When I was growing up in San Francisco, it seemed all hell was breaking loose. Students were demanding ethnic studies departments at San Francisco State University. American cities were burning in the wake of assassinations on Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. While Donald Trump was nursing his “bone spurs” in Queens, the draft was sending brothers from the ‘hood to the killing fields of Vietnam.
With all that going on, we leaned on our music because it mobilized our protest. Curtis Mayfield sang “people get ready – there’s a train a-comin. You don’t need no ticket, you just get onboard.” James Brown exhorted us to “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud.” Sly Stone testified about “Everyday People” and the Isley Brothers demanded that we “Fight the Power.”
These songs soothed the battle-weary and encouraged reluctant warriors to fight another day. Even Jimi Hendrix slayed his guitar at Woodstock with the funkiest version of our American anthem that I ever heard —- before or since.
But that was then and this is now.
It’s a given that making music isn’t as critical as just being in the streets and challenging injustice. But music also matters because it serves a purpose by creating another way to use our voices and our art to protest. During all the recent marches in Atlanta, Minneapolis, Los Angeles, Seattle, Paris, Sydney, Cape Town, London and anywhere else folks were protesting, I don’t remember hearing serious, get-down-to-it protest music. Hip hop, with its emphasis on money and sex (from both men and women), just doesn’t seem to cut it right now. Love songs seem a little tone-deaf to my ears. Poetry and spoken word are emotionally-charged but without the music, for me, it’s just not the same.
But, I know what you’re going to say. “Shut up, Boomer. This ain’t your time.” This may be true, but throughout history, there has always been music to take the pulse of the people. A movement’s soundtrack timestamps a moment in history creating a sound scan for the sights, sounds, and emotions of the day.
From the Civil Rights era with “We Shall Overcome” to Nina Simone screaming out, “Mississippi God-DAMN!” to Bob Dylan foreseeing that “the answer is blowin’ in the wind,” protest music has been a powerful motivator and cry of the people. My personal favorite is from Richie Havens when he blew an improvised piece called “Freedom” at Woodstock. That’s power music.
In 1971, soul singer, Marvin Gaye, took the pulse of our nation by asking simply, “What’s Going On?” You couldn’t turn on the radio, get your hair done or drive down an urban street without hearing “Brother, brother, brother, there’s far too many of you dying.” Almost a half century later, the same themes resound today — environmental devastation, labor unrest, police brutality and racism. Black Americans are marching today to address systemic racism and all the other isms that make living in America a cultural, economic, and political landmine for people of color.
Through it all, music has played its part —- even during war time. There were songs to lift the sagging spirits of those who lost battles and puff up the egos of those who won. Music also reminded folks who weren’t on the front lines, “to keep the home fires burning.” And, if this current movement isn’t a war, I don’t know what is.
So, I challenge the writers, musicians, producers, and singers to come up with the soundtrack of this American (and even, global) movement. Hopefully, a new soundtrack will bolster marchers when they face lines of helmeted police holding batons. Maybe new music will be an encouragement when sung a cappella. Mainly, I pray that this music will inspire the young to stand firm and never back down from demanding their rights.
During the late nights and early mornings of organizing and strategizing, the new music should fortify and comfort. Above all, the revolutionary soundtrack of our time must unify because there are so many evil forces trying to split us apart.
Remember to sing as you march and create the anthems that you will draw on for strength. Hopefully, in 50 years, your soundtrack will remind you of what you were doing and where you were living when you helped to move the nation forward. Be sure to vote in November.