Representation On Record: Soundtracking The Black Lives Matter Movement

by - Monday, October 10, 2016

"I think part of it is accepting that it's so much beauty in being Black. And that's the thing that I guess I get emotional about, because, I've always known that. I've always been proud to be Black. Never wanted to be nothing else. Loved everything about it, just...
It's such beauty in Black people, and it really saddens me when we're not allow to express that pride in being Black; and that if you do then it's considered anti-white. No! You just pro-Black. And that's okay. The two don't go together. Because you celebrate Black culture does not mean that you don't like white culture; or that you putting it down. It's just taking pride
What's irritating is when somebody says, you know, 'They're racist!' 'That's reverse racism!' or 'They have a Black History Month, but we don't have a White History Month!' Well, all we've ever been taught is white history: so why are you mad at that? Why does that makes you angry? That is to suppress me and to make me not be proud."
Interlude:'Tina Taught Me', taken from 'A Seat At The Table' by Solange

From darkness comes light, and from great pain comes great art. Two sentiments that we've all grown up with - spoken by our parents, advice from therapists, inspirational quotes on Tumblr. It's a long established cliche, but it's one that is important, and applies in spades when it comes to the music industry and in particular, how black musicians are using their art to respond to the frankly fucked-up state of the world right now.

By now you'll have read thinkpiece upon thinkpiece about racism, particularly in America. If you read this blog on the regular, you'll probably also know about my own struggles with identity, black culture and intolerance. You'll know about police brutality, about candlelit vigils, about Donald Trump and his ludicrous but ever-more-likely ideals. Whether you're somebody directly affected by racism or simply an ally to the cause, I know firsthand that it's a heavy burden to bear, and sometimes it's easier to turn off the news, take ourselves off of Twitter and pretend that these things don't affect us. But these issues aren't a million miles away from us - they're in our headphones.

The world has come a long way since the days of segregation and slavery, but events over the past couple of years have shown us that we're still a long way away from racial equality. It's so hard for black people to gain a voice, which is why it's more important than ever to look to those who do have some power to say something - namely, our musicians, actors and celebrities. For a moment consider some of the biggest musicians of our time right now - Kanye, Beyonce, Kendrick, Chance The Rapper, Drake, Rihanna...what do they all have in common? The desire to use their platform to challenge preconceptions of black culture and speak out about the way black people are still being treated today - all set to music forward-thinking and radio-friendly enough to infiltrate the mainstream and filter down to the masses.

While commentary on the mistreatment of black people in music is nothing new (read NWA, Jay-Z etc), the rawness and vulnerability of some of the music coming out of 2016 is startling - all bravado is abandoned in favour of open pleas for equality and bold, brave statements of the underdog holding it's own against its oppressors. Black people are tired of waiting for the door of acceptance to open for them - they're just kicking it down for themselves instead. Inspired by the violence in America and the black lives matter movement, protest music appears to be making a comeback and more and more black artists are using their music to openly discuss the issues affecting their community - often at the risk of jeopardising their commercial and crossover appeal.

For both Kendrick Lamar and Beyonce, this acknowledgement of the issues facing the black community have spawned career-defining releases; 'To Pimp A Butterfly' and 'Lemonade' (which I wrote about here) respectively are records that have been almost universally acclaimed despite their distinct non-commercialness and highly confrontational subject matter - proof that it is always worth taking a risk for something you believe in. Another great example of this is Frank Ocean - with 'Blonde' he speaks of the victims of gun violence, the conflicts of sexuality and the importance of being yourself in the face of challenge. It's no coincidence that from this place of rawness and honesty, he's never been more celebrated. As a fan of all three artists for a really long time and a young black woman myself, it's incredible for me to have such visible role models reaching such heights on their own merits, without diluting themselves for the largely-white music industry.

The movement is wider than lyrics that specifically tackle politics head on . In lots of cases, the statements of blackness are about pride rather than commentary on the world's issues - see Rihanna's use of Barbadian patois on work and Drake's frequent samples of Jamaican dancehall on 'Views'. These aren't the first artists to make this music obviously, but no there's no denying that this leg-up from two household names has done wonders for black artists - Caribbean culture has never been so mainstream.

And then there is of course the younger Knowles sister - Solange's 'Seat At The Table' talks about life as a black woman and being proud of your heritage, in complimentary force to her sister Beyonce's 'Lemonade' portrayal of rejection and second-class citizenship in favour of 'Becky with the good (read:white) hair', all over a mix of traditionally black instrumentation and musical styles. Solange's record particularly is very new but speaks to me on so, so many levels - the identity conflict of being mixed race, issues with cultural appropriation, the need for personal space...I could write a whole blog about this record alone (and probably will at some point)

Looking a little closer to home, it's been an absolute delight to see grime take over the mainstream in a way that hasn't threatened since Dizzee Rascal released Boy In Da Corner thirteen years ago. Heading up this revival is Skepta, shedding his skin as something of a novelty (see Rolex Sweep) to become a bonafide champion of urban culture and it's importance in our country. For me, there has been no moment in music this year as poignant as watching him collect his Mercury Music Prize with a song that openly samples the racist reaction to Kanye West's Brit Awards performance that including some of Britain's finest grime artists but was dismissed as 'intimidating' and 'not what I'd expect to see on prime-time television'. by white, tabloid journalists. There's also Blood Orange - an incredible music project by Dev Hynes that sees him explore black masculinity's role in modern society and the issues that face black people trying to fit in (see 'Love Ya's monologue about the most appropriate way to wear as outfit so as not to appear threatening).

We've still got a long way to go. Rihanna's use of her native language has become a range of cruel memes that diminish her ethnicity to 'indecipherable nonsense, Solange is reporting incidents of racism at concerts and people will take any opportunity to have a pop at Kanye West, a man who can never seem to do anything right. And as powerful as this music is, young black people are still being shot, post-Brexit racism remains rife and tiny 9-year-olds are growing up a hell of a lot faster than they should as they call for something to change. But change can only be made when people come together to ask for it. By using the music we listen to everyday to share these messages, the plight and the stories of black people worldwide can seep into the consciousness of the mainstream and create some effective change.

History has shown us that dark times often spawn the most exciting art, and it seems our current landscape is no different. It's an odd time to be a black person, or indeed an ally of the Black Rights Movement. The news has never been more depressing, and yet the counter-culture to oppose it has never been more vibrant. In the face of police brutality, poverty, whitewashing and Donald Trump, these artists and their records are a fist in the air against a very scary time, something for young black kids to hang onto and take comfort from. And isn't that what music is all about - the solace of knowing that someone out there shares the same hopes and fears as you do? I live in hope that when all of this is over, this music will serve as a stark reminder of the art that can come from despair.

Further Reading:

'White Middle Class Panic: Kanye, Race & Awards Ceremonies -

'Frank Ocean's Blonde(e) Is A Monument To Memory', Spencer Kornhaber -

'Hoes Be Winning: The Case For Blac Chyna and Amber Rose's Intersectional Feminism' -

'The Life Of Pablo and the terror of monogamy' -

Rihanna's "Work" and the everlasting life of dancehall in Toronto" -


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