It’s Black History Month, a time when we reflect on the rich history of African-Americans in our nation, as well as black people around the world. One of the best ways that African-American heritage has been celebrated is through music.
As a prime example of black pride, James Brown’s song “Say It Loud” tells it like it is: “I’m black and I’m proud!” Not only does Brown exhibit tremendous racial pride through this track, he also highlights strength and puts forth a call to action to all races. He sings that African-Americans “won’t quit moving until [they] get what [they] deserve.” In the process, he shoots down critics by denying either “malice” or “nerve” in the movement, citing only a determination for equality.
Tired of working for another man’s gain, Brown lays it bare by explaining that “we’re all people, we like the birds and the bees,” a fairly universal truth. But Brown says that many would “rather die on their feet than be living on [their] knees.”
This song is the perfect track for racial pride movements of all eras. Full of jazz soul and powerful hollering that only Brown can master, “Say It Loud” exudes black pride but demands equality in a universal way. It is not offensive, derogatory or aggressive. Rather, it takes equality and makes it into something that everyone can enjoy. That is the ultimate goal, is it not?
“Brother we can’t quit until we get our share,” croons the singer. But it’s not only black people who must work, and who must celebrate black history. All races share the responsibility to achieve equality, and Brown universalizes that principle by making it into a classic and beloved anthem.
A significant movement in black history, and within the formation of profound racial pride, was the ideology of Afrofuturism. By tying their heritage to science fiction, black writers, musicians and artists are able to “reclaim” the concept of unfamiliarity or “otherness,” creating a space within the artistic world that they can comfortably inhabit and use to effectively influence the artistic spectrum. Modern artists include Janelle Monae, Azalia Banks and Nalo Hopkinson.
However, one of the founding fathers of Afrofuturist music is Sun Ra, the contemporary poet and composer. His album “Space is the Place” includes a 21-minute-long Afrofuturist “space jam” that embraces both the past and the future of the black race.
The track opens with classic jazz saxophone riffs and backing vocals reminiscent of tribal chants. It is an eerie recasting of a gospel-jazz piece. For the first few minutes, the rhythm is steady and everything is in harmony, more or less. But about six minutes in, sounds start appearing, like rockets taking off and spaceships launching.
Though the general 20 minutes sounds like a cacophony of sound, there is a refrain, which chants: “There is no limit to the things that you can do. There is no limit to the things that you can be. Space is the place.” That refrain continually calls the listener back to the actual meat of the song — gospel humming and jazz. This track truly proves there is no limit to what any musician can do, and therefore claims there should be no limits on any race.
The loud dissonance throughout the track very effectively reclaims discomfort as something artistic that can be adapted to. Sun Ra portrays the daily adaptation struggle for people of color with that dissonance, but also shows how empowering it can be. He celebrates the people who have come before, and their struggle, but also marvels at a future of limitless possibilities.
Finally, going back to gentle activism is my personal favorite, “What’s Going On” by Marvin Gaye. His lyrics speak for themselves:
“We don’t need to escalate
You see, war is not the answer
For only love can conquer hate
You know we’ve got to find a way
To bring some lovin’ here today
Picket lines and picket signs
Don’t punish me with brutality
Talk to me, so you can see
Oh, what’s going on”
Love conquers hate. The best way to find equality for all, according to Gaye, is to lose the brutality and to find good things to respect in all people. Brutality will only punish us all, but love can help us to see (and effectively eliminate) what’s going on with inequality today.