ENLG 125 Playlist: Music and Literature

Ornette Coleman once said that “Sound is to people what the sun is to light.” Sound is foundational to the human and it enhances our other senses. Like my previous Black Lives Matter playlist, I offer this playlist in relation to my ENGL 125 course focused on music, literature, and popular culture. Music is a through line of the two primary texts—Esi Edugyan’s Half-Blood Blues and Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen—and the anthemic refrain of Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” punctuates the final work studied in this course: Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. Music unifies and celebrates, but it can also resist and serve as protest. From Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” (write-up on my #BLM playlist) to Rage Against the Machine’s “Killing in the Name,” music has played an integral role in the pursuit of social justice. That all said, get comfortable. Grab a cup of tea, coffee, or your beverage of choice, and sit back and listen. 


Week One: Talking Heads, “Once in a Lifetime” and DJ Techné, “Another World”
Week Two: Feelin’ Blue: Johnson, Parker, Bessie, Billie, and Armstrong
Week Three (Half-Blood Blues): King Oliver, Bessie Smith, Jelly Roll Morton, Oscar Peterson, and Armstrong
Week Four (Half-Blood Blues): Louis Armstrong, “West End Blues” (1928) and Ella Fitzgerald, Ella in Berlin (1960)
Week 6 (Watchmen): Bob Dylan, “Desolation Row” (1965)
Week 7 (Watchmen): Nina Simone, “Pirate Jenny” and Billie Holiday, “You’re My Thrill”

Week One: Talking Heads, “Once in a Lifetime” and DJ Techné, “Portals”

Given that one of the short readings for this week was David Byrne speaking about the coronavirus as offering an opportunity for change, I thought it appropriate to include a song from the rock/new wave band he led for nearly 30 years: Talking Heads. Talking Heads have a number of albums that appear on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, and they are probably most known for their song, “Psycho Killer.” Another one of their well-known songs, and the focus of this week’s listening is the obfuscate, “Once in a Lifetime” (produced by Brian Eno from Remain in Light). Sonically, the song is inspired by the Afrobeat sound of Fela Kuti, and lyrically Byrne borrows from the cadences and antiphony of sermonizing preachers (see the lyrics). In part, the song deals with the pointlessness of not being content with what you have. It is impossible to remove the water at the bottom of the ocean and there is no way to stop the flow of life. There is certainly a lesson here, especially in terms of how we adapt and try to remain content during the challenges presented by COVID-19. In an interview with Time Out, Byrne describes how the song came from “evangelists I recorded off the radio while taking notes and picking up phrases I thought were interesting directions. Maybe I’m fascinated with the middle class because it seems so different from my life, so distant from what I do. I can’t imagine living like that.” The song has also been analyzed as an invective against consumerism, but the central question the song asks is “How did I get here?” A question, we can ask ourselves as individuals and as a species. On NPR, musician Travis Morrison praised the lyrics saying it is the perfect song: “The lyrics are astounding  they are meaningless and totally meaningful at the same time. That’s as good as rock lyrics get.” What do you hear in them, and does the technologically outdated, but certainly interesting, music video for the song clarify its meaning? Probably not, but check it out. 

Another song worth mentioning is Byrne’s Broadway cover of Janelle Monae’s anthemic “Hell You Talmbout,” which functions as a protest and uses call-and-response as the names of victims of police violence are shouted out. I am sharing the original Monae version, which feels as timely as ever, as it is not available on Spotify (but you can check out Byrne’s version there).

Lastly, I want to share my live track, “Portals.” The track opens with a sample from the Man Booker Prize-winning Indian novelist Arundhati Roy speaking about the coronavirus pandemic as a portal: “It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.” With systemic injustices more visible than ever, she asks us to use this opportunity to imagine another world, which is echoed in the second part of the performance as Sun Ra envisions music as another language. There is freedom in sound (especially when it is open to different styles) to dream and shape the future, which fits with Sun Ra’s vision of music as a gateway to a better world. If you listen closely, you will also hear vocal samples from Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Charles Mingus. Will we ignore the rupture the pandemic created and return to “normal,” or will we improvise and step through the portal into another world?

A slightly different version of song can be heard on my album, Portals

Week Two: Feelin’ Blue: Johnson, Parker, Bessie, Billie, AND Armstrong

“I contend that the Negro is the creative voice of America, is creative America, and it was a happy day in America when the first unhappy slave was landed on its shores.” —Duke Ellington, The Duke Ellington Reader, 147

“There is no true American music but the wild sweet melodies of the Negro slave.” —W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk 7

I realize there is a lot of music for this week. Too much to fully grasp the meaning of all of the songs, but hopefully even reading through these short write-ups and having the playlist playing while you read the material, or think through it, will prove helpful and insightful. Esi Edugyan also made a written playlist to accompany her text, which you can find on VIULearn in the folder for this week’s class. This week is all about the blues and jazz. 

The form of the blues comprises work songs, spirituals, field hollers, shouts, chants, and ballads, among other styles. However, it took some time before the blues were as classically ubiquitous and cross-cultural as they are today. As the Du Bois epigraph elucidates, and as James Weldon Johnson accurately predicted, “The day will come when this slave music will be the most treasured heritage of the American Negro” (Autobiography 1197). The blues plants the roots of much music: it is pervasive in jazz, provides the foundation of rhythm and blues, and the twelve-bar blues progression can even be heard throughout rock and roll. One particularly common feature of blues music is the blue note, which for expressive function is sung or played flattened or bent (from the minor 3rd to the major 3rd) relative to the pitch of the major scale. The idiom itself, “the blues,” refers to the “blue devils,” implicating melancholy and sadness with an early use of the term appearing in George Colman’s one-act farce Blue Devils. Some early innovators of the blues are W.C. Handy (known as the Father of Blues), Bessie Smith, Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Mamie Smith, Lead Belly, Robert Johnson, and too many others to list here. What is interesting to notice about this tentative list is how prominent women blues figures were in the creation, innovation, and dissemination of the blues, as female vaudeville blues singers were eminently popular in the 1920s.The blues genre—and the spirituals preceding it—helped materialize a classical African American canon of music (a formal counter canon to the European classical tradition), which provided potent standards off of which other artists could riff, beginning with the early spirituals. Case in point: the Negro Spirituals “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and “Go Down Moses” have been covered and recorded on thousands of records, becoming standards, with everyone from Louis Armstrong, Etta James, Duke Ellington, Johnny Cash, Parliament, The Grateful Dead, and hip-hop group Bone Thugs and Harmony covering the former, to everyone from Grant Green, Fats Waller, Archie Shepp, and Will Smith on the sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air covering the latter. The blues have the power to connect people across diverse backgrounds and time periods, and represents, as Black liberation theologian James H. Cone argues in The Spirituals and the Blues, “The power of the song in the struggle for black survival—that is what the spirituals and blues are about” (1).

