Oh Baltimore, Ain’t it hard just to live?
The absence of Black musical support for contemporary social movements
Last month Jazmine Sullivan’s dynamic cover of Nina Simone’s “Baltimore” hit the web. Slated to appear on the soundtrack of an upcoming Netflix documentary about Simone’s life entitled, “What Happened, Miss Simone?” Sullivan’s rendition of the piece plucks at one’s heartstrings before snatching them out, one by one.
Originally composed by acclaimed songwriter, Randy Newman in 1977 “Baltimore” was covered in 1978 by Nina Simone. Newman’s brassy tenor and repetitive piano motif make the song sound more optimistic than the lyrics suggest; but Simone’s soulful rendition synthesizes funk and reggae influences to appropriately convey the unease that the words speak of while simultaneously representing a different type of Baltimore–Black Baltimore. The lyrics are presented as an ode to a declining city written and performed as Baltimore itself stood in limbo, bookended by two socio-political calamities.
Prior to the song’s release were the 1968 riots when Baltimore, like many cities nationwide, erupted in chaos incensed at the murder of Civil Rights Movement leader, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The latter event was the introduction of crack cocaine to the city in the early 1980s and the destruction that ensued. It is no secret that both tragedies disproportionately impacted inner city Baltimore and, specifically, Black Baltimoreans.
And today, as if transported back into time, Baltimore finds itself amidst more social unrest. The activist efforts of some of Baltimore’s Black community to protest unequal law enforcement practices have reinforced the national movement for racial justice and Jazmine Sullivan’s cover of Nina Simone’s rendition of “Baltimore” has become chillingly apropos. Sullivan’s dramatic contralto voice ricochets seductively against the reggae inspired melody in almost the same fashion as Simone’s. Yet, however beautifully stirring this tribute to a legend and musical activist is it is also a glaring reminder of a contemporary cultural void—that of movement music.
What I have termed “movement music” are the songs and musical narratives that have traditionally under girded the social movements within the Black community for centuries. During times of enslavement music was used as a means of rebellion and subdued insurrection. Enslaved people would mock White plantation owners using skillful double entendre. Even more radical were the bonds people who courageously decided to take their freedom and used coded songs as a means of communicating about escape routes. “Follow the Drinking Gourd”, “There’s a Meeting Here Tonight”, and “This Little Light of Mine” are a few examples of the beginnings of the defiant and unifying strain of Black protest songs.
Such Negro spirituals carried through bondage and the Civil War and were sung throughout the long American Civil Rights Movement (1920s-1960s). Billie Holiday’s 1939 “Strange Fruit” is one of the most well-known examples of a mainstream artist using their fame to emote about the social ills of the time. Songs like “Keep your Eyes on the Prize” and “We Shall Overcome” became popularized during the 1950s and 1960s—the peak of the Civil Rights Movement and Black activism for equality—and came to exemplify the Movement worldwide. White folk singer Pete Seeger, voting rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating (SNCC) Freedom Singers and countless other artists were all instrumental in the diffusion of traditional freedom songs which acted as rallying cries. Further, songs penned by mainstream artists such as Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam”, James Brown’s “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud” and Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” represented the use of secular music as a means to protest Black oppression and support the freedom movement.
With the advent of rap in the late 1970s and the early 1980s the concept of the socially conscious rapper soon followed. Using storytelling and creative wordplay rappers mused about poverty, joblessness, police brutality and drugs—all of which were running rampant in the Black community. Progenitors of socially conscious rap such as Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, KRS-One, and Public Enemy all used lyrical dexterity, heavily syncopated beats and the sampling of older protest songs to bring attention to the plight of Blacks in urban centers.
Today, however, a shift has occurred. The music industry is seemingly focused on meeting the bottom line rather than highlighting the racialized socio-political tension that is so clearly denigrating our nation once more. This statement is not meant to negate the artistry of Erykah Badu, J. Cole and Kendrick Lamar who have been able to meld their political-mindedness with record-selling music. And of course one cannot ignore Common and John Legend’s critically acclaimed “Glory” which illuminates the comparisons between the freedom struggles of the past with those of today. But these few examples do not constitute a groundswell of musical support from the prominent musicians of today.
History has shown us how fervent melodies can inspire and galvanize the masses in protest and help to reinforce and bolster the activist spirit. So why is it that today there is seemingly no musical base to support the present movement? Has the legacy of the freedom song dissipated? Perhaps not, but this lack of protest/freedom/movement music is indicative of historical moment that we find ourselves in today. In the so-called “post racial America” there is less unity around issues of racial equality and justice as they are deemed as non-essential. And with ever advancing technology people have found new ways to engage with activism that make it more of a passive badge of the “in-crowd” rather than an active proclamation of an on the ground, struggle for a cause. Online petitions, streaming news coverage and the “like” button have all made activism seem trendy and convenient; essentially, activism itself has changed.
But the question still remains, in a time of suffocating racialized violence, unequal application of the law and a continued denial of rights why are more mainstream artists not producing music that reflects the tumult? Is our last resort simply recycling and remixing songs of ole, no matter how rousing or relevant they may be, in order to remedy this lack? The situation is too dire not to have an active stake in using one’s voice, literally, to advocate for change. Showing financial support for a cause (as many of today’s performers do) is undeniably helpful but with a profession that affords such fame, prestige and exposure I implore artists of today to sincerely ponder a question posed by Miss Simone herself, “How can you be an artist and not reflect the times?”
Sydney A. Johnson is a historian from Louisville, KY. In 2014 she graduated Phi Beta Kappa form Miami University with a BA in Black World Studies. Sydney is a current second year in the Public History Master’s program at American University where her scholarly focus is late 19th/early 20th century Black American life. Upon completion of her Master’s degree Sydney plans to pursue a career as a curator with her ultimate goal being directorship at a Black history museum.