‘Black Lives Matter and Music’: From a Movement That’s Only Beginning to Find Its Voice

Scholars share their initial thoughts on the musical reactions to the burgeoning social movement, Black Lives Matter, in this anthology from Indiana University Press.

Black Lives Matter and Music
Fernando Orejuela, Stephanie Shonekan, eds.
Indiana University Press
Aug 2018

The temptation to compartmentalize a relatively new movement like Black Lives Matter within the context of academic studies like Folklore and Ethnomusicology is understandable. After all, those determining the contents of the ever-changing canon need to justify their place in the Ivory Tower. They need to eat. When it comes to music and social movements of the 20th century, recent history is rich with treasures of songs from the days of forming labor unions (Woody Guthrie’s “Union Maid”), from civil rights activism (Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come”) and from anti-war efforts (Pete Seeger’s “If I Had a Hammer”), for just a few examples. Songs that comment on issues in current events could be ripped from the headlines (like the best of Phil Ochs or Nina Simone’s songs), or filled with metaphors and allusions (like Bob Dylan’s songs in his protest prime). These were anthems that united, sung as a group in full-throated fashion. Such songs endure as monuments to the tumult of the period and remain evergreen for future activists. (See PopMatters‘ articles of protest songs linked at the end of this article.)

What happens when academics and theoreticians decide to compile a variety of essays examining a variety of means through which recording artists have responded to a movement that (as Alison Martin notes in her essay included within Black Lives Matter and Music, “Black Music Matters: Affirmation and Resilience in African American Musical Spaces in Washington DC”) can only trace its origins back to 13 July 2013? Can the songs reacting to Trayvon Martin’s murder and police violence in America have staying power?

Martin wisely focuses her discussion within the setting of Washington, DC., “…known as the Chocolate City for its high demographic of black residents.” She focuses on the affirmative nature of the region’s Go-Go music, a genre that she saw as more felt than heard. It’s an interesting examination of how Go-Go, a particular musical style born and bred in DC’s black clubs, featured the audience as its star, and the point is clear. It wasn’t about names or stars holding the meaning of the music entirely on their shoulders. It was about community:

“People can have specific events in their lives shouted out during a go-go show so that it can be uplifted… The announcement of a birthday… becomes a part of the performance…”

In her essay “Black Detroit: Sonic Distortion Fuels Social Distortion”, Denise Dalphond brings readers into the complexities of an African American sonic culture that had its roots in the city’s civil unrest of 1967. The city became isolated, economically divided, and what started in the late ’60s as hard-edged (and primarily white) rock ‘n’ roll as a response to civil issues became (by the 21st century) electronic music, underground, in places like black gay clubs and other countercultural locations. In short, socially conscious music as a response to injustice made the city “…ripe for the unapologetically Black ideological and political affirmations of the Black Lives Matter movement.” Location means everything in this essay about Detroit, but Dalphond makes it even more interesting by including discussions about Afrofuturism and musical groups like Drexciyans:

“Afrofuturism essentializes Blackness… [it] carries the potential to erase uniqueness and difference in African diasporic existence around the globe.”

In essence, Dalphond argues that Detroit residents need to struggle to overcome homophobia and transphobia, and embrace intersectionality. It’s a strong essay that allows the reader to see that there’s hope for the future of a community as it continues to express itself through similar musical forms.

Langston Collin Wilkins‘s “Black Folklife Matters: SLABs and the Social Importance of Contemporary African American Folklife” takes us into another world, Houston’s SLAB Parade and Family Festival. A “SLAB” is a custom-made car. Wilkins uses the subject and context to “…examine identity formation and community-building… (and that)… programming (local forms of music) can help dismantle destructive stereotypes…” The essay is about hip-hop as a lifestyle in Houston, and that SLAB functions as “…a marker of power”, thereby dismissing the perception of perpetual victimization. Wilkins connects the SLAB culture with Black Lives Matter in that they share an “unapologetically black” perspective and common ideas about pathways toward liberation.

Fernando Orejuela‘s “Black Matters: Black Folk Studies and Black Campus Life” is a more compelling essay in that it examines the process of teaching hip-hop courses in academia, basically balancing critical race theory, music-making, and social issues with the simple urge to “…ride a beat, rep your crew, and perform a story in verse.” The very prospect of teaching an “unapologetically black” musical culture at a predominantly white institution like Indiana University certainly had repercussions in how the curriculum was absorbed by the community. “Compositional diversity is emphasized over inclusion. Tokenism is a problem, but it’s treated like a solution. How do I un-teach that?” Those of us familiar with English freshman composition classes will appreciate the approach and philosophy, whether or not we’re teaching this subject matter:

“Narrativization attempts to negotiate the perceived texts [to support an argument] that ghost around a communicative event… [it is]… a process in which narrativity is attached to the idea of experientiality…”

Orejuela’s essay could seem ponderous in another context, but Black Lives Matter and Music is an academic anthology, and it expects the reader to engage at its level. Orejuela is insistent on allowing his students to confront views they would otherwise never be able to connect within their own lives, and his reasoning is persuasive:

“…I argue that engaging with discourses on class and race interculturally and intraculturally at both conceptual and practical levels expands students’ abilities to think…”

Stephanie Shonekan opens this book with her essay “Black Mizzou: Music and Stories One Year Later” and she closes with an afterword “Race, Place, and Pedagogy in the Black Lives Matter Era”. The former is another campus-based reflection (this time the University of Missouri one year after some particularly racially charged events. Shonekan reflects on the connection between black liberation movements and music, from Aretha Franklin, The Staple Singers, and Nina Simone, to current musical leaders like Kendrick Lamar. Shonekan’s contributions here are probably the strongest in this slim volume because they’re particularly musical. Whether she’s writing about Chance the Rapper’s The Coloring Book or Beyonce’s Lemonade, she makes clear connections between gospel and hi- hop to express the ongoing frustrations of living as strangers in a strange land.

“The rich layers of this unique cultural expression through which black life is illuminated so that #BlackLivesMatter may become valid to those who live inside and outside the community.”

The difficulty in trying to capture musical reactions to a burgeoning and still ongoing movement is reflected in Shonekan’s afterword, where she considers the importance and difficulty of creating a Black Lives Matter playlist. Artists’ names can be dropped (J. Cole, Kendrick Lamar, The Game, and Lauryn Hill), song titles can be offered, but they will change. That’s understood. If Lamar’s “Alright” is an anthem for the movement, perhaps it’s not the anthem.

The best way to understand the connection between the movement and the music made as a response to it will surely come in a few more years, with more of the road visible in our rear view mirror. Had Orejuela and Shonekan created a separate collection of essays about the pedagogy of a hip-hop curriculum in academia (creating and teaching it) and another that focused on essays specifically dealing with musical releases as a reaction to the movement, the evolution of some artists (Beyonce, Jay Z) and the shocking devolution of others (Kanye West), Black Lives Matter & Music could have been more immediately compelling. As is, this is a good start to examining music from a movement that is only beginning to find a voice.

RATING 7 Only ttwo of the 5 essays really deal with music. This could have been the start of two great books about music and academia respectively / 10