Many of the veterans of the African liberation movement in North America, the Caribbean and on the African continent complain that our youth are not stepping up to the plate lyrically. Where are the Nina Simones, Peter Toshes and Miriam Makebas of today? Hip-Hop, Dancehall Reggae and Soca are the rhythms of the 21st Century. These types of music attempt to be on-point but the corporate world continues to block them. If, however, you have little or nothing to say, you will be given a voice.
Claire Bernish recently dropped this bit of disturbing information. “Ten years ago, the most popular songs read between a third and fourth grade level, but the inanity only increased with time, and after a five-year downward tumble ending in 2014 (the last year of the study), chart-topping hits had a reading level equivalent to second or third grade. Broken into genres, the levels measured just 2.6 for Hip-hop/R&B, a tie of 2.9 for Rock and Pop, and faring best was Country at 3.3—though declaring a winner in this insipid race to the bottom seems somewhat defeatist.”
Even further to that point, the most intellectually stimulating song, Blake Shelton’s country hit “All About Tonight,” measured just 5.8, while wading deeply into the ludicrous was Three Days Grace’s “The Good Life,” at a level equivalent to 0.8—begging the question, did they have to try to craft lyrics a kindergartner could easily read?
Just as the State controls the police in any given society, they also control the media. Bernish continues to endarken us on this matter: “When six corporations control 90 percent of the media, and 80 percent of the radio stations have identical playlists, mindless content isn’t a choice—it’s a virtual mandate.”
Africans from the Caribbean and the mainland more familiar
While it is true that Africans from the Caribbean and the mainland are more familiar with black music from North America than (vice-versa), they are only well-versed on a small portion of the music, namely so-called “urban,” “soul” or R & B.
“Urban,” “soul” and R & B have been dance and romance music by-and-large. As Archie Shepp, the great saxophonist pointed out in an interview with me many moons ago, “In general rhythm and blues artists have not represented perhaps our most politically conscious elements in the music industry. Historically, they haven’t and I support and endorse a lot of blues music. I love it but I don’t think that the people who play that music by and large have been the most representative spokesmen of our political aims and desires as black people in this country.”
On the other hand, so-called jazz music has carried the message of the unification of African and Third World peoples, and African liberation at home and abroad as well as conveying historical themes. The seeds of the message were sown by the so-called be-bop musicians in the ’40s.
Charlie Parker’s “Barbados” which was released in 1948 and Dizzy Gillespie’s “A Night in Tunisia” show that they could see further than their backyards. These compositions link the music with people in the Caribbean and Africa.
It must be mentioned that while Duke Ellington was never regarded as a “militant” he did write music with historical themes. As far back as 1944 he composed works commemorating black liberation fighters Denmark Vesey, Nat Turner, Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass. As Ortiz M. Walton pointed out in the book Music: Black, White & Blue, however, none of these works have been militant since the recording industry is not concerned with portraying black history as much as with making a profit.
Norman (Otis) Richmond, aka Jalali, was born in Arcadia, Louisiana, and grew up in Los Angeles. He left Los Angeles after refusing to fight in Viet Nam because he felt that, like the Vietnamese, Africans in the United States were colonial subjects.
Jalali is producer/host for the Diasporic Music show on UhuruRadio.com every Sunday at 2pm ET and for RadioRegent.com’s Saturday Morning Live show.
His column Diasporic Music appears monthly in The Burning Spear newspaper.