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music

modern protest pop

Nina Simone performing at the Newport Jazz Festival, RI, July 4, 1968. Photo: David Redfern/ Getty Images.

You don’t have to live next to me
Just give me my equality
Nina Simone, “Mississippi Goddam”

IF THERE’S A PLAYBOOK for modern protest pop music, it is usually culled from the images and tropes captured, thank goodness, with indelible clarity in photographs taken more than half a century ago in the Deep South and all across the US at lunch counters, in churches, on college campuses, and on picket lines as the second Reconstruction unfolded. Such images conjure the sounds of secular and sacred music emanating from the masses, from the we-shall-not-be-moved, Sly and the Family Stone “everyday people” who locked arm in arm and took to the streets, as artists like the SNCC Freedom Singers (cofounded by Bernice Johnson Reagon) and dashing celebrities like Harry and Lena and Eartha, shirtsleeves rolled up, sang a cappella at the top of their lungs and led the revolution. Their voices were accompanied by the likes of Odetta, decked out in full-length dashiki with guitar in hand, ominously warning us of those “Masters of War”; and Nina Simone, High Priestess of Soul, delivering a string of in-your-face sonic demands for equality, liberty, and full-scale recognition of black humanity. These were sounds and images absolutely singular yet simultaneously and fundamentally shaped and informed by the long arc of black-radical-tradition freedom-struggle tactics, which Frederick Douglass was the first black intellectual to record, in his own words, back in 1845.

But clearly the insidious distillation of racial terror, state violence, and surveillance in our current era demands a new collection of jams. Likewise, this moment calls for an active, watchful, robust, and antiphonal black commons “woke” enough (as the kids would say) to read the commodification of “blackness” and “black message” music so as to make sophisticated and empowering choices and statements, to generate critical reception as well as rejection of the pop art that we’re invited to consume ad nauseam, 24/7. New millennial black protest pop captures and grapples with the specificity of racial catastrophe in the twenty-first century—its inextricable ties to neoliberal infrastructures, to the prison-industrial complex and globalized wealth inequality; its ferocious preoccupation with the violent expenditure of women and children; its ubiquity crossed with its seeming illegibility. New millennial black protest pop recognizes, mourns, and rages against the relentless roll call of black folk slain by the state, by one another (in conditions enabled by the state), and by agents of white supremacy.

That black protest music (if that’s what we should even call it anymore) might look and sound and feel as contradictory and varied as it does in the hands of a culture-industry behemoth like Beyoncé or an upstart South Central hip-hop poet like Kendrick Lamar, who rejects the title “MC” in favor of “writer,” or an iconoclastic neosoul vet like D’Angelo, who shuns the flash of the pop world, should come as no surprise in this moment of two-generations-removed post–civil rights struggle and activism. We are in an era characterized by spectacular dichotomies in black modern life, the ironies of hypervisible black-celebrity wealth existing alongside an outsize, cancerous black and brown carceral complex. So it makes sense that such a diverse array of voices would emerge in tandem with, in response to, inspired by, and occasionally at ideological odds with Black Lives Matter, the most prominent grassroots black-liberation movement in the US in more than two decades. After all, this large-scale uprising—which started on social media and quickly took to the streets—was started and is led in part by three young African American women (two of whom identify as queer): Patrisse Khan-Cullors, Alicia Garza, and Opal Tometi, who know a thing or two about intersectional politics—a politics of racial, gender, sexual, and class identities and experiences informing one’s selfhood. BLM is thus an effort founded on the principles of complex, multifaceted “blackness” and on the heterogeneous sociopolitical energies and ideologies of black feminism, hip-hop, LGBTQ activism, Occupy, and civil rights and Black Power resistance movements aimed at creating a new coalition of dissenters lobbying for reform. As scholar Andreana Clay has astutely pointed out, “we have a full-fledged movement happening that is full of leaders, actually, predominantly led by black queer women, transfolk and our allies. Just look at the leadership in almost every BLM chapter: Chicago (BYP), Minneapolis, Oakland, Los Angeles. The ‘ladies’ are already in formation.” So shouldn’t the music follow suit? If, as black music critic Greg Tate reminds us, hip-hop is “the voice of the voiceless,” and if BLM is, as he suggests, the revolutionary manifestation of hip-hop, it is only fitting that this modern movement would inspire urgent rap lamentations (J. Cole’s wrenching “Be Free”) and manifestos for living (Big K.R.I.T.’s “Soul Food”), as well as sort-of-black-feminist, sort-of-patriarchal tribute pieces (Big Sean’s well-meaning “One Man Can Change the World”).

