I know jazz is conceptually crucial to this course, being the music of the New Orleans dirge, incorporating repetition, and just as a genre invented by black Americans.
I’m not musically trained, and I haven’t listened to a whole lot of jazz besides “Bitches Brew” by Miles Davis, so I don’t feel confident talking in depth about jazz. However, black Americans also invented rap and hip hop, which I have been listening to for years. There are themes I do not relate to personally, for instance I am not a Christian and I have not experienced gun violence, but the artists tell such powerful stories using innovative sounds and lyrics that that does not matter. (It’s tricky to explain widespread white sympathetic identification with black artists other than to say the music is good. I know there is more to it than that, but I couldn’t write about it cogently, so I recognize this is a gap I have. Beth McCoy’s view on these differences in religion or background in regards to Prince’s work is that these differences enrich her experience of working with him, and I agree with that.) Hiphop is at this point in time the dominant musical genre in popular culture. I’m most familiar with Kendrick Lamar and Chance the Rapper. I would classify Kendrick Lamar especially as a “conscious” rapper, whose music creates awareness and spreads knowledge of societal problems. His 2015 experimental album To Pimp a Butterfly fused jazz and rap. I noticed a trend between these two rappers, a much older Nina Simone (1933-2003) track, and the course concepts of music, black faith, and the funeral dirge. I would not have recognized the underlying trend that connects these songs for what it is without this course.
This morning I downloaded an album of Nina Simone’s greatest hits to listen to for the first time. The mix included the track “Why? (The King of Love is Dead)”, which is about the assassination of Martin Luther King. At the end of the song Nina talks to the crowd about all the black artists that have been lost, mourning:
“Lorraine Hansberry left us, and she was a dear friend
She had her favorite song, that Langston Hughes left us
Coltrane left us, Otis Redding left us
Who can go on, do you realize how many we have lost?
Then it really gets down to reality, doesn’t it?
Not a performance, not microphones and all that crap
But really something else
We’ve lost a lot of them, in the last two years
But we have remaining, Monk, Miles
Ms. Simone: I love you too
And of course, for those we have left we are thankful
But we can’t Afford any more losses, oh no, oh my god
They’re shooting us down one by one
Don’t forget that
Because they are
Killing us one by one”
During this epilogue the great Nina Simone cuts through “all that crap” which is the separation between the performer and the audience. She basically preaches to raise consciousness about the losses from black culture and to urge those people remaining to love each other. This song came out in 1968 soon after MLK was shot. She names the musicians to keep their memory alive. In non-mainstream or black culture, knowledge of history has to be consciously preserved from person to person, which is work Steve Prince engages in through his stories too. What struck me is the similarity between “Why” (an old song that is new to me) and a track I’m much more familiar with, entitled “i” on To Pimp a Butterfly, because fifty years have passed and the black community still deals with similar issues.
During “i’, which on the album version stops and ends the song, Kendrick Lamar directly connects with people at his show to speak about the “dead homies” and ask people to make the most of the time they have together. I’m including just a short censored phrase, though that doesn’t capture the whole effect. Kendrick asks, “How many n****s we done lost bro? / This–, this year alone / Exactly, so we ain’t got time to waste time.” Both artists lament how quickly they have lost important people in their communities, in a way that places them among the mourners even though they produce the music. Finally, on Chance the Rapper’s single “Angels” he sings, “It’s too many young angels on the southside.” The song “Angels” is an energetic blend of trumpets and neo-soul, but there are still many references to the friends Chance has lost, because that duality is what he lives. When premature death from violence occurs frequently, themes of remembrance and mourning will appear in music, but hope for a better world beyond this one will also be emphasized. I’ve listened to Chance’s and Kendrick’s verses many times, and only just realized this thread of mourning and remembrance that runs through out their music, which connects their personal experiences to a much broader picture. When I think of the form of art that helps people emotionally through hard time the most, I think of music that transcends genre.