Sounds of Freedom: The Music of Black Liberation

James Brown at the Earth Theater on July 24, 2006 in Thessaloniki, Greece (thelefty / Shutterstock.com)

Conversations in Black Freedom Studies (CBFS) is a monthly discussion series held at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Curated by Jeanne Theoharis and Komozi Woodard, the series was established as a space to discuss the latest scholarship in Black freedom studies, bringing the campus and community together as scholars and activists challenge the older geography, leadership, ideology, culture, and chronology of Civil Rights historiography. In anticipation of the discussion on Sounds of Freedom: The Music of Black Liberation, scheduled for May 6th, we are highlighting the scholarship of two of their guests.

Shana L. Redmond is a Professor of Global Jazz Studies and Musicology at UCLA. As a scholar, Shana Redmond pulls from multiple subjects, strategies, and approaches in her work and situates her scholarship in and between fields including Black Studies, Performance Studies, History, Critical Ethnic Studies, Sound Studies, English and Literature, Cultural Studies, and (Ethno)Musicology. She is the author of Everything Man: The Form and Function of Paul Robeson and Anthem: Social Movements and the Sound of Solidarity in the African Diaspora. Redmond is currently at work on two books: the first, The Song that Saved the World, interrogates aid music and racial benevolence, while the second, The Next Jubilee, tracks the possible impossible in Black music. Follow her on Twitter @ShanaRedmond

Rickey Vincent is a scholar, educator, radio host and author. He obtained his PhD in Ethnic Studies at the University of California, Berkeley in 2008. He lectures on black music history, black power and social movements, the cultural politics of Hip Hop, and issues of African American culture and globalization. He is the author of Funk: The Music, the People and the Rhythm of The One, a definitive study of the culture and politics of funk music; and Party Music: The Inside Story of the Black Panthers’ Band and How Black Power Transformed Soul Music. He hosts The History of Funk on KPFA radio. Follow him on @Rickeyvincent.


Conversations in Black Freedom Studies (CBFS): You each write about the importance of music and performance in the struggle for Black liberation, as a reflection of the movement, as inspiration to the movement, as a product of the movement. Can you tell us a bit about your work and how you came to write this history?

Shana Redmond: I was drawn to the global struggle for Black liberation and wanted to understand how it played out in various local contexts. What I found is that shared conditions of antiblackness and coloniality also produced similar approaches to its end: where people struggle they inevitably also sing. It was important to me to understand not only which songs they sung but how that singing became a repetitive effort–a chanting down–that structured these movement organizations. The anthems I write about in Anthem: Social Movement and the Sound of Solidarity in the African Diaspora appeared as both a defensive and offensive strategy that refused the state’s version of blackness and collectively projected a new one in its place.

Rickey Vincent: Party Music: The Inside Story of the Black Panthers’ Band and How Black Power Transformed Soul Music came about as a result of efforts to connect the music of Black Power with the militant movements on the US streets in the late 1960s. I originally sought to clear up one overarching question: Did the music generate the movement, or did the movement generate the music? It did not take long to determine the answer to that question. Nina Simone explained her rationale for writing “Mississippi Goddamn,” by writing in her memoir that after “the bombing of the little girls in Alabama and the murder of Medgar Evers…I had it in my mind to go out and kill someone…instead I went to my piano and the music erupted out of me faster than I could write it down.” That organized the work for me from then on.

Out of the blue I heard from Boots Riley, who told me a tale of the Black Panthers and their funk band The Lumpen. The prospect at the time was absurd, as the Panthers we knew were all about the Revolution then, and now. Through research from multiple angles and support from dedicated Panther archivists like Billy X Jennings, I was able to locate the four lead singers of the group. It turns out they were hidden in plain sight, as former rank and file Bay Area Panthers, they were each engaged in community activist work, and each with a supply of stories to tell.

CBFS: Can you share a particular story from this history that our readers might not be familiar with, that helps us see the importance of music to the struggle for Black liberation?

