Category Archives: Activism

– diversity, equity, inclusion, access
– racial justice
– anti-racism

A Juneteenth Listen: INSIST! – Black activist voices in Music, pt.9

Album cover for The Chambers Brothers "The Time Has Come"“And my soul has been psychedelicized!”

If you’ve listened to Time Has Come Today, the 1967 hit by the Chambers Brothers, you have likely been psychedelicized. And possibly politicized too. 

You’ve probably heard at least parts of the iconic song in films and documentaries covering the music, culture, and civil rights struggles of the late 1960s. But if you haven’t listened to the full 11 minute LP version, I can’t recommend it enough. I remember the first time a friend played the track for me in a small, falling apart rental house in Boone when I was in school at Appalachian. It was unlike anything I’d heard before – the constant ticking of the cowbell mimicking a clock (rivaling any better known songs featuring cowbell, ahem),  the alternate speeding up and slowing down of the tempo, the steady bass/drum rhythm melding into an extended break of a hypnotic fuzz guitar solo punctuated by a repeated chorus of voices chanting “TIME!”, bouts of foreboding laughter, and wails of “Ahhhhhhhhhhh!” Yeah, this song is a whole mood, as they say. 

The Chambers Brothers were four brothers from a sharecropping family in Mississippi – George, Lester, Willie, and Joe– who sang in the fields together before forming as a gospel group at the Mount Calvary Baptist Church in 1954. They later joined up with English drummer Brian Keenan, making up one of the first interracial rock bands in the U.S. They’re often described as a psychedelic soul band that mixed gospel, blues, rock, funk, and R&B.

Time Has Come Today was written by Joe, the youngest of the four, after he sat in on a class with “hero of American consciousness” Timothy Leary; brother Willie later added the music and the psychedelicized line. The song was first released in 1966 as a single version coming in at just over two minutes but didn’t make a splash until it was re-recorded in 1967. Legend goes that producer David Rubinson rebelled against Columbia Records president Clive Davis’ explicit directive NOT to re-record the song and asked the band to come into the studio an hour early where they got the song down in just one take, resulting in the extended version that went to #11 on the Billboard Hot 100 for 5 weeks. Not only did the song serve as an introduction to psychedelic rock, it seemed to simultaneously comment on the upheaval and social unrest of the time and also foreshadow what was still to come. Without being too overtly political, it leaves a lot to the listeners’ interpretation: what has the time come for? Reflecting on the lyrics this Juneteenth, I like to consider what kind of expansive emancipation the brothers might have been calling for:

Time has come today
Young hearts can go their way
Can’t put it off another day
I don’t care what others say
They say we don’t listen anyway
Time has come today…

Album cover for The Chambers Brothers "Love, Peace and Happiness"While we’re talking Chambers Brothers, make sure to check out two of their other notable albums. Love Peace and Happiness is a double LP combining studio material with a live show from Fillmore East. Released in 1970, the album features the truly excellent 16 minute side-filling song of the same name, also written by the brothers and produced by David Rubinson. Like Time, this song includes the brothers’ signature elements of psychedelic guitar, layered crescendo of voices, rhythmic cowbell clanging, and a plea for togetherness. Flip to the other side and take in their simultaneously rocking and plaintive version of Wade in the Water, as well as their soulful rendering of Curtis Mayfield’s iconic People Get Ready.

Finally, don’t sleep on the 1966 LP Barbara Dane and the Chambers Brothers for a politically charged collaboration with the singer and activist that mixes folk, gospel, and pop with bare instrumentation, harmonica, and hand clapping. The album opens strong with the brothers doo wop harmonizing along with Dane’s full-throated voice in It Isn’t Nice, a powerful anthem on civil disobedience written by Malvina Reyolds after she participated in the San Francisco Palace Hotel Sit-Ins

It isn’t nice to block the doorway
It isn’t nice to go to jail
There are nicer ways to do it
But the nice ways always fail
It isn’t nice, it isn’t nice
You told us once, you told us twice
But if that is freedom’s price
We don’t mind

We received this disc thanks to the Smithsonian Folkways Recordings nonprofit record label which makes custom copies from their collection along with original liner notes. All of these titles are available to check out from the Music Library in the Mary Duke Biddle Music Building so what are you waiting for? The time has come today!