Jazz, similar to the blues, is a distinct musical form, prominently of African American origin, which emerged in the United States in the early decades of the twentieth century, although ragtime from the 1890s is also a type of jazz. Similar to the blues, jazz incorporates, adapts, and subverts other musical elements, with early influences including “African and European music, American folk music, marching band music, plantation songs, spirituals and gospel music, minstrelsy, ragtime and the blues” (Stanbridge 286). Jazz is largely defined by its ability to amalgamate other forms, along with the music’s broader techniques, which include various rhythmic properties, from swing and syncopation to complex harmonic languages, as well as an overarching focus on improvisation. 

The first song I want to draw your attention to is Robert Johnson’s “Cross Road Blues” (also known as “Crossroads”). Recorded back in 1936 the song is about the crossroads in Mississippi—“I went to the crossroad, fell down on my knees”—where Johnson supposedly sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his musical talents. The song was popularized by Eric Clapton—who deeply admired Johnson—in the late ‘60s. Another standard and related Johnson track is “Me and the Devil Blues” (1937), which tells the story of the devil knocking on Johnson’s door and telling him that it’s time to go. Notice the call and response technique as various lines are repeated with some spontaneous vocal alteration. This antiphonic form is a big part of the blues and jazz, and it would later be heard in punk and hip-hop music. I remixed Johnson’s track with Bessie Smith’s “Devil’s Gonna Git You,” along with film and art, which you can view, here.  

Hopefully, you had the chance to read James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues,” which introduces us to a few pivotal figures of jazz, namely Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker. While Armstrong is redeemed in Half-Blood Blues, he is considered “old-time, down home crap” (although check out his “What Did I do to be so Black and Blue” for its persistent themes) by Sonny largely because he wants to play what is new and cutting edge for his time: Bebop music. I’ve written about the power of Bebop music and its relation to hip-hop before, but what is so exciting about Charlie Parker for Sonny is that he took the music somewhere completely new as heard in “Ko Ko” or “Ornithology,” which is a contrafact—that is, a newly created melody written over the chord progressions of another song, in this instance the standard “How High the Moon.” Sonny also covers “Am I Blue” (notably recorded and performed by Billie Holiday) and makes it his own.

Many of these songs would make for excellent choices for your close reading if you decide to go that route. 

Week Three (Half-Blood Blues): King Oliver, Bessie Smith, Jelly Roll Morton, Oscar Peterson, AND ARMSTRONG

I hope you are enjoying Half-Blood Blues. If you were finding the language and style difficult, I also hope that it is getting easier for you as you work through it. There are a number of musical references throughout the novel and this week I want to draw your attention to a few of them. 

“Crowder told Armstrong Hiero reminded him of King Oliver in his prime” (84) … “Have you ever seen King Oliver?” (111)

The novel talks a lot about Louis Armstrong (and later features him as a character) and Armstrong is considered one of the great innovators of jazz, but without King Oliver (1881-1938) we might not get Louis Armstrong. Oliver was both a mentor and teacher of Armstrong. As Armstrong says, in Satchmo: My Life In New Orleans, “if it had not been for Joe Oliver, Jazz would not be what it is today.” I’ve added both “Riverside Blues” and “Speakeasy Blues” to the Spotify playlist. 

“He was playing Empty Bed Blues, but doing it so coy it ain’t sound nothing like itself.” (122)

Bessie Smith was a major figure of the blues (we will watch the film Bessie about her in a few weeks), and she, along with others like Ma Rainey represent, as observed by Angela Davis, a “black working-class social consciousness,” while moreover they “foreshadowed a brand of protest that refused to privilege racism over sexism, or the conventional public realm over the private as the preeminent domain of power” (Blues Legacies 42). And so, (in tandem with its often-bawdy nature), the blues genre was, as Davis concludes, “responsible for the dissemination of attitudes toward male supremacy that had decidedly feminist implications” (55). In a moment that leaves Sid very jealous, Delilah and Hiero perform Bessie Smith’s “Empty Bed Blues” (originally from 1928). You can read the lyrics here and listen to the song below (also on the playlist).

What do you think this song is about? Read the lyrics while listening to the song and then come back here. I’ll wait…

Okay. Did you listen to the song and read the lyrics? It is full on innuendos about sex (“coffee grinder”) and even references performing cunnilingus: her new lover is a “deep sea diver” who can “stay down at the bottom” holding his breath. No wonder Sid is jealous. 

Deeply personal and explicit lyrics have always been part of the blues. At one point in the novel Jelly Roll Morton is mentioned. Born in 1890 Jelly Roll Morton is one of the earliest jazz artists and he even claimed to have invented the music in 1902 (this is disputed). He also played in Vancouver cabarets as early as 1919 and as late as 1921. He played piano, gambled, drank, told bawdy jokes, and sang during his residency at the Patricia in Vancouver. He also wrote some very explicit music, such as “Winin’ Boys Blues” (recorded by Alan Lomax in 1939). 

Warning: the song below is very explicit and you may find it offensive (lyrics, here). There’s a clean version of it on the Spotify playlist, as well as a version by singer Stephanie Niles with the original explicit lyrics. Does our understanding of the song change when a woman sings it?

“I’m from Montreal … Little Burgundy” (108). 

Alright, let’s end with something less dirty. We learn that Delilah is from Little Burgundy in Montreal, which is the home of famous jazz musicians Oliver Jones and Oscar Peterson. You can view a short Wikipedia article that I wrote about a legendary club in Little Burgundy named “Rockhead’s Paradise” if you want to learn a little more about the history. 

While there are number of Canadian jazz songs I could add, I will share one from Oscar Peterson. Drawing on the energy of the black church, and speaking across borders, Black Montreal-based musician Oscar Peterson conceived of “Hymn to Freedom,” which was sung in various places in the States as an anthem to the Civil Rights Movement.

Also, make sure you check out the clips from Jazz (posted to VIULearn) as they provide more detail about the man and legend, Louis Armstrong. In particular, see the short clip on the novelty number called “Heebie Jeebies,” which Armstrong sang with vocal improvisations. Innovation is often a result of chance, and Louis Armstrong’s impromptu scatting in “Heebie Jeebies” (the first scat caught on a recording) was the result of a mistake: as the legend goes, Armstrong’s lyric sheet fell while recording and so he began to scat/improvise.

You can hear the song (and the others) on the Spotify playlist

Week FOUR: Louis Armstrong, “West End Blues” (1928) and Ella Fitzgerald, Ella in Berlin (1960)

Louis Armstrong, “West End Blues”

It is hardly an understatement to say Louis Armstrong helped invent modern time. “West End Blues” is a multi-strain twelve-bar blues composition by Joe “King” Oliver that Armstrong uniquely makes his own. The opening is one of the great cadenzas in modern music and it helped define jazz as a soloist’s art. Make sure you watch the segment on “West End Blues” from Jazz in the lecture on VIULearn. Armstrong continues to inspire musicians, such as DJ Kid Koala, whose “Basin Street Blues” riffs on another Armstrong track. 

