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WOKE MUSIC: SOUNDS OF PROTEST AND BLACK CULTURE
(PART ONE)


Bob Dylan
, eminent voice of the 1960s counterculture, emerged from the American folk music tradition. One could say it was Kendrick Lamar who put a foundational brick into a new 21st century subgenre of African-American music. Call it “woke music.” One of the most popular examples of social protest in rhythm and blues comes from 1964 with Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come.” On an album-length scale, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On sounded so out of left field for its time that Motown founder Berry Gordy felt skittish releasing it into the world of 1971. Never had a concept album touched on topics like war, poverty, racial injustice, even the ecology, in the same soulful tones used in the R&B tradition. Gaye’s masterpiece made possible all future full-length albums thematically looking through a political lens, from Bob Marley’s Exodus to Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back.

Black Lives Matter originated from the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, following the death of Michael Brown and gave an activist voice to rail against the racial profiling, cultural inequality and police brutality of today. But just as the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s grew out of what poet Amiri Baraka, the Black Panthers, Malcolm X and others called Black Power, BLM emerged in tandem with woke music.

As no one under a certain age needs to be told, being woke is to be alert to society’s injustices, racism specifically. Appropriately, we can mark the birth of woke music with the soulful disciple of Marvin Gaye (and, for good measure, Prince): D’Angelo, and his comeback album after 14 years of silence, 2014’s Grammy-winning Black Messiah. His lyrical leitmotifs about war, social justice, love, spirituality and the ecosystem mirror What’s Going On, updated for the millennial age of social media, hashtags and BLM.

“It’s about people rising up in Ferguson and in Egypt and in Occupy Wall Street and in every place where a community has had enough and decides to make change happen,” D’Angelo said in a statement when Black Messiah arrived.

For any politician who proclaims “this is not America” when commenting on the racist atrocity of the day, Childish Gambino begged to differ in 2018. Most popular for a surreal, stylized video open to multiple interpretations—all of which critique white supremacy—“This Is America” still ran away with Record of the Year and Song of the Year Grammys by mixing rap, trap and Afrobeat. Singer-actor Donald Glover, aka Childish Gambino, alluded to minstrel Sambos, the 2015 Charleston church shooting of mass murderer Dylann Roof, and gun violence…and debuted at number one.

One socially conscious album may mean nothing, but at least three make a trend, and soon, more woke music followed. Solange released the feminist, for-us-by-us A Seat at the Table in 2016. With that year’s “Formation,” especially its video (commencing with a police car sinking slowly in the flooded waters of New Orleans), her superstar sister Beyoncé dipped in a pedicured toe. Her “Freedom” single totally qualifies, Beyoncé’s Lemonade ode to liberation featuring Kendrick Lamar. Janelle Monáe’s “Hell You Talmbout” chants the names of 18 police victims, including Sandra Bland, Sean Bell and Aiyana Jones. Childish Gambino’s “Awaken, My Love!” challenged Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. for Album of the Year at the Grammys in 2018 on the strength of the ubiquitous hit, “Redbone.” (Childish alter ego Donald Glover’s central hook commanded listeners “stay woke!”) But a season after Black Messiah, Kendrick released his own woke music classic, To Pimp a Butterfly’s “Alright.”

Seven months earlier in Cleveland, Ohio, a coalition of black community activist groups across the nation called the Movement for Black Lives convened their first official conference at Cleveland State University. The city become a flashpoint in November 2014 when police officers shot and killed a 12-year-old boy, Tamir Rice, for playing in a playground with a toy pistol. The conference concluded without incident until its final day, when police stopped a 14-year-old for boarding a bus back to his hometown with an open container of alcohol.

Soon officers were pepper-spraying the crowd, who right away advocated for the rights of the teenage boy. An activist phoned the boy’s mother, and she shortly rescued him from police custody. It was an exhilarating moment, like the dramatization in director Spike Lee’s Malcolm X when Nation of Islam members refuse to vacate the streets outside a police station until they assure the safety of an arrested black Muslim. The thwarted police harassment prompted over 200 protestors to spontaneously erupt in song: “We gon’ be alright! Do you hear me, do you feel me? We gon’ be alright!” The whole scene recalls another Spike Lee production, the music video for Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power,” where a political youth rally in Brooklyn transmogrifies into a block party. Black Lives Matter had found its anthem. “Alright” has since become as much a rallying cry at nationwide demonstrations as “We Shall Overcome” in the 1960s to freedom fighters of the civil rights movement.

I talked to Kendrick Lamar about the connection between woke music and the BLM moment in the summer of 2015. He said, “The times that we are in, it’s something that you can only feel in the air. You don’t even have to talk about it. You don’t need the news or the internet to watch it. You can walk outside and just feel it. These are the same times that I believe Marvin Gaye and them felt, just in a whole other generational perspective. To carry on that type of legacy is only right. I am from Compton, from the inner city, the ghetto. If I can use my platform to carry on a legacy and talk about something that’s real, I have to do that, period.”

As the Donald Trump administration came to power, Kendrick served his sharpest barbs against the new president on 2017’s “The Heart Part IV.” Over a bed of backing tracks later revealed as separate songs from the future DAMN. album, Kendrick called the politically inexperienced leader of the free world a chump, a punk. He critiqued the Electoral College, raising the issue of Russian collusion with his election (an allegation that infamously dogged the president for years). Kendrick’s Top Dawg Entertainment label eventually removed the track from streaming services, with Kendrick later telling Rolling Stone he wouldn’t rhyme about the president anymore. (“I mean, it’s like beating a dead horse,” he said. “We already know what it is. Are we gonna keep talking about it or are we gonna take action?”).

“If you listen to slave songs, prison songs, gospel and blues, you find a lot of protest, though sometimes things have to be masked,” says veteran cultural critic Michael A. Gonzales. “Jazz has long been thought of as protest music. Don’t think that Black folks didn’t make protest songs. But I don’t think there were a lot of folks who wanted to record them, based on sales and whether or not it would get played on the radio. As big as Marvin Gaye was, Berry Gordy didn’t want him to record What’s Going On. Sam Cooke had more control over what he recorded. Curtis Mayfield and Nina Simone are just two artists who made iconic protest songs.”

“Alright” occupies rare ground as modern woke music chanted at marches that also saw its day in the top 20 of the Billboard R&B chart. In response to the deaths of Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and so many others, plenty of today’s artists have responded in song to protest white supremacy. The recording and posting of songs online is one thing; chart presence, radio play and community currency is something else.

Read Part Two here.

LISTEN: The Woke Music Playlist

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