Three CD cases for the albums discussed in the blog post.

INSIST! – Black activist voices in Music, pt.8

Welcome back to another installment of Insist!

For this entry we’ll encounter two seminal American rock groups that were innovators, stalwarts, outsiders and disruptors of their respective scenes and eras.

Photo of Death, the protopunk band
Photo of Death, the protopunk band

First, to the Motor City, from which a trio of brothers calling themselves Death sprung in the early 70s. In a city of many musical innovations, both popular and proto, the brothers Hackney (Bobby, David and Dannis) and their power-trio hard-rock approach took their city’s sounds (like the Stooges and Alice Cooper) and propelled them even further and towards the coming punk revolution. The brothers played together in numerous groups before and after Death (including RockFire Funk Express, 4th Movement and Lambs Bread) and only released one 45 in their initial span, receiving a major reintroduction in 2009 when the Drag City label reissued that 45 (with five other tracks from 1974 as ‘For the Whole World to See’). Other reissue recordings followed, along with a reformation of the group, spurring new releases and tours. Their story is best related in the terrific documentary, ‘A Band Called Death’, from 2013.

Fast forward a few years and travel over to Washington, DC where Bad Brains were stirring up their own hardcore punk racket, influencing countless groups in the process. Starting as a jazz fusion band called Mind Power, in 1976, the classic lineup of H.R., Dr. Know, Darryl Jenifer and Earl Hudson shifted to punk and proceeded to lay waste to the nation’s capitol before relocating to New York City in 1980. Their classic self-titled release from 1982 is one of the most legendary hardcore punk recordings ever, and the group continued mutating sound-wise throughout the ensuing years, incorporating heavy metal and funk and reggae (as already evidenced from a few tracks on their debut; all members are also Rastafarians). To experience their speed, fury, intensity, power and brilliance the best place to start is probably a clip of the song ‘Big Take Over’ from a 1982 show captured on video at CBGB.

And, for more Bad Brains footage, courtesy of a documentary about the Black experience in punk rock, check out ‘Afro-Punk’.

Juneteenth Jamboree

We’ve been waiting for Juneteenth to roll around again, ever since it was made a federal holiday last year (An Act to Amend Title 5, United States Code, to Designate Juneteenth National Independence Day as a Legal Public Holiday). This weekend we hope for good weather, joyful celebration, and an opportunity to reflect on the work that still remains to be done in the US around racial equity. 

This weekend, why not give a listen to two versions of “Juneteenth Jamboree”, selected for us by our very own Stephen (of INSIST! fame).  

“Juneteenth Jamboree” – Fatso Bentley 

Our first version comes to us from Gladys Bentley (1907-1960), a gender-non-conforming lesbian who unapologetically sang in speakeasies in Harlem and made her own way in the world. 

For more on race and sexuality in Harlem, and on Gladys herself, check out Bulldaggers, pansies, and chocolate babies : performance, race, and sexuality in the Harlem Renaissance by James F. Wilson.  

If you’re more feeling a documentary, Duke Libraries offers “Unladylike2020: unsung women who changed America”, both streaming and on DVD. 

Juneteenth Jambouree   Louis Jordan 

Then we have this amazing recording of Louis Jordan (1908-1975), complete with some serious dance moves. Jordan cut across genres, and changed the face of music and R&B forever. Read more about Jordan in Louis Jordan: son of Arkansas father of R&B by Stephen Koch (find it in the library here), or explore more of his contributions to musical history with the Platinum Collection, streaming online through Duke Libraries. 

INSIST! – Black activist voices in Music, pt.7

The links in this post may be considered indecent, obscene or offensive, listener discretion is advised.

