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NEAR TRUTHS:
THE FOREVER MARCH

WE SECOND THOSE MIXED EMOTIONS: During this Black History Month, as on so many before it, we feel a profound mixture of emotions as we review an extraordinary century of black achievement and stare down a newly virulent strain of the same old ugly American racism. After all, even as we observe new benchmarks in black success in America, we watch in horror as masked white nationalists march through the streets of Washington D.C. with impunity. But white supremacists and their enablers, whatever their short-term gains, will be eclipsed in history by the inspiring leaders, creators, activists, artists and others who’ve so profoundly shaped our present. These innovators have overcome far greater adversity than the present pack of haters.

MOVING THE CULTURE: It’s impossible to consider black history in America outside of the context of struggle and discrimination—and an indomitable push for equality despite often overwhelming opposition. First the horror of slavery gave way to the misery of Jim Crow. Then, from the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision that enshrined “separate but equal” (based on segregated railway cars) to Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 overturning that notion based on educational opportunity, black America journeyed through a mostly unrelieved nightmare of legally sanctioned segregation, discrimination, violence and inequality.

The middle of the century saw the first mass flowering of a movement that would truly challenge the U.S. to live up to its alleged principles, as an MLK-fueled movement of civil disobedience inspired scores of intrepid young activists, who marched and sat in and boycotted and otherwise resisted to demand the true enfranchisement of black Americans. From Rosa Parks’ now-legendary refusal to sit at the back of a bus to the Selma-to-Montgomery marches for voting rights, protest began shifting the balance. The dogs, firehoses and guns of the white power structure could not stop this peaceful, persistent wave.

Malcolm X, more confrontationally, tore down the precepts of white supremacy; Muhammad Ali, who embraced Islam under Malcolm’s influence, was not merely a champion with a gift for verse but a living symbol of ferocious black spirit.

A slate of Civil Rights legislation passed under LBJ seemed to unlock a door most imagined would stay bolted forever, and an abundance of hope and energy reached a peak in the early-to-mid-60s.

But soon enough Malcolm and Martin were both cut down; despair, the chaos of escalating war and a reactionary Nixon government replaced the  hope of revolution, peaceful or otherwise. The powerful symbolism of the Black Power salute flashed by Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the ’68 Olympics, however, underscored that black Americans weren’t going back.

And the last half-century, despite constant reaction, retrenchment and residual racism, has seen extraordinary changes. In politics, the Congressional Black Caucus was born in 1971; from its initial 13 members it’s grown to 55. Shirley Chisholm launched an independent bid for the Presidency that offered a radically fresh idea of what leadership could look like—and set the tone for the progressive politics of our time. Black excellence shone in business, in science, in medicine, in athletics. In mass culture, black creativity reframed the conversation; films with black heroes and heroines were box-office smashes, and the televised travails of black families unfolded before a live studio audience. Author Alex Haley, who had brought Malcolm X’s story to a global readership, dramatized the diaspora of slavery and its aftermath for a mainstream audience with Roots, subsequently a TV event that caused powerful reverberations.

The Reagan/Bush era, with its reassertion of white supremacy, brought new economic hardship, accompanied by the spiraling plagues of crack and AIDS. But it also saw the rise of hip-hop as a voice that spoke truth to power, from police violence to political lies. And while the sax-playing, feel-your-pain Bill Clinton was jokingly dubbed the first black president, the wind beneath his wings was a burgeoning constituency of color that (after the debacle of Dubya) swept Barack Obama into the White House for two terms.

Despite the horror of Trump, young progressives of color have more influence in political culture—and the culture at large—than ever before. Multiple factors, including social media, have helped them seize the moment. But it’s hard to imagine the vastly improved representation of people of color in this moment without the inclusive storytelling of the prior decades.

THE PLAYLIST: Music has played a key role in both storytelling and truth-telling throughout the historical odyssey sketched above. The soundtrack to the last century—a racially charged era filled with foment and victory, struggle and backsliding—was provided by a stunning list of boundary-pushing artists. We could never do justice to the depth and breadth of black greatness in music. But certain figures brought more than classic songs and stylistic innovation; they also represent unique voices that collapsed boundaries and called for change. Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane, Miles, Nina Simone, Harry Belafonte, Sam Cooke, Smokey Robinson, James Brown, Aretha, Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Wonder, Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye, Sly Stone, George Clinton, Bob Marley, Gil Scott-Heron, Prince, Michael Jackson, Ice Cube/N.W.A, KRS-One, Chuck D, Nas, Biggie, Tupac, Jay-Z, Beyoncé, Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole are names that loom large on the landscape. Would that we had room to list every major creator, from jazz to hip-hop.

Our industry, too, is particularly rich in high-profile black achievement. Arguably the greatest music executive of all time, Motown founder Berry Gordy, built a storied brand from the ground up in Detroit—legendarily inspired by Motor City production lines—and launched countless stars. Clarence Avant, the “Black Godfather,” has been a force in the biz since the mid-20th Century as manager, label exec and rabbi to countless artists and music entrepreneurs. Quincy Jones has shaped the sound of modern music as producer/arranger/composer for multiple decades, collaborating with Miles Davis, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin and Michael Jackson, among countless others. Suzanne De Passe was an indispensable member of the Motown team who ended up a culture-mover in film and TV. Sylvia Robinson was key player in hip-hop’s transformation from streetcorners and house parties to the world stage. Andre Harrell, Diddy, Master P and Dr. Dre played a mighty role in black entrepreneurship.

Today, as the streaming economy bankrolls the biz—with black music (primarily hip-hop) as its most formidable force—black executives are moving the culture of the industry forward. Jon Platt, Jay-Z, Desiree Perez, Jay Brown, Jeff Harleston, Sylvia Rhone, Darcus Beese, Ethiopia Habtemariam, Coach K and P, Top Dawg, Future the Prince and Ryan Press are among those leading the charge. We still have a long way to go before the top of the executive ladder accurately reflects the impact of artists of color on the business and the culture, but these execs have supplemented their success by having a strong influence on the conversation.  

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