Poet on Black Lives Matter: ‘This Is Our Opportunity to Reassess Our Story” by Sarah Jenkins, NME

 

June 9, 2020
Just as activists have raised their voices demanding justice for George Floyd and the many killed by police violence, the police have met them with their own sound: the LRAD. These audio devices, colloquially known as “sound cannons”, can be used either as conventional public address speaker systems or to generate extremely loud high-frequency sounds specifically intended for the dispersal of crowds, which can also cause pain, disorientation, and injury to those exposed to them. Genasys, manufacturers of the LRAD, issued a press release touting its use by police departments in seven cities during the protests of the last week, including Portland, Oregon, Colorado Springs, San Jose, and Fort Lauderdale. Protesters and journalists have reported their use in cities like Chicago and New York on social media. [This article] compile[s] a guide to the history of the LRAD, its capabilities, and best practices for protecting yourself in the event of its use and aftercare treatment if you are exposed.”

”Understanding the LRAD, the ‘Sound Cannon’ Police Are Using at Protests, and How to Protect Yourself From It” by Daphne Carr, pitchfork.com

 

June 10, 2020
The demonstrations against the killing of George Floyd have brought a wave of powerful protest music, with new tracks and revisited classics–including tracks by YG, Che Lingo, Kendrick Lamar, Terrance Martin, Keedron Bryant, Beyoncé, Bashy, and Dua Saleh.”

”YG, Che Lingo, Kendrick Lamar: The protest songs of Black Lives Matter 2020” by Joseph Chanté, The Guardian

 

June 10, 2020
“George Floyd was buried in his hometown of Houston, Texas, this week. Floyd left his mark on the city through his friends and family, but also through the music he made under the name Big Floyd. George Floyd grew up in Houston’s Third Ward–the home of the city’s hip hop and rap scene. Floyd used to spend hours in producer DjD’s home studio, making the kind of slow-the-music-down form of rap made famous by the late DJ Screw, who also knew and worked with Floyd. Houston’s chopped and screwed scene, as the genre is called, is a lesser-known but proud one. It seems like everyone who’s part of it loves to rep their city, including Houston’s most famous native, Beyoncé. Music played a huge role in Floyd’s life: There was the chopped and screwed music, but also Christian hip hop, which friends say Floyd listened to a lot. The news of his death was particularly devastating for people around the Houston rap music scene because of how much loss they have experienced already, including the premature death of DJ Screw.”

”Houston’s hip-hop scene remembers George Floyd” by David Greene, NPR Music

 

June 15, 2020

“If there’s a music video that captures the Black Lives Matter demonstrations of June 2020, it’s YG’s “FTP”–which, obviously, is an abbreviation of “f— the police”. The song and the clip are an homage to N.W.A’s legendary 1988 song of the same name as well as “FDT (F— Donald Trump)”, YG’s 2016 collaboration with the late Nipsey Hussle. The “FTP” clip–filmed in Los Angeles on June 7 at a demonstration that saw Black Lives Matter, with YG and the BLD PWR organization, drawing a crowd that BLM estimated at nearly 100,000 people, one of the largest in the city’s history–also features several notable figures, ranging from academic and Black Lives Matters’ Los Angeles Chapter cofounder Melina Abdullah and actor Kendrick Sampson to Justin Bieber/Ariana Grande manager Scooter Braun…The video was directed and turned around quickly by Kariuki (who prefers to go only by that name), founder of Denied Approval, which is also a YouTube channel and a clothing line. Variety caught up with him about how the clip came together–and how he feels about criticism from rapper Chika and others who felt that YG exploited the march to make a video, and more.”
”Behind the Scenes of YG’s Black Lives Matter-Themed ‘FTP’ Video” by Shirley Ju, Variety

 

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Howlin’ Wolf and “Back door man”

 

In June 1960, after nine years of recording and over two decades of touring and performing, Howlin’ Wolf and some trusted sidemen entered Chess Studios in Chicago to cut three sides. Wolf was 50 years old and an established act; yet everything about the session’s results, and particularly the song Back door man, seems elusive and interstitial.

Jim Crow racial segregation—at least one of the many meanings of the song’s title—was then both legally discredited and locally practiced, in the North as well as the South. Minimal, sinister, and edgy, fueled by images of violence, betrayal, and polymorphous sexual bravado, structured throughout by riddles and dialectical reversals, Back door man is a sort of historical puzzle, fusing Jim Crow sound, Jim Crow sex, and Jim Crow space; it implies as well a theory of how sound and subject formation, and subject formation through sound, arise out of Jim Crow violence.

This according to “Back door man: Howlin’ Wolf and the sound of Jim Crow” by Eric Lott (American quarterly LXIII/3 [September 2011] 697–710; RILM Abstracts 2011-27928).

Today is Howlin’ Wolf’s 110th birthday! Below, the recording in question.

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Filed under Black studies, Jazz and blues, Performers

Roy DeCarava’s photographic aesthetic

 

The legacy of Roy DeCarava, particularly his collection The sound I saw: Improvisation on a jazz theme (London: Phaidon, 2001), illuminates how his photographic method, both in individual photographs and in the way they are sequenced, absorbed jazz technique and mimicked jazz performance.

