Howard Dukes: Music's power amid tragedy shown again in Trayvon Martin aftermath

Southern trees bear strange fruit/blood on the leaves and blood at the root
      Billie Holiday (1939)

You’re looking at my dermis/My skin color makes you nervous/Follow me around the grocery store/Like I’m a criminal/You label me a criminal
      Steve Wallace (2012)

Southern trees bear strange fruit/blood on the leaves and blood at the root
      Billie Holiday (1939)

You’re looking at my dermis/My skin color makes you nervous/Follow me around the grocery store/Like I’m a criminal/You label me a criminal
      Steve Wallace (2012)

Sixty-one people were lynched in America in 1920. Fifty-three of these victims of extra-judicial violence were black. That was the year that the NAACP brought this national shame to light by flying a black flag outside of its New York City headquarters whenever the organization received news of a lynching anywhere in the country. The flag’s message was a simple and powerful reminder that mob violence and vigilantism was the rule in many parts of this country: “A MAN WAS LYNCHED YESTERDAY.”

There were three lynchings in 1939. Two of the victims were black. That year is important because it was the year that Billie Holiday first sang “Strange Fruit,” a song that started out as a protest poem written by Abe Meerpol two years earlier. “Strange Fruit” reflected the fact that while lynchings took place less frequently than they did in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the specter of being lynched remained persistent fear. The realization that a black man’s life or freedom hinged on the petty jealousies or being in the wrong place at the wrong time meant that every black person - and especially every black man or boy - anywhere in America wore an invisible bulls-eye whenever they left the house.

While the number of lynchings dropped over the course of the 20th Century, the act became no less terrifying as, by the middle of the century, the victims were no longer faceless: We might not have known the names of the 230 people (black or white) lynched in 1892, but in 1955 we knew the name of Emmett Till,  and we knew the names of James Chaney,Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, a black man and two white men lynched in 1964.

While ending lynching was one of the civil rights causes of a previous generation, the issue of racial profiling is one of our generation’s defining civil rights issues. Each is insidious in its treatment of the victim, at its essence providing a third party with the power to deny the individuality and humanity of a black man - to decide whether that man has a right “to be.”

In the prior generation it was largely through art that black people expressed and forced the world to acknowledge our collective humanity. Billie Holiday gave a voice to those “black bodies” hanging from trees; Louis Armstrong captured the pain of generations of black people when he cried, “what did I do to be so black and blue;” Charles Mingus put the absurdity of segregation on blast with “Foibles of Faubus”;  Syl Johnson captured the frustration of the post-MLK generation when he asked “Is It Because I’m Black”; and Marvin Gaye defied expectations by crafting the polemic “What’s Going On.”

Yet, in recent years, mainstream R&B and, to a lesser extent, mainstream hip-hop, stopped dealing with the big questions. Perhaps the members of this post-modern, post-civil rights, post-racial era feel it’s corny to sing “protest music.” Perhaps in the post Telecommunications Act of 1996 world that L. Michael Gipson recently wrote about it’s easier to get along by singing about bling and bootie than to be a troubadour who sings about gentrification and profiling. All I know is that after Hurricane Katrina turned the residents of the lower 9th Ward into sojourners, a lot of people wondered what happened to the singers, the rappers and the musicians - the folks Chuck D. calls the CNN of our community. Actually, socially relevant songs were being made, but these tunes often couldn’t get played.

The same question might be asked in the aftermath of the Trayvon Martin tragedy, when only a poet can give voice to the pain and anger felt by many. Right around the time that the Martin incident took place, Chris asked me to review a project called Street Symphony by Steve Wallace. One of the tracks, titled “Dannato,” takes on the issue of racial profiling. The song’s title translated means “the damned.” One meaning of “damn” is to curse, and the song’s title plays on an interpretation of the Bible that black people have been cursed. That interpretation has been used to justify the enslavement and persecution of black people. Another meaning of “damn” is to pronounce an adverse judgment upon, and those who believe that Martin’s killing was unjustified feel that George Zimmerman wrongly used profiling to pronounce and adverse judgment on whether or not Trayvon had “the right to be.”

While it was not written to specifically address what happened to Trayvon Martin, a song like “Dannato” provides an example of the contribution that art can make to our understanding. Art, at its best, exists not only for its own sake or for entertainment’s sake, nor does it exist in a vacuum. Some songs are created to inspire and inform the people, and can provide incredible power in a cultural, political, historical and economic context. In just a few minute composition, Steve Wallace reflected millions of discussions about racial profiling that take place every day around dinner tables and in barber shops, just as “Strange Fruit” reflected the concerns of Billie Holiday’s time. And while a song like “Dannato” or the music of other modern artists singing in coffee houses, churches and community centers cannot remove the sting of the Travon Martin tragedy, the genocide in Darfur or the current economic hardship of citizens around the world, they can provide a thoughtful viewpoint and a personalization of pain that simply can’t be expressed another way. They can also begin and advance the conversation of solutions.  They are the songs of the modern day Billie Holidays, and they need to be heard right along with the love songs and the dance tunes.

By Howard Dukes

 

 

 

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