Smithsonian Anthology of Hip-Hop and Rap coverThanks Christina Manzella for the last Insist post all about Lizzo, that was great! For this latest post we turn our focus to the Smithsonian Anthology of Hip-Hop and Rap, a sprawling 9-CD and hardback book release that begins with the Fatback Band in 1979 and concludes with Drake in 2013. This massive set was being discussed and dissed extensively before it even became available. Everyone had canonical statements to make, omissions to argue, selections to challenge, and inclusions to debate, and the anthology serves as the jumping off point for this seventh post in the Insist series.

In the spirt of debate and alternate choices spurred by the box set itself, this post is about choosing representative artists from the anthology but presenting different songs to match with the theme of this blog series. There are myriad tracks and artists to choose from to fit this purpose, and I welcome any and all nit-picking about what could have been included. So, without further ado, here are three tracks not actually on the anthology but very much in the mode of Insist – Black Activist Voices in Music!

Public Enemy-Apocalypse 91 album coverNo strangers to controversy and militant political statements, Public Enemy ratcheted up their rage even higher with their fourth album ‘Apocalypse 91…the Enemy Strikes Black’. Almost any cut on the album could work for our purposes here but none hits quite as hard or mercilessly as ‘By the Time I Get to Arizona’.

Riffing on the name of the similarly titled Jimmy Webb tune (The definitive version of which was done by Isaac Hayes. Argue THAT!) and featuring a nasty and perfect sample of the Mandrill song ‘Two Sisters of Mystery’ by the Bomb Squad, the song pulls no punches in criticizing the decision of the Arizona (and New Hampshire) governor to rescind the Martin Luther King Jr holiday. And if the lyrics don’t get the point across then check out the video, in which Chuck D and the S1Ws are depicted murdering a senator and other white male politicians in Arizona. If you want more from these masters of political hip-hop then don’t miss both ‘Fear of a Black Planet’ and ‘It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold us Back’.

Mos Def-The Ecstatic album coverMos Def and Slick Rick are both hip hop legends, and well represented on the box, but this oddball (maybe not that odd, as Mos Def and Talib Kweli did a version of Slick Rick’s ‘Children’s Story’ on their Black Star album) pairing from 2009 is on another level, both politically and sonically. Mos Def (now known as Yasiin Bey) released ‘The Ecstatic’ as somewhat of a comeback album and Slick Rick…..well, Slick Rick is easily one of the most singular and beloved rappers of all time. ‘Auditorium’ features an Eastern-tinged backing track by producer extraordinaire Madlib and a superbly poetic and conscious first verse from Mos Def. But then Slick Rick appears, and anyone expecting some La-di-da-di party rap is in for a surprise as instead “The Ruler” drops an amazing Iraq-war themed verse in which he inhabits a persona of himself as a US solider on a 15-month tour of duty. Encountering a “young Iraqi kid” carrying laundry, the narrator asks what’s wrong and if he’s hungry and the reply is  “No, gimme my oil or get the [f*ck] out my country”. It is a disorienting, succinct and real-time commentary on the folly and destruction of the war and the effects on both Iraqis and the invading soldiers.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nx1_yzq9cX4

Dead Prez-Let's Get Free album coverNo other modern hip-hop group is so consistently and unrelentingly political as Dead Prez (okay, sure, The Coup takes that crown) and one of their toughest tracks is ‘Police State’ from their 2000 debut ‘Let’s Get Free’. There’s no shortage of police commentary content to choose from (for starters see the anthology-included ‘Fuk Tha Police’ by NWA or KRS-One’s ‘Sound of da Police’), and this indictment starts with the police but goes way beyond to advocate for socialism and revolution. With vocal sample bookends, by Omali Yeshitela (founder of the Uhuru movement) at the beginning and Fred Hampton and an unknown speaker at the end, the duo of Stic.man and M-1 leave no doubts about the injustices they see and where they stand: “I throw a Molotov cocktail at the precinct, You know how we think”.

