There are many ways the “struggle” of Black America has been embodied. There is literature where writers such as Langston Hughes and Toni Morrison thread a tale of Blackness into a powerful narrative. And there is film where visionaries John Singleton and Ava DuVernay take one simple shot and create a story of visual Afrocentricity.
Art has a way of capturing the Black experience like no other. But it is music that exemplifies an element of Blackness that the other examples don’t. Something about beats and riffs, along with poetic verses moving through a prism of multi-instrumental sounds makes you want to throw your fist in the air and say, “Say it loud: I’m Black and I’m proud.”
Black America is no stranger to songs of activism and protest. From Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” and Nina Simone’s “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black,” to Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” and Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” to even N.W.A’s “Straight Outta Compton” and Janet Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation 1814.”
These artists have become something of a template for contemporary artists to follow.
These artists embodied the “struggle.”
When Billie Holiday’s haunting alto croons over a halting piano and trumpet tango, speaking of the horrors of lynching during the early 20th Century, Black people of that day heard her message and that message made them feel like their cries were heard. When N.W.A raps over an explosive hip-hop beat about police brutality in the 1990’s, they in turn repeated Holiday’s method and revealed the struggle had all but changed as the 20th century ended.
Today, the relationship of audience and artist remains true.
In the age of #BlackLivesMatter, elements of racism, police brutality and violence have been resurrected tenfold. There is no greater time that rhythms of resistance can take the airwaves. That was immediately revealed when Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” smashed through the airwaves early this year. Drenched in Blackness and womanism, the powerhouse music icon invited us into a world where defeat, perception and redemption were at the forefront of every song transition. Referred to as a seminal artifact in the #BlackLivesMatter movement, it would be a matter of time before other artists would follow suit.
From Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly” to Solange’s “A Seat At the Table,” to, recently, Alicia Keys’ “Here,” our lives, Black lives, matter as much now as they did during the time of Holiday, Simone and Gaye. Solange’s “Don’t Touch My Hair” gave a voice to all women of color embracing their natural looks who face scrutiny everywhere from the workplace to the classroom. Kendrick Lamar’s iconic 2015 Grammy Awards performance, filled with chain gangs and Blackface theatrics, invoked the dark past Black people suffered and still suffer at the hands of our white counterparts.
These artists, just like the ones that came before them, lead the current saga of celebrating Blackness.