Message in the Music

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  • Every generation has a song or group that speaks directly to them. Black folks have always had music that we felt belonged to us.

    In slavery times, we’ve learned that Negro spirituals like “Hush, Somebody’s Calling Your Name,” were more than songs that made them feel closer to God. They were often actual messages or codes to alert the other slaves to be quiet because the master was near by. But some songs were just sending the message that they were tired and weren’t going to take much more. One song’s lyrics were “Before I’ll be a slave, I’ll be buried in my grave and go home to my Lord and be free.” Negroes bold enough to sing that song weren’t playing and declared their intention to remain free at any cost.

    Fast forward to the civil rights movement, where music was an important backdrop. “We Shall Not Be Moved” was another early song of protest: “Just like a tree planted by the water, we shall not be moved.” “We Shall Overcome” had a message, but it was more about peace and hope for a better tomorrow. Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” also defines an era when black folks knew that there had to be something better, somewhere.

    Throughout the 60s, groups like the Impressions, led by the great Curtis Mayfield, recorded songs that gently urged people to demand more, with hits like “Keep on Pushing.” The late 60’s and 70s brought new sets of problems for the country in general and black folks in particular. Already struggling for equal rights, the Vietnam war had a huge impact on black families and communities. Almost everyone knew someone who had gone to Vietnam, and almost no one understood why. Sound familiar? Edwin Starr, Freda Payne, the Temptations and Marvin Gaye recorded war protest songs that were big hits: “War … what is it good for? Absolutely nothing!” were bold lyrics belted out by Edwin Starr, while Freda Payne pleaded “bring ‘em back alive, bring the boys home.”

    The Temptations went from singing songs about love being as sweet as honey written by Smokey Robinson to grittier message music written by the late Norman Whitfield. “Ball of Confusion,” “Stop the War” and “Take a Look Around” were deep songs about a world and a country weighed down with a senseless war, runaway inflation, racial unrest, and inner cities over-run with crime. Sound familiar? Soon, more and more R&B singers and groups (or their writers, at least) became socially conscious and put out a long roster hits including “Power to the People,” by the Chi-Lites and “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud,” by James Brown.

    One of the most outstanding albums of the 70s was Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On.” The title song begged for an answer to the war in Vietnam and the violence on the streets at home: “Picket lines, picket signs, don’t punish me with brutality, talk to me so you can see what’s going on.” On that same album, “Mercy Mercy Me” is as relevant now as it was then. So are James Brown’s “Say It Loud,” The Isley Brothers’ “Fight the Power” and “ The Message” by Grand Master Flash and the Furious Five.

    From Tupac’s “Keep Your Head Up,” and Lauryn Hill’s “Doo Wop (That Thing)” to India Arie’s “I am Not My Hair” and “Will I Am’s” “It’s a New Day,” black music keeps on entertaining, empowering and inspiring us. Old Negro spirituals, hip-hop, gospel and neo-soul all have their place. And their messages never get old.

    The “For Real, For Real” poll asks about the messages in your children’s music. What are they listening to, and what are they learning from it? You’ll never know if you don’t take the ear phones out of their ears and experience what they’re hearing. Ipods allow us to listen to it, but black radio has allowed us to share the politics, the passion and the power of black music.

    I’m proud to be a part of a medium that brings the message to you.

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