DeCarava’s aesthetic can be seen as both a distinctively black aesthetic and a profoundly inclusive one. His unflinching but caring eye is cast over the debris of the ghetto as well as the ecstasy of the jazz solo, and it observes the cramped but welcoming dark of the metonymic Harlem hallway.

This according to “‘And you slip into the breaks and look around’: Jazz and everyday life in the photographs of Roy DeCarava” by Richard Ings, an essay included in The hearing eye: Jazz & blues influences in African American visual art (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009, pp. 303–31).

Today is DeCarava’s 100th birthday!

Above, Dancers (Dancers at the Savoy Ballroom, 1956) by Roy DeCarava is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Below, a brief documentary.

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Filed under Black studies, Jazz and blues, Visual art

The Smithsonian Institution’s Object of the Day, October 5, 2019: Elaine Brown’s “Seize the Time” (1969)

Album cover of Seize the Time, by Elaine Brown, Vault Records, SLP-131 (LP), 1969
Back of album cover

The First Songs of the American Revolution

On a January evening in 1969, members of the Southern California chapter of the Black Panther Party (BPP) congregated in Los Angeles to mourn comrades Alprentice “Bunchy” Carter and John Huggins, two UCLA students who had just been shot and killed on the campus during an altercation with black nationalist group US (aka Organization Us). The gathering was an extension of the funeral service held earlier that day, the gravity of which was punctuated by Elaine Brown’s performance of Rev. Thomas A. Dorsey’s gospel song, “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.” David Hilliard (BPP chief of staff at the time) had already heard from Ray “Masai” Hewitt (Panther leader and minister of education) that Brown wrote her own revolutionary songs and was determined to hear them before heading back to Oakland. He had a piano brought in and asked everyone to gather around. Brown sang songs dedicated to Party members, including “The Panther” (in memory of Frank “Franco” Diggs), “The Meeting” (for Eldridge Cleaver), and “Assassination” (written for Bunchy and John during her incarceration at Sybil Brand Institute). By the end of the evening, Hilliard declared “The Meeting” as the Black Panther Party’s official anthem, which was to be memorized by all members. Brown was then ordered to record an entire album of her songs. 

These were the events surrounding the genesis of Elaine Brown’s first album, Seize the Time. Through its images, lyrics, and music, it negotiates relationships between masculine and feminine strength, violent and non-violent resistance, personal and collective action, and past and future challenges. Even more, its reception provides an opportunity to evaluate the racial assumptions that mediate how we listen to the album that The Black Panther newspaper called “the first songs of the American revolution.” 

Listen to the album Seize the Time, issued by the Rhino Entertainment Company on Spotify

Illustrated by BPP minister of culture Emory Douglas, the album’s striking front cover conveys the Party’s embrace of militaristic methods, investment in black youth, and status of the composer herself, who would go on to chair the Party from 1974 to 1977. A black figure, dressed in a purple jacket and holding a Soviet-made AK-47 (possibly a symbol of solidarity with the North Vietnamese), dominates the space. The fingers that grip the assault rifle’s lower handguard are painted purple, projecting a tone of feminine strength, and Brown’s authorial role is made explicit on the bottom left where a supporter carries a flag with the word “Elaine” running below her portrait.  

Cut-out images of fist-clenched children take various positions on the cover, collage-like, as they play-salute the cause. They reinforce the point that more than the Party’s bellicose ideology, which remains at the forefront of the popular imagination today, the cornerstone of its initiatives was community outreach programs like early morning breakfasts for underprivileged youths. The presence of the children should also bring to mind the work of Huggins’s widow Ericka, who was the editor of the Panthers’ newspaper and educational director of the Intercommunal Youth Institute, an elementary school run by the Party in East Oakland. 

While the album’s front cover emphasizes the Party, the “back cover” of the album is all Brown. Rather than song titles or lyrics, the only writing presented is Vault’s identification information, the composer’s name, the album title, and “Black Panther Party.” Brown’s face, eyes toward the ground, lies in the shadows; a more introspective side that reflects the personal nature of the songs’ contents.

The recording itself was the result of a collaboration with jazz musician and arranger Horace Tapscott who, as Brown writes in her book, A Taste of Power, “could sit down and orchestrate a song just as you sang it.” Brown’s connections to Vault Records allowed the album to come to fruition. To be sure, this was not the first time the Panthers had issued albums, which typically contained speeches, interviews, and court transcripts of Party leaders. Seize the Time was, however, unique among BPP-endorsed recordings at that point in that it contained only music. 

If the lyrical content of Seize the Time often made the Party’s violent defiance explicit (for example, “We’ll just have to get guns and be men” from “The End of Silence”), to some listeners it was sonically incommensurate with the immediacy, volume, ugliness, distortion, and disturbances—the grit and the funk—of an American revolution. The message may have been clear, but Brown’s interests in Bob Dylan and Western art music surfaced where many may have preferred something more along the lines of Betty Davis (which could have had something to do with the album’s failure to attain any kind of commercial success). 

To some, the issue was that Brown just didn’t sound black enough. As she explained in Ptolemaic Terrascope:

I think Huey Newton liked my music because its classical quality gave dignity to our movement, it wasn’t just dancing in the street, not that there is anything wrong with Martha and the Vandellas because we loved that…Someone accused me of not having a black sound and I wasn’t sure what that meant. I just wanted to make the most beautiful sound I could make and do the most beautiful thing I could do to honor our people.

