Call and Response: On the Inextricable History of Music and Black Struggle
“The lineage of protest music has continued into the age of Black Lives Matter.”
Feature photo Simbarashe Cha for The New York Times.
Throughout the history of the Black struggle for freedom, music—especially the kind made by human voices—has been a powerful tool of protest. The chants heard at today’s marches draw on the tradition of early American church music and spirituals, styles that have been refined by Black people since the days of enslavement. Sung in the fields while enslaved people were at work, this music carries the rhythm of manual labor in its bones, but its harmonies are those of defiance and resilience, of a longing for freedom and the hope and determination to make that dream a reality.
Frederick Douglass, the abolitionist and activist, spoke of the importance of songs during the days of Black enslavement. To an ignorant observer, he writes in his book My Bondage and My Freedom, spirituals appeared to be simple hymns, retelling biblical stories and themes. But the songs held deeper meaning for the people who sang them, acting as coded messages that passed along information about how one might escape and serving as much-needed reminders that freedom was possible.
“A keen observer might have detected in our repeated singing of ‘O Canaan, sweet Canaan, I am bound for the land of Canaan’ something more than a hope of reaching heaven,” Douglass writes. “We meant to reach the north.” Many popular spirituals had these double meanings, with rallying cries and messages of justice and hope hidden within their symbolic lyrics. Take another example he cites from that era: “I thought I heard them say/There were lions in the way/I don’t expect to stay/ Much longer here.” Douglass explains that, for enslaved people, this wasn’t just a song about the biblical journey of the Israelites: it was an anthem promising “a speedy pilgrimage toward a free state, and a deliverance from all the evils and dangers of slavery.”
The legacy of these spirituals continued after the abolition of slavery—particularly in blues music, which emerged in the South in the wake of the Civil War and rose to prominence in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Blues songs spoke to the lived experience of Black Americans during the era of Jim Crow. Their lyrics were typically in the first person, but the stories they told—of poverty and heartbreak, violence and discrimination, resilience and love—were universal.
And through their music, blues performers such as Bessie Smith affirmed for Black Americans that their experiences deserved to be heard. “By singing about black lives with care and conviction,” the journalist Maureen Mahon wrote for NPR, “Smith and her sister classic blues women Ma Rainey, Alberta Hunter and Sippie Wallace advanced the revolutionary idea that black lives mattered—and specifically, that black women’s lives mattered.”
In 1939, a young jazz singer from Philadelphia named Billie Holiday turned the spotlight of her talent on one of the darkest corners of American history: the horrors of lynching. The song she sang was called “Strange Fruit.” And its lyrics were haunting, painting a visceral picture of Black bodies swinging from a blood-soaked tree somewhere in the South.
The song was written by Abel Meeropol, a white, Jewish high school teacher in the Bronx, who published its verses as a poem under the title “Bitter Fruit” in New York Teacher magazine, a union publication for city teachers. Meeropol was compelled to write the song after seeing a 1930 photo taken in Indiana in which white men and women stood, some smiling for the camera, in front of Thomas Shipp and Abe Smith. The two Black men hung lifeless from a tree, nooses around their necks.Blues songs spoke to the lived experience of Black Americans during the era of Jim Crow.
Meeropol set his words to music, and the song made its way to Barney Josephson, the owner of Café Society—a club whose tagline was “The Wrong Place for the Right People.”
Josephson knew that the song was shocking. Jazz was wildly popular at the time, and it had never so overtly taken on racial violence, but he felt it was important that the multiracial audiences at his club hear it in a way that made them directly confront its meaning. So he asked Holiday, who was then only 23 old, to close each of her sets with it. In addition, he asked the waiters to stop serving before she began and for the room to be totally dark, except for a spotlight on Holiday.
Dorian Lynskey, author of 33 Revolutions Per Minute: A History of Protest Songs, writes that when Holiday sang the song, the powerful lyrics “infected the air in the room, cut conversation stone dead, left drinks untouched, cigarettes unlit. Customers either clapped till their hands were sore, or walked out in disgust.”
“Strange Fruit” proved that a protest song could be more than an anthem: it could be art. Sixty years later, it remained so iconic that Time magazine named it the Best Song of the Twentieth Century.
