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.
Monographic Acquisitions recently undertook the pleasurable task of acquiring numerous LPs and CDs released by the North Carolina independent record label Three Lobed Recordings. Cory Rayborn (’98) is a Duke grad and corporate attorney based in Jamestown, NC, (just outside of Greensboro) who, for the past two decades, has also run one of the most esteemed underground record labels going. With a keen attention to design, and an ongoing impressive roster of artists, Three Lobed has set a standard that is bolstered by every new release. This has especially come into relief as the label turns 21 this year and is celebrating with a festival on April 14-16, 2022, by Duke Performances. Working directly with Rayborn, and sourcing elsewhere as needed, we were able to purchase a large chunk of the Three Lobed catalog in advance of the upcoming celebration and festival. Let’s take a closer look at just three of the releases in the Three Lobed catalog, which patrons can find at the Music Library or listen to immediately via Bandcamp links.
Sonic Youth: In/Out/In (At the Music Library | On Bandcamp)
Perhaps no other band in the Three Lobed catalog is as known or esteemed as the mighty Sonic Youth. These 5 tracks are culled from studio outtakes during their last years of recording, 2000-2010. Call them “jams” if you like, but these mostly instrumental tracks find the group extending and exploring in the studio with always compelling results. ‘Social Static’, especially, recalls the series of more experimental recordings that the band released on their own Sonic Youth Records imprint.
Meg Baird and Mary Lattimore: Ghost Forests (At the Music Library | On Bandcamp)
These two prolific stalwarts and friends collaborated for the first time on this 2018 release. Meg Baird has numerous recordings that can best be described as modern folk, whether solo or in the groups Espers and Heron Oblivion. Mary Lattimore is an experimental harpist who is continually pushing the boundaries and possibilities of her instrument, via loops and avant techniques. Together they created this beautiful, pastoral and engaging album, full of the best of their sounds and approaches.
Daniel Bachman: River (At the Music Library | On Bandcamp)
Solo acoustic fingerstyle guitar that the former Durham resident refers to as “psychedelic Appalachia”. Bachman really came into his on with this 2015 release, evoking the classic sounds of the American Primitive style of playing and pushing his own sound and take further. He also covers a tune by the late Jack Rose (‘Levee’), another artist with several Three Lobed releases, who tragically passed away in 2009. You can find more Rose recordings here: https://jackrose.bandcamp.com/
The links in this post may be considered indecent, obscene or offensive, listener discretion is advised.
Thanks 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!
No 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 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.
No 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”.
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.*
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.
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’.
Recorded 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.
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
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?
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…
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…
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…)