“Music doesn’t…” Heal, Feed, Nurture, Educate, Mobilize, Confront, Reveal, Truth-Tell, and so many other titled action words; so much leaden weight on music. An art that should ideally soundtrack action, is instead expected to stand in its place. So many accusatory lies about what today’s music did and rosy nostalgia lensing what yesterday’s music “used to do.” There is nothing music did that it does not continue to do. Maybe we just aren’t listening, or worse, we’re expecting music to do the heavy lifting we’re supposed to do: to change, to be, to live something different, something that gives more to more. Certainly, the ubiquitous, omnipresent nature, societal immersion in and of popular songs that pump fists and “rage at the machine” are not blaring from every third pole on your radio dial. But, honestly, it only episodically did so to begin with, only for stretches at a time and always in comfortable competition with less morally self-assured, high brow fare. I know I’m talking high cotton today, but stick with me a minute.
Lying About Yesterday
In 1975, the year of my birth, Donna Summer’s “Love to Love You Baby” played on the radio at the same time as Stevie Wonder’s “Livin’ For The City” and both have endured. One profane, one sacred, but both timeless. These tunes have direct and very real counterparts today, neglected grandchildren ignored in a need to hold ever fast to a vision of our collective youth that was and wasn’t, to hold up what is dishonestly remembered in an effort to cast aspersions on the “obviously” lesser now, staking a superior ground for the older, better days that weren’t always superior as much as they were just different. We tell tall tales often about those years, almost defensively, as if someone might take away the very real specialness that was experienced if it isn’t buttressed by fantasy. But, what is being defended really? Against whom? Our children and the unforgiving landscape they must and will have to survive in, according to us, without the armor of their own resistance song(s)? Do self-satisfied, askance glances about someone else’s experience ever build, ever support the renewal of tools that helped generations before to sustain, endure and even hope? Does the “ours was better than yours” argument ever help anything? Luckily for our children and children’s children, there are reservoirs of musical nourishment waiting to help rescue them from the valleys that will surely come; they just have to work harder to quarry them than our generations did. It won’t be handed to them on the radio or by an encyclopedic shop clerk at retail. And rather than “hrrmph” with crossed arms and withering tongues flagellating an “empty” now, we should be about the business of shoveling with them, partnering in the hi-tech crate-digging for the food of melody and cradle of harmony they’ll need to get them through, to inspire them to fight for their lives and those of their children to come. We need to stop lying for our own satisfaction and help them scaffold a bridge to their own.
Revolutionary Music: The Brevity of Rebel Soul Runs
Now please don’t argue about the fullness of our lies. We lie big. The blazing runs of “conscious music” loom large in the imagination, but were relatively short in breathable air. The O’Jays six album run of original consciousness raising music only lasted from 1972 with Backstabbers to 1976 with Message in the Music. By the next year they were singing about the love of their dog, “Brandy.” The Temptations psychedelic rebel era from 1969 to 1973 ending with A Song for You and Norman Whitfield’s subsequently abrupt exit as their primary producer was even shorter in retrospect. Aretha Franklin’s rallying cry was more a few culturally benchmarking tunes like “Think” and “Respect” than an unremitting catalog of feminist and social justice anthems. Marvin Gaye? Really only one seminal album in What’s Going On staking the middle ground in between the soul pop songs of before and introspective baby-making music and embittered relationship tales thereafter. Nina Simone, Curtis Mayfield, and Stevie Wonder’s inspirational justice marathons lasted a wee bit longer, but each were less concerned with cashing in on a commercial trend they largely set and helmed than they were maintaining the centering hallmark of their brands. Most were temporary revolutionaries whose creative outputs matched the shifts in the commercial winds, rocking dashikis only for a time.
Sure there were unlisted others beyond the named who helped intensify the roaring rallies of an insistent people, from Issac Hayes to Roy Ayers to Earth Wind & Fire, but one by one they switched gears as it became clear that activist-fatigued fans preferred to boogie away the troubled recession years of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s than continue to burn them down, though one can arguably say that each gold & silver age legacy act still created music that tended to the heart and the ambiguous complexities of loving, desiring, obsessing, and needing another human being. In other words, they still told a truth, so people tend to forgive (and forget) that the content of that truth casually and definitively switched from the social conditions of a battered people’s lives to the carnal and emotional conditions of their psyche and bedroom by the late 70s.
