A sense of liberation is woven into the very fabric of jazz, as is evident in the role it has played in social movements of the past. Today, the discourse around racial inequality in America is louder than ever, and the genre, often pollinated with black popular music, still expresses strains of anger and frustration, hope and pride of an entire people in the face of repression.
The sound of a thousand protesters chanting the chorus of American rapper Kendrick Lamar’s ‘Alright’, from his 2015 album To Pimp a Butterfly, echoed through Washington, D.C.’s 16th Street neighbourhood in the early hours of 6th June, 2020. The protests, which had begun a few days earlier, were prompted by the killing of African-American George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis Police Department officer in May. The mood was heavy, but the spirit tenacious. Floyd’s death was far from an isolated incident; for the African-American community in the U.S., police brutality is a phenomenon grappled with on the regular. The deaths of other victims of racism and violence like that of 26-year-old Breonna Taylor only a few months before and of Eric Garner — his death is widely believed to have kick-started the Black Lives Matter movement in 2014 — were atrocious antecedents to what would go on to become one of the world’s biggest movements against racial injustice.
Sparking off a wave of protests in America and the U.K., both already crippled by the coronavirus pandemic, these incidents prompted a call to action in response to the vexing social issues and abuse of human rights that plague black communities. Not only did on-ground protesters lend their support to the movement, but record labels, radio stations, jazz outfits and festivals also joined in. The music industry responded to the tragic deaths by releasing statements that spoke of their solidarity with the movement. Where music had always been a salve for the masses in troubled times, it had now become central to the movement in ways that had not been harnessed before. People across cultures and continents upheld the cause online as part of the Blackout Tuesday discourse on 2nd June. Audiences the world over were open to receiving an education in the contribution of black artistes — a legacy sadly overlooked and often appropriated.
The roots of jazz
Hip-hop, rap, funk and other popular, more accessible, genres driven by the black community have been a part of the protest landscape for years now. Think Marvin Gaye’s soulful ‘What’s Going On’ and James Brown’s funk-fuelled ‘Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud.’ One could say that the music by these very artistes was informed by the ragtime-tinged work songs of lament sung by their forefathers — songs that spoke of the African-American experience of tackling systemic racism and slavery that has prevailed for over four centuries.
Jazz and the blues, predecessors of contemporary black music, have also been a catalyst for social and political change. Arising out of the social struggles of the marginalised throughout their history, these genres have never fallen short of serving as a powerful tool of expression. It is widely accepted that the music was born in New Orleans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, emerging out of the prevalent percussive tradition of African slaves brought to America in the 18th century and European harmonic accompaniments like the violin. Originally a blend of the ragged rhythms of rag-time, blues, and other West African music traditions, the sound evolved as it spread to other American cities like Chicago and New York. What started as a movement on the fringes of American society, soon became one of the most influential musical traditions of the 20th century.
Lamar’s ‘Alright’, widely regarded as a protest anthem since its release in 2015, taps into the continually evolving nature of jazz. Sonically, the song is an outright mix of rap, hip-hop and funk. Yet, those in the know will recognise jazz undercurrents — horn sections and skittering drums — in its soundscape. Lamar, the son of a jazz musician, worked with some of the most reputed contemporary jazz musicians like saxophonist Kamasi Washington, bassist Thundercat and pianist Robert Glasper to give shape to this landmark album.
Music that moves
Every movement in America had a song, and jazz became the music of resistance with its roots deeply entrenched in a centuries-old fight for equality. Racially charged songs such as Billie Holiday’s ‘Strange Fruit’ immediately spring to mind as popular music that spoke to a political moment. Holiday was already a reputed voice when she was introduced to the eponymous song and poem written by Abel Meeropol in 1937 to protest the lynching of African Americans. Her recording of this chilling anti-lynching song is considered to be the earliest protest song to have found its way into New York’s jazz clubs. Jazz also served as a marker of the impoverished living conditions of the community. In 1929, Louis Armstrong’s rendition of the jazz standard ‘Black and Blue’ by Fats Waller and Andy Razaf was already breaking ground. Although not exactly a protest song, it painfully details the lived experience of being black and oppressed in 1920s America.
The American civil rights movement, spanning 1954 to 1968, saw the release of countless compositions by some of jazz’s greatest architects. One such was the politically charged ‘Fables of Faubus’ written by Charles Mingus in 1959 at the peak of the movement. The song’s lyrics were an explicit protest against Arkansas governor Orval Faubus who prevented nine African-American students from being integrated into a racially segregated school in 1957. Although the double bassist and singer was forced to release the song without lyrics at first, he went on to record the uncensored version titled ‘Original Faubus Fables’ in 1960.
John Coltrane’s composition of ‘Alabama’ in 1963 was a direct response to the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing by members of the Ku Klux Klan that had resulted in the death of four African-American girls. In the same vein, Nina Simone’s ‘Mississippi Goddam’ (1964) responded to this very white supremacist terrorist bombing and the murder of American civil rights activist Medgar Evers.
But not all jazz protest anthems were written in response to Black genocide. Many, like ‘The Freedom Suite’ by Sonny Rollins, also spoke about empowerment and happiness in anticipation of the change that would come. Still others were simply a testimony to Black pride. Whether one considers jazz standards of musical greats of the past or Lamar’s music that imaginatively taps into the lived Black experience of the present, the music is particularly resonant in 2020 in both the tiniest and toniest neighbourhoods of America and beyond. Every one of these protest songs is relevant today for the unrivalled level of musicianship. And, rightfully so. That they are still pertinent for the very reason they were written though is sadly beyond belief.
This piece was originally published in the November 2020 issue of ON Stage by the NCPA.