The notion of Brown not having a “black sound” places her in a long history of criticism, directed towards singers from Ethel Waters to Ella Fitzgerald and countless others, that measures complex and multifaceted stylistic vocal traits against an imagined, static category that confirms socially constructed ideas of race. As Nina Sun Eidsheim writes in her listener-centered book, The Race of Sound: Listening, Timbre, and Vocality in African American Music:

[“B]lack voice” is an observation born from an encultured notion of sound that expects fidelity to a referent and listens for difference. When voices are reduced to fixed sounds and undergo assessment, they cannot help but be heard within binaries or scale degrees of fidelity and difference. Moreover, due to the ways vocal timbre has historically been aligned with and metaphorized as interiority and truth, the stakes and ramifications of such assessment involve more than just sounds. What is measured is a person’s degree of fidelity to and difference from a dominant category. 

In Seize the Time, Brown’s voice dominates, with five of the album’s ten songs arranged for voice and piano alone. Her voice is always front and center in the mix, allowing its poignant, crisp, articulate, vibrato-infused delivery to shine, particularly in songs like “One Time.” Brown’s detractors heard the Elaine Brown of the back cover—a sonic expression of interiority—more than the Elaine Brown that appears on the flag below the gun on the front cover. The false dichotomy, the reduction of timbral complexity to an unfaithfulness to culturally engrained notions of a “black female experience,” all in the context of what a black revolution “should” sound like—it says much about the preconceptions of listening communities and little about Brown as a musician and revolutionary.  

Tapscott’s contribution as arranger deserves much more attention than space permits here. But as an exercise for exploring the meanings that emerge in orchestration—and this collects issues surrounding vocal quality, orchestration, visual (re)presentation, and race construction—it is instructive to compare two live performances of “Seize the Time,” one performed by Brown (likely in Los Angeles around 1969 or 1970) and another covered in 1970 by Finnish singer Carola Standertskjöld for Scandinavian television. The video of Standertskjöld’s performance features the album artwork as well photos of Huey Newton. 

Elaine Brown (Los Angeles, circa 1969-70) performs “Seize the Time, “Very Black Man,” “Poppa’s Come Home,” and “The Meeting” (cut off)
Carola Standertskjöld’s performance of “Seize the Time” (1970)

Brown’s album revealed the potential of music to further a political ideology, and so The Lumpen (a BPP outfit of four rank-and-file members who sang while performing various Party tasks) was formed. They recorded an album of the same name, which featured two songs released by the Party itself, “No More” and “Bobby Must be Set Free.” Short for Lumpenproletariat—a class theorized by Karl Marx as too culturally marginalized to be effective in the struggle for class revolution—the group performed at BPP functions, often covering popular songs by Sly and the Family StoneJames Brown, and others. Elaine Brown provided not only a soundtrack for the revolution, but also offered a template for music’s role as a mobilizer of political action in the context of the Black Panther Party’s aims. 

On the cover of the album Huey Newton Speaks resides Newton’s quote, “In the new world the most important thing will not be a social status or a material possession, it will be love and harmony between men.” Elaine Brown’s Seize the Time, in the end, situates revolution in the context of love: love for her friends, Party members, and community. One is reminded of the prologue of Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel Invisible Man. As it unpacks issues of violent and non-violent resistance, drawing on the music of Louis Armstrong, a scene from an imagined past materializes. A slave mother, an “old singer of spirituals,” mourns the death of her master (and father to her children), who she poisoned for her family’s freedom. The poison, she explains, spared him the pain of the lethal stabbing that her sons would have delivered. The protagonist proposes to her, “Maybe freedom lies in hating.” She responds, “Naw, son, it’s in loving.”

This post was produced through a partnership between Smithsonian Year of Music and RILM with its blog Bibliolore.

Written and compiled by Michael Lupo, Assistant Editor, Répertoire International de Littérature Musicale (RILM)

Bibliography

Brown, Elaine. A taste of power: A black woman’s story (New York: Pantheon, 1992). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 1992-33690]

“I have all the guns and all the money. I can withstand challenge from without and from within. Am I right, comrades?” With these words, Elaine Brown proclaimed to the assembled leadership of the Black Panther Party that she was now in charge. It was August 1974. The Panthers had grown from a small Oakland-based cell to a national organization that had mobilized black communities throughout the country. The party’s achievements had won the support of millions of white liberals, but the violent assaults on the party by the police had brought death or imprisonment to many of its prominent members. Now its charismatic leader, Huey P. Newton, heading for refuge in Cuba, asked Elaine Brown to hold together a party threatened by internal conflict and the FBI. How she came to that position of power over a paramilitary, male-dominated organization and what she did with that power is an unsparing story of self-discovery. Growing up in a black Philadelphia ghetto and attending a predominantly white school, Elaine Brown learned firsthand the pain and powerlessness of being black and female. The Panthers held the promise of redemption. Elaine’s account of her life at the highest levels of the Panthers’ hierarchy illuminates more than the pain of sexism and the struggle against racism: The male power rituals she recounts carried the seeds of the Black Panther Party’s destruction. Nowhere was this undertow more evident than in the complex character of Huey P. Newton, who became Elaine’s lover and ultimately her nemesis. More than a journey through a turbulent time in American history, this is the story of a black woman’s battle to define herself. Freedom, Elaine Brown discovered, may be more than a political question. (publisher)