INSIST! – Black activist voices in Music, pt.6

I was so pleased when Bill and Stephen began this series, and I especially enjoyed reading about one of my all-time favorite artists, Nina Simone. Music frequently serves as a source of inspiration for listeners. It can bring people together around a common cause. At times though, and sometimes more important than this call to action, music can serve as a much-needed source of comfort. Therefore, I asked if I could contribute a post focused not only on activism in the traditional, outwardly-directed sense, but also on what I think of as activism on a more personal level. To that end, when I think of music centered on knowing one’s worth and demanding respect from others, one artist inevitably comes to mind, and that artist is Lizzo.

Years before she garnered mainstream success, Lizzo released her debut Lizzobangers. Songs like “Be Still” and “T-Baby” (short for tar baby) reference the difficulties she faced in those early years trying to make it as an artist, namely her experiences with houselessness and food insecurity. Numerous tracks speak to the experience of living in a world that devalues blackness, women, and bodies that have never been and will never be a sample size. These themes continue in Lizzo’s second studio album, Big Grrrl Small World. From the opening song “Ain’t I,” a reference to a speech by the abolitionist Sojourner Truth, to the penultimate track “My Skin,” Lizzo reveals to us her confidence while also highlighting the long journey it takes for so many of us to overcome self-doubt. The world does not often know how to handle such brazen self-assuredness from a bigger-bodied black woman, and, luckily for her listeners, Lizzo could not care less.*

cover of Lizzo's Coconut Oil album The final album I want to address in this post is my personal favorite, her 2016 EP Coconut Oil. While her earlier and, tragically, lesser-known music spoke of struggle—both personal and more broadly—this six-track EP exudes joy in its reminder to take care of ourselves. In “Scuse Me” and “Coconut Oil,” we find self-love anthems. With lyrics like “I don’t need a crown to know that I’m a queen” in the former and “Don’t worry ’bout the small things, I know I can do all things” in the latter, Lizzo exudes a sort of self-assuredness toward which we all strive. Furthermore, she stresses that, if we can love ourselves, then we know just how deserving of others’ love we are, as illustrated in the lyrics of “Worship” and her first big single, “Good as Hell.” Activism, whether it entails fighting for the collective or for oneself, is exhausting. This EP provides us with that brief break necessary to avoid burnout and to practice a little self-care.

Of course, if you are completely unfamiliar with Lizzo, go ahead and start with her most recent album Cuz I Love You, which you can borrow from the Music Library here. Do yourself a favor though, and go back and stream all her earlier releases.

*I wanted to include an addendum after the online bullying that occurred in response to the release of Lizzo’s most recent music video. In stating that the singer “could not care less,” I am in no way implying that she is unfazed by the racist and fatphobic comments she receives online and in the media. The confidence that Lizzo displays in her lyrics and her media presence is something to which so many of us aspire, and I hope this post illustrates my gratitude to her for that.

INSIST! – Black Activist Voices in Music, pt.5

Thanks for the prompt, Bill. I’m pleased to spring forth from the mighty Nina Simone and bring this to the present day with a spotlight on the Chicago-based composer, clarinetist, keyboardist, bandleader and vocalist Angel Bat Dawid. Part of the International Anthem record label’s roster, and truly a force to be reckoned with, she and her band Tha Brothahood sit at the nexus of modern free and spiritual jazz, unfurling cosmic waves of righteous beauty and anger and passion. And of all her releases thus far, the best demonstration of her craft and insistence can be found on the 2020 release ‘Live’.

Album cover for LIVE by Angel Bat Dawid & Tha BrothahoodRecorded primarily at JazzFest Berlin in 2019, the festival and experience of being in Germany presented her and the band with a series of stressors and slights that very much played out in the band’s confrontational performance that November night. The recording is also bookended with field recordings (set to music) of her giving a hotel staffer the what-for and of comments from her appearance on a panel discussion during the festival.

This is a truly transcendent and fiery recording, and there might be no better current embodiment of the purpose of this blog series than ‘Live’. This post will remain short so you, dear reader, can listen to Angel Bat Dawid’s sounds and read her in her own words.

Find the entire release, with extensive notes and commentary from Angel Bat Dawid, on Bandcamp.

Or borrow the CD, available at the Music Library.

