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There is no way that I can adequately articulate the personal anguish I am experiencing living through these American times. It’s not that I did not know that this country was capable of persistently wounding Black America at one of the most turbulent moments in our collective history. Still, whether that awareness was present or not, it hurts like hell.
I, like so many of us, have been trying to carve out some semblance of peace within these times of unrest, but it is often to no avail. Every day for the past week and a half, I log onto social media and see a world on fire. Every day, I am bearing witness to a militarized police state adding injury to misery, simply because they are upset at our legitimate outrage. Every day, I am seeing people have a casual awakening about the recurring tidal wave of oppression that has engulfed my people for centuries on these shores. I do not know if they thought we were feigning inequality all along, but in the wake of them witnessing the public lynching of George Floyd, so many of them are now allowing their lips to utter such phrases as “systemic racism,” “police brutality,” and “injustice.” It’s almost as if they never fathomed that we have spent generations dying at the hands of untempered white supremacy.
My spirit is almost too damaged to take a “better late than never” position on America’s newfound “awareness” of dehumanized Blackness. As much as I want this place to reckon with the atrocities it has levied upon my kin, I am too thoroughly insulted that it took a multitude of state sanctioned murders during a pandemic for America to begin soul searching about what this American experience has been for us. It is said that one does not know history while they are living in it, but I for damn sure am certain that this period of anarchy has already seared an immovable timeline of occurrences into both my long and short term memory. I do not know what my personal outcome of this history will be, but I know that I am, at least for the time being, alive in a moment that will be etched into the archives of America’s relationship with Black people.
And as I attempt to pivot towards momentary joy to counterbalance the fury, I have been turning in the same direction America has turned in for centuries to smoothly texturize its cultural rigidity. The month of June is recognized as Black Music Month or African American Music Appreciation Month, a recognition created by President Jimmy Carter in 1979, to “celebrate the African American musical influences that comprise an essential part of our nation’s treasured cultural heritage.” I cannot think of America’s cultural identity without thinking of Black music or how America’s art culture as we know it came to be by way of slave hymns siphoned from Black voices and repackaged as the minstrelsy that would become the first form of original American entertainment.
Black music makers have been the quintessential cultural gift to America. Imagine a nation being given style, swag, new language, depth, inspiration, beauty and incomparable talent from a people that its systems have subjugated throughout the entirety of their citizenship. That is what Black music has been to the fabric of America. It is the gift of innovation and brilliance that keeps on giving, while steadily pushing the boundaries of our imaginations with its offerings.
In this writing, I could list hundreds of songs by Black musicians that have probably saved me from losing my sanity, not only during this time, but while navigating the general perils of American Blackness. Instead, I am choosing to highlight 12 songs from my digital library that I have listened to time and time again for a myriad of reasons. These songs cover the wide spectrum of emotions and ideas, anxieties and dreams of creators who made art that speak to the never-ending complexities of the social experiment known as American Blackness.
I present to you PlayBLACK: analyses of 12 songs accentuating Black culture. Some are obscure and some are well-known, but they all have caused me to sit in the fullness of their composition. It is my hope that everyone under the gaze of this writing finds your refuge during these trying times. I zone out to Black music. Here’s a few examples.
Song: “On My Way to Harlem”
Artist: Gregory Porter
Standout lyrics: Somebody say you can’t keep me away from where I was born
I was baptized by my daddy’s horn/No you can’t keep me away from where I was born
I was baptized to the sound of horns
In “On My Way to Harlem”, acclaimed jazz vocalist Gregory Porter sings about the absence of Black culture as a nod to the stinging effects of gentrification. When he sings, “I found out on my way to Harlem/Ellington you don’t live ’round here/he moved away one day so they say,” he is not referencing an already deceased Duke Ellington not being there at the time song’s release (2012), he is referencing the absence of the energy of Ellington and other cultural icons from the fabric of an original mecca of Black American culture. As the native land of the Harlem Renaissance, the once historically (and majority) Black section of New York City known as Harlem, was the launching pad for the careers of some of the most iconic and influential poets, playwrights, musicians and artists in Black American history. The iconic photo “A Great Day in Harlem” captured the majesty of an era and a location that directly correlates to the longing Porter expresses through song.
