Stand up for your rights

Sarthak Kaushik | Updated on June 19, 2020

Help me sing: In Redemption Song, Bob Marley turned his own physical pain into a beacon of hope and strength   -  FILE IMAGE

Musicians merged genres to create honey for the eardrums — and slogans for generations

America has seen some discordant notes in recent weeks that strike at the very fabric of its inclusive character. The killing of an unarmed black man by a white policeman in Minneapolis last month unleashed protests across the country, with people of all colours rising against racism. Musicians have stood up, too, to be counted, providing the soundtrack of hope in these dire times.

Last week, I wrote about Charles Mingus and Max Roach, and how they spoke out against racism with their music back in 1960. Years later, we had rapper Donald Glover, who goes by the stage name Childish Gambino. In 2018, he released a song on being African American in America, while also taking head on the burning subject of gun violence.

In the subsequent 61st Annual Grammy awards, the song swept up the coveted trophy in all the four categories it was nominated for — including Record of the Year and Song of the Year. The song was the sound of the simmering tension that race, inequality, prejudice and violence were making in the country. Childish Gambino had called it This is America. And with the current cacophony of oppression and dissatisfaction hitting fever pitch, it is only right that This is America be underlined, along with other music that made the right noise for the right words.

Apart from the more direct ways of protest, music built on the foundation of protest has also emanated from the unshackling of the rigours of genres. Branford Marsalis, one of the top names in contemporary jazz, brother to Wynton Marsalis, conductor of the Jazz at Lincoln Centre Orchestra, and one of the most sought after saxophone maestros in the world, wanted to break free from the shackles of labels. Around 1994, he made a band that tipped its hat to the incredible talents of sax supremo Cannonball Adderley by naming it after one of Adderley’s nicknames — Buckshot LeFonque.

He mashed classical jazz progressions with hip-hop, mixed in some rhythm and blues and rock, and produced a musical dish to pour honey into the eardrums. But this dish also served some heavy doses of political statements with the second album, Music Evolution released in 1997.

Especially powerful was a song called Breakfast@Denny’s, a direct indictment of racial segregation that harked back to a 1993 incident at the Maryland outlet of the restaurant chain Denny’s. Six African-American secret service agents, tasked with protecting the president, were not served breakfast there even while it was served to the rest of their 21-strong contingent. The six were given a single breakfast meal after an hour-long wait. They sued the chain, leading to the restaurant agreeing to end racial discrimination.

This was Marsalis’s way of making music stand up as a strong agent for change. The rap lyrics made sure the message was not missed. The song said:

You know about this story? Boy when does it stop

You got six African-American secret service agents assigned to guard the president of the United States were refused service at a Denny’s restaurant in Maryland

Now Denny’s insists they don’t discriminate, but still you gotta wonder when that chef’s hat is pointed, you know...

Everybody’s sitting around eating that grand clan breakfast. You know, you gotta get a little suspicious, yeah whoa, that’s it.

With its accusatory finger firmly pointed at the “pointy hat” and the “grand clan” — references to the white supremacist Ku Klux Klan — Marsalis let loose the creative juices to enhance the tastelessness of the episode. And thus it was that it became a minor milestone on a landscape littered with music that could have been so much more, if only it showed the same courage of conviction as demonstrated in Breakfast@Denny’s.

Arguably the greatest of them all is Bob Marley’s Redemption Song, in which he turned his own physical pain into a beacon of hope and strength for generations. An intensely personal expression, this song had only Marley, with his acoustic guitar, quoting from a landmark 1937 speech by black nationalist leader Marcus Garvey.

“We are going to emancipate ourselves from mental slavery because whilst others might free the body, none but ourselves can free the mind,” Garvey had said in the speech titled Work That Has Been Done. “Mind is your only ruler, sovereign. The man who is not able to develop and use his mind is bound to be the slave of the other man who uses his mind,” Garvey said at an orthodox church in Nova Scotia, Canada.

In 1979, Marley distilled the essence of the message in those immortal lines, and made a song as much about hope as it was of rising up: Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery/ None but ourselves can free our minds.

It was a gentle reggae rhythm and a rousing call.

Get up, stand up, stand up for your rights, get up, stand up, don’t give up the fight, he sang.

At that point, he was already in pain, suffering from the cancer of the toe that would eventually take him from us. He was also confronting personal questions of mortality and of humankind. To then take the words of a rousing speech, imbue them with musical magic, and make a song that would make us all sing aloud: Won’t you help me sing, these songs of freedom.

That certainly does seem like the Uprising he had in mind when he chose that word as the name of the album that would, so to speak, house the redemption song for us all.

Sarthak Kaushik   -  BUSINESS LINE


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

Twitter: @radiochaos

Published on June 19, 2020

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