Eidsheim, Nina Sun. The race of sound: Listening, timbre, and vocality in African American music (Durham: Duke University Press, 2019). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2019-7187]

Traces the ways in which sonic attributes that might seem natural, such as the voice and its qualities, are socially produced. The author illustrates how listeners measure race through sound and locate racial subjectivities in vocal timbre—the color or tone of a voice. The author examines singers Marian Anderson, Billie Holiday, and Jimmy Scott as well as the vocal synthesis technology Vocaloid to show how listeners carry a series of assumptions about the nature of the voice and to whom it belongs. Outlining how the voice is linked to ideas of racial essentialism and authenticity, the author untangled the relationship between race, gender, vocal technique, and timbre while addressing an under-theorized space of racial and ethnic performance. In so doing, she advances our knowledge of the cultural-historical formation of the timbral politics of difference and the ways that comprehending voice remains central to understanding human experience, all the while advocating for a form of listening that would allow us to hear singers in a self-reflexive, denaturalized way.

_____. “Voice as action: Toward a model for analyzing the dynamic construction of racialized voice”, Current musicology 93 (spring 2012) 9–33. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2012-21341]

Vocal timbre is commonly believed to be an unmanipulable attribute, akin to a sonic fingerprint. Because the voice arises from inside the body, quotidian discourse tends to refer to someone’s vocal sounds as inborn, natural, and true expressions of the person. What, then, are we to make of the common notion that a person’s race is audible in her voice? While it has been conclusively demonstrated that many of the physiognomic aspects historically employed as evidence of a person’s race—including skin color, hair texture, and dialect or accent —actually evidence nothing more than the construction of race according to the ideological values of beholders, vocal timbre continues to elude such deconstruction. Recent critical thought on the intermingling of the physical senses—including the so-called sensory turn in anthropology, “new materialist” philosophies, and recent advances in science, technology, sound studies, and media studies—underscores the need for scholarship that recognizes the voice and vocal categories as culturally conditioned material entities. Trends such as the metaphorical notion of “having voice” have to some degree obscured the material and multisensory aspects of voice. Conceived within the specific context of musicology and the general context of the humanities, this article seeks to demonstrate how the reframing of voice implied by sensory and material inquiries redraws the topology of voice. I believe that this exercise may offer a deepened understanding of racial dynamics as they play out in our interactions with voice. (author)

Pat, Thomas. Listen, whitey! The sights and sounds of Black power 1965–1975 (Seattle: Fantagraphics, 2012). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2012-36744]

Based on five years of research in Oakland, California and contacts made with members of the Black Panther Party, the author provides a history, and visual documentation, of rare recordings of speeches, interviews, and music by noted activists Huey P. Newton, Bobby Seale, Eldridge Cleaver, Elaine Brown, The Lumpen, and many others that form the framework of this retrospective. The book also chronicles the forgotten history of Motown Records; from 1970 to 1973, Motown’s Black Power subsidiary label, Black Forum, released politically charged albums by Stokely Carmichael, Amiri Baraka, Langston Hughes, Bill Cosby, Ossie Davis, and many others. Also explored are the musical connections between Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Graham Nash, the Partridge Family (!?!), and the Black Power movement. Obscure recordings produced by SNCC, Ron Karenga’s US, the Tribe, and other African-American sociopolitical organizations of the late 1960s and early 1970s are examined along with the Isley Brothers, Nina Simone, Archie Shepp, Art Ensemble of Chicago, Clifford Thornton, Watts Prophets, Last Poets, Gene McDaniels, Roland Kirk, Horace Silver, Angela Davis, H. Rap Brown, Stanley Crouch, and others that spoke out against oppression. Other sections focus on Black Consciousness poetry (from the likes of Jayne Cortez, wife of Ornette Coleman), inspired religious recordings that infused God with Black Nationalism, and obscure regional and privately pressed Black Power 7-inch soul singles from across America. (publisher)

Vincent, Frederick Lewis. The Lumpen: Music on the front lines of the black revolution (Ph.D. diss., University of California, Berkeley, 2008). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2008-47538]

Vincent, Rickey. Party music: The inside story of the Black Panthers’ band and how black power transformed soul music (Chicago: Lawrence Hill), 2013. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2013-19819]

Explores the culture and politics of the Black Power era of the late 1960s, when the rise of a black militant movement also gave rise to a Black Awakening in the arts—and especially in music. The relationship of soul music to the Black Power movement is examined from the vantage point of the musicians and black revolutionaries themselves. This book introduces readers to the Black Panthers’ own band, The Lumpen, a group comprised of rank-and-file members of the Oakland, California-based party. During their year-long tenure, The Lumpen produced hard-driving rhythm-and-blues that asserted the revolutionary ideology of the Black Panthers. Through his rediscovery of The Lumpen, and based on new interviews with Party and band members, the author provides an insider’s account of black power politics and soul music aesthetics in a narrative that reveals more detail about the Black Revolution than ever before.