Also, worth mentioning is Ella Fitzgerald’s incredible live album, Mack the Knife: Ella in Berlin (1960)In her version of “Mac the Knife,” Ella forgot the lyrics and improvised new ones on the spot showing her incredible skill as a consummate improviser. 

Ella Fitzgerald, “Mack the Knife”

Equally impressive and one of the best scat performances ever recorded is Ella’s version of “How Hight the Moon.” The way Ella uses her voice like a horn, her references to Charlie Parker’s “Ornithology,” and her ability to improvise upon a standard, is absolutely stunning. One must simply hear it to believe it. Enjoy. 

Ella Fitzgerald, “How High the Moon”

Week 6 (Watchmen): Bob Dylan, “Desolation Row” (1965)

At midnight all the agents
And the superhuman crew
Come out and round up everyone
That knows more than they do

-Bob Dylan, “Desolation Row”

As Dave Gibbons—the illustrator behind Watchmen—wrote in his 2013 preface to the book: “It began with Bob Dylan.” This song formed the spark that would one day ignite Watchmen: “These lines must have also lodged in Alan’s consciousness for, nearly twenty years later, Dylan’s words eventually provided the title of the first issue of our comic book series WATCHMEN.” I hardly have the space here to describe a song like “Desolation Row” in detail, but I suggest you listen to the song in its entirety with the lyrics (and detailed notes) open on Genius. The song is an 11-minute epic of entropy (comprised of 10 verses) that features a large cast of iconic characters (historical, biblical, fictional, and literary). The song was the final song on Dylan’s classic, Highway 61 Revisited and the lyrics move between the surreal and the hardships and realities of the Holocaust and post-World War II society. Desolation Row plays on the expression “skid row,” which is used to describe a seedy run-down part of town. Some interpretations have read the song as an allegory for the Holocaust, but part of the power of the song is that it resists simple interpretation, much like the graphic novel we are now reading. The band, My Chemical Romance performed a cover of the song for the 2009 soundtrack of Watchmen, but that film actually opens with another Dylan song.

Even three chapters in, you’ve likely noticed that music runs through the veins of Watchmen as chapters and themes are shaped by individual songs and artists. A song like Dylan’s “Desolation Row,” which moves across time and space from Nero to Einstein, speaks to the possibilities of the graphic novel as an artform informed by music (and other media). The first three chapters also feature Elvis Costello’s “The Comedians,” Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries,” The Police’s “Walking on the Moon,” and references to The Beatles and Elvis (but while you likely know his version of “Hound Dog,” how many know of Big Mama Thornton’s earlier, and frankly, better version). These have all been added to the playlist.   

Also, check out the student playlist comprised of songs from your close readings:

Week 7 (Watchmen): Nina Simone, “Pirate Jenny” and Billie Holiday, “You’re My Thrill”

The majority of the musical references in today’s Watchmen readings are in Chapter 7, but there is also a coded one in Chapter 5. In Chapter 5, The Black Freighter (a reference from “Pirate Jenny”) takes on symbolic meaning in the comic-within-the-comic as a revenge fantasy, but the song is also endued with the spirit of overcoming anti-Black racism. The use of music in Chapter 7 highlights Dan and Laurie’s age gap, their nostalgia for the past, and their unfolding romance.

“Pirate Jenny” is a song from The Threepenny Opera written by Brecht and composer Kurt Weill. In Half-Blood Blues we listened to “Mack the Knife” from that same opera. Nina Simone included the song on her 1964 album, Nina Simone in Concert, which featured other civil right songs such as “Old Jim Crow” and a track we previously listened to, “Mississippi Goddam.” “Pirate Jenny” is a song about a maid who imagines herself getting vengeance for the contempt she endures from the townspeople. She teams up with pirates from the Black Freighter and kills everyone and sails away to sea. Simone adapts the song into an African American context and uses “The Black Freighter” as “metaphor for an African-American force powerful enough to destroy the racism and intolerance of the American South. Simone did not perform the song often, saying that it took so much energy out of her that it took her seven years to recover each time” (Mary Borsellino, Watchmen and Music). It is also worth noting that the song was a major influence on Bob Dylan who would record “Desolation Row” (the genesis of Watchmen) just a few years later. 

Here’s Simone’s 1964 live version, but also check out her live version from 1992 that provides important context

In Chapter 7 we get a number of music references, including Devo, Billie Holiday, and Nat King Cole. Many of these references are picked up in both the Snyder film and Lindelof’s HBO series, including Nat King Cole’s “Unforgettable” and Billie Holiday’s “You’re My Thrill.” In part, music functions as a cultural marker of connection or disconnection and it highlights the stark difference between Laurie and Dan in terms of age. Laurie’s Devo reference goes over Dan’s head while Laurie is unable to recognize the voice of Billie Holiday, which plays just before they have sex. 

#BLM Playlist: Revolution, Protest, and Peace

There is a specificity to Black voice and song, as Afrosporic poet and critic M. NourbeSe Philip describes in her engagement with Lindon Barrett’s Blackness and Value: Seeing Double, which “come[s] out of a particular history of pain, trauma and a determination to make meaning of one’s life no matter what; it is sound lodged in commitment to matter to and value one’s self and one’s community in the face of a culture that continues to assert that Black lives lack meaning and are irrelevant except and in so far as they are useful” (Blank 24). The history of Black music in North America is deeply embedded in a Black radical tradition which responds to the abject violence of slavery and Anti-Black Racism through unscripted performances, shouts, moans, and cries; furthermore, the history also concerns traditions of celebration, signifyin’, unity, play, and constant revision. From Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” to Rage Against the Machine’s “Killing in the Name,” music has played a part in the pursuit of social justice for a long time.

I offer this playlist—a song a day for the rest of the month of June—in response to ongoing civil unrest in the United States, and in solidarity with those protesting the killing of George Floyd who was himself a hip-hop artist. One can draw a line from Emmett Till to Michael Stewart to Trayvon Martin to Michael Brown to Sandra Bland to George Floyd, but one could also connect that line to a divergent one that includes Canada’s own Anti-Black police violence and Anti-Black Racism, which includes the recent deaths of Andrew Loku, Jermaine Carby, and Regis Korchinski-Paque to name but a few. The playlist (in progress) offers a small sampling of songs in support of Black Lives and in the spirit of revolution, protest, and peace. Some of the songs are rightfully angry, some confront Anti-Black Racism (as we all should), and others offer medicine and healing. The entire world benefits from the excellence and power of Black words, art, protest, and song. Listen! #BlackLivesMatter

Also, please considering donating to any of the following:


June 3: Kendrick Lamar, “Alright” (2015)
June 4: Gil Scott-Heron, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” (1970)
June 5: Tracy Chapman, “Talkin’ Bout A Revolution” (1988)
June 6: Three Songs from Run the Jewels 4 (2020)
June 7: Public Enemy, “Fight the Power” (1989)
June 8: N.W.A., “Fuck tha Police” (1988) et al. 
June 9: Eight Canadian Hip-Hop Songs that Speak to Anti-Black and Anti-Indigenous Racism in Canada
June 10: Prince, “Baltimore” (2015)
June 11: John Coltrane, “Alabama (1964)
June 12: Nina Simone: “Mississippi Goddam” (1964)
June 13: Odetta, “Spiritual Trilogy: “Oh Freedom / Come and Go with Me / I’m on My Way” (1956)
June 14: Rhiannon Giddens, “Cry No More” (2015) and “At the Purchaser’s Option” (2017)
June 15: Childish Gambino, “This is America” (2018)
June 16: Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln, “Triptych: Prayer, Protest, and Peace” (1960)
June 17: Lillian Allen, “The Subversives” and “I Fight Back” (1986)
June 18: Beyoncé, “Formation” (2016)
June 19: Anderson .Paak, “Lockdown” (2020)
June 20: Marvin Gaye, “What’s Going On” and “Inner City Blues” (1971)
June 21: Brother Ali, “Dear Black Son” (2017)
June 22 and 23: Dead Kennedys, Nazi Punks Fuck Off (1981), Bad Brains, “I Against I” (1986), and The 1865, “Buckshot” (2019)
June 24: The Honey Drippers, “Impeach the President” (1973)
June 25: Sly and the Family Stone, “Stand!” (1969)
June 26: Billie Holiday and Nina Simone, “Strange Fruit” (1939 | 1965)  
June 27: Alice Coltrane, “Om Shanti” (1987) et al. 
June 28: Bob Marley, “Redemption Song” (1980)
June 29: Oscar Peterson, “Hymn to Freedom” (1962)
June 30: Sam Cooke, “A Change is Gonna Come” (1964) 


Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly provides an Umwalzung—that is, revolution—through a complete overturning of prior mainstream hip-hop album templates, as Lamar enacts one of the most ferocious black chants ever to appear on a hip-hop record. The album’s unforgiving blackness is important, because it reminds white and non-Black listeners that sometimes we need to sit down and listen to the conversation that is taking place rather than try to control or shape it. “Alright” captured the spirit of protest at the time, and feels just as relevant now. From Greg Tate: “Lamar’s “Alright” has been touted by many a comrade in today’s student activist cadre as their “We Shall Overcome.”

Listen to the song on my Spotify playlist (with a song added each day), and if you haven’t seen the video, which remains as relevant some 5 years later, make sure you do: 

June 4: Gil Scott-Heron, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” (1970)

Both The Last Poets and Gil Scott-Heron linked poetry and music/jazz together, and their proto-rap lyrics and politics were major influences on hip-hop culture (also see). Scott-Heron has a number of incredible poems/ songs, but his most deeply embedded in the pop culture zeitgeist is “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” (first from Small Talk at 125th and Lenox). In part, Scott-Heron was responding to The Last Poet’s “When the Revolution Comes” (1970), which opens with “When the revolution comes some of us will probably catch it on TV” (also included on the Spotify playlist). In this current era of fake news and mass media, Scott-Heron’s anthem remains a staple of protest and Black social revolution. The song calls on Americans (and we can extend that beyond American borders) to wake up and realize that the revolution happens in the streets and not behind a television set (or in this day, an iPhone). The revolution lives on!

June 5: Tracy Chapman, “Talkin’ Bout a Revolution” (1988)

Written during the Regan era, Tracy Chapman’s “Talkin’ Bout a Revolution” is about what empowers people to revolt and protest (“to rise up and take what’s theirs”), as well as a warning to those who stand in the way of change: “Don’t you know you better, run, run, run … Finally the tables are starting to turn.” In 1990, Chapman sang the song at a Free South Africa concert where she met Nelson Mandela, and in 2016 it was the unofficial theme for Bernie Sanders’ 2016 campaign. The song remains incredibly pertinent in its call for revolution. 

Listen to the song on my Spotify playlist (with a song added each day).

June 6: Three Songs from Run the Jewels 4 (2020)

I’ve been listening to EL-P and Killer Mike since the early 2000s and so I was thrilled when the two formed Run the Jewels back in 2013. Every album they’ve released has been a banger, and their fourth installment feels like their most mature work. They’ve always been a political group, as evident on many songs—the video for “Close Your Eyes (And Count To F**k)” feels germane for this moment—or statements by Killer Mike,  but the fervour of dissent in their fourth offering feels louder and more urgent with recent protests and Anti-Black racism and killings in North America. One of the most powerful verses on the entire album comes from Killer Mike on “Walking in the Snow” where he raps: “And you so numb you watch the cops choke out a man like me / Until my voice goes from a shriek to whisper, ‘I can’t breathe’ / And you sit there in the house on couch and watch it on TV.” Given this track was recorded months ago it is about Eric Garner, but it is also inadvertently about George Floyd too. Despite the nearly six years between these events, and the very public spectacle of the unjust killings, the lyrics underscore the perpetual cycle of America’s racist violence. This spirit of protest—although the album is still full of the usual braggadocio lyricism the two are known for—runs through the veins of the album. The first single (released back in late April)—“Ooh La La”— is a homage to the old school for the present moment and features veterans DJ Premier and Greg Nice. The video for the song, as described by RTJ “is a fantasy of waking up on a day that there is no monetary system, no dividing line, no false construct to tell our fellow man that they are less or more than anyone else.” I’d also be remiss to not mention ““JU$T,” which features Pharrell Williams and Rage Against the Machine’s Zack de la Rocha and a classic protest chorus: “Look at all these slave masters posin’ on yo’ dollar (Get it, yeah).” Kill Your Masters. 

June 7: Public Enemy, “Fight the Power” (1989)

Public Enemy’s anthemic “Fight the Power” was written at the request of film director Spike Lee who was looking for a musical theme for his 1989 film, Do the Right Thing.  The song remains one of the greatest protest songs of all time, and its militancy can be heard in both its lyrics and sound (which features samples from Civil Rights refrains, the black church, and the music of James Brown, including the line “I’m black and I’m proud”). Sadly, after I played Do the Right Thing in a FILM 101 class last year, I had many white students focus on the loss of Sal’s Pizzeria while the murdering of Radio Raheem didn’t register. The reality of “We Can’t Breathe” remains and is part of a continuum that stretches back to slavery. Lee’s film was inspired by a 1986 event, where a young black man, Michael Griffith, was chased by Italians and then killed by a car. With this background, and throughout the film, the refrain of Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” functions like a Greek Chorus. Coming from the ghetto blaster of Radio Raheem, we are given a sonic metaphor for what it is like to walk in stereo.  Like the “love” and “hate” brass knuckles that adorn the hands of Radio Raheem (and like Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” blasting out of his portable ghetto blaster), we need to find ways to use love to battle the hate that cannibalizes North America. We need to continue to find creative, positive, hopeful, and, at times, militant ways, “to fight the powers that be.” 

Note 1: Spike Lee directed the video for “Fight the Power” and staged a protest/ live performance. Lee opens the video with footage from the 1963 March on Washington, which transitions to a staged political rally in  Brooklyn named the “Young People’s March to End Racial Violence.”

