“At this crucial time in our life, when everything is so desperate, when every day is a matter of survival, I don’t think you can help being involved.”
Nina Simone could well have been speaking in the last few days, as once more America goes up in flames in the aftermath of a terrible injustice, this time the death of George Floyd last week.
The scenes are remarkably similar to the scenes that took place in the heyday of the civil rights era, where Nina and others soundtracked a turbulent time that on the face of things soon changed. Women’s liberation and civil rights plus Vietnam protests marked the 60s and 70s, all documented by amazing music from jazz and soul and funk and rock musicians, who inadvertently helped bring about a new music format, called rap.
Rap is always credited as being coming out of the late 70s, but in reality artists such as the Last Poets, The Watts Prophets, Gil Scott Heron, James Brown and even the likes of Nina Simone herself, had been bringing these raw spoken words to the masses for more than ten years previously.
Rap was around before that too, and like much of black music, it was born out of frustration and a need to express solidarity with those fighting the injustice which Nina Simone spoke about. And 40 or 50 or 60 years later, it’s still the same, and we still have people dying.
In the late 80s and early 90s a whole host of rap artists soundtracked a turbulent time in the States, where tensions were rising, culminating in the LA riots in 1992. The acquittal of officers who beat up Rodney King was the spark that set things off, but listen to any of the rap from the previous few years and you could hear that this was coming. People were fed up. Like now.
Ice Cube was particularly sharp in his observations around this time, and the powerful ‘AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted’ and ‘Death Certificate’ followed his involvement with NWA’s ‘Straight outta Compton’ in 1988.
Around the same time Tupac wrote ‘Changes’, which later surfaced properly in the late 90s after his death, and his lyrics ring even truer in 2020.
Speaking of racial injustice and police brutality, he wonders will things ever change, and during this last week it’s hard to see the progress.
Okay, we’ve had the ‘black president’ that he didn’t think was possible either, but the subsequent reign of Donald Trump is setting America back decades, and it now looks like it’s dangerously close to being a fascist police state. Many big name rappers have been quiet, which is disappointing, but many others are speaking up.
In Ireland we had a young black kid who had acid thrown on his face last year, while any young black teen or youth will tell you that racism is alive and well here.
Direct Provision is a form of Institutional racism which is leaving youngsters in a state of permanent lockdown and limbo and helplessness, even in times when we don’t have a pandemic.
Irish artists are being vocal, and Erica Cody, Denise Chaila, UD, JyellowL, Tolu Makay, Murli, Celaviedmai are just a few to speak up at a time when we need to recognise that there is injustice here too.
As a white person it’s no longer enough to just be upset with it, and and as someone with a platform in the arts and music I think it’s time to stand up and be counted and show solidarity with those here and elsewhere facing this injustice too.
I don’t think many people could not have been moved by what they saw with those horrible clips of George Floyd’s last moments. As the marches start and the people speak up, it’s worth remembering why we are angry in the first place.