Until next time…

INSIST! – Black Activist Voices in Music, pt.4

Album cover for a recording of Nina Simone at Carnegie Hall

Stephen, thanks for a solid post on Eugene McDaniels. I knew the Les McCann version of “Compared to What”, but that was the extent of my awareness of his work. “Supermarket Blues” sure packs a wallop of defiance embedded in a tight groove that can propel a person through even the most tedious Excel spreadsheets at speed.

I do have to respond to one assertion in your piece though: while I can’t deny that McDaniels wields the word with the skill of a master knife-fighter, the defining “goddam” of the Civil Rights era does in fact belong to Nina Simone.

We’ve been wanting to get to “Mississippi Goddam” since we started this series, but truthfully its centrality to the concept of Antiracist protest in musical performance makes it hard to do it justice with the brevity we’re trying to bring to these posts.

Reportedly written in an hour in response to the murders of Medgar Evers and Emmett Till in Mississippi, as well as the 1963 Birmingham Church Bombing in Alabama, Mississippi Goddam cloaks seething outrage in a boppy little piano ditty that would be at home in any Broadway revue of the time. Simone seems to acknowledge this to her Carnegie Hall audience in the live recording from 1964 as she asserts, “This is a show tune, but the show hasn’t been written for it yet.” (While one can hear this plainly in the recording, we pull the quote from this excellent article by Malik Gaines in which he contextualizes Simone’s work: Simone’s body of recorded music reveals an anti-racist agenda enacted through performance. Simone used African-American musical, textual, and theatrical strategies, elaborating a history in which blacks have transformed the locations of marginality and exclusion into improvised positions from which to speak.)

However bouncy the tune, the lyrics do not pull any punches. Its opening stanzas make explicit the rage felt by people of color on a daily basis:

Alabama’s gotten me so upset
Tennessee made me lose my rest
And everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam

And later:

Hound dogs on my trail
School children sitting in jail

Black cat cross my path
I think every day’s gonna be my last

Lord have mercy on this land of mine
We all gonna get it in due time
I don’t belong here
I don’t belong there
I’ve even stopped believing in prayer

 

“Mississippi Goddam” nearly instantly became an anthem of the Civil Rights era, despite many radio stations (mostly in the south) refusing to play the song. In fact, as reported both in this Atlantic article and in an interesting Netflix documentary (streaming or at Lilly on DVD), most southern stations returned promotional packages with copies of the record snapped in half. It was an audience favorite in live performances, and Simone played it as a closing number in many of her concerts throughout the Sixties.

While browsing the web looking for a clip of the original release of the song (embedded above), I ran across this live recording from ’65 in Antibes. I was struck by what came across as Simone’s bone-deep fatigue as she turned in what was nonetheless an electrifying performance. How wearying it must have been to have been giving your all in so many performances of such a song, knowing that white audiences likely were listening but not hearing.

 

I guess I point this out as a way of saying that I hope we’re living up to our responsibility to practice a new kind of listening now at DUL.

So, speaking of the “now”, Stephen – we’ve spent some time on the history of Antiracism in music (and we’re far from done with that), but do you want to take us into the present day for a glimpse of Black Activism in the current music scene?

INSIST! – Black Activist Voices in Music, pt.3

Eugene McDaniels' ‘Headless Heroes of the Apocalypse’ album cover

Picking up from Bill’s last post concerning the titular album for this series, we proceed ahead to the year 1971 and this stone classic of Black Consciousness from Eugene McDaniels.

McDaniels, already a singer and songwriter of much renown, shifted from using Gene back to his given Eugene in the late 60s, along with establishing a much more political and revolutionary bent to his music (and with moving back to the US after residing in Scandinavia for a spell). This update to his sounds first came most prominently in the form of ‘Compared to What’ in 1969 (though written in 1966).

