Musicians rediscovering power of protest songs

Janelle Monae, pictured, is among the "black women and women of color (who) are speaking loud," says Alynda Lee Segarra, of Hurray for the Riff Raff. (Chris Pizzello / Associated Press)

Janelle Monae, pictured, is among the “black women and women of color (who) are speaking loud,” says Alynda Lee Segarra, of Hurray for the Riff Raff. (Chris Pizzello / Associated Press)

By Matt Miller
HeyReverb.com

A month after a white man walked into a black Charleston, S.C., church and killed nine people and wounded one other, Rhiannon Giddens released “Cry No More.”

It’s a one-take video. The only instrumentation is Giddens solemnly banging a hand drum. A single camera circles Giddens in a church as she sings, “You have to help us fight it, but together we’ll be whole.” A casually dressed choir responds with “We can cry no more.” The tempo on Giddens’ hand drum builds, as does the power of the choir, the song and the message.

“There are a lot of things to fix in this country, but history says if we don’t address this canker, centuries in the making, these things will continue to happen,” Giddens, a founding member of Carolina Chocolate Drops and solo singer-songwriter, wrote at the time.

“Rhiannon is singing as if her life depended on it because it does,” said Alynda Lee Segarra, of folk band Hurray for the Riff Raff. “That is just a fact. I listened to her song and I knew I had a lot to learn from her.”

In August, Janelle Monae released “Hell You Talmbout,” a 6 1/2–minute protest song. Set to a beat of marching drums and a chant of the song’s title, the multiple artists on the track shout the names of black Americans killed by police along with the repetition of “say his (her) name.”

Rhiannon Giddens uses folk, soul, gospel and blues to give a voice to the voiceless. (Courtesy photo)

Rhiannon Giddens uses folk, soul, gospel and blues to give a voice to the voiceless. (Courtesy photo)

The following week, rapper Talib Kweli released a free album that blasts capitalism and “bankers who routinely crash the system.” One of the most critically lauded albums of 2015 is a protest album, To Pimp a Butterfly, by rapper Kendrick Lamar.

All are part of a recent upswing in protest music, according to Giddens, who has long used folk, soul, gospel and blues as a way of giving a “voice to the voiceless.”

“I think what’s happening is corresponding with the heightened awareness of the social injustices in the country. The thing is, you have these people getting shot by the police and the riots, and I’m hoping that people realize that it’s not that these things are picking up, it’s that we’re noticing more,” Giddens told The Denver Post recently. “It’s very positive. People are wanting to say stuff and say stuff about difficult things.”

In the 2000s, folk music moved returned to the mainstream with Mumford & Sons, The Avett Brothers and others, but those musicians weren’t specifically making protest music, Giddens said. So as a response to folk’s rising popularity, she said, people asked, “Where is the protest music?”

“White folk musicians are living in a fantasy world,” said Hurray for the Riff Raff’s Segarra. “I want no part of that world, where you play and pretend that people are not dying in the streets.”

Hurray for the Riff Raff’s “The Body Electric,” which NPR named the 2014 political folk song of the year, is essentially a call to action for musicians to collectively address social change through music.

“Black women and women of color are speaking loud,” Segarra said. Janelle Monae, Rhiannon Giddens, Kimya Dawson, Adia Victoria, Samantha Crain to name a few, they are the soundtrack to real change.”

As protests raged in 2014 following the death of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Mo., J. Cole released “Be Free” and Lauryn Hill shared “Black Rage.” That year culminated in the surprise release of D’Angelo’s Black Messiah, an album the R&B artist said is “about people rising up in Ferguson and in Egypt and in Occupy Wall Street and in every place where a community has had enough and decides to make change happen.”

“I urge and challenge musicians and artists alike to push themselves to be a voice of the times that we live in. We need new Dylans. New Public Enemys. New Simones,” wrote Roots drummer Questlove on Instagram in December.

In the past few months Giddens and the band Hurray for the Riff Raff have been corresponding on Twitter, praising each other’s protest songs and sharing other back and forth.

“This just dropped my jaw. @RhiannonGiddens is singing truth to power. Revolutionary music. Watch and share!” Hurray for the Riff Raff tweeted on July 15 in response to Giddens’ “Cry No More.”

And this is where protest music is heading in 2015, toward musicians communicating and making music together, rather than individually making songs and broadcasting them to their own networks, Giddens said.

“We should really be forming coalitions. Maybe five people don’t need to make protest songs; maybe five people need to collaborate and create one kick-ass protest song,” Giddens said. “We just need to let each other know we’re here and form a community, and I think that’s happening.”

Taking examples from within the past year, Monae’s “Hell You Talmbout” features members of her Wondaland Arts Society, including Jidenna, Roman GianArthur, Deep Cotton, St. Beauty and George 2.0. Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly features a host of collaborators, including George Clinton, Snoop Dogg, Sufjan Stevens and bassist Thundercat.

One of Giddens’ most powerful songs, “We Rise” was featured on the collaborative album We Are Not For Sale: Songs of Protest, by NC Music Love Army.

“While the whole world sings, sing it like a song. The whole world sings like there’s nothing going wrong,” Segarra sings on “The Body Electric.”

Flobots, an activist hip-hop group from Denver, is working to create a local collaborative atmosphere of protest music through "No Enemies." (Paul Aiken / Staff Photographer)

Flobots, an activist hip-hop group from Denver, is working to create a local collaborative atmosphere of protest music through “No Enemies.” (Paul Aiken / Staff Photographer)

In Denver, activist hip-hop group Flobots is working to create this collaborative atmosphere of protest music on a local level.

“How we see the role of music has really changed, especially this year,” said Flobots vocalist Jamie Laurie. “In the past we felt that making political music meant making music about social movements. Recently we’ve realized it’s more about making music for social movements.”

Within the last year, Flobots has started No Enemies, which Laurie describes as “movement choir practice.”

“In the last few years we’ve seen Black Lives Matter, Occupy and the Arab Spring that bring thousands of people together,” Laurie said. “Now the question is, what are the songs people can sing once they’re there? What are the songs that unify people and uplift people and give you courage and strength and joy in the midst of everything that people are facing?”

This is the question that No Enemies is looking to answer. With No Enemies, the Flobots host monthly rehearsals that bring together other musicians, community organizers and regular people to practice these songs.

“Everyone’s kind of coming to the same conclusion at the same time, whether it’s Janelle Monae or someone else,” Laurie said. “In the same way during the ’60s the Highlander Cultural Center, that’s where ‘We Shall Overcome’ came from. People were workshopping and changing them, and the folk culture of the time was about the idea that it wasn’t about ownership. It was about utility, and we’re starting to see that.”
HeyReverb.com is The Denver Post’s music blog.

 
 

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