Discography

Brown, Elaine. Elaine Brown. LP (Black Forum 458L-DJ, 1973). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 1973-24747]

_____. Seize the time. LP (Vault Records SLP-131, 1969). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 1969-16778]

Cleaver, Eldridge. Dig: Eldridge Cleaver at Syracuse. LP (More Records, Cleaver S-1, 1968). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 1968-43352]

Newton, Huey, P. Huey!/Listen, whitey! LP (Smithsonian Folkways Records FD5402, 1972). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 1972-13118]

_____. Huey Newton speaks. LP (Paredon 1004, 1970). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 1970-19048]

Seale, Bobby. Gagged and chained: The sentencing of Bobby Seale for contempt. 2 LPs (Certron CSS2-2001, 1970). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 1970-19049]

Comments Off on The Smithsonian Institution’s Object of the Day, October 5, 2019: Elaine Brown’s “Seize the Time” (1969)

Filed under Black studies, Politics

The Smithsonian Institution’s Object of the Day, August 27, 2019: The Stinson Banjo

John H. Buckbee (manufacturer). Banjo created for Charles P. Stinson. Late 19th century. Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of the Clark and Sarah Case Family.

The Banjo at the Crossroads

The banjo is an instrument that sits at the crossroads of American culture. The legend of the crossroads is often framed in terms of a Faustian bargain—a site where deals are struck with powerful yet potentially malevolent forces. This fable’s best-known manifestation is set almost a hundred years ago when bluesman Robert Johnson is said to have visited a road-crossing in rural Mississippi to have his guitar tuned by a mysterious figure, usually thought to be the Devil. At the crossroads, Satan grants Johnson an otherworldly talent, and access to worldly pleasures, in exchange for selling his soul. Although the story was never related by Johnson himself it will forever be seen as a crucial part of his legend, where the crossroads’ perceived power as a liminal, transformative space, a space of both possibility and danger, resonates with audiences to this day.

This resonance may have something to do with how the origin story above aligns with the origin story of America—and how flexibly the crossroads narrative can be interpreted by different individuals and social groups. In Beyond the Crossroads: The Devil and the Blues Tradition, Adam Gussow describes how the Devil-at-the-crossroads legend was born out of a collision between cultures, religious systems, and musical traditions not accorded equal status:

Some of the confusion on this [origin story] has to do with the way two different folklore streams, one from Europe (featuring the biblical devil, Satan) and one from Africa (featuring a pair of related crossroads trickster deities, Esu and Legba), seem to have fused on American soil, coalescing into a folktale that was well known in African American communities below the Mason-Dixon line. A Christian/Manichean worldview that understands the devil as the wholly evil antagonist who claims wayward souls doesn’t smoothly align with and subsume an African worldview that understands Esu and Legba as figures of constructive disorder who are also, when properly petitioned, teachers and guides.

In historical terms, much more than the guitar, the banjo is the best example of an instrument that’s forever been caught between colliding vectors of American culture—black and white, masculine and feminine, rural and urban, among others. The instrument served as a means of preserving and syncretizing various African aesthetics and belief systems among African-Americans, and also served as an emblem of cultural crossover and collaboration with Anglo-Americans; but equally, it was used as a tool of cultural exploitation, serving as an emblem of racist slander and stereotyping through its use in blackface minstrelsy in particular.
The following bibliographic sources deal with these overlapping currents in all their complexity—from the banjo’s seemingly inescapable linkage with slavery, to the near erasure of this linkage through white appropriations of and claims to the instrument, to the never-ending series of revivals and reclamations that navigate this rocky terrain—an instrument that perhaps more than any other tells the story of America, its potential and peril represented equally across a span of centuries. As always, the devil is in the details.

This post was produced through a partnership between Smithsonian Year of Music and RILM with its blog Bibliolore.

Written and compiled by Jason Lee Oakes, Editor, Répertoire International de Littérature Musicale (RILM).

Bibliography

Conway, Cecilia. “African banjo echoes in Appalachia: A conclusion”, From jubilee to hip hop: Readings in African American music, ed. by Kip Lornell. (Upper Saddle River: Prentice-Hall Education, 2010) 15–22. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2010-54]

The banjo has long signified at the crossroads of the South and today remains a symbol of the mountain musician. The 20th-century folk banjo tradition, indeed, has persisted most strongly among southern mountain whites who continue to play on homemade banjos. Importantly, this living tradition is the complex result of more than a century and a half of exchange between African Americans and others. But the early written records prove that, even a century before the exchange began, blacks had brought the banjo with them from Africa. With a homemade banjo, driving rhythms, and sliding notes, the distinctive aesthetic of African-American musicians shaped the playing styles and song forms of their identifiable repertory and influenced white musicians. Even though African Americans have played banjos for more than two centuries, researchers have located, interviewed, and recorded very few in this century. Thus, North Carolina musicians such as Dink Roberts, John Snipes, and Odell Thompson are historically crucial, for, like the African griots, they have been the “praise singers” and have carried on some of the most important aspects of traditional culture: genealogy, rites of passage, and healing. Their traditions and practices have provided a means for reaching beyond the written records to an understanding of a continuous strand of African-American musical culture, its impact upon white tradition, especially in the Southeast and in Appalachia, and its contribution to American folk music. (author)

Dubois, Laurent. The banjo: America’s African instrument (Cambridge: Belknap, 2016). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2016-935]