Redmond: Paul Robeson was my favorite muse from Anthem who then became the opportunity for my thinking in Everything Man: The Form and Function of Paul Robeson. I often describe him as the most famous person that most people have never heard of. He was a true polymath—athlete, musician, actor, linguist, scholar, orator, organizer—who spectacularly used the stage to announce the cultures and beliefs suppressed by racial-genocidal states and antilabor coalitions. His use of Negro spirituals, folk songs, and recast Broadway standards revolutionized the art stage as The People’s stage and made for his global reputation and following by hundreds of thousands or more before he was forced into quiet retirement through state harassment and censure.

Vincent: For The Lumpen, the musical group was ‘just a side project’ they insisted. They were “revolutionaries” first, musicians second. But as I learned more and asked more about the shows they performed, it was clear that The Lumpen were for real. Once I obtained a tape of a grainy cassette recording of an entire live show, the book wrote itself. The Lumpen fused the aesthetics of the Soul Music of the day with the fire of revolution coming from the Panther party. Here was the Panthers’ militant revolutionary vision, put to a Rhythm and Blues soundtrack.

The more I discuss the late 60s and early 70s, I realize I must frame it in terms of “self-determination” for the artists, which is analogous to the “self-determination” the Black Power advocates were trumpeting at the time. This of course is connected to Aretha Franklin’s summer of 1967 release of “Respect,” and James Brown’s seminal fall 1968 release “Say It Loud I’m Black and I’m Proud.” These two cultural leaders supplied a measure of fuel and sustenance to an activist community that by this time had moved beyond the church songs of Dr. King’s organization, and the folk music of Guthrie, Seeger, and Dylan. “Say it Loud” ushered in the era of straight talk through rhyming over a beat. It would not take long before youngsters in the Bronx and elsewhere had permission to speak their truths and foster an enjoyment of life through this “new” form of musical, cultural life.

CBFS: Considering the movement for Black lives today, and the Black freedom struggle more generally, how does this history help us understand and even act in our current world?

Redmond: I hope that my work confirms and enlivens what we already know, which is that Black music is a political force that is used to create new worlds. It is central to how we live, and it is the dynamism of living that inspires and propels our most powerful movements. To find joy in the struggle is crucial, for we know it is prolonged, and the music models strategies to not only survive but to win.

Vincent: To speak the truths about life and injustice has been a tradition and a hallmark of Black music—although not entirely through words—and the current generation is doing what it can to maintain this. However, I believe the sordid mechanisms of the popular music industry are operating with impunity, undermining the creative impulses of yet another generation, compelling artists yet again to compromise their art for commercial gain.

Today I see the Black Arts redeploying various methods to reflect and inspire a “revolutionary” outlook to help bring about change primarily in Black produced films. I’m afraid I don’t see a similar thing happening with the music. I do see a rise in conscious Black music emerging across multiple genres and formats, however the increasingly troubling lack of historical understanding of Black music is a concern for me. I see glimpses from the current crop of popular Black entertainers (Beyonce, Bruno Mars, John Legend, and others) to enlighten and inspire as well as entertain, but they are swimming against a corporate driven current that would like nothing more than to see Black youth operating as individuals (not in bands or crews) gossiping and spitting petty beefs at each other endlessly for profit.

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Comments on “Sounds of Freedom: The Music of Black Liberation

  • Most vital piece I have read that realistically critiques The Music in the Black Pop scene meanings and directions right now. I wondered if/when a strong pen would unclothe this charlatan era posing as liberated “great” new afro-future realm. Little more than common talent under more make-up wigs than a thousand Supremes wore in their reign. As blank in substance as the integrated tv sitcoms. But am not surprised at the emptiness in the newness since we dunked our upper class donuts in huxtable land and got comfy in obama land. No lyrics about 100s of kids on cages or 100s of military bases around Africa while we are more obsessed with sports than ever; yet not teaching our kids where a foot or basket or base ball is made- balls are toys more valued than books! eyelashes over vision. NO songs saying what sam cooke and Bob dylan sang- no wonder the same battles. No wonder image taken over substance, over what parents of their pole dancing offspring on award shows must be thinking? Give Amos & Andy some IMAGE awards- just as valid. One James Brown lyric as bout “my truer looks” could make a semester course in social conscious original lyrics! John Legend not even in the shadow of a short lived donny Hathaway and smokey could write babyface tunes with a couple of fingers. Spiritually, integration was pollution not humane unity. Cant force compassion or The Music! If John Coltrane was a white man we’d ALL know his name.

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