The Black Column: Music Is All We Got

March 08, 2017
The Black Column

“…never yet could I find that a black had uttered a thought above the level of plain narration; never seen even an elementary trait of painting or sculpture. In music they are more generally gifted than the whites, with accurate ears for tune and time… Whether they will be equal to the composition of a more extensive run of melody, or of complicated harmony, is yet to be proved.” -Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia 

You know those weeks when everything just seems super connected? 

In my AAS class, we were reading The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois. This is one of the most important texts in African American Literature, and I’d say it’s required reading. (It’s only $2 at the book-store, get you one.) We discussed how he employs ethnomusicology in his work. He speaks of Negro Spirituals and tells us how you can listen to them to understand the people. The music tells of their lives, their struggles, their hopes, etc. The music is the story.  

That hasn’t left us. Kendrick Lamar’s “The Blacker the Berry” managed to comment on both police brutality and so-called “black on black crime.” Beyoncé’s “Formation” was an anthem that captured the present exciting moment of pro-blackness sweeping the nation, while still managing to highlight pain in the music video. Even perhaps the songs we don’t want to speak for us — my favorite songs at parties but the ones that are rife with misogyny… those speak for us too (but that’s a whole other article…) Music is the voice of the people, and that’s nothing new.

In an English class I’m taking, “Black Power & the Bildungsroman,” we’re reading Invisible Man. We took a brief line, one that I had barely glanced at through my first reading, and went off on a tangent about music and African Americans. My professor said “Black music is American music. You don’t have American music without Black music.” At a time when everyone was biting off of Europe, Negro Spirituals
were the first truly American things out there. And they were created by people who weren’t even seen as American citizens. Isn’t that something? Almost every popular music genre (yes, Rock & Roll. Yes, your precious Country, too) can be traced back to black people. 

And lastly, Beyoncé was snubbed. After giving a beautiful performance, which was truthfully my only reason for tuning in, she lost out on Album of the Year (again) to Adele. Beyoncédeserved that award. I won’t debate about it. Go argue with Adele if you’re concerned, she agrees with me.Of course I’m a big Beyoncé fan but it is far deeper than that. It’s about the Academy using black talent for ratings and yet not being able to recognize it when the time comes. It’s about black people, black women, not getting their due. There are rumors that people believed Beyoncé was “gaming the system” by creating a body of work that dipped into so many genres. (Remind me, who created these genres?) The point is, Lemonade deserved Album of the Year, and it did not get it. 

You can make of these three things what you will. I don’t necessarily have a takeaway other than they all seem pretty significant. Regardless of how it resonates with you, remember,  “Music is all we got.”

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