What Kind of Music Do We Need to Create Change?

In order to create change, a soundscape based in talent, experimentation, and compassion must undergird, motivate, and reflect social movements. Creating change is a long process with many steps along the way, but timeless and exciting music is absolutely helpful in changing ideology and then policy. The music and ideology of Erykah Badu, Ric Wilson, Slauson Malone, and Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah provide a high standard and blueprint for the possibilities of music and the impact it can have.

Erykah Badu’s ascension to greatness is well-documented, and her compassion is at the center of it all. In a contemporary music landscape where authenticity comes from materialism and misogyny, Erykah Badu’s empathy creates a space for artists to express themselves in a genuine fashion. From her first album, Baduizm, which dropped in 1997, Badu was known as a talented singer that would often dip in and out of melody in her songs — her experimental capacity is part of what kept her relevant for so many years. As one of the founders of neo-soul, she has affected music in tangible and theoretical ways.

While he’s only been in the game for a few years, Ric Wilson has proved himself to be an outspoken advocate for Black folks and oppressed people in general. His music comes with the natural understanding that for justice to be realized, we have to lift up the most disrespected folks in society. Songs like “Fight Like Ida B and Marsha P,” and “Don’t Kill the Wave” are two examples of his enthusiasm for bumping basslines and antiracist messages. And with high-profile collaborations with Terrace Martin and BJ the Chicago Kid, it’s clear he’s being welcomed into studios full of talented musicians. Disco Ric’s penchant for good vibes and strong messages make him an inspirational force in music.

Slauson Malone’s music is the most off kilter of these four, but that’s what makes him so exciting – his experimental nature reflects his inclusivity. His ability to theorize about racial dynamics and present them in often-coded formats is helpful to folks looking to understand themselves better. And while much of his music is ground in dissonance, his 2019 album A Quiet Farwell is full of fascinating bass riffs, instrumental combinations, and industrial noises. For music to create change, it must force us to look outside of what is comfortable or normal, and Slauson Malone’s music does that. 

Combining many aspects of brilliance from these three artists is Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, an uber-talented trumpet player and music theorist. With Christian comes a whole genre; stretch music. Seeing the racist and essentializing underpinnings of genre, specifically jazz, he coined the term stretch music to illustrate the stretching and fluid nature of music. Reflecting his Black and Indigenous roots, he’s ushering in a new era of freeform improvisational music, and the space he creates with stretch music will make music more inclusive going forward.

While there are plenty of attributes these four artists may not cover, they combine to show the necessity of music that is forward-thinking, inclusive, and above all, fantastic to listen to. Carrying these traits into the future, they’ll inform new generations of artists that will further their messages and teach people how to love each other.

How have the musical strategies of Black communities transformed throughout the last few centuries, and how do these sounds reflect the changing goals of the Black Freedom/Liberation Movement as it progressed?

Black communities have been resisting white supremacy and settler colonialism since the first times Europeans put them in chains and forced them to labor. And given that many African cultures have been making songs for thousands of years, it was only natural that their rhythms came with them to America. Black music in America has been a source of expression, distraction, spirituality, and protest for their communities over the years. And that music has mirrored the impact of activism through the Black Freedom/Liberation movement — these songs help folks understand themselves and their environment. Over time, the music has progressed with their changing status in society, from Negro spirituals from the days of slavery to the contemporary scene, where complex instrumentation and heightened ability to spread their message have allowed Black communities to express themselves more quickly than ever before. Hand in hand, Black music and Black liberation have evolved over time, pushing for a more compassionate and just society.

One of the first examples of Black music in America is that of the Negro spiritual. Black enslaved folks would sing songs to express their repressed emotions and keep faith in their community in the face of great violence. As written by the Library of Congress

“The slave population was fascinated by Biblical stories containing parallels to their own lives and created spirituals that retold narratives about Biblical figures like Daniel and Moses. As Africanized Christianity took hold of the slave population, spirituals served as a way to express the community’s new faith, as well as its sorrows and hopes.” 

These spirituals were a way for Black folks to create personal identities separate from the harmful racial stereotypes pushed on them by white elites. Further, spirituals were a way for Black folks to communicate with each other while fleeing their captors. The Library of Congress cites that Harriet Tubman used songs like “Go Down, Moses” to signal that runaway Black folks could find solace nearby. Even though white elites banned these spirituals, they could not crush the spirit of the Black community, and spirituals continued to affect Black music over the years. And it wasn’t just the message and meaning of spirituals that were impactful — their soulful tones and expressive melodies set the stage for Black musicians to play around with for decades to come. Alongside these spirituals was the work of abolitionists that pushed for an end to slavery. While grounding their work in the everyday experience of enslavement, their speeches and writings often leaned on similar faithful underpinnings as Negro spirituals.