The banjo has been called by many names over its history, but they all refer to the same sound—strings humming over skin—that has eased souls and electrified crowds for centuries. This book invites us to hear that sound afresh in a biography of one of America’s iconic folk instruments. Attuned to a rich heritage spanning continents and cultures, the author traces the banjo from humble origins, revealing how it became one of the great stars of American musical life. In the 17th century, enslaved people in the Caribbean and North America drew on their memories of varied African musical traditions to construct instruments from carved-out gourds covered with animal skin. Providing a much-needed sense of rootedness, solidarity, and consolation, banjo picking became an essential part of black plantation life. White musicians took up the banjo in the 19th century, when it became the foundation of the minstrel show and began to be produced industrially on a large scale. Even as this instrument found its way into rural white communities, however, the banjo remained central to African American musical performance. Twentieth-century musicians incorporated the instrument into styles ranging from ragtime and jazz to Dixieland, bluegrass, reggae, and pop. Versatile and enduring, the banjo combines rhythm and melody into a single unmistakable sound that resonates with strength and purpose. From the earliest days of American history, the banjo’s sound has allowed folk musicians to create community and joy even while protesting oppression and injustice. (publisher)

Eacker, Susan A. and Geoff Eacker. “A banjo on her knee. I: Appalachian women and America’s first instrument”, The old-time herald: A magazine dedicated to old-time music 8/2 (winter 2002):http://www.oldtimeherald.org/archive/back_issues/volume-8/8-2/full-banjo-on-her-knee.html. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2002-26661]

In an article titled In praise of banjo-picking women published over 10 years ago in the pages of The old-time herald, Mike Seeger noted that in his fieldwork with “old-timers” in the Southern mountains, he had been told that their fathers and mothers played the banjo before the turn of the 20th century. Seeger went on to ask, “Why do we not have accounts of this—either visually or in the literature?” This article is a long overdue affirmation of Seeger’s findings and a response to his question. It was only after we began our research that we learned that most of these men had learned to play from a female relative. An extensive list includes such luminaries as Ralph Stanley, who learned to play clawhammer style from his mother, Lucy Smith. The fact that so many well-known old-time male musicians have been inspired and influenced by a female in the family should force us to rethink the ways in which banjo music in Appalachia has been promulgated and preserved. The evidence suggests that it was women who have historically kept old-time music—especially banjo and ballads—alive in the hills and hollers of the Southern mountains. The fact that 19th-century Appalachian women banjo players have remained invisible may be because mountain women and men were largely isolated and on the bottom rung of the economic ladder. As social historians can attest, the marginalized leave few records, which may help to answer Seeger’s question of why such accounts are hard to come by. What’s more, ballad collectors like Cecil Sharp were keen on establishing a Celtic connection between Appalachians and their Northern European ancestors. To this end they sought after unaccompanied ballads with British bloodlines. The banjo was not a link in their musical canon and mountain men and women were discouraged from playing this indigenous instrument, instead encouraged to pluck the dulcimer, erroneously thought to have come from Great Britain. (authors)

Eyre, Banning. “Banjo adventure”, fRoots 31/9 (March 2010) 29–31. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2010-20391]

In 2005 Béla Fleck traveled around Africa with his banjo and recording gear, inserting the instrument into music from its point of origin. The trip resulted in a Grammy-winning album, Throw down your heart: Africa sessions (2008), and transformed Fleck’s philosophy of music-making. Fleck has also toured under the banner of the Africa Project, performing with a host of musicians he met in Africa. (Jason Lee Oakes)

Gussow, Adam. Beyond the crossroads: The devil & the blues tradition (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2017-28092]

The devil is the most charismatic and important figure in the blues tradition. He’s not just the music’s namesake (“the devil’s music”), but a shadowy presence who haunts an imagined Mississippi crossroads where, it is claimed, Delta bluesman Robert Johnson traded away his soul in exchange for extraordinary prowess on the guitar. Yet, there is much more to the story of the Devil and the blues than these clichéd understandings—linked to culture, the struggle against racism, and the syncretization of European and African religions (especially in the Caribbean and in New Orleans). Thanks to original transcriptions of more than 125 recordings released during the past 90 years, the varied uses to which Black Southern blues people have put this trouble-sowing, love-wrecking, but also empowering figure are exposed. A bold reinterpretation of Johnson’s music and a provocative investigation of the way in which the citizens of Clarksdale, Mississippi, managed to rebrand a commercial hub as “The Crossroads” in 1999, claiming Johnson and the Devil as their own. (publisher)

John, Emma. “‘White people are so fragile, bless ’em’: Meet Rhiannon Giddens, banjo warrior”, The guardian (July 23, 2018):https://www.theguardian.com/music/2018/jul/23/white-people-are-so-fragile-bless-em-rhiannon-giddens-banjo-warrior-cambridge-folk-festival. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2018-4111]

A profile and interview with the banjo player, fiddle player, and formally-trained opera singer. On her most recent album, Freedom highway, Rhiannon Giddens pours fire and fury into powerful songs that target everything from police shootings to slavery, the civil rights era, and Black Lives Matter. Musically, the album reveals the breadth of her musical influences—including soul, blues, gospel, jazz, and zydeco—building on and expanding out from Giddens’s work with her Grammy-award winning group, the Carolina Chocolate Drops. In an interview, the musician reveals all about her mission to put the black back in bluegrass (and Shakespeare). She also describes her investigation into the history of minstrelsy, hoping to reclaim a genre that has become associated, in both the US and the UK, with blackface performance: “When you look into the minstrel band in the US and you see banjo, fiddle, and tambourine, you might think they’re all ‘white’ instruments. But the banjo is from Africa, there are one-string fiddles all over the world, and the tambourine comes from frame drums that were brought up from north Africa through the Middle East and Italy. That’s world music right there. Musical and cultural ideas have been crossing over forever. My projects are all going towards the theme, ‘We’re more alike than we’re different’.” (author)

Marks, Ben. “Strummin’ on the old banjo: How an African instrument got a racist reinvention”, Collectors weekly (October 4, 2016): https://www.collectorsweekly.com/articles/how-the-african-banjo-got-a-racist-reinvention.

