On November 6th, this Sunday we celebrate the song, Lift Every Voice and Sing, written by James Weldon Johnson and his brother, J. Rosamond Johnson.
“A group of young men in Jacksonville, Florida, arranged to celebrate Lincoln’s birthday in 1900. My brother, J. Rosamond Johnson, and I decided to write a song to be sung at the exercises. I wrote the words and he wrote the music. Our New York publisher, Edward B. Marks, made mimeographed copies for us, and the song was taught to and sung by a chorus of five hundred colored school children.
Shortly afterwards my brother and I moved away from Jacksonville to New York, and the song passed out of our minds. But the school children of Jacksonville kept singing it; they went off to other schools and sang it; they became teachers and taught it to other children. Within twenty years it was being sung over the South and in some other parts of the country. Today the song, popularly known as the Negro National Hymn, is quite generally used. The lines of this song repay me in an elation, almost of exquisite anguish, whenever I hear them sung by Negro children.”
James Weldon Johnson
Yesterday, I went to visit a colleague of mine who is a school counselor at a High School in Brooklyn. When I showed up for our meeting, she was just finishing up a session with a young man about music. I listened lightly to the end of the conversation and she later gave me the meat of the conversation.
She told me the day before, in the school recording studio, this young man attempted to lay down a track that was full of misogyny, violence and regular trap ish. She was not happy about the subject matter and so had asked this particular young man to go home and listen to the following albums; Things Fall Apart by the Roots, Be by Common, Aquemini by Outkast, Black on Both Sides by Mos Def, The Score by the Fugees and The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill by the incomparable Ms. Lauryn Hill.
Her conversation with him was about making music with a message and assuring him that the audience will rock with you if the beat is hot and your flow is nice. I added if the hook was catchy, that would be all that was needed.
Ok, what does this have to do with lift every voice and sing?
Music is at the heart of our identities and as culturally responsive educators, our role is to help inspire our students to create the kind of art that uplifts them, their peers and yes, us. However, there is a way to do that without stifling or dismissing the music of their times. This was what this school counselor was showing me and this young man.
Now privately, this school counselor, described our children’s music, trap music as essentially trash with lyrics that were misogynistic and meaningless. I had to clutch my pearls though. Because I, as an avid trap listener, I had to differ. I start my day with trap yoga every morning and I have a real appreciation for trap soca, trap r&b and trap rap. I felt like my soul was being assaulted.
I then asked her if she remembered the music we listened to in HS, Lil Kim’s Hardcore, Biggie’s Life after Death, Foxy Brown’s Ill Nana, Dre’s Chronic and the ultimate inappropriate song, Akinyele’s …I won’t even write the name of the song here on this education blog. I then asked, how were we able to listen to that kind of music and still become conscious individuals.
For me, it was my brother in law listening to every single record with me and my nephews and asking us questions about what we were listening to and not in the disappointed way. He was a hip hop head and a DJ when he was younger. He would sing along with us to these inappropriate lyrics and then query us. He would then share his music, Tribe, Leaders of the New School, Rakim, Pac, Public Enemy and others. He ensured we had a wide ranging palate for hip hop. He allowed us to revel in the “crap” of our time, all the while introducing us to hip hop that fed our soul.
This school counselor said to this young man, you could connect Tamir Rice to Emmett Till. She asked, do you know the story of Emmett Till? He shook his head no. She asked, you ever heard of Black Wall Street? He shook his head no again. And so she advised him to get on Google and learn about them, that knowing this information would help him develop his rhymes and educate his listeners.
You know what I thought, we want our young people to produce upliftment in their music but we haven’t taught them anything uplifting.
Bob Marley, stated, “one good thing about music, when it hits you, you feel no pain.” And so yes, for some of you (you peep how I said you and not us) you may actually feel pain when you hear some of the lyrics of our young people’s music. However, I charge you to look at this as an opportunity to influence and connect with our young people. This is the music of their generation, which speaks to their spiritual, emotional, psychological health. And if they are unhealthy (which I don’t think they are) then let’s step in and nurse them to health, to heal.
So allow them to lift their voice and trap. And we should truly listen and connect and as this school counselor did, use our influence to help guide them…as they trap. I mean, let’s have conscious trap!
In the end, it is my hope that this student was impacted by listening to the albums she asked him to engage with, that he will Google Emmett Till and Black Wall Street and end up finding himself and his voice. So that the next time he steps into the studio, he will spit life on a dope beat, with a hot flow and an irresistible hook.
Here’s the real question though. Why is it, he has to, on his own, go search for a connection to his history and ancestors OUTSIDE of his school day?
Why is that knowledge only cursory to his education?
Lift every voice and sing
Till earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise,
High as the list’ning skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us,
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on till victory is won.
Stony the road we trod,
Bitter the chastening rod,
Felt in the days when hope unborn had died;
Yet with a steady beat,
Have not our weary feet
Come to the place for which our fathers sighed
We have come over a way that with tears has been watered,
We have come treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered,
Out from the gloomy past, till now we stand at last
Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.
God of our weary years,
God of our silent tears,
Thou who hast brought us thus far on the way;
Thou who has by Thy might
Led us into the light,
Keep us forever in the path, we pray.
Lest, our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee,
Lest, our hearts, drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee,
Shadowed beneath Thy hand, may we forever stand,
True to our God, true to our native land.
The music of the youth is representative of their current state. It is them lifting their voice and if it is not ringing with harmonies of liberty, full of faith and hope and marching towards victory….
Then we have some serious work to do.
Oh, and do a check and see how many of your students know the “Negro National Anthem” and if they don’t know it, or only know the first stanza, (yeah I’m looking at you) find a way to teach them. Hey, you may want to engage them in creating a remix. They could trap it out! That would be dope!
Deep Thinkers Only