The multifarious voices that make up BLM impel the art that accompanies the movement to be as capacious as blackness itself—and the current sound track offers new strategies, new scores, new narratives, new arrangements for protesting, resisting, and disturbing the political and socioeconomic subjugation of black and brown folk in American culture. The sonic performances of D’Angelo, Lamar, and Beyoncé drive these points home in distinct and powerful ways.

Prince performing at the Fabulous Forum, Inglewood, CA, February 19, 1985. Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images.

BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME:
MUSIC TO WAKE US FROM THE MASQUERADE

Think, for instance, of D’Angelo’s “The Charade,” the riot goin’ on track number three on his critically acclaimed, BLM-inspired album Black Messiah (2014). Cryptic to some, it employs its nostalgic arrangement and suggestive lyrics to critique the longue durée of post–civil rights injustices buried at the bottom of the nation’s (sub)conscience. D’Angelo lets us know that “The Charade” is over in this new era, and he calls on a B side by his idol to sound the alarm. Listen closely, and one hears echoes of Prince’s ostensibly unrelated “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore” (1982)—a dirge that conjures the image of a crestfallen Prince bent over his piano, composing into the early hours of the morning—inasmuch as both songs share surprisingly comparable vibes: exhaustion and weariness crossed with longing and hope. The late, great Prince, on this track, lets us know that he’s lost all sorts of sleep keeping this vigil for you, wishing, waiting, hoping that you’ll spend “one lousy dime” to ring him. It’s one of those beautiful, supersexy, potently up-close-and-personal ballads that he was known for, and it’s a song that’s perched between expectancy and the onset of calamity, feverish hope and clear-eyed disappointment. As always, Prince conveys intense and palpable intimacy in a tale of personal longing. Yet in the wake of his utterly tragic and untimely passing, it has become even more apparent that Prince was also deeply and yet quietly committed to pursuing desires outside the realm of romantic relationships. We now know that he had, for many years, generously and passionately supported a number of black sociopolitical-reform movements, big and small. Here, however, he offers bedroom protest at its best, and it would seem to have nothing to do with the kind of dissent that D and his Vanguard dropped on us in December 2014.

But “The Charade” telescopes the energy of amorous despair that our Purple One belted out in the post-LA-riot era of his B side rerelease into the framework of a song that’s in part about age-old, chronically fraught and frayed interracial intimacies (“All we wanted was a chance to talk”) hitting their grave limit as the “we” and the “us” “[crawl] through a systematic maze to demise” with “degradation so loud that you can’t hear the sound of our cries.” Collective injury conjoins with what feminist critic Sara Marcus might call “political disappointment,” a brilliant formulation in which she theorizes the political feeling attached to, as she calls it, “the nonarrival of the expected or desired object.”

The longing to talk, like that phone call Our Minnesota One insists on, is that which goes unfulfilled, a yearning for what never comes. But the results in this particular ballad of estrangement manifest themselves, we know, on the most horrific scale—in the form of an endless parade of bodies “outlined in chalk.” We’ve walked, we’ve marched “a million miles” with our feet bleeding from one generation’s freedom struggle to the next, “revealing at the end of the day, the charade,” exposing the lies of this current moment of legislated racial equality, which is rife with quotidian racial terror and state surveillance.

When I listen to “The Charade,” it brings to mind its kissing cousin, another track that provoked listeners to question false proclamations of racial progress: George Benson’s 1976 cover of white country-soul legend Leon (“A Song for You”) Russell’s “This Masquerade,” first released in 1972. Benson, that jazz guitarist turned icon of mid-’70s quiet-storm radio, created a Grammy-winning smash, the sound track to countless backyard barbecues of my adolescence, that, in its heyday, seemingly captured a collective experience of Southern black migrants—the world of my parents, educators who’d escaped the insult of Jim Crow for greener pastures: University of California degrees, a modest domicile in an integrated suburb, and the dream of entering an American citizenry they’d been excluded from as youths.