In the changing racial landscape of the late 19th century, Black folks were able to find upward mobility as performers. Despite the fact that they were still seen as subordinate, and often had to perform within the racial order, this was a time that set the stage for Black musicians to be successful in much greater contexts during the 20th century. The 1870s through the turn of the century saw the foundation of Black orchestras and jubilee groups.

But the turn of the century saw much more growth for Black musicians as their rights were increasingly recognized by the state. The foundations of jazz and blues had already been put in place, but their prominence on a nationwide scale escalated. Black music was speaking on similar issues as they had been for hundreds of years, but they were able to perform for far more people now, exposing mode and more people to the feelings, ideas, and lived experiences of Black folks in the country. 

Artists like Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, whose vocal and instrumental skill earned millions of fans, broke the ceiling of what was perceived to be possible for Black entertainers. Their music pushed back on the limiting capacity enforced by financial elites, and they represented a growing faction of Black musicians that wanted to express themselves with fewer barriers than before. While Black folks hadn’t been afforded many more rights since emancipation, an expanded ability to make a living playing music opened many doors. The improvisational skill of Ellington and Armstrong was another door-opener for Black artists, as freeform music was given more respect in the music industry. Their penchant for entertaining music showed the world what Black folks had to offer, and expanded audiences’ willingness to hear out music that was unfamiliar.

Heading into the loosely defined Civil Rights Movement beginning in the 1950s, many musicians found success in an increasingly competitive musical landscape. The movement and its coinciding community organization empowered Black folks to speak out on issues of oppression and equality, facing less restriction from their labels and marketers. While many musicians were still shut down for expressing themselves, like Nina Simone, Black folks were able to communicate messages of empowerment and anti-racism on a wide scale.

And while that ability to be more outspoken was a massive shift, many aspects of Black music remained the same — most notably their connection to spirituality and more specifically Negro spirituals. Louis Armstrong’s rendition of “Go Down, Moses” in the 1950s showed that messages of breaking out of chains and finding freedom were still necessary and reflective of a country that still refused to come to grips with their racist past and present. 

Founded in the 1960s, the Black Panther Party quickly became an integral aspect of the Black Liberation Movement. Their more aggressive stance, with an ideology that demanded justice, informed future generations of Black musicians. But as a response to the Black Panthers’ ability to nurture and protect their community, the American government established what is now known as the New Jim Crow, which multiplied the amount of Black folks that were incarcerated. 

Hip-hop and rap emerged in the 1970s, another reflection of the constant state of growth of Black music. By this point, Negro spirituals had spread its branches, creating a diverse array of sounds, from jazz, bebop, and blues, to rock, to soul and R&B, and now house, electronic, and hip-hop/rap. It’s impossible to capture the amount of development that had happened in the 20th century, due to the massive migrations of Black folks from the south to the east, midwest, and west, but if anything is for certain it’s that Black music will never be confined by space or time. The evolution of Black music has spoken on so many different lived experiences, and much of it was swept under the rug by the white label heads and CEOs of the music industry. Until the internet and contemporary streaming-centric music paradigm, for Black music to make it to the mainstream, it had to be so impeccably fantastic, or fully whitewashed that it could be palatable for white audiences.

According to scholar Jeffrey O.G. Ogbar, rap music is “a powerful cultural expression that has not only shaped the identity of a generation of African Americans but has influenced the culture of others as well.” While your average 50-year-old might claim that rap peaked in 1993 and it’s been all downhill from there, the continued success of rap music past that year and well into the internet age places it in the forefront of the music industry as a whole. The opportunity to reach billions of people hasn’t been lost on rap’s creators, as musicians have increasingly created daring, experimental, and authentic music that communicates the Black experience in America. 

But it hasn’t been without its detractors. With its dependency and focus on clever, cutting lyrics, rap has found more controversy than perhaps any Black music form. Incessantly criticized by white folks for its contribution to a culture of violence, rap has time and time again had to prove itself as a force for positivity in Black communities. Informed by the ideals of the Black Panther Party and Black Power, rap music has unapologetically lifted up the Black experience in America, telling the lived experiences of its people in a fashion impossible to ignore. Other genres have spoken on the Black experience before it, but due to the mass-communication possibilities of the contemporary era, rap has most widely told the stories of Black communities. 

And while placing Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” next to Louis Armstrong’s “Go Down, Moses” or any iteration of a Negro spiritual in the 1700s, might present jarring instrumental differences, all of these songs have faith in the power of uplifting fellow Black folks. And that’s not to downplay the massive evolution of Black music over time — from more radical lyrical content to experimental, inclusive, and improvisational instrumentation, Black music has seen massive sonic shifts over the last several hundred years. And with these shifts see the shifts in the Black Freedom Movement, as activists have been able to state their intentions more boldly, demanding exactly what they deserve.

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