“Education is something [students] must labor to give themselves. . . Education is up to them as it was up to Socrates, Milton, Locke, and Lincoln.” (Mark van Doren) “Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery; none but ourselves can free our minds.” (Bob Marley)
On December 12 of this year, the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry added a 30-second film from 1898 to its collection. The film, known as “Something Good — Negro Kiss” is the first screen kiss between African-Americans in film history, and it is remarkably free from the racist stereotypes with which African-Americans had been portrayed in the theater to this point. Read more here.
The performers have been identified as Saint Suttle and Gertie Brown, two vaudeville dancers who were well-known to Chicago audiences.
The first screen kiss in film had been documented two years earlier, between white vaudeville performers May Irwin and John Rice. Irwin, as you may recall, was a Broadway “coon shouter,” a white woman who sang songs (in a stentorian voice) from the perspective a black male. Her biggest hit was “The Bully Song” (shown here with footage of that famous kiss — Content/trigger warning: racist language and imagery).
May Irwin was a famous voice of “blackvoice” minstrelsy. How can we see “Something Good” in relation to the genre that she represented?
Trigger/Content Warning: Disturbing subject matter, police brutality, racism, profanity, racist language including the n-word.
Jennifer Lynn Stoever notes in her article “‘Doing Fifty-Five in a Fifty-Four’: Hip Hop, Cop Voice and the Cadence of White Supremacy in the United States”:
As African American theorists, writers, artists and musicians – from Frederick Douglass in the nineteenth century to Mendi + Keith Obadike in the present moment – have been reminding us for quite some time, the perceived inaudibility of whiteness does not mean that it has no sonic markers, that it is not heard loud and clear. . . . [Nevertheless] there is nothing essentially biologically “white” or “male” about the cadences of cop voice, and both [race and gender] are heard and sounded through ethnic and class identities.
We’ve talked about what it means to “sound black.” What does it mean to “sound white”?
As you listen to the music Stoever analyzes in her essay, do you hear what she calls “those aspirant ‘t’s and rounded, hyper-pronounced ‘r’s” when the rappers switch personas to voice the white cops?
Stoever compares the “cop voice” enacted by rappers with ventriloquism. Can we think of it as a racially-reversed, power-inverse form of minstrelsy — a kind of subversive minstrelsy performed by the disempowered?
KRS-One, “Sound of da Police” (1993):
Jay-Z, “99 Problems” (2003):
Main Source, “Just a Friendly Game of Baseball” (1991):
Public Enemy: “Get the F*** Outta Dodge” (1991):
Rebel Diaz, “Calma” (2009):
Prince Paul/Everlast, “The Men in Blue” (1999):
N.W.A., “F*** tha Police” (1988):
J Dilla, “F*** the Police” (1999):
Mos Def, “Mr. N*gga” (1999):
Jasiri X, “Crooked Cops” (2013):
G-Unit, “Ahhh Sh*t” (2014):
The Game, “Don’t Shoot” (2014):
Sammus, “Three Fifths” (2015):
Poet Claudia Rankine reading from her collection of poems Citizen: An American Lyric, a meditation on race in America.
2. Jennifer Stoever’s playlist of black women artists singing/rapping about police violence:
3. Eric Garner’s siblings, “I Can’t Breathe” (2016):
The conflict between Brahms and his allies and the proponents of the New German School resulted in a “manifesto” written by Brahms and published in the Berliner Musik-Zeitung Echo in 1860:
The undersigned have long followed with regret the proceedings of a certain party whose organ is Brendel’s Zeitschrift für Musik. The said Zeitschrift unceasingly promulgates the theory that the most prominent striving musicians are in accord with the aims represented in its pages, that they recognise in the compositions of the leaders of the new school works of artistic value, and that the contention for and against the so-called Music of the Future has been finally fought out, especially in North Germany, and decided in its favour. The undersigned regard it as their duty to protest against such a distortion of fact, and declare, at least for their own part, that they do not acknowledge the principles avowed by the Zeitschrift, and that they can only lament and condemn the productions of the leaders and pupils of the so-called New-German school, which on the one hand apply those principles practically, and on the other necessitate the constant setting up of new and unheard-of theories which are contrary to the very nature of music.
