We want "poems that kill.'
Assassin poems, Poems that shoot
guns. Poems that wrestle cops into alleys
and take their weapons leaving them dead
with tongues pulled out and sent to Ireland.
—Amiri Baraka, "Black Art"
2000's Let's Get Free, dead prez's radical debut album, opens with audio of a fiery speech given by Chairman Omali Yeshitela, leader of the African People's Socialist Party. Over a track built around the sound of howling wolves and a tender piano melody, Chairman Yeshitela likens the plight of the black community to that of Arctic wolves who fall victim to a hunting method designed to trick them into thinking they are eating when they are in fact confusing their own blood for another animal's, killing themselves slowly in the process. Accidental suicide.
"Instead of blaming the hunter who put the damn handle and the blade in the ice for the wolf, what happens is the wolf gets blamed for trying to live," the Chairman roars. "You don't blame the victim, you blame the oppressor. Imperialism, white power, is the enemy; was the enemy when it came to Africa and snatched up the first Africans and brought us here against our will; is the enemy today."
True. Eleven months before the album's release, Amadou Diallo's body had absorbed 19 of the 41 NYPD bullets aimed in his direction. Around the country, prison populations ballooned, income gaps widened, and black communities struggled under the weighty fallout of the war on drugs. Amidst the ubiquity of pop culture phenomena like "Thong Song" and the excesses of Y2K-related mania, dead prez delivered a shrewd pan-Africanist manifesto that mined revolutionary black history and urgently linked it to the present.
According to iTunes, it was the album I listened to the most last year. 2014 was horrible for many reasons, but as the world mourned along with Mike Brown's family, literally watched Eric Garner die, and shook with rage upon hearing of the fatal shooting 12-year-old Tamir Rice, the clearest through-line was race. I spent countless hours aimlessly refreshing Twitter, alternating between despair and hopeful anger, all the while clinging to M-1 and stic.man's globally minded critiques and socialist-leaning solutions. The album brought me a comfort that, listening 15 years earlier, I didn't imagine that grown-up me would still need.
Eleven months before the release of dead prez's Let's Get Free, Amadou Diallo's body had absorbed 19 of the 41 NYPD bullets aimed in his direction.
Towards the end of 2014, there were calls for black artists to respond to the crises at hand, calls for protest music. Some responded: Migos offered up "Struggle," G Unit released an anti-police song called "Ahhh Shit," and Game gathered Diddy, Rick Ross, 2 Chainz, Fabolous, Wale, and DJ Khaled for a "Ferguson Anthem" called "Don't Shoot." The songs, despite their earnestness and good intentions, did not resonate. There can be value in spontaneous, reflexive art, but this time the platitude-as-song didn't feel like enough.
Instead, perhaps the most potent piece of media surrounding the widespread protests was Killer Mike's impassioned imitation of a storefront preacher during a Run The Jewels show in St. Louis, on the night when the world learned of Darren Wilson's non-indictment. "I just gotta tell you today that, man, no matter how much we do it, no matter how much we get shit together, shit comes along and kicks you on your ass, and you don't feel like a champion. So tonight, I got kicked on my ass when I listened to that prosecutor," he told the crowd. In the months since, I've watched the short clip several times over; it feels like church. On the other hand, I'm guessing that few people will ever listen to Game's star-studded ode to Ferguson again.
Runners-up on my playlist included: Lauryn Hill's Unplugged, Bob Marley's Survival, and Kendrick Lamar's good kid, m.A.A.d. city. But all that changed on December 11, 2014, when a 15-second spot for D'Angelo's Black Messiah dropped. A lot has been said and written about that album, which seemed to arrive 14 years too late, yet somehow also right on time.
Here's how the New York Times explained the genesis of its release: "After a grand jury didn't indict a Ferguson, Mo., police officer last month in the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, D'Angelo called his co-manager Kevin Liles. 'He said: 'Do you believe this? Do you believe it?'' Mr. Liles said. 'And then we just sat there in silence. That is when I knew he wanted to say something.'"
That 15-second announcement featured a speech sampled on Black Messiah's "1000 Deaths," and it hit me immediately. Over distorted drums and guitar, an unnamed preacher barks, "When I say Jesus, I'm not talking about some blond-haired, blue-eyed, pale-skinned, mother-milk-complexion cracker Christ. I'm talking about the Jesus of the Bible, with hair like lamb's wool. I'm talking about that good hair. I'm talking about that nappy hair." He goes on to describe Jesus as a black revolutionary.
I thought of the Chairman and realized I didn't want protest songs; I was looking for liberation music, songs that acknowledge political realities while interrogating them existentially; art that imitates life and then goes a step further to contextualize that life. Music that asks as many questions as it tries to answer. Like black liberation theology, liberation music puts forth some sort of ideology. On Let's Get Free, the Chairman's fervor sets the tone for dead prez's pan-African philosophy, which is almost religious in its anti-religiousness. D'Angelo's brown-skinned-Jesus-loving preacher does that for Black Messiah, whose revolutionary concept is based on love.
Worship has long been important to black people; how else do you survive centuries of abuse, oppression, and trauma?
Worship has long been important to black people; how else do you survive centuries of abuse, oppression, and trauma? On Unplugged, Lauryn Hill echoes Bob Marley's Rastafari-steeped opposition to injustice as a way to get closer to God and to overcome oppression. She covers his "So Much Things To Say," singing: I'n'I nah come to fight flesh and blood / But spiritual wickedness in high and low places. Religious references are mixed in with sociopolitical commentary as an affirmation that after suffering comes redemption, that if there is a God, he would surely oppose racism. Same goes for the religious themes on good kid, m.A.A.d city, particularly the interlude in which Kendrick and his homies find renewal after reciting a baptismal verse and being prayed for by an elder. Worship also sounds a lot like "i," the first single from Kendrick's forthcoming, still-untitled follow-up to good kid, m.A.A.d city. When it first dropped, many—me included—criticized the song for being hokey, for using too obvious of a sample. After several months of listening, though, its value is clearer. To me, it sounds something like an expression of liberation: Keep my money in the ceiling, let my mama know I'm free/ Give my story to the children and the lesson they can read/ And the glory to the feeling of the only unseen/ Seen enough, make a motherfucker scream, "I love myself!"
W.E.B. Du Bois' The Souls of Black Folk closes with a chapter about "Sorrow Songs," slave songs and negro spirituals from which a direct line to subsequent decades of liberation music can be drawn. "By fateful chance the Negro folk-song—the rhythmic cry of the slave—stands today not simply as the sole American music, but as the most beautiful expression of human experience born this side the seas," writes Du Bois. "They are the music of an unhappy people, of the children of disappointment; they tell of death and suffering and unvoiced longing toward a truer world, of misty wanderings and hidden ways." Like the slave songs of yore, the sounds of modern liberation will outlive us. They will contain coded messages and emotional honesties decipherable only by those for whom they are intended, those who equally long for a truer world.