But this was the season of Boston school-busing public-sphere mayhem (in 1974), and the juridical momentum of the Regents of University of California v. Bakke case, which originated in California in 1974 and would eventually reach the Supreme Court, whose 1978 decision would of course begin the questioning and eventual evisceration of racial diversity in the California educational system. This was the season of Roots, of bicentennial celebrations that repressed the memory of slavery, and of Richard Pryor stand-up and Ishmael Reed fiction that pushed back against that repression. In that season, Benson gave us a protest song for the “mo(u)rning after” the movement era, turning Russell’s tale of yet another relationship at its end into a record of postsoul estrangement and cold, hard truths about the failure of progress and the failure to fully affirm black citizenship and black subjectivity in America, to build interracial trust. “Are we really happy here, with this lonely game we play? Looking for words to say. Searching but not finding understanding anywhere. We’re lost in a masquerade.” Here, too, as in D’Angelo’s jam, communication is futile: “We tried to talk it over, but the words got in the way. We’re lost inside this lonely game we play.” Russell’s lyrics live in the first-person collective, but they foreshadow the end of the putative “we” bequeathed to us by civil rights solidarity politics and the rise of the second person—the move from the “I” and the “we” to the persistent invocation of the “you” in our new moment of heightened, spectacular sociopolitical unfreedom for black and brown folk in America.

Second-person address is nothing new in the tradition of black letters—as exemplified by the work of James Baldwin, who in his classic Notes of a Native Son (1955) would declare the need to write differently about “the Negro problem in America.” Baldwin would use the tactics of a bold, newly candid, deeply painful mode of bilateral racial critique; and first- as well as second- and third-person address would figure prominently in his groundbreaking essays and speeches.

So, too, goes Lamar on his celebrated album To Pimp a Butterfly (2015), which finds him moving fluidly between various subject positions to critique the “I,” the “you,” and the “we.” On tracks such as “u” and “The Blacker the Berry,” we hear Lamar wrestling with self-loathing as well as with the white patriarchal gaze as he arcs toward self-knowledge and interior transmogrification. These are tools handed down to him by Baldwin (and, for that matter, Baldwin’s dear friend Simone), no doubt. Baldwin’s insistence on speaking to and about the white reader—proclaiming, for instance, “I love America more than any other country in the world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually”—exposed racism as a form of psychosis, putting America on the couch, so to speak. Similarly, Baldwin’s mapping of complicated tales of white interiority in which he brilliantly sees blackness through the eyes of white others (as W. E. B. Du Bois had described it at the dawn of the twentieth century) paved the way for D’Angelo’s and Lamar’s float-like-a-butterfly, sting-like-a-bee modes of address.

These artists are crafting protest music as both intimate and public, individual and collective. D’Angelo’s repeated invocation of the “you” (as he declares, “I offer you the truth . . . you can’t leave me,” on “Ain’t That Easy” and, “You can’t hear the sound of our cries,” on “The Charade”) and Lamar’s political sociality are equally urgent. Recall the latter’s use of an agonizing, self-reckoning refrain on “u” (“loving u is complicated”) or his trenchant observation that “you hate my people, I can tell” on “The Blacker the Berry,” which takes a shocking turn inward by the end. Both musicians use the second person to evoke the age of micro racial aggressions in which we find ourselves now and that the poet Claudia Rankine has brilliantly examined in her award-winning book Citizen: An American Lyric (2014).

Rankine’s text makes prominent use of an ever-changing “you”—the you who is the “alienated” black citizen who confronts betrayal and injury with white “friends” who accidentally call them by their black housekeeper’s name, the you who is the white faculty member whose colleague complains to her about having to hire a person of color, the you who is the black faculty member who seeks out trauma therapy only to be racially profiled by his therapist on his first visit to her office.

D’Angelo’s and Lamar’s kindred records provide sonic accompaniment to Rankine’s fierce poetics and supply the necessary soundscape for an era of violent but often unacknowledged forms of white supremacy. Each sounds out black dissidence and black din—particularly the din of those whom political scientists Vesla M. Weaver and Amy E. Lerman refer to as the “custodial citizens” of this country, who experience “democracy” on an entirely different axis from the white majority. Custodial citizens are “those who the criminal justice system has touched,” write Weaver and Lerman in their jointly authored book, Arresting Citizenship: The Democratic Consequences of American Crime Control (2014). Custodial citizens are the ones who are violently neglected by the state and yet perpetually surveilled by it: stopped and frisked, cited for trespassing, jailed for everything from public intoxication to loitering. They are the ones whose worlds convey the extent to which “the lived experience of American citizenship has changed for a growing group of Americans” who’ve been held hostage by “criminal justice practices [that] have broken significantly with the democratic norms that govern most American institutions: instead of embodying the commitments of a democratic republic, they undermine equality, restrict citizen voice, and insulate public officials from accountability and responsiveness.”