They also tend to forget how few of those artists had real control over their music and careers in those halcyon days of revolutionary air, and how much those message music runs coincided with a capitalistic fall reminiscent of today. The ‘70s were economically tough times on all media, and for a time the relatively toothless rebel yells yielded high dividends in recession scarred coffers. And, when they didn’t? It may be reductive to say so, but rebel soul art died because the financially recovered media systems didn’t need to capitalize off of it anymore and, more importantly, rebellion in the hearts and minds of the people was dying too. By the early 80s music, the books, the films shifted to something else, something safe, after the action-oriented soldiers realizing those musical chants (and their activist callers) were muted, jailed, disrupted, hooked on a substance or overwhelmed by a collective, communal avalanche of boredom and apathy of a generation ready to move on and cash in as The Man.
The Change That Came…Kinda
Until…they weren’t again or realized it wasn’t quite as easy to collectively cash in on the picketers dream in ways that had been promised in spite of gender, racial, and sexual orientation legal and cultural gains. By the late ‘80s and through the early ‘90s, there was a new recession and new outrage to capitalize on, to safely route into political, but feel-good dead ends. It was time to make money off justice through art once more with the unexpected rise of Public Enemy, KRS-One, filmmakers like Spike Lee and Charles Burnett, visualists like Basquiat, and writers as disparate as Nelson George and Sistah Souljah and the rest of the supposedly status quo-antagonizing third wave American renaissance of Black artistic and political resistance speaking truth to power…again. This time it was of and for a generation more jingoistic and consumerist than the last, one more obsessed by image and iconography, and sated by the appearance of “depth” and its purchasable cultural accoutrements (X hats! Tribe CDs! Dread locks gel!). This time the art was more persona-building than nation building. There was a new activist-ish generation who believed “consciousness cred could be purchased or indicated by what one publicly consumed. To demonstrate one’s consciousness, one needed to exercise a fluidity from jazz discourse to academy speak to hip hop jingles to vaguely Muslim nationalist language all intended to announce one’s superior consciousness over the ghetto, less enlightened, morally impoverished masses who chose the parachute pants and the dexterity in doing the Running Man over studious horn-rimmed glasses, Karl Kani, and a Different World fantasies. In other words, to pose as a revolutionary until you got your B.A. or MBA to later cash-in like the Huxtables did before you.
Accordingly, with such “transitory revolutionaries” as their core audience, the rise and fall of conscious rap proved even shorter than the runs of The Tempts and O’Jays, ironically overrun again by the “Everybody Dance NOW!” directives of neo-disco in the forms of house, techno, and garage; of self-congratulatory platinum-blonde trannies ordering everyone to “Work! Work It Girl!”; the concentrated athleticism of new jack swing choreographies; and trance-inducing, nirvana reaching escapism thumped by throbbing jungle and drum ‘n’ bass; and any other pharmaceutically-aided pathways (“E,” anyone?) to releasing the pain of and responsibility for making a tenth of the change that our forefathers had managed with far less resources. It wasn’t long before we were given permission to again forget all that nonsense, to go “bling bling,” to “Get Rich or Die Trying,” to “Get Money,” and go “Half on a Baby” rather than consider and assume the weight of love, family, marriage, and by extension, community.
Everyone Didn’t Sell Out: But Who Was Listening?
There were and always have been those who held on to early revolutionary, “consciousness-raising” dreams, artists and activists who passed the torch to one another during these boom and bust cycles. They just found themselves more in the minority than they had in the 60s. At the advent of bling, only the mid-to-late ‘90s entry of neo-soul provided the life support necessary for the asphyxiating true believers who actually took Chuck D and his predecessors in Common, The Roots, Arrested Development, De La Soul, Dead Prez, Black Star, Little Brother and Tribe Called Quest to heart and rolled up their sleeves after Million Man, Women, and Children marches to actualize the message and make it touchable. But again, they were few. The combined peak year sales of Jill, Maxwell, D’Angelo, Musiq, Erykah, Myron, Cherokee, Jaquar Wright, Frank McComb, Jazzyfatnastees, and the like couldn’t equal one best year in sales (1997) for the Bad Boy roster.