Note 2: I’ve also added Brown’s Black Power classic “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud” (1968) to the playlist. 

June 8: N.W.A., “Fuck tha Police” (1988) et al. 

Hip-hop’s didactic function is in part its ability to trouble, as heard in N.W.A.’s anti-police brutality and anti-racial profiling anthem “Fuck tha Police,” which drew the ire of the FBI and which repeats the phrase “fuck tha police” multiple times in the chorus. “Fuck tha Police” appears on the group’s 1988 album, Straight Outta Compton: the song portrays a mock court scene, in which the Police Department is put on trial. The song itself has been translated into other mediums and genres and was covered by the alternative rock group Rage Against the Machine. Rage Against the Machine are, of course, known for “Killing in the Name” (1992), which was written in relation to institutional racism and police brutality: “Some of those that work forces are the same that burn crosses.” N.W.A.’s ire comes from a similar place although it is located specifically within the community of young black youths in Compton (it is worth noting that the Compton Police Department was disbanded by the City Council in 2000). The song’s violent and anti-authoritarian message provokes response by stating that the Compton police “have the authority to kill a minority.” Rather than simply dismiss an intentionally incendiary song, it is better to look at the ethos that creates anger towards the establishment in the first place, recalling Curtis Mayfield’s defense of the honest depiction of poverty and social violence in blaxploitation films; he believes that “the way you clean up the films is by cleaning up the street. The music and movies of today are the conditions that exist. You change music and movies by changing the conditions” (qtd. in Wax Poetics, “Gangster Boogie” 88). Back in 1991, 2pac responded to police brutality on songs like “I Don’t Give a Fuck” and “Violent” and systemic educational racism by rapping: “No Malcolm X in my history text, why is that? / Cause he tried to educate and liberate all blacks” (2pacalypse, “Words of Wisdom”).  Other notable songs, although there are far too many to name here, include KRS-One’s “Sound of Da Police” (1993), Dead Prez’s “Police State” (2000), Jay Dilla’s “Fuck the Police” (2001), Vince Staples’s “Hands Up (2014), and Nas’s “Cops Shot the Kid” (2018). Depending on context, it’s time to reform, defund, or disband police, as there our other alternative (and even hybrid) possibilities.  Tomorrow, I will focus on a few songs in a Canadian context. 

June 9: Eight Canadian Hip-Hop Songs that Speak to Anti-Black and Anti-Indigenous Racism in Canada

Clearly, I am going beyond the song a day scope of this project, but there is far too much to cover, and even this playlist barely scratches the surface. Just in the context of Canadian hip-hop, there could easily be 100s of songs listed here. 

There is a long history of hip-hop culture and music in Canada as well as a long history of Black resistance going back to slavery in Canada. Critic Rinaldo Walcott usefully contends that “what is at stake in Canadian hip hop is a refiguring of an elaboration of the urban landscape of Canada and by extension the urban landscape of North America—black and otherwise” (“Methodology” 239). In Canadian hip-hop, narratives of belonging and unbelonging resist simple reductions of multiculturalism and ask us to reconsider the scope of Anti-Black racism, the nation-state, and geographical boundaries.

The first track is from Maestro Fresh Wes. Maestro Fresh Wes’s 1989 “Let Your Backbone Slide” was the first Canadian hip-hop single to break into the US Billboard chart. But, it is his track Nothin’ At All” (1991) from his follow-up album that I want to highlight, which directly looks at Canada as country a “plagued with racism.” Despite this, Wes rightly celebrates Black excellence.

No playlist would be complete without a little Kardinal Offishall, and Everyday (Rudebwoy)” (2005) speaks directly to Kardinal’s experience as a Black man in Toronto: “So where I rest I’m stressed by the 5-0 (Here we go) / Cops drive around the turf, lookin’ for someone to search / With they flashlights checkin’ in my dashboard (Whatchu lookin’ for?).”

Few Canadian hip-hop artists (other than Drake) have had the level of international success that rapper/ poet K’naan has, and few Canadian hip-hop songs are as well-known as K’naan’s song of global fraternity, “Wavin’ Flag.” K’naan was born in Somalia in 1978 and grew up in the violent capital of Mogadishu until the Somali Civil War struck in 1991. Much of his earlier music also speaks to his experience in Rexdale in Toronto, which has a large Somali community. K’naan brings us directly into the struggle that he embodies, even in a supposedly safe space like Toronto (particularly, Rexdale), and calls together a community of post-sufferers in the anthemic track, “Strugglin’” (2006) one of K’naan’s first singles from The Dusty Foot Philosopher. 

Next is a track (and feature) from one of my favourite rappers, Shad. Black Canadian rap artist Shad relates the crazed infatuation with Blackness to the roles he is expected to perform as a black man in Canada as a form of mental slavery: “With mental slavery, the shackles is loose / And it’s hard to cut chains when they attached at the roots” (Old Prince, “Brother Watching,” 2007). The next track is “24 (Toronto Remix)” ( 2020) by Tobi—a Nigerian-Canadian rapper— and features Shad along with Haviah Mighty, Jazz Cartier, and Ejji Smith. The lyrics and video are both incredibly poignant, and Shad’s verse is a standout. See the video

Toronto rapper Spek Won makes politically charged hip-hop and his jazzy “Black Body” (2015), featuring Shi Wisdom, recalls the past for the present moment, especially as Shi Wisdom incorporates lyrics from the powerful and iconic “Strange Fruit” for the chorus. See an interview with Spek Won with Exclaim!, here.

Lastly, I thought it worth mentioning two songs (there are so many more) from Indigenous hip-hop artists based in Canada who also face police brutality and oppression in Canada. War Party’s first album, The Reign, put First Nations rappers on the Canadian Hip Hop radar: their song Feelin’ Reserved” (2000) was the first major First Nations Hip Hop music video to get rotation on Much Music; furthermore, War Party won the Aboriginal Music Award for best rap album in 2000. In a conversation with Tara Henley of Vancouver’s Georgia Straight, Rex Smallboy (the de facto leader of War Party) states that it was natural for Indigenous youth to adopt Hip Hop as a mode of expression: “When I heard a lot of the African-American artists talking about what they saw in their communities, the social conditions, that made me take a look at what was going on in my own neighborhood […] This is the reserve—this is not Compton; this is not the Bronx” (“Beyond the Reserve”). In War Party’s The Reign, there is no romanticizing of life on the reserve: “it is depicted as a place of loss, degradation, and ultimately as an endless reminder of the effects of colonization.

There are now so many important Indigenous artists making politically charged music in Canada, but it’s been incredible to watch the rise of Haisla Nation duo, Snotty Nose Rez Kids. Their latest, Trapline, is full of deft lyricism, unique beats that mix classic hip-hop with trap, and raw truths. They recently released a song entitled “Cops With Guns Are the Worst!!!” (2020), which animates the track’s title well. 

For more on Canadian Hip Hop, check out the Northside Hip Hop project by director Mark V. Campbell. 

