Sound Opinions

MLK’s Supporting Vocals

We’ve all heard the sound clip of MLK’s speech from 50 years ago when thousands joined him and other leaders for the March on Washington. The refrain, “I have a dream” might be even be more recognizable to today’s students than pictures of the man himself. Whatever your social media channel, it has been overrun with pictures and memories from the moment on the mall.

There is no denying that those are powerful words that have a power today few could have imagined 50 years ago. Much has been made about the genius of King who improvised those famous words that day. Somehow they carried a weight and a provocation even more pressing than the fiery words John Lewis had planned for himself that day. He wanted to threaten to march through the South like Sherman but his colleagues convinced him to tone it down, fearing that it would alienate Congress, the President and other supporters.

There were hundreds of voices that made the civil rights movement a movement that could accomplish change. Instilling the story of  Martin Luther King or  the March on Washington with too much magic puts us at risk of losing our ability to recognize the ugly grittiness of standing up to power.

This weekend NPR’s Sound Opinions, “the world’s only rock ‘n roll talk show,” devoted a whole show to the songs of the civil rights movement and they expertly relayed the real experiences of the movement through  its “supporting vocals.” I highly recommend the podcast to you and imagine some of you might even make the same recommendation to your students or children. Jim and Greg, the presenters, do a fabulous job of documenting the ebb and flow of the movement through the history of specific events and the music that accompanied them.

Horrific moments like pulling tortured and mutilated bodies out of the Mississippi River are presented alongside the powerful voices of the Staple Singers who shared their resolve the carry on even as they sang:

Found dead people in the forest

Tallahatchie river and lake

The whole wide world is wonderin’ what’s wrong with the United States

The hour long show expertly navigated around the temptation to celebrate the magic of one day in Washington and instead told the story of the movement with a powerful playlist that more of us should hear:

“Driva Man” by Max Roach & Oscar Brown Jr. featuring Abbey Lincoln, 1960
“How I Got Over” performed by Mahalia Jackson at the March on Washington, 1963
“In the Mississippi River” by the Freedom Singers, 1965
“Mississippi Goddamn” performed by Nina Simone at Carnegie Hall, 1964
A Change is Gonna Come by Sam Cooke, 1964
“Keep On Pushing” by The Impressions, 1964
“Freedom Highway” by The Staple Singers, 1965
“Lift Every Voice and Sing” performed by Kim Weston at Wattstax, 1972

I had never heard the track from Nina Simone but instantly recognized its appeal to my punk rock sensibilities. There’s the bounciness of a show tune for a show that, she tells us, is yet to be written. And that bounciness works to emphasize Simone’s raw response to the ugliness of the daily news in “Mississippi Goddamn.”

It pains the imagination to think about what that show might look like…

Perhaps it’s necessary to add a NSFW label to that video but I think there’s every reason to hear the harshness of Simone’s words. Here’s to remembering the thousands who held fast to the courage of their convictions and made it possible for us to remember the magic of the movement while forgetting the horrific stories that challenged their resolve.

 

Politics on the Inside

No, we’re not talking about political insiders. Not those hideous creatures that live inside the much maligned Beltway. We’re talking about one man’s perspective on the truth about politics as he understands it through human experience.

For rapper El-P, all politics is internal to one’s self or to mankind. In an interview on Sound Opinions, Jim DeRogatis and Greg Kot asked the rapper about the subversive or personalized politics they heard embedded in his music. Jim and/or Greg (I’ve been listening for years but can’t tell their voices apart) asserted that El-P’s music had captured something important about the “tenor of the times.” The host continued to describe a vibe going around the world, and permeating El-P’s music, that urged people to rise up, defend themselves and speak out. It says, “they may not win the battle but the struggle is worth fighting.”

Politicolor has weighed the political statements of favorite songs from the audience’s perspective on several occasions.  We looked at the messages in the music to determine what resonated with a Federalist way of thinking, how certain titles communicate revolution and constituting a new people, and when music seems to multiply the effect of a moment. Prompted by a NYT op-ed written by Bono, I wrote about how music motivated my own early activism as my young self believed whole-heartedly what Bono suggested in that piece, music has the power to change the world. This all made the interview with El-P even more interesting as the artist was asked to comment on the political ideas a couple of avid music-listeners found in his music.

Remarking that many people walk away from his music thinking it’s all negativity, El-P described the message of his latest album, Cancer 4 Cure, as one of hope, “but not un-battered hope.”

The artist suggested that transcendent moments come with a price of discussing what is uncomfortable and difficult. Transcending those difficulties, El-P says, requires knowing them and understanding them. He explains that his music is his attempt to explain his perspective on the human experience from his own eyes but also, “from another part of me [El-P] that I’m having to contain on these records. This other voice in me that is terrified and angry and confused. Doesn’t really know how to get to point B from point A without wanting to scream.”

El-P’s admits his latest album, Cancer 4 Cure, sounds like a struggle but he hopes his fans finish the album thinking it  was a good fight…

To me the battle is not out there. I mean, it maybe to some degree, but…

To me the battle is internal. And that’s what the record is about. The idea of cancer for cure, the idea of us being the cancers for our own cure; Of fighting ultimately internal battles. I always had in my head something that someone  told me that said ultimately we all have cancer to some degree and our immune system is just constantly fighting it back.

And I believe that, ultimately, that these are the real truths of the struggles that you’re seeing in the streets right now; and the struggles you’re seeing in the world. Nothing happens and nothing gets emanated from anywhere else except from things other than inside mankind, internally. There are no external factors except weather.

I choose to make my political statements from a personal perspective. Because the times will change and the movements will rise and fall and the talking heads will rotate and there are truths that will remain the same. There will still be a struggle.