During the recent 21-Day Racial Equity Challenge to DUL staff made by the Racial Justice Task Force, my fellow MonoACQ-er, Stephen Conrad, and I had a number of conversations about Black activist voices in music. This was partly inspired by Stephen’s work with Laura Williams to expand diversity within DUL’s music holdings, and partly due to the fact that the two of us turn to music as a way both to make sense of, and push back against, what we see in our country right now.
We thought it might be nice to replicate and continue that conversation here in Signal Boost. We’re going to do an open-ended run of (very) short posts highlighting tracks of interest. These will be in no particular order and likely will bounce around various genres.
As our first post below will demonstrate, we’ll be delving into the history of Black activism in music, but we’ll be careful not to limit ourselves to sounds of the past. Activism is a thriving part of contemporary music, and we’ll want to highlight that. When we can point to DUL holdings we will, and for emerging voices we’ll do our best to link to sources that benefit artists directly.
We’d love it if anyone else who is interested would join the conversation, either by guest-writing a post or simply by sending us suggestions!
Before jumping in, we’ll note a couple of facts that are glaringly obvious. First and foremost, as two white men we should acknowledge that, while we align ourselves with the voices we’ll be representing, our innate privilege allows us to experience these works of art basically from a position of fandom. To pretend otherwise would be an affront to those who have experienced the struggles from which these voices emerge.
And speaking of being fans, we’ll also point out that neither of us is an historian, a musicologist, or any kind of expert in the music we’ll discuss. We’re just two dudes talking about records. (Because, you know, the world doesn’t have enough of that already.)
So, Stephen, how about if I go first?
For both of us (and, I’ll note, for our fearless leader Dracine who immediately yelled the title of this song when told of our plans for this series), the first piece that comes to mind when thinking of Black activism in music is of course Strange Fruit, as sung hauntingly by Billie Holiday:
This blunt confrontation against the practice of lynching is, to my mind at least, one of the keystones of protest music. It sounds just as raw and sadly relevant today as it did when it was originally recorded in 1939. Its horrific imagery and anti-racist boldness almost ensured that it was never recorded. Columbia Records refused to record the song for Billie Holiday, as did her producer at the time, John Hammond. Only smaller label Commodore had the courage to do so.
The story of Strange Fruit’s being adapted from a poem and of Billie Holiday’s early performances of it, as well as the impact it had at the time and throughout subsequent decades, are detailed in two resources held by DUL:
- The book Strange Fruit : Billie Holiday, Café Society, and an early cry for civil rights (online; print)
- The documentary “Strange Fruit.”, directed by Joel Katz, streaming via Alexander Street Press here. The DVD is available from Duke University Libraries Lilly Library, here.
(Stephen, you may notice that one of the artists featured in the documentary is Abbey Lincoln, who will figure prominently in our next post…)