June 10: Prince, “Baltimore” (2015)

A few days back, on June 7, Prince’s Estate released a lyric video for Prince’s 2015 song “Baltimore” in honour of Prince’s Birthday and George Floyd. The estate also released a handwritten note from the musician that read: “Nothing more ugly in the whole wide world than intolerance [between] black, white, red, yellow, boy or girl. Intolerance.” “Baltimore” was written as a response to the death of Baltimore’s Freddie Gray who died in 2015 while in police custody, which led to large protests in the city. The funk-driven song is part protest and part peace anthem, and was performed live in Baltimore at the Rally 4 Peace, which provided some needed healing for many in the city. Given that Minneapolis is Prince’s hometown, one can only imagine about how sad he would feel about the killing of George Floyd. As he recognized, adapting a popular political slogan dating back to the 1986 murder of Michael Griffith: “If there ain’t no justice, then there ain’t no peace” (“Baltimore”). 

June 11: John Coltrane: “Alabama” (1964)

So much of the music of John Coltrane is intricate and dense, at times intensely beautiful and at others primal and unsettling. Coltrane’s music was also very spiritual as he envisioned a cosmic understanding of peace. Arguably, there is always a politics at work in jazz, but one of Coltrane’s most directly political tracks is “Alabama” (1964) from Live at Birdland. “Alabama” was a direct response to the 1963 bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. The attack was orchestrated by the KKK and it left four young girls dead and another twenty-two injured. This act of white American terrorism was a turning point in the Civil Rights Movement as mass support grew for the Civil Rights Act of 1964. 

June 12: Nina Simone: “Mississippi Goddam” (1964)

Nina Simone might just be my favourite singer. She’s also a very talented pianist and she spent the summer of 1950 training at Julliard to apply to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. She wasn’t accepted and believed it was because she was a Black woman. Nina Simone has a number of protest songs that deal with the Black experience, including “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free,” “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” “Four Women,” “Why? The King of Love is Dead,” and others (I’ve added a number to the playlist).  One of the most memorable protest songs written by Simone is “Mississippi Goddam,” which was an impassioned response to the 1963 murder of Civil Rights leader Medgar Evers, as well as the same church bombing that inspired Coltrane’s “Alabama.” The song was banned in several Southern states, in part because of the use of “Goddam” in the title. Simone uses the jaunty show-tune structure to deliver a powerful song that speaks out against the brutality of state-sanctioned violence towards African Americans who were denied the rights of citizenship. The song was performed in front of 10,000 people at the end of the Selma Marches when she and other Black activists crossed police lines. 

June 13: Odetta, “Spiritual Trilogy: “Oh Freedom / Come and Go with Me / I’m on My Way” (1956)

Odetta has been referred to as “The Voice of the Civil Rights Movement,” and Martin Luther King, Jr. called her the Queen of American Folk music. She influenced a number of folk musicians including Bob Dylan and Janis Joplin, and her music mixed folk, blues, and spirituals. All of her music is worth checking out, but I want to highlight her “Spiritual Trilogy” (1956) because, as Black liberation theologian James H. Cone argues in The Spirituals and the Blues, “The power of the song in the struggle for black survival—that is what the spirituals and blues are about” (1). The spirituals affirm unity and Black humanity though a communal context, and Odetta was a consummate performer of the tradition. 

June 14: Rhiannon Giddens, “Cry No More” (2015) and “At the Purchaser’s Option” (2017)  

This weekend I am focusing on Black folk music, and one of the most talented musicians working in folk music today is Rhiannon Giddens. “At the Purchaser’s Option” (2017) is based on an advertisement from the 1830s of a young black woman for sale. In the song, Giddens asserts the woman’s humanity against the horrific conditions she finds herself in. The other song I want to share is “Cry No More” (2015), which was written as a direct response to the Charleston church shooting in which nine African Americans were killed during a Bible study by a white terrorist. The song is fairly bare bones and features Giddens’s voice and drum, and a choir. The song reaches deep into the annals of history with the refrain, “I can’t cry no more:” 

Five hundred years of poison (I can’t cry no more
Five hundred years of grief (I can’t cry no more)
Five hundred years of reasons (I can’t cry no more)
To weep with disbelief (I can’t cry no more)

See the moving video (unfortunately it is not available on Spotify) and check out more from Giddens’s discography!

June 15: Childish Gambino, “THIS IS America” (2018)

Childish Gambino’s “This is America” (2018) is an obvious choice for the playlist, but both the song and video remain a visceral and surreal statement for addressing gun violence, racism, and police brutality in America: “This is America / Don’t catch you slippin’ now / Look at how I’m livin’ now / Police be trippin’ now / Yeah, this is America.” In the video, directed by Hiro Murai, who also directed the incredible “Teddy Perkins” episode of Atlanta, Gambino plays with the Jump Jim Crow caricature, as he directly deals with America’s persistent violence. Other recent hip-hop songs—also added to the playlist—that tackle America’s history of violence and Anti-Black racism include Kevin Abstract’s “Miserable America” (2016), Common’s “Black America Again” (2016), Joey Bada$$’s “Land of the Free” (2017), and JAG’s “Kapernick Effect” (2018). 

You’ve likely seen the video for Gambino’s “This is America,” but even if you have, it’s worth another close watch. 

June 16: Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln, “TRIPTYCH: Prayer, Protest, and Peace” (1960)

There are a lot of political jazz records—a somewhat recent example being Wadada Leo Smith’s Ten Freedom Summers (2012)—but a major landmark album is the 1960s Civil Rights-focused album, We Insist: Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite. The standout—for me and many—on the album is “Triptych: Prayer, Protest, and Peace,” which is an improvised collaboration between Roach on drums and Abbey Lincoln on vocals. Abbey’s voice is remarkable, and the wordless performance feels visceral. The song climaxes with Lincoln’s screams and cries, as she traces the parallels between the African American experience and slavery and apartheid in South Africa. Be prepared as it is a fairly intense, but essential listen.

June 17: Lillian Allen, “The Subversives” and “I Fight Back” (1986)

Dub poetry is a form of performance poetry with a West Indian aesthetic and origin. It evolved out of dub music comprised of spoken word pieces over reggae rhythms and Nyabinghi traditions in Jamaica beginning in the 1970s, and a number of Caribbean immigrant women have used the form to articulate their experience upon emigrating to Canada. Dub is an immigrant art form: it is an articulation and performance of citizenship rights, often across borders and through cross-cultural connections to diasporic communities. Black women have used poetry and music to fight back and resist, and in an American context we hear this in the work of Jayne Cortez, Sonia Sanchez, and Nikki Giovanni (see the playlist). In Canada, we hear this same resistance in the work of dub poets (although hardly limited to that form) Lillian Allen, Afua Cooper, d’bi.young, Ahdri Zhina Mandiela, among many others. Lillian Allen is one of the founding mothers of dub poetry in Canada and her first two albums won the Juno Award for Best Reggae/Calypso Album (for Revolutionary Tea Party in 1986 and Conditions Critical in 1988). Allen is a trailblazer in the field of spoken word and dub, and her album Revolutionary Tea Party is a good starting place for getting into her music and poetry as she translates her diasporic experience into “new forms” (“The Subversives”). In “I Fight Back” she reminds us that in a “just” country like Canada they label her “Immigrant, Law-breaker, Illegal, Minimum Wager / Ah no, Not Mother, Not Worker, Not fighter / And I Fight Back.” See her live performance of “I Fight Back” at the Shipdeck Stage, Harbourfront Toronto in 1988 for the WOMAD Festival.