In a current moment where it feels like our personhood does not belong anywhere, it is especially disheartening to know what kind of toll displacement has taken on our communities, when oftentimes those neighborhoods and towns and sections were the only slices of America where we felt like citizens.
Song: “The Corner”
Standout lyrics: The corner, where struggle and greed fight/we write songs about wrong ‘cause it’s hard to see right/look to the sky, hoping it will bleed light/reality’s a bitch, and I heard that she bites/the corner
I remember the first time I heard “The Corner” in 2005. I actually saw the video on the now defunct “Rap City” and thought, like many other hip hop heads, that Common dropped a roaring comeback from his previous full-length offering, Electric Circus.
As the lead single from one of his greatest albums to date, “Be,” the album “The Corner” showcased Common’s lyrical dexterity and penchant for crafting narratives rich with imagery and substance. The chorus, which featured hip-hop godfathers The Last Poets, was a wonderful inclusion for a young spoken word poet such as myself. Kanye West’s signature soul sample production provided the ultimate backdrop for Com Sense to paint a visceral picture of hood life in southside Chicago. “The Corner” did not glorify social inequities or promote cultural nihilism, rather it gave listeners an up close perspective on how social inequities trapped young Black people, particularly young Black men, in settings rife with hostility and hopelessness. I am always moved by the rawness of its expression every time I listen to it. It is an honestly American record that functions as an audio sociology lesson for anyone who questions what the long term impact of disenfranchisement can do to a people.
Artist: Solange feat. The Dream
Standout lyrics: When it’s going on a thousand years/and you pulling up to your crib
and they ask you where you live again/but you running out of damns to give
Solange’s 2016 album, “A Seat at the Table,” was undoubtedly her magnum opus. Released during a year that, like 2020, was rampant with occurrences of highly publicized state sanctioned violence the album challenged audiences to reimagine a world led by the wizardry of Black girl magic. Though she had critically acclaimed music prior to its release, this album gave Solange a hyper-visible identity outside of being the younger sister of Beyonce. All the great music “A Seat at the Table” materialized, “F.U.B.U.” which borrows its name from the 90s Black-owned clothing brand (For Us By Us), was the standout record for me because it candidly and melodically spoke to Black America’s desire to exist unapologetically. Its lyrics highlighted several publicized incidents of Black folks having our existence disrupted simply on account of living while Black, which made the selfishness in the request to have the song be for only us a thing of beauty and necessity at the time.
Four years later and its relevance is no different.
Artist: Black Star feat. Common
Standout lyrics: (Talib Kweli) For trees to grow in Brooklyn, seeds need to be planted/I’m asking if y’all feel me AND THE CROWD LEFT ME STRANDED
In 1998, two of hip-hop’s most revered and socially conscious emcees, Mos Def (Yasiin Bey) and Talib Kweli, released the classic album “Mos Def & Talib Kweli are Black Star,” a 13-track backpacker’s delight that was the cultural antithesis to violence and materialism that had consumed mainstream rap music. On one of arguably the best tracks on the album, “Respiration,” Mos and Kweli teamed up with Common to create a record consisting of three of the most poetic verses on inner-city life ever performed. There has been much debate amongst hip-hop heads as to whose verse was the best, but what cannot be debated is the eloquent truths each emcee delivered on the record.
Whether it was Mos’ commentary on classism that fragmented New York City (Skyscrapers is colossus, the cost of living/is preposterous, stay alive, you play or die, no options), Kweli’s cautionary rhymes about Brooklyn living (The beast walk the beats, but the beats we be making/you on the wrong side of the track, looking visibly shaken), or Common’s somber reflections on a friend lost to the streets (Yo, on The Amen, Corner I stood looking at my former hood/felt the spirit in the wind, knew my friend was gone for good), “Respiration,” was a deep dive into the belly of the beast of Black life positioned in urban metropolises where a person’s humanity can be of no consequence whatsoever.