Still from Beyoncé’s 2016 visual album Lemonade, multiple directors. Beyoncé.

GET IN FORMATION:
CROWD THEORY AS PROTEST WORK

In order to reveal the full extent of the damage inflicted by this insidious violence, modern protest pop offers passionate truths and calls attention to the violation of these black lives that don’t matter. This new era of black protest music not only provides catharsis but also inspires a renewed commitment to collective action. Listeners are emboldened by this music to congregate and to respond to the energy of the congregation, just as the musicians themselves absorb and recycle the energy of the crowd in their performances. In their work, we hear, see, and feel the black radical counterpublic’s restless vibrations; the utopian, redemptive, insurgent power from below; the sonic analogue of the “undercommons” of which Fred Moten and Stefano Harney speak.

Black Messiah’s hand-clap-and-church-bell-driven “Prayer” is a track that, in the same vein as the rest of the album, as music journalist Jason King puts it, “emulsifies 50 years of funk and soul and rock and metal and hip-hop and gospel into a seamless whole.” D’Angelo leads us in a prayer through which we feel the earth shift beneath our feet, one through which hands in the air can be transformed from falling powerless before the will of the State into a show of Afropunk concert euphoria as captured on the cover of D’s album. Similarly, Lamar calls on us to gather together on the revelatory Great Awakening of the song “i,” in which a staged live concert sequence becomes yet another key site where our demons are exorcised.

This is twenty-first-century protest music of the congregation producing the vibrations of presence and feeling, “a theory of historicity,” as cultural critic Gayle Wald writes, “where echoes of the past resonate in the present.” And yet to find the energy of the crowd, the remnants of collectivity in a universe of neoliberal individuation, we can look no further than the belly of the beast itself, the heart of pop music’s most capitalized, sometimes compromised, and especially compelling forms of spectacle. Beyoncé’s riveting interpolation of BLM movement discourse into the sound, lyrics, and images of her “Formation” phenomenon, is, to some cynics, an example of yet another pop star commodifying her dissent. To others (particularly in the wake of her recent full-length visual album Lemonade), “Formation” represents a potent challenge to status quo pop culture even as it operates at and sustains the red-hot core of that culture. The single and its epic video are together a synecdoche for Beyoncé’s fast-evolving black-feminist pop radicalism. Her provocative modes of sonic and visual social critique think in terms of the collective and make an effort to move black women, Southern black working-class communities, and “queer of color” folk (as Roderick A. Ferguson would say), from the margins of American culture to its center.

No matter what one may think of Beyoncé’s spectacle—dazzling to some, frustrating to others—she has prompted a remarkable wealth of feminist and queer of color cultural criticism. Like the unpublished notes of the late black queer Marxist feminist playwright Lorraine Hansberry, who kept a written tally of her likes (“Eartha Kitt’s looks”) and dislikes (“what has happened to Sidney Poitier,” “Jean Genet’s plays”), this criticism, mainly online, boldly records intimate and fervent ardor as well as distaste for the pop object in question by voices often blocked from media conversations about art. This is ultimately, it goes without saying, a very good thing, perhaps the greatest gift of all that a pop juggernaut—maybe one of the last—like Queen Bey can continue to give us. The eloquent responses to the Beyoncé protest phenomenon, the “crowd theory,” if you will, remind us of what one Hansberry fan, the feminist critic Ellen Willis, once argued: that “cultural radicalism,” with its ability to animate, irritate, and electrify, and “with its celebration of freedom and pleasure and its resistance to compulsive, alienated work, is always a potential threat to the corporate system, however profitable its music, art and favored technological toys may be.” Black pop-cultural radicalism should smolder and sear, be difficult to stomach for some (as is the case with not just Bey’s capitalism-a-love-story moments but also Kanye’s), while it nourishes and revitalizes others. It should be the hot sauce that we can pull out of our swag at a moment’s notice so that we might taste the fire next time.

Daphne A. Brooks is Professor of African American studies, theater studies, and American studies at Yale University. She is the author of Bodies in Dissent: Spectacular Performances of Race and Freedom, 1850–1910 (2006) and Jeff Buckley’s “Grace” (2005).