Diasporic Music: Artists help us celebrate the life of African martyr Malcolm X


El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz (Malcolm X) was assassinated 50 years ago on Feb. 21, 1965 because of his attempt to internationalize the struggle of African people inside the United States.

 In Manning Marable’s last volume, “Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention,” has sparked a renewed interest and debate about Malcolm. Previous works like Karl Evanzz’ “The Judas Factor: The Plot to Kill Malcolm X,” Zak Kondo’s “Conspiracies: Unraveling the Assassination of Malcolm X” and Bill Sales’ “From Civil Rights to Black Liberation: Malcolm X and the Organization of Afro-American Unity” are all being reopened.

Contrary to popular belief, it was Malcolm, not Martin Luther King,Jr, who first opposed the war in Vietnam. Malcolm was the first American-born African leader of national prominence in the 1960s to condemn the war.

Martin Luther King came out against the Vietnam War in his famous April 4, 1967, speech at Riverside Church in New York City. Malcolm X  spoke out against this war from the i.get-go.  

Later  organizations like the Revolutionary Action Movement (RAM), the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the League of Revolutionary Black Workers and the Junta of Militant Organizations (JOMO).followed Malcolm X in his stand against the war.

Musicians have done their part to keep Malcolm’s legacy alive

Long before Spike Lee’s 1992 biopic, “X,” hip hop, house, reggae and R’n’B artists created music for Malcolm.

“High-Life” and African jazz musicians were some of the first who wrote songs about Malcolm. The dance of Malcolm’s time was the “lindy hop,” and he was a master of it.

“The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” which Malcolm wrote with the assistance of Alex Haley, gives a vivid description of his love of dancing. Years later, on a visit to the West African country of Ghana, Malcolm spoke of seeing Ghanaians dancing the “High-Life”. He wrote:

“The Ghanaians performed the high-life as if possessed. One pretty African girl sang ‘Blue Moon’ like Sarah Vaughan. Sometimes the band sounded like Charlie Parker.”

Malcolm’s impact on Ghana was so great that one folksinger created a song in his honor called “Malcolm Man.” After Malcolm X’s death, many jazz artists recorded music in his memory. Among them, Leon Thomas recorded the song, “Malcolm’s Gone” on his “Spirits Known and Unknown” album.

Saxophonist-poet-playwright Archie Shepp recorded the poem, “Malcolm, Malcolm Semper Malcolm,” on his Fire Music album. Shepp drew parallels between Malcolm’s spoken words and John Coltrane’s music.

Archie Shepp said,  “I equate Coltrane’s music very strongly with Malcolm’s language because they were just about contemporaries, to tell you the truth. And I believe essentially what Malcolm said is what John played. If Trane had been a speaker, he might have spoken somewhat like Malcolm. If Malcolm had been a saxophone player, he might have played somewhat like Trane.”

Shortly before Malcolm’s untimely death, he visited Toronto and appeared on Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) television with Pierre Berton.

During the visit, Malcolm spent time with award-winning author Austin Clarke talking about politics and music. Time was too short to organize a community meeting, but a few lucky people gathered with them at Clarke’s home on Asquith Street.

Clarke had interviewed Malcolm previously, in 1963 in Harlem, when he was working for the CBC.

Clarke recalled they “talked shop,” but also discussed the lighter things in life, like the fact that both their wives were named Betty.

It is not surprising that Malcolm made his way to Canada. His mother and father, Earl Little, met and married in Montreal at a Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) convention. Both were followers of Marcus Garvey.

His mother, Louise Langdon Norton, was born in Grenada but immigrated first to Halifax, Nova Scotia, and later to Montreal in 1917.

In Jan Carew’s book, “Ghosts in Our Blood: With Malcolm X in Africa, England, and the Caribbean,” documents  the life of the African Internationalist.

We honor the legacy of Malcolm X, who was born almost 90 years ago on May 19, 1925.

Norman Richmond's Diasporic Music can be heard every Sunday on Uhuru Radio. His monthly column appears in The Burning Spear newspaper.
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