Black mu­sic mat­ters

Bey­on­césteal­ing the Su­per Bowl; Kendrick­La­mar boss­ing the Gram­mys;D’An­gelo’s com­plex Mes­siah – pop­mu­sic is hav­ing a political resur­gence, with much more to come, writes Séa­mas O’Reilly

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - FRONT PAGE -

Bey­oncé and Ken­drick La­mar are putting the political back into pop mu­sic

*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.

Strik­ing­claim This was a par­tic­u­larly strik­ing claim con­sid­er­ing that Forma

tion 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 ter­rify- ing 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.

Ken­drick La­mar took to the Grammy stage as part of a chain-gang with his band be­hind bars, with pow­er­ful vi­su­als that ended with the word Comp­ton over an im­age of the African con­ti­nent

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