“What’s the difference between a banjo and a lawnmower? You can tune a lawnmower.” “What’s the difference between a dead skunk in the middle of a road and a dead banjo player in the middle of a road? There are skid marks in front of the skunk.” There are entire websites devoted to such banjo jokes, and though they may produce casual chuckles today, these jokes are actually rooted in the racist put-downs that were once directed at black banjo players in America. The latest banjo revival arrives at a weirdly bipolar moment in Western cultural history. On the one hand, the five-string banjo has never been more popular. Winston Marshall of Mumford & Sons plays sold out concerts with a top-of-the-line Deering banjo strapped over his shoulder, as does Scott Avett of the Avett Brothers. On Broadway, Bright star, which was co-written by the funniest banjo player alive, Steve Martin, enjoyed a spirited, if brief, run. At the same time, racism in the United States hasn’t been so naked in decades. What, you might ask, does racism have to do with the banjo, an instrument that for most people is no more controversial than the banjo-heavy theme song for The Beverly hillbillies? Race is actually central to any conversation about banjos, or at least it should be. That’s what makes the banjo so relevant in 2016. This article traces the history of the banjo, and the ways the instrument became bound up with both African-American identity and with the country’s virulent history of racism. (author)

McCollough, Sean K. “Hear John Henry’s hammer ring: Moving beyond black and white images of Appalachian music”, Kaleidoscope of cultures: A celebration of multicultural research and practice, ed. by Marvelene C. Moore and Philip Ewell. (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2010) 93–99. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2010-14904]

Sometimes I feel that I have been put on this earth to teach people one simple fact; the banjo is from Africa. Or, more accurately, the roots of the modern American banjo are traceable back through early African-American instruments to instruments from Africa. It is a simple fact about a well-known American artifact, so simple that it seems it would be common knowledge. But perhaps because the banjo is primarily associated with styles of music such as bluegrass, which are played by mostly white musicians, its origins have been shrouded from the American consciousness. In fact, I am constantly amazed as I teach college classes and travel to public schools across the heart of Appalachia how many students (and teachers!) are not aware of this fascinating and provocative piece of American history. In my work, I am often called upon to talk about the history of Appalachian music or to perform “traditional” music from the region. These seem simple enough tasks on the surface, but simply knowing about the banjo’s origins complicates things. When I pull out my banjo or mandolin, I am often met with comments such as, “I love bluegrass. It sounds just like Celtic music. Doesn’t it?” Well, yes and no. This article examines how this comment misses the mark in a number of ways. (author)

Murphy, Con. “Stone & Sissoko”, fRoots 31/5–6 (November–December) 19. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2009-22415]

A profile of the duo–Jayme Stone, Canadian banjo player, and Mansa Sissoko, Malian kora player. Their collaboration on the LP Africa to Appalachia is part of a recent movement returning the banjo to its assumed African source. The record brings together a series of updated West African melodies and occasional bluegrass standards. While it was released with little fanfare in early 2009, it has proven to be one of the year’s long-fuse albums, its subtle charms and subtle melodies creeping up and working their way into the imagination over the ensuing months. (author)

Shea, Andrea. “The banjo’s beauty, and its cultural baggage, is on display in a new digital museum”, WBUR: The ARTery (April 17, 2019):https://www.wbur.org/artery/2019/04/17/banjo-project-digital-museum. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2019-2091]

Marc Fields and his production team are inside historian and collector Jim Bollman’s storied Arlington home. Bollman sits patiently on a stool with his rare, pre-Civil War banjo balanced on his knee as they set up their shot. “This room has more banjo history packed per square inch than any place on earth,” Fields said. “It’s a place I came to when I first started this project and realized how much there is about the banjo which people don’t know about and which people should know about.” Fields said Bollman’s trove of 200-plus instruments, banjo-related artifacts, and cabinets of research provide a unique portal into America’s past. For more than 15 years, Fields has been on a quest to capture, share, and contextualize banjo history. Now his work is on display in a new museum. But you don’t need to leave the couch to visit because Fields’ archive-in-the-making, called The Banjo Project, is all online. The site celebrates the banjo’s beauty while tackling its cultural baggage. As ethnomusicologist Greg Adams puts it, “You can’t talk about the history of the banjo, if you can’t talk about racism, slavery, misogyny, appropriation, exploitation,” but the instrument has also been a tool for liberation, as scholar Rex Ellis of the National Museum of African American History and Culture points out. Examples of the latter include the careers of Gus Cannon, Lotta Crabtree, and Rhiannon Giddens. (author)

Winans, Robert B., ed. Banjo roots and branches. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2018). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2018-6748]