A few days later, an answer appeared in the NeueZeitschrift:
Dread Mr. Editor,
All is out!——I learn that a political coup has been carried out, the entire new world rooted out stump and branch, and Weimar and Leipzig, especially, struck out of the musical map of the world. To compass this end, a widely outreaching letter was thought out and sent out to the chosen-out faithful of all lands, in which strongly outspoken protest was made against the increasing epidemic of the Music of the Future. Amongst the select of the out-worthies [paragons] are to be reckoned several outsiders whose names, however, the modern historian of art has not been able to find out. Nevertheless, should the avalanche of signatures widen out sufficiently, the storm will break out suddenly. Although the strictest secrecy has been enjoined upon the chosen-out by the hatchers-out of this musico-tragic out-and-outer, I have succeeded in obtaining sight of the original, and I am glad, dread Mr. Editor, to be able to communicate to you, in what follows, the contents of this aptly conceived state paper—I remain, yours most truly,
Office of the Music of the Future [Zukunftsmusik]
Brahms despised Liszt’s music, and was widely believed to hold the same low opinion of Wagner’s. Brahms and Wagner were each competing, as it were, to wear the mantle of Beethoven and carry the genius of Germanic music into a new era. However, Brahms quite clearly paid homage to Wagner in the second movement of his Symphony no. 1 in C minor, op. 68.
The symphony’s second movement contains several obvious allusions to Wagner’s groundbreaking “Tristan chord” (movement 2 starts at 12:52):
The Tristan chord occurs first in the prelude of Wagner’s 1865 opera Tristan und Isolde, and consists of F-B-D#-G#: an augmented fourth, sixth, and ninth. Any chord that contained these intervallic relationships became known as a Tristan chord.
More on the Tristan chord:
Brahms was a collector of manuscript scores, and had an autograph score of a scene from Wagner’s opera Tannhäuser. When Wagner found out, he demanded that Brahms return it to him. They exchanged frosty letters, which you can read here, and Brahms eventually did return the score. Wagner relented by sending him a first-edition of Das Rheingold.
Superheroes and comics also figure heavily in the Afrofuturist aesthetic. In the 1970s, DC Comics published an issue of Lois Lane in which Lois has Superman use futurist technology to make her black for a day, in order to “get that story.”
If we think of the escapist trend in 1970s funk as a retreat from the hardships of the day-to-day struggle, the religious-science-fiction-cosmological-Afrofuturist trend in 1970s and 1980s funk goes beyond escapism, and advocates for a kind of spiritualized black self-empowerment. Is this vision also escapist? Or is it meant to unify the African-American community in the quest for a better future? If so, can it succeed?
Watch the legendary P-Funk Mothership landing live in concert for the first time in 1976, and note that Parliament-Funkadelic repeatedly reference the 19th-century spiritual “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”:
One of the earliest pioneers of the Afrofuturist aesthetic in music was jazz pianist Sun Ra. To learn more about Ra’s philosophy, listen to the lectures he gave as a visiting professor at UC-Berkeley in 1971, all linked here.
The opening titles from Ra’s 1974 film Space is the Place.
And watch the trailer for a new documentary on Jean-Michel Basquiat (1961-1988), who was part of the street art scene:
(Geoffrey Holder as Baron Samedi in the James Bond film Live and Let Die, 1973.)
Note that the white journalist who goes uptown to get her story listens to (and looks like the lead singer of) Blondie. Blondie had a hit in 1981 called “Rapture,” in which Debbie Harry syncretized various current forms of black popular music, including disco and rap. The video contains various references to West African/Carribean religion, including Baron Samedi, the lord of the dead in Haitian voudou (and Basquiat has a cameo). What else is going on in this video? Is “Rapture” an homage to black culture, or a ripoff?
As a gallery owner says in the 1983 documentary “Style Wars,” which treats the same topics as “Wild Style,” Blondie was a popular meme in graffiti art.
Watch it here.
On the other hand, in 1979, the conservative cultural critic Nathan Glazer declared about graffiti artists:
Kitchenette buildings on Chicago’s South Side, 1950.
The turbulence of the 1960s, as Linda and Dawn discussed yesterday, was as much a response to the domestic situation in the urban United States as it was to Vietnam. One of the effects of the Great Migration was to turn northern cities into unofficially segregated spaces, with black citizens, unable to purchase homes in good neighborhoods, consigned to renting substandard housing in the ghetto.
The great African-American poet Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000), above, writes about what it was like to hone her poetic voice in a kitchenette apartment on Chicago’s South Side. “Kitchenettes” were apartments chopped up out of older houses. They usually had a tiny kitchen, and a bathroom in the hall shared by multiple families.
We are things of dry hours and the involuntary plan,
Grayed in, and gray. “Dream” makes a giddy sound, not strong
Like “rent,” “feeding a wife,” “satisfying a man.”
But could a dream send up through onion fumes
Its white and violet, fight with fried potatoes
And yesterday’s garbage ripening in the hall,
Flutter, or sing an aria down these rooms
Even if we were willing to let it in,
Had time to warm it, keep it very clean,
Anticipate a message, let it begin?