June 18: Beyoncé, “Formation” (2016)

Back in 2016, we got to see notions of Malcolm X’s “Black is Beautiful” (à la Steve Biko) and “By any means necessary” reach millions vis-à-vis Beyoncé’s charged Super Bowl performance of “Formation” (the closing track of Lemonade). The performance, which featured dancers dressed as Black Panthers getting into the “Formation” of an X (an icon of identity, resistance, and the human right for self-identification), was a fervid Black Power anthem and a call to arms. The video for “Formation,” directed by Melina Matsoukas, who made her film directorial debut in 2019 with Queen and Slim, is itself a resonant intervention into the popular imagination concerning the #BlackLivesMatter movement, and it unapologetically celebrates roots and history while disavowing white supremacy’s desire to control Black cultural narratives. It’s remarkable to see the intersection of aesthetics and politics taking place in popular music, as new Black radical thinkers, activists, writers, and musicians provide the soundtrack for the current zeitgeist. Beyoncé and the various poets and filmmakers who worked on Lemonade enact their own resistive formation to reclaim subjectivity and Black womanhood.

Here’s a list of “Six Beyoncé Pieces By Women of Color That You Should Read Right Now.”

Check out the video for “Formation” below:

June 19: Anderson .Paak, “Lockdown” (2020)

Today is Juneteenth, which commemorates the liberation of enslaved African-Americans on June 19, 1865. It is a day to honour Black resistance, excellence, and freedom from slavery (at least in one form). There are a number of spirituals that would be fitting for today, but both Anderson .Paak and Public Enemy dropped a new song in the last 24 hours, and both speak to the ongoing struggle for the liberation of Black people. Because I’ve already posted on Public Enemy (but check out “State of the Union (STFU)” on the playlist), I am focusing on Anderson .Paak’s “Lockdown,” which speaks to the COVID-19 lockdown as a kind of container that makes systemic injustices more visible than ever, and which overfills and explodes as we’ve seen in recent protests: “You shoulda been downtown, the people are rising / We thought it was a lock down … Sicker than the covid how they did him on the ground / Speaking of the covid is it still goin around? / Oh why don’t you tell me bout the lootin what’s that really all about? / Cause they throw away Black lives like paper towels.” It’s often easier to talk about the past, but I feel that Anderson really captures this moment in relation to the ongoing struggle for Black liberation. Also, if you haven’t seen The Free Nationals featuring Anderson .Paak’s Tiny Desk Concert, do yourself a favour and watch that! ✊🏾

June 20: Marvin Gaye, “What’s Going On” and “Inner City Blues” (1971)

“For only love can conquer hate.”
—Marvin Gaye, “What’s Going On”

“Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” 
—Martin Luther King, Jr., Strength to Love 47

I am reminded of how Nelson Mandela, while in prison, drew strength—momentarily dissolving the prison walls—while listening to Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On”: an anti-war, anti-poverty, and anti-injustice post-Civil Rights anthem (Gilroy, The Black Atlantic). Mandela was able to draw power from the energy of the Civil Rights Movement in the States and relate it to his own struggles in apartheid South Africa. “What’s Going On” (the album and the song) are a powerful statement about the state of the world (across borders) and the specific Black struggle within it. The lyrics could have been written yesterday: “Mother, mother / There’s far too many of you crying / Brother, brother, brother / There’s far too many of you dying …/ Picket lines and picket signs / Don’t punish me with brutality / Talk to me, so you can see / Oh, what’s going on.” So many people know and love this album, but as composer and trumpeter Terence Blanchard has recently pointed out, “how many people listen to the groove and the melody of this song, without really hearing the words. And that made me realize that many well-meaning people have heard only the melody of our plight, without knowing what the song means for us.” Blanchard goes on to say that now is the time (an echo of MLK. and Charlie Parker before him) to “see the pain that doesn’t go away. To understand the smile that hides the immense hurt.” There is a connection between aesthetics and rhetoric (sound and meaning)—how a song sounds can be instrumental in conveying its meaning, and as listeners, especially those of us on the outside looking in, we need to work to understand that and feel it as much as is possible. The other incredibly relevant song from the same album (manifesto?) is “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler),” which speaks to the bleak economic situation of inner-city America, a holler that is echoed as African Americans bear the brunt of COVID-19’s economic impact. Both songs, and a few covers of “Inner City Blues” (Sly Dunbar and Etta James) are now on the playlist.

An official video for the song was released in 2019, and was shot in Detroit and Flint Michigan: 

June 21: Brother Ali, “Dear Black Son” (2017)

Today is Father’s Day. George Floyd’s three kids—the youngest is 6—will not get to see their Dad today and that is truly horrible for so many reasons. It’s never too early to start talking to kids about race and to teach them to be Anti-racist.

Rapper and activist Brother Ali is known for his adept lyrics, and as a legally blind albino and Muslim, he has dealt with his share of being seen as different. As he raps on “US,” “can’t nobody be free unless we’re all free/ there’s no me and no you it’s just us” (“Us”). One of his most touching songs is “Dear Black Son” (2017), and on the track he addresses his black son directly, explaining that there are racist people who have stereotypes of him based on his skin colour, including police officers who mask their fears and racism as self-defence: “Dear Black Son, there’s people you’ve never met / Who fear and hate you for something that you never did / And these people are so self-convinced / Sometimes they pull the trigger, call that self-defence.” See the song on the playlist, as well as Brother Ali’s breakdown of the song, below:

June 22 and 23: Dead Kennedys, Nazi Punks Fuck Off (1981), Bad Brains, “I Against I” (1986), and The 1865, “Buckshot” (2019)

“When you’re black you’re punk rock all the time” (Sacha Jenkins, The 1865). 

When many people think of early punk music, they often mention The Sex Pistols and The Clash in relation to the angst of working-class white men. But when we dig a little deeper, we find numerous black and brown (especially Latino) pioneers of punk. Black punks were at the forefront of early punk, including groups like Death (see the documentary A Band Called Death), Pure Hell, Fishbone, and the most famous of them all, Bad Brains. Bad Brains formed in 1976 and got their name from a Ramone’s song, and their music mixed reggae and other elements within the burgeoning field of hardcore (also spearheaded by groups like Black Flag and Minor Threat). Bad Brain’s song, “I Against I” (1986), speaks against the selfishness of a society that pits people against one another. Arguably, much of punk music has always been anti-racist and self-reflexive about its own movement, evidenced in a song like “Nazi Punks Fuck Off” (1981) by The Dead Kennedys (whose drummer, D. H. Peligro, is Black). There are also many current Black punk bands, such as The 1865. The 1865 is a direct reference to the Emancipation proclamation, and their work explores different aspects of life in 1865 America: a land living in the shadows of the fallen Confederacy. See the video for their song, “Buckshot” (2019). Also, see the 2003 documentary, Afro-Punk for a view into the history of Black punk rock music.