To be fair, most of the revolutions of these “true” artists’ music were far more concerned with the mind, the heart, and the metaphysical than ones toppling oppressive institutions; their fight was cleansing the interior and relational, not battling against luminous, exterior forces and policies that deconstructed families, communities, people and led to the blistering, spirit crushing experiences chronicled in Oz, The Wire, The Corner, or even Roc, Boston Public and the short-lived South Central. Accordingly, in this far tamer fourth wind (since it never quite rose to a wave, much less a renaissance), books stayed in print, films got arthouse releases, and the “real” music that actually “said something” was relegated to a new, perhaps more brutally honest capitalistically defined phrase: the “niche market.”
Today We Sing The Blues…Just Like Yesterday
The rise and fall of neo-soul as a niche market came quickly; not even a decade could be said to have been devoted. It wasn’t long before even this niche failed to maintain a steady foot hold in its climb back to pop culture (read = commercial) relevance before our current Great Recession stampede to hide once more on dance floors and behind headphones blaring ever louder, empty techno and hip hop beats whose volume seems anxiously needed to silence the gnawing voices creviced within, begging for more, more, more.
Again a loud, minority chorus cries out, calling for something older, more ancestrally trusted to crutch and eventually lift us, the living, with breath-sustaining songs and messages capable of coaching a weary body to the finish line with a modicum of dignity. Again, there is a rootless belief that the vapidity of our popular now is somehow a new phenomena and that the wells of music that give more to people than they take from them has dried up. My, how our memories are short, our desire to awfulize our present deep-seated. Those of us desert walkers witnessing the more rapid cycles of these successive cultural waves of musical bounty and drought already have charted our water-gathering courses in the sand to an underground railroad of music that lay beneath the popular crowd’s feet, building a thousand mile tunnel of archived music that survived and continues to thrive, laying new bricks along the way regardless of what the radio society plays or doesn’t. There is still music that does everything that people need music to do, it’s architects and archivists undervalued by the many but beloved and appreciated by the few who try to keep these gift-bearers sustained enough to continue holding that torch for as long as their talent and finances can stand it. [See “50 Socially Relevant Songs of the New Millennium”]
What We Can Do: A Primer for Those Who Still Care
Despite each harvest season of so-called “conscious,” “real” and “honest” music that erodes to a long, hard winter of loveless flings beckoning us to temporarily lose ourselves and our troubles within their all consuming rhythms, there has always been the seeding of crops meant to thrive in cold; always artists and music sacrificing mainstream fame and fortune to provide something true that helps get its people through to the other side. At all times, especially now, there is music that is being created to endure, to rebel, to uplift, and uncover the unmentionables. We’ve just got to find it, water it, till it, and share its fruits with any and all who come starving with upturned palms when they are ready for food and not just sex (for even a craven man cannot live by casual sex alone).
Ultimately, even in times of musical richness, we have to remind ourselves and keep reminding ourselves that all music is meant to be is the carb that gives you the energy to do something different, to make something different, to be something different, to be the change we seek in society, community, relationships, and, most importantly, ourselves. Music does still heal, nurture, restore, reveal, teach, inspire, reflect and truth-tell. But even once we access this music, it is up to us to realize its messages, make manifest the difference described in its soul-stirring stories. Since the time music could first make a buck for the status quo, it has been exploited to placate and satisfy the seething crowds, providing the illusory atmosphere of change but not actually changing the conditions of the mind or the world. To expect all that of music is to fall into the marketer’s trap, to be content with the illusion, past or present. We must stop placing on music what has been our responsibility all along. Music does…still. Now we must too.
By L. Michael Gipson