During the civil rights movement, music took center stage. At the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963, the folk singer Joan Baez led the crowd of thousands in the singing of the gospel song “We Shall Overcome.” Based on an old spiritual, an early version of which was published in 1901 by the Reverend Dr. Charles Albert Tindley, the song was turned into a political anthem by striking tobacco factory workers in the 1940s, and it became a rallying cry of the civil rights movement. It spoke to the protesters’ struggle and their determination that, though it might be slow work, justice would eventually prevail:
We shall overcome;
We shall overcome;
We shall overcome some day.
Oh, deep in my heart
I do believe
We shall overcome some day.
Just as the first spirituals had given hope to enslaved Black Americans and united them in their struggle for freedom, the new hymns of the civil rights movement were an energizing force that rang with the protesters’ determination to fight for equality. One of the most popular gospel songs of the era, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” became known as the Black national anthem. It spoke to this slow fight to bend the arc of history toward justice. Its lyrics—taken from a poem written in 1900 by James Weldon Johnson, who would later lead the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP—were both a battle cry and a vow that bound those who sang it together in the struggle:
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun, Let us march on ’til victory is won.
The lineage of protest music has continued into the age of Black Lives Matter. It shines through, for example, in “Alright,” the fourth single from the rapper Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 album, To Pimp a Butterfly. In a 2016 interview for GQ magazine, Lamar told the music producer Rick Rubin that even before he wrote the lyrics, he heard something deeper within the catchy beats laid down by Pharrell Williams.
Lamar had recently visited South Africa, and the song began to take shape for him on Robben Island, where the activist Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for eighteen of the twenty-seven years he spent behind bars for challenging the brutal system of apartheid. The lyrics to “Alright” draw on this history of the struggle for racial justice, and they speak to the resilience of Black people who have continued to fight for freedom, undeterred, in the face of violence, suppression, and other systemic obstacles throughout history.
“Alright” became an anthem of the Black Lives Matter movement during a time when it needed hope and encouragement. In the years before the issues these activists raised took center stage, Lamar used his platform to spread their message.
As he told NPR: “Four hundred years ago, as slaves, we prayed and sung joyful songs to keep our heads level-headed with what was going on. Four hundred years later, we still need that music to heal. And I think that ‘Alright’ is definitely one of those records that makes you feel good no matter what the times are.”
A few months after Lamar released “Alright,” the singer-songwriter Janelle Monáe and her label-mate Jidenna, a Nigerian American rapper, led a Black Lives Matter protest in Philadelphia, which was followed by a concert the next day. Monáe had written a track called “Hell You Talmbout” that became one of the anthems of the movement. In it, she chanted the names of Black Americans whose unjust deaths had moved activists to take a stand.
Onstage and off, Monáe reminded people that remembering and honoring those who had been killed was itself a form of activism. “Silence is our enemy, but sound is our weapon,” she told the Philadelphia crowd. She urged the audience to join the chorus of reckoning: “Can we speak their names, as long as we have breath in our bodies?”
Monáe’s song slowly picked up momentum in the years that followed—in 2019, the musician David Byrne performed a cover of it as the finale of every performance of his award-winning Broadway musical, American Utopia—and it took on new urgency during the 2020 protests.
In interviews that summer, Monáe addressed white allies like Byrne, whom she saw as having important roles in the fight. “In the same ways that we have been marching, we have been screaming that Black Lives Matter, I’m asking of my white friends, or those who consider themselves supporters of me and us during this time, to have those conversations around white supremacy and around why your ancestors started chattel slavery,” she urged a roundtable of actresses, most of them white, for The Hollywood Reporter. And those conversations, she said, needed to be followed by action: “This is a moment for Black people to stand our ground and ask more of our systems. Because it can’t just be, ‘We’re going to march with you and do a hashtag’; it has to be rooted in justice as well. Systemic change has to be made.”
Excerpted from Call and Response: The Story of Black Lives Matter by Veronica Chambers and Jennifer Harlan. Copyright (c) 2021 by Veronica Chambers and Jennifer Harlan. Courtesy of Versify Books