Artists both black and white are using their medium – music – to acknowledge and raise awareness of the divisive topic that has been in our consciousness, and to narrow the chasm.
In the hours that followed the June 17 mass shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, Ian Holljes could wait no longer.
His Durham-based band, Delta Rae, had been tinkering with a stark protest song called “All Good People,” written in response to violence against African-Americans like Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice.
After Charleston, Holljes felt his “heartbreak and outrage” rising all over again. The next day, Delta Rae uploaded the track and its lyrics to YouTube:
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I watched from my window as they gunned down unarmed men
Tried to say it’s not my problem: couldn’t happen to my friends
But the truth is they’re my brothers, and they’re my countrymen
And if we lose our better angels, we won’t get them back again
That Delta Rae dared to sing about racial inequality makes them a rarity among modern rock, folk and country acts. More than 50 years after Bob Dylan wrote “The Times They Are a-Changin’,” it’s as challenging as ever for these mostly white musicians to sing earnestly, eloquently and effectively about race. They risk ridicule, being labeled privileged or unconsciously biased.
”There’s a nervousness about being a band made up of white men and women speaking out on this, but the more terrifying prospect is that we’d say nothing, and this stuff keeps happening,” Holljes said. “This is not something we’re standing silent on.”
This month marks a year since the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., an anniversary met with even more arrests and unrest. Across the country, the violence has not stopped. With every new Charleston or Baltimore, with each new Freddie Gray or Sam DuBose, the spectrum of artists electing to speak out expands. Silence is an option, but it’s not the only option.
In late July, a Black Lives Matter protest at Ohio’s Cleveland State University turned ugly. Police arrested a 14-year-old boy for alleged public intoxication and later pepper-sprayed an agitated crowd.
Then a chant broke out.
We gon’ be alright!
We gon’ be alright!
We gon’ be alright!
We gon’ be alright!
It was the chorus to “Alright,” a song about transcending racial frustration by rapper Kendrick Lamar. Alright directs some of its rage at the police (“We hate po-po / Wanna kill us dead in the street fo’ sho”), and its divisive video depicts white cops firing at black men. But in Cleveland, it was the song’s hopeful chorus that connected with protesters.
Hip-hop is the one genre in which racially conscious songwriting has always been not just prevalent, but welcomed, continuing a tradition set forth by the likes of Marvin Gaye, Nina Simone and Billie Holiday to articulate the black American experience. Over the last two years, rappers like Lamar, J. Cole and Wyclef Jean have written explicitly about high-profile police shootings, and the feelings that followed.
“These guys are bringing social consciousness and social agitation to their music,” Holljes said, “but they’re bearing almost the entire burden of speaking out on issues that are important.”
One might argue that black artists should lead the charge, said folk singer Peter Mulvey, whose song “Take Down Your Flag” went viral after Charleston.
“The best thing white people can do is listen,” he said.
But that doesn’t mean message music cannot, or should not, evolve. Drummer and musical omnivore Questlove of the Roots argued as much in December.
“I urge and challenge musicians and artists alike to push themselves to be a voice of the times that we live in,” he wrote on Instagram. “Although I’m kinda/sorta addressing the hip-hop nation I really apply this challenge to ALL artists. We need New Dylans, New Public Enemys, New (Nina) Simones, New (Zack) De La Rochas. New ideas!”
There was a time when this may have been easier – “when revolutionary, thoughtful music was also what was driving the culture,” Holljes said.
In 1970, Neil Young, one of the most socially conscious rock songwriters around, released “Southern Man,” a scathing indictment of bigotry lambasting those who burned crosses and whose ancestors cracked whips amid the “tall white mansions and little shacks” of the South.
In 2015, Young released The Monsanto Years, a scathing indictment of … Starbucks, Chevron and Walmart.
In the 21st century, it has proved safer to tackle topics like war (Green Day’s “Holiday”), economic policy (Bruce Springsteen’s “Death to My Hometown”), government intrusion (Muse’s “Drones”) sexism (Maddie and Tae’s “Girl in a Country Song”) and LGBT rights (Hozier’s “Take Me to Church”). An artist of, say, Katy Perry’s stature might tweet Sending my prayers to Ferguson & praying for an equal America, but would she ever sing those words out loud?
“Being a bit cynical,” Holljes said, “what’s the upside?”
Consider the repercussions of getting race wrong. “Accidental Racist,” an ill-conceived 2013 duet between country star Brad Paisley and LL Cool J, imagined a Dixie flag-clad “white man living in the Southland” and a “black Yankee” in a do-rag and gold chains, both lamenting how “the relationship between the Mason-Dixon needs some fixin’.” The song was universally panned; the African-American critic Ta-Nehisi Coates called it “laughable.” Paisley called it a “learning experience.”
Such criticism, it should be noted, is not limited to white artists. In 2013, Lil Wayne apologized to relatives of Emmett Till after making a profane reference to the slain civil rights figure in one of his verses. So deeply did the lyric offend Till’s family that his apology was not accepted.
Indie rock singer Kevin Devine bemoans what he calls “Tumblr politics” – the Internet’s tendency to explode over any issue involving race, from both the left and the right.