We wonder. But not well! not for a minute!
Since Number Five is out of the bathroom now,
We think of lukewarm water, hope to get in it.
A family’s striving to leave a kitchenette apartment is also the subject of Lorraine Hansberry’s play A Raisin in the Sun. You can read the play here, and watch it here.
Content/Trigger Warning: Racist language in original sources.
Soul was a stream of rhythm and blues that engaged overtly with social issues. Where 1950s R&B was primarily dance music, in the early 1960s certain artists began marrying the R&B musical sensibility to lyrics that dealt with pressing political topics. In the Civil Rights Movement, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, pronounced “snick”) began to reject what they saw as the incrementalist approach of leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr., and to embrace the “by any means necessary” philosophy of leaders like Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael.
Soul music essentially was R&B music that engaged with the cultural aspirations of of the Black Power movement. In 1969, Billboard changed the name of its R&B chart to the Soul chart.
As we’ve discussed in class and on this blog, soul takes its musical inspiration from the black church, using gospel music techniques like call-and-response structure and melismatic singing (stretching one syllable of a word over many notes to give textual emphasis). Soul pioneers like Ray Charles and James Brown at first restricted their songs to the usual topics of love and desire. You can hear Charles’s marriage of gospel-influenced piano phrasing with a boogie-woogie vamp in the left hand.
You can hear the melismatic vocal style of James Brown (the “Human Package of Dynamite”) set against a staccato horn section and the interjections of a solo electric guitar played in a high register, which would become hallmarks of funk music a few years later. Notice also that the audience and the backup dancers are integrated.
James Brown soon turned to songwriting that was overtly political.
Bands like the Temptations and the Chi-Lites joined the vocal harmonies of male R&B groups to socially-engaged lyrical content.
The Temptations, “Ball of Confusion”:
The Chi-Lites, “(For God’s Sake) Give More Power to the People”:
The Staple Singers fused gospel choral style, the fast-paced bass lines and jangling guitars of funk, and passionate pleas for black self-respect and communal love:
The Staple Singers, “This Old Town”:
Another Staple Singers song, “The Ghetto,” sung by contemporary blues-folk artist Ruthie Foster:
Some popular Motown artists, too, began to record “message” songs. Here, the Supremes mash up their trademark breathy vocal style with the driving bass line and polyrhythms of early funk, against a stylized, Sesame Street-like “ghetto” backdrop. Note their bare feet and natural hair, a far cry from their earlier glamorous look.
Stevie Wonder, “Living for the City”:
Marlena Shaw, “Woman of the Ghetto”:
The Vietnam War also became a flashpoint for soul. It was the first “integrated war” in US history, with blacks and whites serving together in the same units. In reality, however, blacks and poor whites bore a disproportionate burden of Vietnam service; college men, mostly white, were able to get deferments, or join the Army Reserves, to avoid being drafted and sent into combat.
In 1965, SNCC issued a statement urging that blacks should not
Richie Havens, medley of “Freedom” and the old spiritual “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” at Woodstock:
The ethos of struggle found its way into mainstream culture. The 1970s television show “Good Times” took place in the infamous Cabrini-Green housing projects in Chicago, and one of the show’s child characters was a young activist.
The album cover of We Insist! was an explicit reference to the Greensboro protests. We Insist! drew analogies between social and political freedom and the aesthetic freedom of its music.
The Max Roach Quintet performing “Driva Man,” one of the numbers on We Insist!, about the abuses of slavery. Note Abbey Lincoln’s Afrocentric dress and natural hair style, signs of resistance in the early 1960s.
Before her collaboration with Max Roach, Lincoln had been a nightclub “girl singer” in New York and Hollywood, marketed as much for her looks as for her musicianship.
Some black radicals completely rejected the idea that music could be revolutionary. In his poem “Hipping the Hip,” Ramón Durem wrote:
Blues — is a tear bop — a fear Of reality. There’s no place to hide in a horn
Durem also makes a musical reference to the Mau Mau uprising — the armed revolt in the 1950s that drove the British out of Kenya and led to that nation’s independence, comparing Kenyan tribal music favorably to the widely-ranging music of bebop:
Mau Mau only got a five-tone scale but when it comes to Freedom, Jim — they wail!
Mau Mau songs sung at a monument for Kenyan rebel leader Dedan Kimathi:
The record companies were paying attention. So as to capitalize on the success of early (black) rock and roll, and to quietly influence white parents to lift their unofficial restrictions on the lucrative teen record-buying market, white artists were enlisted to cover songs first recorded by black artists.