Song: I Find It Hard to Say (Rebel)
Artist: Lauryn Hill
Standout lyrics: Don’t look at me that way, like everything is alright/’cause my own eyes can see, through all your false pretenses/but what you fail to see, is all the consequences/you think our lives are cheap, and easy to be wasted/as history repeats, so foul you can taste it
Lauryn Hill had a virtually insurmountable bar to clear in order to follow up the mega success of her solo debut “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill,” but in 2002 with only an acoustic guitar and a microphone she took to MTV’s “Unplugged” platform to perform/record a new album. Her “Unplugged” effort was always unfairly criticized in my opinion and there are a myriad of reasons that some may feel that she did not live up to “Miseducation”’s standards, but for me, Lauryn performed some of the most insightful, socially poignant music of her career during that set. “I Find It Hard to Say (Rebel),” is one of my favorite songs from that session. It challenged the audience to avoid the herd mentality, interrogated spirituality, and religion, and made a righteous call for rebellion against oppressive systems. The rawness in her cracking voice towards the end of the song, something she was greatly criticized for, up its degree of authenticity for me. Ms. Hill’s call for a dismissal of the status quo/rebellion against that which renders us powerless is particularly significant in this period of civil unrest.
L. Boogie knew 18 years ago that we would need to put on the full armor of resistance. It’s hard to assign a qualitative measure to a message that can help you save yourself.
Song: Living For the City
Artist: Stevie Wonder
Standout lyrics: To find a job is like a haystack needle/’cause where he lives they don’t use colored people
Of all the gifts Black music has given to American culture, the music of Stevie Wonder is in a class of cultural offerings all by itself. For six decades, Stevie Wonder has provided the world with songs that encompass every mood and emotion imaginable. I switch between favorite songs of his per album and basically am unable to decide which ones are my favorites from his stellar catalog because there are so many favorites for so many different reasons. One of his many genius records that deal with inequality is “Living for the City,” off of the 1973 “Innervisions” album. In the early 1970s, “Living for the City” tackled issues such as income and wealth inequality and the struggle for Black people to get a fair shot at ascending beyond the cards we were dealt, socioeconomically.
The song follows the narrative of a Black man who was “born in hard time Mississippi,” who moves to New York City with aspirations to attain a piece of the “American pie.” In the song’s outro, Stevie is talking in the voice of the man who is exploring his new surroundings with wonderment before being forcefully accosted by New York police. Which, shit, could happen like today…and well, often does.
Song: It Ain’t Fair
Artist: The Roots feat. Bilal
Standout lyrics: I guess I’m tryna minimize arrests/I identify with death/that don’t mean it’s not an uninvited guest
The first time I heard The Roots’ “It Aint Fair” was on their NPR Tiny Desk performance and I lost my shit. First of all, Black Thought is one of my two favorite all time emcees (the other being Andre 3000). Secondly, Bilal is one of the most criminally slept on vocalists of our generation and thirdly, the legendary Roots crew provided the perfect score to complement the urgency of Thought’s lyrics. As one of the songs featured on the “Detroit” soundtrack, from the movie inspired by the 1967 riots of Detroit and police violence that ensued, “It Ain’t Fair” encapsulates the heat of living under American subjugation.
The lyrics of the chorus: It ain’t fair it’s hard when you’re looking for love/and it ain’t there/or try to read what tomorrow holds/when it ain’t clear/because the well is running dry/racial tensions running high under 21 is far too young to die…, can literally be applied to any period of Black American history as we have always lived under the mechanisms of systemic racism and police aggression since the onset of slave patrols.
Song: The Colored Section
Standout lyrics: Welcome to the colored section/welcome to the Negro leagues
sign your name on the black list and know this/it’s American history
In 2003, a relatively unknown soul singer named Donnie put out what I believe to be the best soul/R&B album of the 2000s, and I am not just saying that because we have the same first name. This song, “The Colored Section” from the album of the same title, was a soul-stirring closing to an exceptional body of work that delved into topics such as religion, stereotypes, pride in Black features and queer love. On this closing track, Donnie laid out very plainly the pain and power of the Black American experience.
With lyrics such “as see the rape of the earth queen/see the buy, sell, and trade of me (on the auction block) and did ye not know you are Gods/the real celebrity and the star,” Donnie gave his listeners the full scope of their personhood. Sung with a velvety tenor and packing a message that had been absent in soul music since the 1960s/1970s, “The Colored Section,” is a song of witness that still holds true 17 years later.
I often wish Donnie would have had a bigger impact in the music business, but that is a different take for a different time.