June 24: The Honey Drippers, “Impeach the President” (1973)

The Honey Drippers “Impeach the President” has been sampled in nearly 800 songs and its recognizable intro drum break can be heard in songs by everyone from Eric B & Rakim, Nas, Dr. Dre, and Janet Jackson. The 1973 song was a funky protest that advocated for the impeachment of President Nixon during the Watergate scandal. Of course, this song could really be posted any day in relation to the many racist (including anti-Black), homophobic/transphobic, and misogynistic statements and scandals by America’s current “idiot” (type the word into Google) in charge. Trump was impeached by the house, but then acquitted by the Senate, and so it looks like voting him out in November is America’s only option.  

June 25: Sly & the Family Stone, “Stand!” (1969) 

“Stand!” (from Stand!) is one of Sly & the Family Stone’s defining political statements as well as a watershed moment in protest music. “Stand!” features their typical church-infused harmonies (including an extended gospel break) with piano and unexpected mood and tone shifts. The lyrics encourage protest while also acknowledging that many are engaged in less visible acts of protest that reflect on personal change and oppression. Ultimately, the song encourages us to act and stand up and speak up for what we believe in even when others disagree. Stand! 

June 26: Billie Holiday and Nina Simone, “Strange Fruit” (1939 | 1965) 

Time magazine called “Strange Fruit” the song of the century, and Bob Dylan said that the song is a personal inspiration. Originally “Strange Fruit” was a poem written by Jewish high school teacher Abel Meeropol. A photograph of the lynching of two black teenagers, Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith (August 7, 1930), inspired the poem. Billie Holiday pushed Columbia to record “Strange Fruit” but fearing a backlash they declined. Holiday instead went to Commodore records with her band and recorded it in a single afternoon. It was a song, Billie Holiday explained, “that was blacklisted in the United States for being too controversial. A song that speaks to all the disregarded and downtrodden black people in the United States. A song that is a reminder of how love is the only thing that will conquer all the hatred in this world.” Jazz musician and journalist Leonard Feather called the song “the first significant protest in words and music, the first unmuted cry against racism,” and it remains a song that still inspires books, an opera, and other renditions. One of the best versions of the song is Nina Simone’s stripped-down and highly emotive take (which Kanye West, with some controversy, samples on his “Blood on The Leaves”). Sadly, recent Anti-Black violence and lynchings in the United States speak to America’s ongoing legacy of slavery and racism.  See Holiday’s live version (1959) below, and definitely listen to Simone’s version if you’ve never heard it before:

June 27: Alice Coltrane, “Om Shanti” (1987) et al. 

Alice Coltrane is often overshadowed by the work of her husband John Coltrane, but she is a formidable force in creative and cosmic music in her own right. From her early recordings with Terry Gibbs and John Coltrane, to her solo work starting with A Monastic Trio (1968), and to her later devotional music, Alice Coltrane embarked on a deep journey into music as a kind of universal consciousness. She was driven by an immovable belief in the healing power of sound. Her fourth solo album, Journey in Satchidananda (1971) reflects her spiritual journey and the influence of Swami Satchidananda of whom she was a disciple at the time. For Alice Coltrane, music was a spiritual language and therefore a political force for love and change (although some statements by the Coltranes were more politically direct such as their 1966 track “Reverend King”). We hear this love manifested in her excellent arrangement of Coltrane’s “Love Supreme” on World Galaxy, which features her on organ and harp, as well as the intonations of Swami Satchidananda; in addition, “Om Supreme,” from Eternity (1975), is also worth a close listen. Although lesser known in Coltrane’s oeuvre, her later devotional works (under her adopted name Turiyasangitananda—meaning roughly the Lord’s highest song of Bliss) from the 1980s and ‘90s recorded at her Shanti Anantam Ashram in North California are phenomenal. Her posthumously released compilation The Ecstatic Music Of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda (2017) features her voice for the first time on a number of tracks, most notably on “Om Shanti” (originally from 1987): a mantra that is an invocation of peace. In “Om Shanti,” her lone voice is gradually joined by other signers and percussion as the chant rises upwards. It is both humbling and inspiring to listen to and study her music and her dedication to love and peace. Alice Coltrane left the planet over 13 years ago, but the current political and social climate of 2020 needs her meditative and healing music more than ever. As cliché as it sounds, it is imperative that we all take time to look inward and genuinely bring more love into the world. 

June 28: Bob Marley, “Redemption Song” (1980) 

“Redemption Song” is the final track on Bob Marley and The Wailers’ Uprising and it was inspired in part by Pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey’s 1937 speech in Nova Scotia about African redemption, “The Work That Has Been Done.” In particular, the song riffs on Garvey’s words, “Emancipate yourself from mental slavery … None but ourselves can free our minds.” Much of the work for real change needs to come from within, and it is not too late for us, and the world even, to find redemption, freedom, and emancipation. Official Video below:

June 29: Oscar Peterson, “Hymn to Freedom” (1962)

Fraternity crosses borders, which is why a Black Montreal-based musician like Oscar Peterson was able to conceive of “Hymn to Freedom,” which drew on the energy of the Black church and was sung in various places in the States as an anthem to the Civil Rights Movement. Peterson managed to capture a pivotal moment of radical change, as we continue along the road towards true freedom and equality for all.  

June 30: Sam Cooke, “A Change is Gonna Come” (1964)

Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” is one of the most emblematic songs of the Civil Rights Movement and so it is appropriate that it is the final song I am posting about for this playlist. The song was inspired by various events in Cooke’s life, particularly the time he and his group were turned away at a whites-only motel in Louisiana. Building on the energy of the Civil Rights Movement, as well as his own shame for having not written something like it earlier (he was moved by Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind”), he decided to write and record the song. Later that year change did come in the US with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and then the following year with the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The last segregated schools didn’t close until 1983 in Canada (see the 1977 Canadian Human Rights Act) and the last residential school didn’t close until 1996. Despite these changes, the US and Canada are still very much anti-Black and anti-Indigenous spaces and there are massive inequities in both countries. The work is far from done, but for any of us who work on anti-racism and believe in a truly Just Society, we must hold hope that a change is still gonna come. We must act now. In that spirit, I end with one of my favourite quotations from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:

“We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there “is” such a thing as being too late. This is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous and positive action” (Where Do We Go from Here, 1967).

I’ve added a number of other songs to the playlist and will continue to do so, but please feel free to leave a comment with any glaring omissions that you see, and I can likely add them!