By then, a standard of sorts, the tune became a hit for Les McCann (who McDaniels had been affiliated with since the beginning of the decade) and Eddie Harris on their smash live album ‘Swiss Movement’. The version remains the quintessential one:

‘Outlaw’, from 1970, was the first album-length foray for McDaniels into this new style, but it was the following year’s ‘Headless Heroes of the Apocalypse’ that set a standard for funk/jazz/rock protest music. And even though it sat un-reissued until the early 00s, the album (originally released on Atlantic) somehow allegedly caught the attention of silly Spiro Agnew on its release, which helped curtail promotion and distribution. The entire album is a stunning commentary, with unassailable musical chops, but one track in particular stands out on listening in 2020 and that is ‘Supermarket Blues’:

The narrator simply tries to exchange his mislabeled can of pineapple and very quickly the full blunt reality of life in America bears down and all hell breaks loose, demonstrating the tightrope on which he constantly walks.

Totally as a side-mention, Eugene McDaniels remains the phraser par-excellence of ‘Goddamn’ in song, with apologies to Miss Simone. Any potential blasphemy aside and forgiven, his emphatic usage of the term/phrase in both ‘Compared to What’ and ‘Supermarket Blues’ serves to set both songs a bit more on edge and drills the seriousness of their situations more into being. For a further example of the use of the phrase, and a sound/style also similar to McDaniels, check out this Chicago underground track from 1973 from a group called Boscoe:

One cut from ‘Headless Heroes of the Apocalypse’ is on the box set ‘What It Is: Funky Soul and Rare Grooves’ CD is available from Duke University Libraries’ Music Library, here, with all other tracks currently active on Spotify and YouTube.  Also, the album is partly well-known and regarded for the bounty of samples it supplied to hip hop tracks. Which, on that note and speaking of sampling, expect near-future posts to head in that direction…

INSIST! – Black Activist Voices in Music, pt.2

As promised in our last post, today’s post highlights an album that features, among other stellar musicians, the vocalist Abbey Lincoln, in a performance that at times can sound haunting and plaintive and at others embodies the rage and frustration felt by Black Americans during the (first) height of the Civil Rights Struggle.

We Insist! – Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite is one of the seminal recordings of activist jazz (and is the album from which our humble blog series takes its name). The album emerged from a joint project between Max Roach, one of the most significant drummers in jazz history and a lifelong civil rights activist, and Oscar Brown, a singer and lyricist also deeply involved in Black rights issues. The original intent of the project was to commemorate the 1963 centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation, but after the 1960 Greensboro Sit-Ins, Max Roach felt a sense of urgency about contributing his voice and vision (both comparatively more radical than those of Oscar Brown) to the Civil Rights movement. As seen in the above picture, the cover of the album featured a picture of three of the Greensboro Four seated at the Woolworth’s lunch counter, making explicit the connection between the event and the art it inspired.

And wow – the art! The musicians on this record represented what at the time were both straight-ahead hard bop royalty (Max Roach and saxophonist Coleman Hawkins, most significantly) and members of an emerging progressive sound (notably the always amazing Booker Little on trumpet and Julian Priester on trombone). This album would be an early step in the ongoing intertwining of the jazz Avant Garde and Black Activism, future examples of which we’ll no doubt get to. (Eh, Stephen?)

Abbey Lincoln’s impassioned delivery of Oscar Brown’s lyrics enhances many of the pieces, but most stirring is her wordless vocals, delivered alternately in tones of sadness, anger, and hope, in the piece “Triptych: Prayer/Protest/Peace”:

Streaming versions of this record are unfortunately scarce. None of DUL’s online music services offer the recording (as far as Stephen and I can tell), and it’s not available through any of the standard commercial streaming services such as Spotify or Googleplay or, like, FaceTunze or whatever.

Maddeningly, the physical disc seems currently to be out of print, though thanks to Laura and Stephen, our fine Music Library does hold a copy (linked above in the main text of the post).

You can stream the whole album on YouTube, though. It’s a tough, gut-punch of a listen, but inspiring and motivating nonetheless.

We should also point out that many, many articles have been written on this important recording, not a few of which are available in full text versions online via the DUL catalog. We looked at many of these, including this piece. (Also, yes we looked at Wikipedia. We’re lazy.)

Stephen, what do we have up next? I’m excited to see what you’ve picked out for us…