Devine wrestled with his own “white privilege” on “Talking Freddie Gray Blues,” a stark folk song inspired by attending a Black Lives Matter protest in New York. He grew up a police officer’s son in the Staten Island neighborhood where Eric Garner asphyxiated during a 2014 arrest, and his song confronts that deeply personal conflict head on.
“Talking Freddie Gray Blues” came quickly – “like a fever,” he said – but he admitted he hesitated about whether to release it. How would the Internet react? How would his family react? And of course: “How much need is there for another white, straight guy to tell you what he thinks about race in this country?”
Rhiannon Giddens, too, braced herself for backlash when she released the fierce gospel song “Cry No More” a month after Charleston.
“There’s such a backlash against even trying to talk about race,” said Giddens, the singer for the Durham-based African-American folk band the Carolina Chocolate Drops. “There’s an automatic kickback from the white community: ‘Oh, it’s not me; I’m not racist.’ Sometimes in the black community, there’s an overcorrection that’s too aggressive. We can’t even talk about it in conversation.”
But since premiering on NPR.org, Giddens’ striking video, filmed in a single take in a Greensboro church, has had more than 50,000 views.
“I thought a million trolls were going to come out of the woodwork,” she said. “But it got such a positive, powerful response. Even if that’s all it did – if one person just went, ‘Gosh, let me think about this some more. What else can I do?’ – that’s what we’re here for. That’s what musicians are here for.”
That, too, is why Devine ultimately released “Talking Freddie Gray Blues.”
“Anything Cornel West has to say or write about police and young, unarmed black men in this country is a better font of information and perspective than ‘Talking Freddie Gray Blues,’ ” he said. “But mine’s a 2½- minute song. That is always going to be easier to digest, easier to share and easier to wrap your head around.
“And there’s a permanence to it. Songs are meant to be sung.”
Will Hoge hails from Franklin, Tenn., the home of his alma mater, the Franklin Rebels. He grew up waving a Confederate flag at Friday night football games.
“It was never a racial issue with me,” said the alt-country singer. “It was just something like: ‘This is our thing. This is what we support.’”
Only later did he fully understand the flag’s corrosive power, how it symbolized something more hateful. “It is a racial thing,” he said. “Whether you want it to be or not, it is.”
After Charleston, the words came pouring out.
There’s a flag flying overhead, and I used to think it meant one thing
But now I’ve grown up and seen the world, and I know what it really means
I wanted it to be the symbol of a boy who wasn’t scared to take a stand
But now I know it’s just a hammer driving nails in a coffin of a long dead land.
Hoge’s voice and guitar snarl with rusty rage throughout “Still a Southern Man.” It’s every bit as biting, defiant and personal as a song by Kendrick Lamar; it’s just aimed at a different audience.
“I wanted it to have some teeth,” he said. “There’s some anger in it, because there’s some anger in my feelings toward (the flag). To look back and think that I was too small-minded to see past some of those things, a little bit of it is anger toward my younger self.”
These songs haven’t come without blowback – furious fans, Facebook name-calling, cries of reverse racism, even concerns over concert safety. But they also have had a tangible, measurable impact. Mulvey’s “Take Down Your Flag” was featured in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Huffington Post. It was covered by more than 200 artists including Ani DiFranco, Keb’ Mo’ and actor Jeff Daniels. And it led to an online benefit concert that raised about $3,500 for Emanuel AME Church.
Most importantly, Mulvey said, when the spotlight hit him, he tried to point his listeners toward African-American writers and activists like Isabel Wilkerson, Michelle Alexander, Ta-Nehisi Coates and Bree Newsome.
“The entire Black Lives Matter movement – and all of the social justice movements that are tied into it – they’re not trying to save the soul of black America,” Mulvey said. “They’re trying to save the soul of America.”
Giddens is organizing a spring tour with other protest singers of color – “multiple points of view in one show,” she said. Her goal is to focus and build on all of this outrage, rather than watch it die from the directionless malaise that felled Occupy Wall Street.
“There’s a crescendo that’s happening right now of this stuff, of the idea of protesting through music, and that’s really great,” she said. “The more that comes out, the more people will be empowered to do it.”
Delta Rae is donating its proceeds from All Good People to Emanuel AME Church.
“I’m very quick to recognize that we’re one small band from North Carolina; in so many ways it’s the least we can do to release a song about this,” Holljes said. “But it’s the beginning of getting our footing on this issue, and it’s what we can do as a band. And we’ll work to become a bigger band so that we can trumpet the message louder.”
Hoge is doing the same. Three weeks ago, his tour took him to Charleston. When it came time for “Still a Southern Man,” he said little from the stage; didn’t feel like preaching. The city, he felt, had heard enough of that.
“We just played the song,” he said.
The South Carolinians listened. There were no boos, Hoge said. Only cheers.
What: Stand United! A Benefit for Mother Emanuel A.M.E. & Briar Creek Baptist
When: Sunday, Aug. 23, doors open at 7 p.m. Show starts around 8 p.m.
Where: King’s Barcade, 14 W. Martin St., Raleigh. 919-833-1091
Admission: $10. 100 percent of proceeds go to the Rebuild the Churches fund, the ongoing reconstruction at Briar Creek, and the music ministry at Emanuel A.M.E.
Performers: Christy Smith (The Tender Fruit), Tamisha Waden (The Foreign Exchange), Tab-One (Kooley High) & Napoleon Wright II, Reid Johnson (Schooner) and The Originals