Listening to Pro-Black Music as a Kid Made Me a Better White Person
Happy Black History Month everyone! To all my fellow educators out there, I hope you’re finding fun and exciting ways to celebrate Black Excellence throughout American history with your colleagues and students this month (and always?).
Last Monday when Khalilah, Vincent and I were recording our Moving the Culture podcast, we were already gearing up for BHM and remarking that Black greatness is so EVERYWHERE right now. Of Pitchfork’s top 5 albums of 2017, 3 were Black artists, number 1 being King Kendrick’s Damn. In film, it’s been a year since Barry Jenkin’s “Moonlight” won the Oscar for best picture, and this year Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” and Dee Ree’s “Mudbound” are both in the running for various awards.
In the world of science Dr. Nadine Burke-Harris just dropped her book The Deepest Well, revolutionizing our understanding of trauma and resilience in young people. Black writers and thinkers are shaping our urgent conversations, challenging the status quo and driving us to evolve our sociopolitical consciousness. Truly, the list goes on and on.
With all this excellence in mind, I’ve been doing a lot of self-reflection recently. I’ve been thinking about when and under what circumstances I really started to listen to Black narratives and to feel transformed by them. I realized it was high school, and the eye-opening started with music. And while I realize fully that there might be nothing cornier than a White person talking about how Black music “changed” them, I’M GONNA DO IT ANYWAY!
***Corniness alert***Read at your own risk****
I was born in NYC but most of my formative childhood years were spent 28 miles away out in the suburbs of New Jersey. Mom got a job there and the money was good, so off we went. Hot 97 comes through just as clear out in burbs though, so pretty much everybody in the tri-state area grew up with Funk Flex on the boom box. (YUP. Boom box. The kind with two cassettes that you sit in front of with the radio on, waiting for Zhane’s “Hey Mr. D.j.” to come on so you can press the record button for your latest mix tape.)
A few things happened to me in high school that got me away from just listening to whatever was happening on Hot 97 and Z100 though, and the early stages of my music consciousness started to form. The first event was a move to Vermont for my sophomore year. That’s a long story, but the important detail has to do with Vermont itself. Vermont is a hyper-liberal state that actually has a pretty robust movement to secede from the U.S. altogether. Bernie Sanders represents Vermont. And much like how Bernie left something to be desired in his racial politics, so did many of the hippie Vermonters I was spending my time with. But, those Vermonters loved Bob Marley… like, LOVED Bob Marley, and by 15, he was pretty much all I listened to.
I was an only child, so I spent a lot of time alone listening to music, writing down lyrics and just thinking. I’ll never forget listening to “Slave Driver” for the first time.
Every time I hear the crack of the whip, my blood runs cold.
I remember on the slave ship, how they brutalized our very souls.
Today they say that we are free, only to be chained in poverty.
Good God I think this illiteracy, is only a machine to make money.
Not only was Marley singing about slavery, he was embodying the experience of enslavement. He does this on “Redemption Song” as well; he transports himself into the first-person experience of the bondage of his ancestors. My mind was blown. I started to understand that Babylon was the neo-colonial capitalist empire, and Marley was telling us it couldn’t last. I understood the righteousness of his threat to chase White folks off the land in “Crazy Baldheads” and “Catch a Fire”. By 15 I knew who Marcus Garvey was, I knew what repatriation meant and I knew what a Buffalo Soldier was, too. Bob Marley made me interested in a history I wasn’t learning in school.
Listening to Bob Marley allowed me to face the historical and present-day terror of White supremacy, colonialism and racism while simultaneously inviting a vision of Black revolution, royalty and freedom. When Bob Marley and the Wailers talked, I listened. An important part of who I am was being shaped by those songs.
Back to New Jersey, and 16-year-old Erin has had a taste of freedom living away from home and she liked it. My friends and I started spending more and more time in NYC. We made new friends, tried new things, got into a little trouble. I’ll never forget the hot summer afternoon we were in somebody’s apartment uptown and someone popped on De La Soul’s “Buhloone Mindstate” (1993).
We had been listening to a lot of Tribe Called Quest whose conscious, Afro-centric lyrics were as catchy as they were scathing. But “Buhloone Mindstate” was an album built on righteous anger about White producers and artists stealing Black music and exploiting Black creativity and brilliance with no remorse.
Why do we have to cross over?
Why are n—-s always crossing over, huh?
I mean, what’s the matter?
They can accept our music as long as they can’t see our faces?
“Buhloone Mindstate” introduced me to saxophone legend Maceo Parker and had me listening deeply to the inter-generational voices of Black selfhood on “I am I be”. By 16 I was lecturing people on the evils of Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis and beginning to understand that the theft of Black labor that Bob Marley was talking about took on new and insidious forms in our current world. But I also understood, even at that young age, that “Buhloone Mindstate” was an album of hope and pride.
Ruby Sales says that anger and love can occupy the heart at the same time. She calls this redemptive anger. “Buhloone Mindstate” is an album of love and redemptive anger. And one that I like to say predicted the future. The opening track’s repetitive chorus says; it might blow up, but it won’t go pop. They’re talking about Black music, and when I look at Pitchfork’s top albums of this past year and see “Damn” and “4:44” in those top slots, I see that De La’s message from 25 years ago holds true today.
