Today as the United States celebrates Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is another opportunity worldwide to reflect on Black identity in music and BIPOC and marginalized roles in music generally. Here’s some reading, including the sometimes challenging relationship between Hip Hop and King.
These messages are significant not only to American residents. Not only is the rest of the world made of consumers and creators of club music rooted in Black American popular music, but now there’s hopefully a growing awareness of the connection of the American story to Black, indigenous, and marginalized groups in other corners of the planet.
Vann R. Newkirk II, Senior Editor at The Atlantic, who also hosts the Floodlines podcast on Hurricane Katrina, tackles that topic. The story is paywalled, but a free trial is available, and the playlist here is publicly available on Spotify.
King’s Death Gave Birth to Hip-Hop: The assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. led directly to hip-hop, an era of black Asmerican culture, politics, and art that is often contrasted with his legacy.
It’s a deep read, tracing the evolution of the genre not just from the 80s or even 70s when such histories typically evolve, but in activism and poetry and sheer rage immediately following King’s death. It also notes that many of the criticisms of Hip Hop come not just from white conservatives, but inside the Black community, but defends that genre (including the author’s “spine-tingling” childhood encounter with Outkast):
But those critiques fail to engage with what hip-hop truly is, and what it was meant to be. Just like the spirituals invented during slavery, the blues that bubbled up after the collapse of Reconstruction, and the soul that took root during the civil-rights era, hip-hop was in a sense preordained by the social conditions of blackness. It became as much an embrace of the platform and victories for which King fought, and a necessary and careful distancing from the most pervasive pieces of his legacy, from the brand of masculinity stressed as his calling card, from the church, and from respectability. What hip-hop understands most viscerally is that it simply isn’t enough to be like King. King was assassinated for being King.
Here’s the playlist that accompanies the article:
That feature hits the Last Poets trio through the 2005 project Common –
…but it’s just as telling to go back to the original self-titled 1970 release by the trio (Abiodun Oyewole / Umar Bin Hassan / Baba Donn Babatunde).
The Last Poets are still actively touring, by the way (even recently here in Berlin). Here’s a 2019 interview with them:
And a DC block party:
The specific connection to racism and segregation I take seriously, not only as a native of heavily segregated Louisville, Kentucky (which in turn has had several times over a tragic role in the BLM movement), but also former resident of deeply segregated Chicagoland and NYC, too.
We talk about club connections, but often in a somewhat superficial way, convenient to the mass consumption the club industry represents. Maybe we don’t talk enough about poetry, and the soul of those words and their message. I hope we can put that into our music and action.
I think specifically of my friend and sometimes-collaborator the late poet Tyrone Henderson, who I’m sure is not a household name out of some small circles. But he was known in the beat scene in Harlem, which doesn’t get a lot of mention in the story above but is an equally vital chapter in this narrative. And just walking through Harlem, people definitely knew Tyrone and his work. That scene was interconnected between radical poetry in NYC and civil rights activism; we discussed that with Rev. Dr. Eugene Callendar, a close MLK ally and Harlem activist as well as a pillar of that community; Dr. Callendar also died in the past decade. Tyrone was nice enough to introduce me to him and he was an extraordinarily warm person. (Tyrone, RIP – deeply saddened I moved to Berlin and missed out on more time with you and supporting our friends in your passing.)
Tyrone actually talks about the “original last poets” actually in this interview. So you could line up the epoch Tyrone describes as a kind of prelude and origin for what came before King’s death; then the sound and spoken word “revolution” of 1970 sees its roots, in turn, in the generations before that. Vann R. Newkirk II references some of the disconnects between generations; here’s the revolutionary line that connected them.
Any excuse to mention Dweller, the Black-run music publication, is worth doing – not only because of the need for us to let Black voices hold space, but also because it’s damned fine long-form journalism in music at a time when that’s a rarity.
Two stories worth reading to the end – music producer, vocalist and sound designer LYZZA talks about identity and sound design –
On the other hand, The idea of being able to create completely new environments out of silence is one of the things that initially attracted me to electronic music, and music production. So I don’t see myself ever wanting to step away from this brink and am actually very curious to see what this collapse would sound like.
Being black in this world can be incredibly crippling when it comes down to finding ways to move around it, but also through it. It can be incredibly hard to properly communicate and be understood or even seen when the way of being perceived is already being dictated by so many other factors and in a way my message has already been pre-designed by societal ideas.
LYZZA is based in Amsterdam, speaking of connecting stories (hey, we do have this Internet thing). Do go check the album:
Saying music is imbued with Blackness often falls on deaf ears. But the process of unlearning racism, unlearning appropriation, and trying to understand how deeply experience is embodied in the music we love surely can’t be reduced to a convenient Twitter hashtag or a slogan on some merch. (Nothing against selling merch for the cause, of course – but you get my point!)
So instead, go read this article by Reg Zehner, also on Dweller:
From New Jersey to Sao Paulo to Chicago, underground music moves in and through one person to the next. Whether it is techno, footwork, jersey club, or bailé funk, most, or if not all genres’ origins rely on a connection to, or born out of a Black community. However you found that record at your favorite music store, or archived a Soundcloud playlist you found, when you tilt your head back, the music has a connection beyond the flesh, beyond the realities that try to contain it. The music feels as if it represents an expression of a moment, and on the other hand, it expresses what a moment should feel like before it happens. Underground sonic production lays the foundation for popular music, while at the same time, it abstracts and moves outside the realms of legibility; the music becomes the chorus, becomes its own embodiment.
The point about overly centering every story on the USA is well taken; that article touches around the world – including Bailé Funk and the favelas of Rio de Janeiro:
It also offers a construction outside the oft-repeated afro-futurism for understanding and listening to musics around the world.
And there’s a great bibliography.
And don’t forget that if you’re in the NYC area, Dweller has another event coming up late February.
Got more reading or references for us? Sound off in comments or get in touch. These topics are obviously not ones to cram into a single day. And it’s not a holiday here in Germany, and I don’t work for the US government, so I’m here working.
I think any of us working in music has an obligation to continue this work. And frankly, we should feel grateful for every opportunity. So I hope we do better. Music tech, production, and writing continue to marginalize so many folks.