The story of the banjo’s journey from Africa to the Western hemisphere blends music, history, and a union of cultures. This anthology presents cutting-edge scholarship that covers the instrument’s West African origins and its adaptations and circulation in the Caribbean and United States. The contributors provide detailed ethnographic and technical research on gourd lutes and ekonting in Africa and the banza in Haiti, while also investigating tuning practices and regional playing styles. Other essays place the instrument within the context of slavery, tell the stories of black banjoists, and shed light on the banjo’s introduction into the African- and Anglo-American folk milieus. On the whole, a wealth of new information is offered to scholars of African American and folk musics as well as the worldwide community of banjo aficionados. (publisher)

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Filed under Black studies, Curiosities, Instruments, North America

Norman Lewis’s “pure eye music”

The African American artist Norman Lewis’s artistic background was similar to those of the abstract expressionists; but with abstract expressionism defined chiefly by white male artists and critics, Lewis’s contributions to the movement were ignored.

Abstract expressionism valued originality apart from European influence, yet Lewis borrowed ideas from Picasso, Mondrian, Klee, and Kandinsky to recontextualize into his work. Lewis also changed styles frequently. From Musicians (1945), through Jazz musicians (1948, above), to Jazz band (1948, below), a development can be traced—from depicting overt human forms merging with musical instruments, through human forms gradually more abstracted, to emphasis on visual interpretation of musical lines, sound, embellishments, and rhythms (called “pure eye music” by the critic Henry McBride).

While Lewis’s blending and recombining of many artistic influences may have run against the abstract expressionism aesthetic, his recontextualizing of styles parallels the innovative borrowing from standard tunes and chord substitution that were characteristics of bebop.

This according to “‘Pure eye music’: Norman Lewis, abstract expressionism, and bebop” by Sara K. Wood, an essay included in The hearing eye: Jazz & blues influences in African American visual art (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009, pp. 95–119).

Today would have been Lewis’s 110th birthday! Below, a brief documentary chronicles his artistic development, including references to his jazz-influenced works.

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Filed under Black studies, Jazz and blues, Visual art

Competitive krumping

 

Krumping, a 21st-century incarnation of break dancing, embodies both competitive and spiritual dimensions that manifest in the circle harkening back to the African American ring shout. Krumping is a type of serious play that combines aspects of street fighting, moshing, spirit possession, and even striptease, wherein dancers may confront anger, pain, and sadness.

In krumping competitions, one dancer sits in a chair while the other performs to the seated opponent with boastful moves of intimidation. Though the dancers are not allowed to touch each other, they get as close as they can—close enough to feel their opponent’s breath and sweat, to make their blood burn and boil. As a locus of spirit possession, krumping competitions become contests of physical and emotional revealing.

This according to “The multiringed cosmos of krumping: Hip-hop dance at the intersections of battle, media, and spirit” by Christina Zanfagna, an essay included in Ballroom, boogie, shimmy sham, shake: A social and popular dance reader (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2009, pp. 337–53).

Above and below, excerpts from Rize, a documentary from 2005.

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Filed under Black studies, Curiosities, Dance

Les Ballets Nègres

 

Europe’s first all-black dance troupe, Les Ballets Nègres, dazzled audiences for eight years. Founded by the Jamaican dancers and choreographers Richie Riley and Berto Pasuka, the London-based group aimed to create a new dance language, fusing classical ballet’s emphasis on physical and technical discipline with the undulating pelvic movements and relaxed, flexible limbs of black Jamaican traditional dance.

Les Ballets Nègres sought to convey aspects of the Afro-Caribbean experience to a white audience, working with Leonard Salzedo’s scores for piano, tom-toms, and maracas to develop works including Market day, a joyous, dramatic recreation of the Jamaican market-place, and They came, which depicted the racial clash between Christianity and indigenous religion, but advocated the possibility of racial harmony.

Most critics were simultaneously impressed and baffled by the company’s first performances in 1946, and, as if lacking the vocabulary to comment on the dancing, focused more on the “tribal tom-toms”. The public, however, needed no convincing; the group’s first season was such a triumph that Les Ballets Nègres embarked on a tour of Europe. Still, plagued by persistent economic difficulties, the group—in Riley’s words—“went to sleep” in 1953.

This according to “New dawn for the ballet that went to sleep” (unsigned; The telegraph 31 July 1999).

Above, the group performs for the BBC in 1946; below, excerpts from the dances that were filmed that day.

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Filed under Black studies, Dance

“Shuffle along”

 

In 2018 A-R Editions published a new critical edition of Shuffle along, which premiered on 23 May 1921 and became the first overwhelmingly successful African American musical on Broadway.

Langston Hughes, who saw the production, said that Shuffle along marked the beginning of the Harlem Renaissance. Both black and white audiences swarmed to the show, which prompted the integration of subsequent Broadway audiences. The dances were such a smash that choreographers for white Broadway shows hired Shuffle along chorus girls to teach their chorus lines the new steps.

The editors have assembled the full score and libretto for this critical edition from the original performance materials, and the critical report thoroughly explains all sources and editorial decisions. The accompanying scholarly essay examines the music, dances, and script of Shuffle along and places this influential show in its social, racial, and historical context.

Above, a publicity photo from 1921; below, a recording from the production that includes the show’s breakout hit I’m just wild about Harry.

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Filed under Black studies, Dramatic arts, New editions, Popular music