So many more incredible pro-Black artists influenced me through high school and college. In fact, I’ve had to trim this blog post down multiple times already. So for the sake of brevity I’ll just skip to the group and album that has influenced my life and work in the most irreversible way: Dead Prez’s “Let’s Get Free”.
“Let’s Get Free”, which dropped in March of 2000, is like a punch in the face of proud, Black socialist-anarchism. The whole album grabs you by the throat and doesn’t care if you can’t breathe. It is anti-White, anti-capitalist, anti-system. It calls for highly disciplined, highly trained Black armies that already exist to reclaim their communities and cultures and basically burn shit to the ground. With Dead Prez, RBG transforms from Red, Black and Gold to “Revolutionary but Gangsta”. Dead Prez was saying that nothing about who young Black people are needs to change except their awareness of the truth. I think this album embodied Ibram X. Kendi’s thesis that there is nothing wrong with Black people, and they definitely planted the first seeds of “rachedemics” that thinkers and educators like Dr. Chris Emdin talk about today. I need three more blog posts to talk about how every song stomped a new neural pathway into my brain, paving roads to a deeper and more anti-racist way of thinking. But since I don’t have that kind of time, I’ll just shout out the song that could essentially be the rated R version of any critically conscious educator’s mission statement, “They Schools”:
Man that school shit is a joke
The same people who control the school system control
The prison system, and the whole social system
Ever since slavery, nawsayin?
I went to school with some redneck crackers
Right around the time 3rd Bass dropped the Cactus album
But I was readin Malcolm
I changed my name in ’89 cleaning parts of my brain
Like a baby nine
I took a history class serious
Front row, every day of the week, 3rd period
Fuckin with the teachers head, callin em racist
I tried to show them crackers some light, they couldn’t face it
I got my diploma from a school called Rickers
Full of, teenage mothers, and drug dealin n—-s
In the hallways, the po-po was always present
Searchin through n—-s possessions
Lookin for, dope and weapons, get your lessons
That’s why my moms kept stressin
I tried to pay attention but they classes wasn’t interestin
They seemed to only glorify the Europeans
Claimin Africans were only three-fifths a human beings
All my high school teachers can suck my dick
Tellin me white man lies straight bullshit (echoes)
They schools aint teachin us, what we need to know to survive
(Say what, say what)
They schools don’t educate, all they teach the people is lies
The song ends with a call for total Black autonomy in education. M-1 says:
Until we have some shit where we control the fuckin school system
Where we reflect how we gon solve our own problems
Them n—-s aint gon relate to school, shit that just how it is
Knowhatimsayin? And I love education, knowhatimsayin?
But if education aint elevatin me, then you knowhatimsayin it aint
Takin me where I need to go on some bullshit, then fuck education
Knowhatimsayin? At least they shit, matter of fact my nigga
this whole school system can suck my dick, BEEYOTCH!!
Dead Prez’s “They Schools” is so brilliant and ahead of its time it’s almost hard to wrap your head around. They’re invoking Paulo Freire’s assertion from Pedagogy of the Oppressed that state-run school systems can never deliver emancipatory education because they are built to reproduce the interests of the state. This was a hard pill to swallow for someone like me who wanted to prove that thesis wrong by working in schools, but anyone who has worked for the education system knows there is some truth there. They were also embodying and instructing us in the fact that Black brilliance can look and sound however the fuck it wants. Any literature on Culturally Responsive Education today will encourage educators to allow more fluidity and flexibility in how young people talk about content, and to get better at listening for their brilliance. And I cannot help but think of young King living up to M-1’s legend, calling his teacher out for centering Europeans and telling the young people lies.
I need to end by stating an important understanding: I know this music is not for me.
I knew that very early on.
I don’t claim it as my own, I don’t claim to identify, create false equivalencies between the narratives I’m listening to and my own life, and I certainly don’t have a secret White girl rapper or reggae alter ego I bust out on the weekends.
But when I think of cultural appropriation, I often mention that I use Nisi Shawl’s question to self-reflect: are we acting as invaders, tourists or guests? I believe music is an invitation, which means that its listener has a choice. Do we engage with the invitation of music as a thoughtless tourist, there to ogle but not learn? Or are we engaging with music as a humble guest, grateful that the stories these musicians are sharing are pushing the boundaries of our understanding about our world and the human experiences happening within it? I think if we, as White folks, can listen to Black music in the spirit of the grateful, humble guest, we are exercising the muscle of active(ist)-listener, which I argue is an essential component of a White anti-racist identity. So with that said, I want to thank Bob Marley, De La Soul, Dead Prez and all of the other incredible Black artists who have pushed the boundaries of my understanding and made me want to do my part to dismantle White supremacy and celebrate Blackness in all of its forms.
Finally, I’d like to say HAPPY BIRTHDAY to Bob Marley!! You continue to inspire. And the original release date of “Let’s Get Free” was February 8th, so with that, I’ll leave us with a final…
HAPPY Black History Month