Song: Black & Ugly
Artist: Rapsody feat. BJ the Chicago Kid
Standout lyrics: Black-bottom Jordan’s/my soul black as organs/of chain smokers in churches that sang hymns to organ
Rapsody is arguably one of the dopest emcees in hip-hop right now, irrespective of gender, and there’s not too many people that will argue that. She can give flat out bars and be incredibly introspective. One of my favorite joints from her 2017 Grammy-nominated album, “Laila’s Wisdom,” is the song “Black & Ugly” because of its introspection. Rapsody, accompanied by the soulful crooning of BJ the Chicago Kid, spits about the inner communal prejudices of colorism and the aesthetic expectations of women in hip-hop.
When she rhymes “I remember when y’all used to call me ugly/isn’t it ironic now they all just wanna love me?” it is an open confessional about her self-professed tomboy image and the pain that often comes with not adhering to Eurocentric beauty standards. But the song later goes on to give a shout out to sisters of various skin tones (“we so motherfuckin’ beautiful, wow!”) and interrogates who gets to determine what qualifies as Black beauty.
And as always, she does so with very dope bars.
Song: Be Real Black for Me
Artist: Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway
Standout lyrics: Your hair, soft and crinkly/your body, strong and stately/you don’t have to search and roam/’cause I got your love at home
There are a few soul duos in history that could rival the work of Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway. There was just something magical about the merging of their voices. In 1972, they recorded a full-length album together and one of the gems from that album was a song called “Be Real Black for Me.” Donny Hathaway took the lead on the majority of the song, which is basically a mutual request for each other to not compromise who they are for each other. Not in look nor in personhood. It is a record I recently discovered while listening to my wife’s growing vinyl collection. I absolutely love the message, as it called for “unapologetic Blackness,” long before it was a cultural catchphrase.
Artist: Leon Bridges
Standout lyrics: Dip me in your smooth waters/I go in/as a man with many crimes
come up for air/as my sins flow down the Jordan
Leon Bridges is a soul singer that I believe was born in the wrong generation. I look at his music and his vocal delivery as a sound that could have been the soundtrack to a lunch counter sit-in or bus boycott during the Civil Rights movement. On the song “River,” he croons over a faint acoustic guitar his request to be taken to the river where he can “surrender to the good Lord” to have his slate wiped clean. “River” does not evoke a radical urgency or fiery resistance. It does evoke a legacy of Black music that calls for a renewal of spirit. A cleansing from the stain of oppressed living. A salvation that can only be acquired through a baptism of sorts.
“River” is the soothing groove you put on after a long day of grappling with all that seeks to dismantle you. An audio rinsing of dirt off your spirit, cast upon you by those who want to see your body buried beneath the soil.
Artist: Robert Glasper feat. Ledisi
Standout lyrics: Just bring me the sunshine with your smile/I will be okay
no matter if the rain falls, when you call/I will be okay
I love this record for its simplicity, its optimism and its amazing display of Ledisi’s vocals. As one of the stand out joints of the first volume of producer/keyboardist Robert Glasper’s Black Radio album series, “Gonna Be Alright” features R&B/Jazz vocalist supreme, Ledisi, singing the same lyrics throughout the entire song in different octaves.
The repetition of the lyrics isn’t lazy or monotonous, the specificity of range and vocal nuance is stellar. Before stumbling upon this joint, I was familiar with Ledisi but had never really found myself indulging in her work. After I heard the record, I was a believer in all the critical acclaim she’s received as an artist. This song, a 2013 Grammy winner for Best R&B performance, is the perfect complement to an album that took home the Grammy that same year for Best R&B album. Black Radio featured an all star lineup of more recognized R&B/Neo Soul icons than Ledisi, but it was her flawless execution on this record and the recognition of it that helped center the conversation of her brilliance beyond that of a loyal fringe fan base.
When Ledisi sings “just bring me the sunshine with your smile/I will be okay,” over Glasper’s lush airy production, I legit believe that I will be okay. The chorus of “it’s gonna be alright I know it’s gonna be okay/it’s gonna be alright with you I know I’ll be okay,” has been the soundtrack to a many of teary-eyed car rides I’ve taken in solitude, while healing from personal/societal letdowns. It for me is emotionally stirring, a gospel affirmation packaged in a secular body. I listen to it on repeat sometimes to feel lighter, which at its essence, gives me what I look for most in the music I enjoy: a feeling. The particular feeling it siphons from my soul is hopefulness. The belief that all is well even when it’s not. And sometimes to survive this land in this Black skin, that’s the best one can hope for.