Black music matters

Sarthak Kaushik | Updated on June 11, 2020 Published on June 11, 2020

Loud and Clear: Charles Mingus’s words were a searing indictment of the injustice meted out to people of colour   -  THE HINDU ARCHIVES

This is not the first time powerhouses of musical talent have stood up to be counted

* Music is making its voice heard against historic injustices

As protests against the killing of George Floyd rage across the United States, and race and colour with their attendant inequities animate a whole generation into rising against the discordant notes of historic injustice, music is making its voice heard, even in its silences.

The world’s highest-paid musician, Kanye West, has quietly been supporting the family of Floyd — an unarmed black man who died after a white police officer in Minneapolis knelt on his neck for nine minutes last month. Others are using their social media presence to amplify the message and the messengers. But down on the streets of New York, it was one of the foremost contemporary jazz musicians who was hitting the high notes.

Jon Batiste, bandleader of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, and owner of arguably the finest set of fingers to tickle the ivories of the piano this side of the century, took to the mean streets of the Big Apple to send a strong message of solidarity with his peaceful protest music march.

Along with his band members — and wearing the simplest of messages conveying the strongest of sentiments in the words “We Are” — Batiste led a New Orleans-style celebration of the art of protest through the hearts and minds of not just those present, but those staring at it through various sizes of screens. And being from New Orleans, Batiste would certainly know a thing or two about taking broken hearts and turning them into art.

This is, of course, not the first time storehouses of eye-watering talent have stood up and been counted for a cause. The world of jazz has two red hot examples of how melodic intensity had reflected a similar strength of feeling against injustice. And one of the brightest examples comes from the finest of them all, Charles Mingus.

At the peak of his powers, Mingus was considered head and shoulders above fellow double bass practitioners and his vision as a bandleader had left a whole generation of audiences breathless in wonder. One of his superlative creations was the iconic album Mingus Ah, Um. But apart from the virtuoso creations, the album carried a searing indictment of the injustice meted out to nine teenagers based on the colour of their skin. The song, called Fables of Faubus, was named after Orval Faubus, who, as governor of Arkansas in 1957, sent in the National Guard to prevent the enrolment of the African-American teenagers into Little Rock Central High School. It was after then president Dwight Eisenhower sent in the 101 Airborne Division of the American Army and federalised the Arkansas National Guard that the teenagers could join the hitherto segregated school, under the continued protection of the 101st Airborne.

In 1959, Mingus wrote the song with the lyrics:

Oh Lord, don’t let ’em shoot us,

Oh Lord, don’t let ’em stab us


Two, four, six, eight;

They brainwash and teach you hate...

Columbia Records, the label Mingus was contracted with, refused to release the song with the lyrics, forcing him to make an instrumental version to try and keep the message alive. It was only in 1960 that he released it with lyrics on an independent label.

Mingus, who returned to the piece most often during his live sessions and performances, was quoted as saying he could not strum the strings well because he just couldn’t play without thinking of the inequality and prejudice that the incident epitomised.

Fables of Faubus went on to become one of the most strongly worded political statements through music in the jazz genre, along with being a lesson in how to use melody to make a point.

In 1960, the same independent record label, Candid Records, gave the world of jazz another album by another jazz great that underlined the civil rights movement. Max Roach, at that point revered as one of the most innovative bashers of the drum skins, released We Insist!, a commemoration of the Emancipation Proclamation that freed those held as slaves.

The album tipped its hat to the American nationwide student sit-in movement aimed at ending segregation in education. One of the finest examples of non-violent direct action, the movement led to widespread support and affirmative action in ending racial segregation. Roach employed avant garde music methods, including a piano-less chorus screaming “protest” for one of the tracks, to make a statement about equality. The album was not a commercial success, with critics openly stating that though the musicality was beyond reproach, the subject was too controversial.

Roach, who, it must be reiterated, was widely considered as one of the greats of jazz drumming, said in a particularly candid interview to the iconic Downbeat magazine he would never again play music that was not socially relevant.

“We American jazz musicians of African descent have proved beyond all doubt that we’re master musicians of our instruments. Now what we have to do is employ our skill to tell the dramatic story of our people and what we’ve been through,” he said.

So, yes, the tradition of making music mean something is a rather old and illustrious one, and to see today’s musicians carry it forward on the street, shoulder-to-shoulder with those who want to make a change, certainly sounds like a great chorus for the song of hope.

Sarthak Kaushik   -  BUSINESS LINE


Sarthak Kaushik is an RJ at Ishq 104.8 FM, Delhi;

Twitter: @radiochaos

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Published on June 11, 2020
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