Artwork by Codi Fant
Right now, there is a prophet speaking in a coffee shop. Underneath the sounds of milk steaming and customers chatting are his eloquent rhymes—mere murmurs emanating from the Bluetooth speakers in the ceiling. Customers tap their feet and nod their heads, yet remain unaware of the spiritual phenomenon taking place in their very midst. They do not hear the guttural cries of frustration or the breaking of ancestral chains with each hook and verse and chorus. They are passive consumers of the prophet’s words. And so the prophet remains unheard.
Such is the nature of Black music. It is trendy enough for the gentrified coffee shop, hip enough for the local goods boutique, edgy enough to play in the car when you are trying to impress a date. It gets heads nodding and hips moving and mouths uttering words that the mouth would not dare utter otherwise.
But what are these words? The ones that we nod our heads to in our cars, shake our hips to at the house party? Certainly, anyone who has listened to the likes of Beyoncé, J. Cole, Chance the Rapper, or Frank Ocean cannot deny that Black artists exude talent naturally. But when these artists string words like “death” and “gun shots” and “racism” between smart beats and catchy hooks, it becomes clear that they have no interest in merely entertaining us. They are trying to teach us.
If you listen to Black music and yet fail to understand Black people you are not truly listening. You are consuming. You are taking from it what is comfortable and beneficial and filtering out what is uncomfortable and inconvenient. In reality, Black music is not for your comfort or amusement. Black music is about kinky-headed little girls who praise blond-headed Barbie dolls, and onyx-skinned boys too tall for their own good. It is about daddies glimpsing red and blue lights in their rearview mirror, and mamas bent over caskets for the fourth or fifth time in a row. Black music is what you scrolled past on your Facebook feed. It is what you glimpsed on the news before you changed the channel. It is the page your teacher skipped in your history book, the story behind the president on your dollar bill.
You cannot listen to DAMN. and be surprised by the violence that occurred in Charlottesville, nor can you listen to A Seat at the Table and fail to understand cultural appropriation. To strip Black music of its political, social, and spiritual implications is to colonize a land that never belonged to you. And yet the appropriation of Black music is an epidemic of the most severe nature. Because while Black music is being played in the coffee shop or the local goods boutique or the house party, Black bodies are being slammed against pavement and shoved violently into police cars. If you enter spaces that house Black voices and yet refuse to truly listen, you are complicit in a system that does not value Black lives.
For those of us who are Black and share in these injustices, the listening comes easy. When we hear these artists’ voices, we hear ourselves. For us, this music is gospel. It is a psalm of lament. It is a lullaby. It is medicine. It is the therapy our parents have told us we do not need. Kendrick’s voice is a soothing agent. “I got loyalty, got royalty inside my DNA.” Solange’s heavenly trill a defender from harm. “Don’t touch my hair.” Noname’s low tremor a hospice prayer. “I hope you make it home. I hope to God that my tele’ don’t ring.” We play these modern-day Negro spirituals through our headphones, not because it is trendy or hip, but because it is how we survive in a world that is hostile to our very existence. This music gets us through the #SayTheirNames. Because a hashtag is not enough when Trayvon Martin looked just like you.
Black music is not just about our current generation. It is about the lineage of an undeniably loyal people who came before us. About our great-great-greats who had their language snatched out from their mouths, whose fingers were worked to the bone, whose backs and souls were broken, whose very humanity was questioned. These Black bodies built a country that did not serve them and does not serve their grandchildren. This music is our “look what I did, mama,” our straight A report card for the ancestors we never knew. Black music is for Harriet, and Sojourner, and Malcolm, and Martin. Every time a Black artist performs in front of a sold-out arena, they and all those who came before us smile down from Heaven. They clap their hands. They shake their hips. They form a soul-train line in the clouds. This music is our inheritance, our family heirloom. It is our glory.
When the prophet speaks in the coffee shop, or at the house party, or in the car on the first date, it strikes a chord within us. The prophet is our brother, our sister, our auntie, our uncle, our cousin Kenny. When the Black artist wins a Grammy, the whole family wins. When the Black artist is heard, we are all heard.