When she shocked the world by turning the proverbial lemons into Lemonade, Beyonce opened with visions straight out of #BlackLivesMatter. She was sending a powerful message, not only the Jay Z (alleged cheater), but to the world. The images and names of dead black men resonated with her Black Panther inspired performance at this year's Superbowl and reverberated deep into the album's core with Kendrick Lamar's assisted Freedom. Lamar himself has been a documentarian of the African-American struggle turning his second studio album, To Pimp a Butterfly, less into a musical album and more into a revolutionary manifest while providing it's anthem in Alright. But where does music really stand when it comes to revolutionary movement and does it in fact make a difference in our lives.
What do you hear when you listen to the lyrics of K-Dot's Alright now? What do you hear when he rattles through his second verse?
What you want, a house or a car
40 acres and a mule, a piano a guitar
Anything, see my name is Lucy, I'm your dog
Motherfucker you can live at the mall
I can see the evil, I can tell it I know when it's illegal
I don't think about it, I deposit every other zero
Thinkin' of my partner put the candy, paint it on the regal
Diggin' in my pocket ain't a profit, big enough to feed you
Everyday my logic, get another dollar just to keep you
Do you hear the strained cry for help, the bucking against the reality of modern blackness as represented to pop-culture or just words to dance to in the middle of a club? Yes, there is a strong and powerful message throughout the song that encapsulates both the power of positivity as well as a faint, hopeless beating against cultural walls that captures the imagination of young black men. It's beautifully dichotomous, but do you hear it?
The purpose of illuminating social struggles through the prism of pop culture is to bring it to the masses, to grant them access to something they're either unable to or too afraid to explore on their own. Unfortunately, the masses are conditioned to have a short attention span. From a unique position of DJing and hanging around enough DJs to know what DJing looks like, I can tell you the masses hear the message of Alright for half a verse, sandwiched somewhere in between "I Don't Fuck With You" and "Controlla." It's diluted and assimilated within the social bounds that want you to have fuck all to do with the struggle the music talks about at its core.
Music and civil rights is not a new phenomenon. In the 60s, artists like Bob Dylan and Joan Baez actively attached themselves to the social tensions of the times and become active voices of change. Songs of freedom served as sources of courage and collective unity, they brought people together in both their knowledge of the lyrics AND themes that challenged the social order. It was more than just unity through song, it was unity through strength.
Music has and always will reflect the struggle if it wishes to do so and it will mirror it in energy tone. Nina Simone and other artists of her time leaned on the slow burn of pent up oppression, the unbuckling of chains centuries in the making coming into the world. They provided people with a voice, a voice that so melodically echoed their own desires and struggles for freedom. It provided a hymn to be unified under. And this is where we are again.
More recently, groups like N.W.A. pushed radical issues into the forefront producing a reflection of reality on Straight Outta Compton. Gone was the measured tonality of exodus, this was a violent resistance and an introduction of the masses to the unwelcome and swept-under reality. It shed light on inequality and discrimination in Los Angeles' (and America's) poorer neighborhoods to the unsuspecting listener. It was an uprising in both spirit and song and it unified the people.
More recently, we've become adept at treating these themes in music as entertainment rather than documentation of reality, but we can't keep ignoring what is a reflection of culture on multiple fronts. From Lamar to Beyonce, from ScHoolboy Q to YG, we are listening to a call for unity. The recent Black Hippy Remix of THat Part is as close as we will come to a violent call for protest in music, and we need it. Listening to it should make you angry. It should make you want change.
Even at it's base, freedom songs were an act of rebellion and an act of freedom. The unified the longing for both and bucked against the established societal norms. But what happens when societal norms co-opt that culture and turn them into catchy jingles over meaningful statements of "fuck the system." What if they become part of the system. The resistance path of less resistance. Where knowing the lyrics and tweeting about them is prioritized over living by them.
Now ask yourself would you listen if the message was delivered in any other way? Would you even be allowed to hear it in any other circumstance than under the guise of a musical performance? Something so pacified by white, wealthy popular culture is still finding new ways to subvert it to its own cause. These are messages we should and have to hear delivered to us through one of the only cultural pipelines available. It is the very core of any protest to use societally established norms and practice against themselves, and this may be where we are with music.
The message is clearly there to be heard and to be consumed. It is there to introduce you to the cause, not to make you a convert. It is not there to finish the job it is there to start the process.
Perhaps these songs are not there to mobilize us. Yes, they serve as an agent of historical context for the larger audience to understand the circumstances of what's about to come, yet not fully grasp it. We can be both observers and agents of change, but it will not strike the same cord with us as it will with those systematically facing discrimination and struggle. To us, these are messages of inequality, cries for help and unification. To those who live this reality day in day out, these are anthems, songs that serve to unify a a community behind a cause. Yet, we still have things to do. We need to move songs like Alright from the cultural background of a "club anthem" and really listen to the words and context, to understand it and to get behind it. If you want to dance for it you should be willing to fight for it.
At it's base music can be the voice of a movement. It can be the annotation to change, the amplifier of voices previously marginalized through documenting the realities of the modern world. But on it's own, it will never be a catalyst for change. That lies with you. And you. And me. We can't listen to words in Freedom or Alright and only want to dance to them. We can't erase the cultural fidelity of their meaning. The message is there for us to be heard we just have to hear it, and unify under their banners. Documenting the inequalities is one thing, changing them is another, but it all starts with one step. At the end of the day, we already have the music to take these steps to. You just have to listen to hear it.
Originally Posted to Armchair Society.