Childish Gambino’s “This is America” is making me think about the music that people of color make and their long-lasting social significance. In one song, Gambino comments on a consumerist culture preoccupied with superficial vices, America’s normalization of extreme gun violence, the dangers and joys of the Black experience, and much more. With striking, disturbing, beautiful imagery, he creates a microscopic lens to dissect our most pertinent issues. That’s why everyone is talking about the song.
Musicians know their work can provide social commentary on what’s happening in America. Indeed, if you trace the music of the marginalized during periods of upheaval, you will find references over and over to the social issues that plague disenfranchised communities. Recall Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” released in 1954. The song was written by a Jewish teacher, Abel Meeropol, as a protest against lynchings in the South. Holiday brought the song to life and faced resistance and racist backlash from those not willing to change the deadly racism of the South. It portrays in vivid, macabre and heartbreaking detail the lynchings of Black bodies:
Here is fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop.
The music of the marginalized sings tales of a common thread: brutalization and resilience on a path to joy and equality. Recall Nina Simone and 1967’s “Backlash Blues,” which spoke about being a person of color in the 1960s — which inherently meant that you were a second-class citizen. Simone sings about racist housing practices and the inequality in US school systems. She sang out in her soul-touching voice:
You give me second class houses
and second-class schools
do you think that all colored folks
are just second class fools?
But the world is big
Big and bright and round
And it’s full of folks like me
Who are black, yellow, beige and brown
Mr. Backlash, I’m gonna leave you
With the backlash blues
In the ’60s Simone also did a rendition of “Strange Fruit” because lynchings in the South were still taking place. Simone’s “Why? The King of Love is Dead,” written in 1968, focuses on the murder of Dr. King and the impact it had on the civil rights movement and everyone behind it. The songs themselves contain historical timelines; they trace monumental events within our history with artful genius:
Must you always kill with burn, and burn with guns.
And kill with guns and burn – don’t you know how we gotta react?
But he had seen the mountaintop,
And he knew he could not stop;
Always living with the threat of death ahead.
Folks you’d better stop and think.
Everybody knows we’re on the brink.
What will happen, now that the King of love is dead?
The music that comes from the marginalized tells a story, weaves social issues, defies time and cultivates authentic conversations. Marvin Gaye’s 1971 “What’s Going On” was inspired by disturbing letters from his brother, who fought in Vietnam, but also by pressing social issues — race, police violence, poverty — roiling America:
Picket lines and picket signs
Don’t punish me with brutality
Talk to me, so you can see
Oh, what’s going on
What’s going on
Though all of these songs were created and popularized years apart, it’s as if they are familiar with one another. Though we are now nearly two complete decades into into a different century, the messages of these songs of the old century still ring with an eerie truth. Today, we can still look at those who face marginalization to put some of the most pressing issues of today — including the same ones as 60 and 50 years ago — into chilling songs that, like the old songs, will outlive us all.
Listen to Janelle Monae’s “Hell You Talmbout,” which calls out the names of Black people killed by police brutality. Soulful and crushing, it tells people to say their names. Listening to Monae’s emotional plea is an aching experience meant to draw out our humanity. There are 18 names, haunting names, sung:
Walter Scott, say his name…
Walter Scott, won’t you say his name?
Eric Garner, say his name…
Eric Garner, won’t you say his name?
Trayvon Martin, say his name…
Trayvon Martin, won’t you say his name?
Emmet Till, say his name…
Emmet Till, won’t you say his name?
Many artists contribute to the shared memory of marginalized people by creating songs that capture the current fight — and from this, history is frozen in time. These songs do show us which obstacles still need attention, what past strife we have inherited, and those strides that have been painstakingly achieved.