Leaving an Audible Mark on History

A showcase of songs representing black America

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By Soun Oeng Staff Writer

African culture is musically motivated and has a potent presence in its ethnic roots. When you think about black history, especially in America, music is the driving force for innumerable black movements. 

For example, black slaves sung songs to communicate with each other about secret agendas and escape routes, called map or signal songs. 

Furthermore, the Harlem Renaissance, an artistic and political black movement, utilized music to influence and express their oppression outside of mainstream media. In the History Channel article “Harlem Renaissance,” readers are reminded that the movement was much more than a campaign of black identity, revealing “Negro life (was) seizing its first chances for group expression and self determination,” against a discriminating society. 

It is evident that music is a crucial component in the DNA of black history, and black musicians continue to preserve and practice their ancestral value for music to this day. When I examined black songs in America, I found a rich selection from past and present black artists — a few songs stood out from the rest. 

For instance, Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” is the perfect example of early music that affected black history. Released in 1939 and inspired by a poem from Abel Meeropol about protest against lynchings, “Strange Fruit” captures the gruesome and visceral images of black lynchings within her lyrics. Even the tone and piano notes are haunting, despite Holiday’s beautiful voice, forcing the listener to become a specter in the memories of wrongfully murdered black lives. 

Other important songs that played a significant role in black history are Kanye West’s “Black Skinhead” and “New Slaves.” Both were featured on “Yeezus,” which became a controversial album among critics and media. The two titles are also a critique on America’s relationship with black people, suggesting that they’re still slaves to a government behind institutionalized racism. 

His statements in “Black Skinhead” and “New Slaves” address the stereotypes and discrimination among black people by unapologetically reminding his listeners of the culture’s long history of oppression and injustice. Kanye also manipulates human vocals that are distorted and violent to convey a loud and heated presence within his music. The rapid and aggressive repetition of bass in the background can be interpreted as heartbeats of fury.

Joey Badass’ “Land Of The Free” also contributes to the platform of black history. The beginning line, “You know sometimes I think they don’t truly understand me You know, ‘cause they don’t,” confronts the idea that many people still don’t understand black lives. Unlike Kanye’s approach, the rapper spits rhymes in a forgiving tone for the ignorant and approaches the song with a calm, wise, and mature attitude. Albeit, the lyricism is just as crafty and powerful.

Common’s “Letter to the Free” is reminiscent to black slave songs. It begins with a slow and steady tempo on the piano that is gradually joined by humming and single claps, resurrecting the songs of his ancestors. The vocals are melancholic, but meditative and hopeful. When you get to the chorus, it repeats the line “Freedom Come,” allowing Common to connect his audience to black culture and history.

Kendrick Lamar’s “The Blacker the Berry” is raw and honest. Similar to Common’s song, there are the same patterns of drums and eeriness, revealing an unfiltered version of black heritage. It’s effective in portraying black resistance towards persecution and I can see why black musicians recycle this technique; black history should never be sugarcoated. Moreover, all these songs stay faithful to how music has left its mark on black history and will continue to do so as time goes on. 

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