Enslaved Africans sang as they built the very land America calls theirs, providing free labour for the white man. The genres of music which was born through black misery, endurance, triumph, protest and expression laid the path for future artists and activists alike, changing the sound of the world, one artist at a time. In America and many countries, being black is an act of rebellion, to begin with. Activist art follows closely after skin colour, meaning it was and is, not only dangerous to be black but to outrightly create art based around blackness.
Music has been coined by the black community. Enslaved Africans pioneered cumbia, tango and rumba, and jazz was taken under the wing of black artists who then transformed the genre into something politically vibrant. New Orleans began to see an influx of black jazz artists, as the white man allowed artists to perform in bars and clubs, under strict observation. Individuals such as Nina Simone (already extremely talented performers) began to climb their way up the social ladder until they no longer wanted to perform for the white man. Instead, their music began to transform into songs that brought to light the racial issues of the time. Songs such as Nina Simone’s ‘Mississippi goddam’ – which is a record like no other – directly drew attention to the suffering of black people, something that had never been seen before. Others no longer wished to perform under the eye of the white man and began to create art, dedicated to the black community.
Spotlight on Nina Simone:
Shining the light on the powerful woman that was Nina Simone for a moment. Born Eunice Kathleen Waymon, Simone’s work spanned across several music styles, from classical to jazz and blues to folk, R&B and gospel. Simone was from an impoverished family and was given a piano by a white family from across the tracks, who also funded her enrollment in the Juilliard School of Music in New York. Sadly, she was denied admission into Curtis Institute of Music due to racial discrimination and her dream of being the first black female pianist was slipping away. She ended up working in nightclubs to make ends meet, changing her name to hide from her family who believed it was the devil’s music. However, Simone was told that if she did not sing alongside her playing she would be fired. Therefore, she began to sing, launching her as a jazz vocalist and into stardom.
By 1964, Simone was a household name. Now married to her producer and manager with a daughter, Simone began to shift away from what sold in the charts and what sold to the soul: civil rights music. One of her most powerful songs, ‘Mississippi goddam’ was a response to the murder of Medgar Evers in 1663 and the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church. The song became a hit, being requested wherever she performed and as she stated, the song was ‘like throwing ten bullets back’ at the man. She was the woman of the civil rights movement, from dedicating her 1968 performance of ‘Why? (The king of love is dead) to Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination to turning the unfinished play, ‘To be young, gifted and black’ by Lorraine Hansberry into a civil rights song. Every inch of her career from 1964 to 1974 was dedicated to the fight for her rights.
Simone sadly died in 2003, suffering from breast cancer and bipolar disorder. She was a woman who could have thrown away her whole career in the name of civil rights. She went against her manager/husband’s wishes to stick to creating music for the charts and instead did what her gut told her – to fight for her people.
Spotlight on Gil Scott-Heron:
Blues, defined as survival music of the black community began which was blatantly political and focused heavily on Alabama believing that it was the cradle of activism. The black community left the south, fleeing from violence. Then followed the civil rights era protest music, songs began to scream ‘we will not surrender’. Overcoming was a huge idea during this period. This began the turn from words to actions, as Malcolm X expressed: ‘stop singing and start swinging’. Confrontation became a possibility, and music began to express that anger. Artists like Gil Scott Heron expressed the idea that the end of oppression would one day be within sight with his song, ‘The revolution will be LIVE’.
Gil Scott-Heron, an American soul and jazz musician, poet and author, is known mostly for his lyrical exploration of the social and political issues of his time. His most well-known composition is, ‘The Revolution will not be Televised’. Sentiments from this piece have had influences of various rappers and artists in the hip hop scene and further. Scott-Heron’s music was considered ‘aggressive, no-nonsense street poetry’ which cut deep into the real issues of society, including racial discrimination.
Born in Chicago, Scott-Heron was born into a family of stardom, with his mother being an opera singer, and his father being the first black man to play for the Celtic Football Club in Glasgow. He attended Lincoln University, where his literary influences originated. Scott-Heron’s focus was on the superficiality of television, mass consumerism and white middle-class ignorance of the difficulties faced by the lower class (especially those of colour). He was a major jazz influence in the universe of soul and funk, taking music to new depths of political consciousness and drawing on the tradition of oral poetry. These pioneering moves led to Scott-Hero being named as the ‘godfather of rap’, setting the lyrical bar for the next generation of activists.
Spotlight on N.W.A:
The prospect of confrontation and the end of oppression fueled the 90s LA riots. Music became more aggressive and directly attacked the very heart of the oppression: the police force. N.W.A with ‘F*ck The Police’ began the wave of ‘black and proud’, in which people began to retaliate directly and aggressively against the man.
Fast forward to 2018, Donald Glover used his artistic vision in ‘This is America’ to convey the issues that still continue between the black community and the man. Glover uses traditional African pop moves to distract the viewer from the sadly realistic representations of horrific occurrences to the black community happening behind him.
Perhaps the most lyrically aggressive of the activists, N.W.A popularized gangsta rap, being one of the most influential groups of hip-hop, possibly ever. The group was made up of Arabian Prince, Dr Dre, Eazy-E and Ice Cube with MC Ren and DJ Yella joining later. The group endured controversy over their explicit lyrics, with the charts and white higher-ups believing that their art glorified the use of drugs and crime. Nonetheless, N.W.A’s in-your-face truths struck a chord with the people in the community. They were known for their hatred of the police system, as depicted in the film N.W.A. The group had run-ins with the police, who demanded that they did not perform their iconic ‘F*ck the Police’. Now, more than ever, this track has become an anthem for the oppressed. As well as their influence on music and activism, the very core of the N.W.A’s music demonstrates their social status in society, through Dre’s use of a mixer and samples. This hip-hop group are not only influential lyrically, but also musically. The N.W.A were nonconforming, willing to risk it all to spread knowledge of police brutality, injustice, and discrimination of the black community, by white people.
What is clear from these groundbreaking artists, is that the black community will never stop singing, and never stop creating art that tackles issues, until changes are made. I highly recommend diving deeper into the lives and art of not only these activists but others. Now more than ever, art can be used as a way of expressing the oppression of the black community.
Nevertheless, appreciation is not enough. Donate, educate, unlearn, learn, read, create, protest, riot.