Black music matters: the political power plays transforming the music scene

Beyoncé stealing the Super Bowl; Kendrick Lamar bossing the Grammys; D’Angelo’s complex Messiah – pop is having a political resurgence, and there’s more to come

 

*In the course of a 1983 interview widely circulated after his death, David Bowie took MTV reporter Mark Goodman to task for that station’s reluctance to play black artists.

The interview is striking, in that it shows Bowie as astute and fearless on matters of race and representation, but it also serves as a queasy reminder of the segregation still present in American culture at that time.

By 1983, MTV had been on the air for two years and was still yet to air a single video by a black artist, whom it decreed universally not mainstream enough for its rock/pop brand. Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean broke the embargo that year, and even then only after Jacksons’ parent label, CBS, reportedly threatened to pull its entire catalogue from the station’s roster.

That Jackson was viewed as non-mainstream, four years after Off the Wall had made him one of the biggest pop stars in the world, is hard to fathom for a modern audience.

It may be particularly jarring for those who watched the half-time show during this year’s Super Bowl, in which Beyoncé delivered a “black pride anthem” to an audience of 120 million people, backed by dancers in Black Panther outfits, their natural hair topped with leather berets.

This three-minute section may have been the most mainstream assertion of black identity in American cultural history, and promptly became the most discussed half-time show since Janet Jackson threw the US into existential panic by cruelly revealing that women have breasts.

Formation, the debuted track in question, charts Beyoncé’s southern lineage and her pride in, among other things, her “negro nose with Jackson Five nostrils”. The reaction in parts of the mainstream press – beautifully sent up by Saturday Night Live’s The Day Beyoncé Turned Black sketch – suggested a whole generation of middle America were not comfortable with their black popstars dispensing cultural commentary even that vague.

The track has been viewed variously as a ballsy protest anthem, a masterpiece in regal swagger, a crass co-opting of poor, black suffering and, memorably, “a bunch of people bouncing around and all strange things”. That last quote comes courtesy of former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, who has parlayed his political retirement into a lucrative side gig, namely shouting about how terrible young black people are.

Giuliani argued that Beyoncé’s Super Bowl performance of Formation – like the #BlackLivesMatter movement he has consistently criticised – was racially divisive, disrespectful to police officers, and inappropriate to the event.

Striking claim

This was a particularly striking claim considering that Formation makes no reference to either police brutality or the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Giuliani ended his rant with a plea for more “decent, wholesome entertainment” in future, saying: “This is football, not Hollywood . . . it was really outrageous”.

What Giuliani has missed is that, far from being an isolated incident, we are living within one of the most politicised moments in living cultural memory, a time in which a staggering number of black artists are stepping forward to address and attack the systemic issues facing their communities, not least of which is the terrifying number of young, unarmed, black men killed by police officers each year.

While Formation certainly gestures to themes broader than individual self-confidence and the Beyoncé brand, it only scratches the surface of this broader trend toward assertive and politically engaged work by many of the world’s most popular musicians.

You only have to look as far as Alicia Keys’s We Gotta Pray or J Cole’s Be Free, from 2014, both powerful and impassioned protest songs from artists with global reach, the kind of artists who write Bond themes, play stadiums and have seven number-one albums between them. Last year also saw the release of Rihanna’s American Oxygen, written and released after the killing of Eric Garner, an unarmed man choked to death by a police officer while he repeatedly said “I can’t breathe”. These dying words became a rallying cry for the #BlackLivesMatter movement, and are self-consciously echoed on American Oxygen, both in its title and the constant repetition of “breathe” and “breath” throughout the track.

Unrest

Few artists embodied this movement more than D’Angelo, whose stunning Black Messiah LP was an early response to rising unrest over police treatment of black people, and specifically the August 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Originally slated for a 2015 release, the album was put out earlier by D’Angelo in response to the failure of the grand jury to indict the policeman who killed Brown. A far cry from the smoother, neo-soul underpinnings of his earlier work, Black Messiah is propelled by themes of solidarity and black consciousness, and this week it won best R&B album at the Grammy awards.

While Beyoncé took the artistic and commercial risk to reproduce the mere imagery of the Panthers, Black Messiah features actual recordings of their rallies and speeches, and this emphasis on solidarity is echoed by the record’s simple, powerful artwork: a forest of fists held high in black and white.

A similarly strong statement was made by Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly. He picked up a clatter of awards at this week’s Grammys, but it’s his performance that will live longer in the memory. Taking to the stage as part of a chain-gang with his band behind bars, he launched into a performance of The Blacker the Berry that morphed into Alright with powerful visuals that ended with the word Compton over an image of the African continent.

The album’s cover depicts a crowd of shirtless black youths crouching on the White House lawn, waving beverages and wads of cash over the prostrate body of a white judge with cartoon Xs for eyes. Far from trading on the shock value such artwork might suggest, Lamar’s insightful reflections on crime, social deprivation and police brutality gave the record poignancy as well as punch, and led to it being an omnipresent fixture on most critics’ year-end lists.

Up-and-coming talents appear similarly engaged. Hailed as a standout performer at November’s Metropolis festival in the RDS, rapper Vince Staples has written, recorded and released two stellar albums in the past 18 months, bothof which explore race relations and police brutality. Tracks such as Hands Up and Ramona Park Legend Part 1 explore street-level pressures, swinging from the indignity of being followed around any time he goes into a shop, to a literal fear of being killed by the police.

Outfit

Meanwhile, fellow Metropolis Festival favourite Vic Mensa showed up at the MTV Video Music Awards in 2015 wearing an outfit decrying police violence and calling for former Black Panther Assata Shakur to be allowed return from her exile in Cuba.

In a world where artists are routinely, and perhaps justifiably, criticised for being apathetic or disconnected from current affairs, it’s striking that the past 18 months have seen so many politically tinged, even polemical works on wide release from some of music’s biggest recording artists.

And there might be plenty more to come. Kendrick Lamar’s How Much A Dollar Cost was cited by Barack Obama as his favourite track of 2015, and last month the rapper ventured past those aforementioned lawns and into the White House itself for an official visit. And, having released one of the albums of 2014 with the blistering and propulsive RTJ II, Run The Jewels’ Killer Mike went from giving impassioned speeches on police brutality at his gigs to doing speaking events with Democratic senator Bernie Sanders, whom he later interviewed at length regarding the politics of class, social division and race. With her Superbowl performance, Beyoncé shone a light on an important movement and made a crucial contribution to America’s conversation on race relations. Formation demonstrates both the reach of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, and the political risks some superstars are willing to take in an acutely anodyne age. It remains to be seen if America’s politicians and policymakers can match the promise of its popstars.

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