Records: The Soundtrack of a Black History

 
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This following was first published in Re:think Magazine, a publication created by The Atlantic’s sponsor content studio.


Throughout my childhood, my dad—perhaps by way of admission, apology, or absolution—reminded my sister and me that he was, in fact, a person. “Parents are just people,” he’d say when he explained his and my mother’s separation, and sometimes seemingly out of nowhere. These vulnerable moments would catch me off-guard: He usually projected a stoic machismo that, despite his reserved demeanor, intimidated most people he encountered. Though he could be silly, he was and is exceptionally cool—the kind of person you try to impress, whether or not (and perhaps, especially if) you are his daughter. 

Because of the separation, he didn’t live with us, and we didn’t see him that much. It’s not that he wasn’t supportive, but he had a defined role: He was our coach—literally, for a few years in basketball, and figuratively, in his parenting demeanor. So, a lot of our relationship was founded in transit: to and from basketball tournaments, to and from the airport, on road trips. And if we were in transit, we were listening to music.

Most of the artists he played transported me to worlds that looked nothing like the one just outside of those car doors. Outside was Fort Collins, Colorado: Quiet, clean, white. Eighty-nine percent white, to be exact. Our family was part of the one percent who were black. 

Inside, we listened to Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five’s “The Message,” which illustrated life in the ghetto; Lauryn Hill’s “Everything is Everything” held up ancestral African royalty as proof that black Americans were worth more than their second-class status in the States; Stevie Wonder’s “Living For The City” told the story of a black man’s migration from the Civil-Rights-era South to New York City. 

Though my dad introduced me to a range of artists—The Beatles and The Stones, Nirvana and Pearl Jam, Fiona Apple and Alanis Morissette—it was black music that reached beyond my conscious consumption to something more spiritual, more innate. It sparked a connection between me and the music that wasn't necessarily deeper than what I experienced with other artists; rather, it felt like a part of my DNA, or a birthright.

 
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Black music isn’t a monolith. “I define it tongue-in-cheek, but also seriously,” says Fredara Hadley, an ethnomusicologist and professor at Oberlin Conservatory. “It's whatever music that black people make.” While there are elements consistent across music developed by the African diaspora—call and response, complex rhythms, improvisation—what defines black music is less about instrumentation and structure and more about the people who make and listen to the music, and why they make it.

Call and response, for instance, originated in work songs and religious worship. Throughout history and across a range of cultures, people working in groups sang to keep up the tempo of their work, to keep themselves entertained, or both. For enslaved Africans Americans, these songs served as a means to preserve their native cultures, drawing from melodies and rhythms from various African musical traditions. These songs were even used as coded communication to assemble secret meetings and to assist escaping slaves

In combining traditional African musical structures with Christian stories and ideology, gospel music was born. Again, this genre was as much about function as it was about form: In a 1983 paper titled “Black Music as an Art Form,” musicologist Olly Wilson describes early African-American religious music as a way to “create a communion of participants who interact with each other and their concept of God for the collective good.”

“It isn't just about the evangelicalism of Christ, or talking about Christ,” Hadley says about gospel music. “It is about a sound that connects to one of the few and longest autonomous institutions black people have had: the black church.”

Both Hadley and Dr. Guthrie Ramsey, a musicologist, composer, and professor,  say their earliest experiences with music were in the church. “There, I encountered live gospel music for the first time,” Ramsey says. “The sheer force of it, the meanings that people were generating and attaching to it, had a deep and profound impact on my life.” 

To my grandmother’s dismay, I’m not religious. Growing up, my family went to church occasionally, then only on Easter, and eventually not at all. But the way we listened to music took on a ritualistic quality in itself. A steady stream of music scored every holiday at my paternal grandparents’ house. The playlist varied depending on the holiday and the DJ: Grandpa often played doo-wop, Motown, or jazz (and to everyone’s chagrin, Kenny G); during dinner, my dad would put on The Jacksons, Anita Baker, or Phoebe Snow; for dessert and gametime, my aunt played New Jack Swing and other more contemporary R&B. Eventually my dad would take over again. No one objected. 

These unspoken rules governed our immediate family gatherings. But when extended family got together, like at family reunions in Los Angeles, music selections were drawn from a broadly-defined, yet particular canon. 

Urban Dictionary defines “the cookout” as “a metaphorical gathering of the black community usually exclusive only to blacks.” Colloquially, it’s often used to describe occasions in which people outside of the black community are “invited” to said cookout. They’re invited when, in today’s terms, they’ve exhibited evidence of being “woke” (or “down” if you’re a bit older), or if they’ve married into the family. 

At black community events, and at family reunions in particular, the collection of songs played is relatively consistent. Spotify even has a playlist called “The Cookout”—one that Hadley endorses, saying “they've clearly got black people working over there”—that features the songs I grew up listening to at every family gathering.

 
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From the church to the cookout, it’s largely the black community’s collective consumption of music that facilitates intergenerational transfer. The term usually refers to the transfer of wealth from generation to generation; in the case of music, it’s songs and lyrics and sounds that are passed down over time. For black music, this tradition is particularly strong.

“It's about how you and your family in various social settings collectively relate to a set of sounds and a set of practices,” says Tricia Rose, a preeminent scholar in music, race, and culture, about intergenerational transfer. “I think there's a much deeper point of continuity for those practices in black diasporic traditions: It's really about the depths of the investment in those traditions.” 

Besides black music’s function as a collective activity, its formal qualities lend to its transmutation over time. Its development and dissemination throughout the United States is most simply illustrated with one song: “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” 

First recorded by the The Fisk University Jubilee Quartet in 1909, “Swing Low” is a negro spiritual penned by an enslaved man named Wallace in the mid-1800s. Some historians say the song was later used as coded communication for the Underground Railroad; in an interview with Smithsonian Magazine, historian Charles Blockson said it was performed at Harriet Tubman’s funeral in 1913. The song was then featured, reimagined, and sampled throughout the rest of the 20th century: Bing Crosby recorded a version of it in 1938, and so did Louis Armstrong in 1958. Sam Cooke also released a version in 1961

Then in 1975, the iconic funk band Parliament released “Mothership Connection (Star Child).” Parliament modifies the original “Swing Low” lyric from: 

“Swing low, sweet chariot / Coming for to carry me home” 

to:

“Swing down, sweet chariot / Stop and let me ride” 

In 1992, Dr. Dre then sampled Parliament’s song in “Let Me Ride,” using the same lyric in the chorus. (Now, bizarrely, the song is used as an anthem for England’s national rugby team.)

Be it in a chariot, an intergalactic vessel, or a ’64 Impala, black people’s desire to escape their hardship threads these songs together. “It feels a little bit miraculous when you think about the lived conditions under which there was so much commitment to music making, which is the collective practice of possibility,” Rose says of black music’s endurance throughout the years. “When you think about how much investment there was in that practice for so long—I mean, it's really remarkable.”

 
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Long road trips with my dad had a particular soundtrack, one comprising records he listened to in his youth. Attempts to doze off were thwarted by Public Enemy’s throbbing bass or Prince’s piercing synthesizer, and when he did turn the stereo down, it was to relay his encyclopedic knowledge of an artist’s biography or to recount his own memories of the music. There were dance parties at Crenshaw Shopping Center; rap battles on the playground; concerts at the Forum. It was in these moments I learned the most about my dad not just as a parent, but as a person with passion and a history.

His youth spanned some of the most transformative years in recent black history and culture. He was born in the late 1960s, after President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law and just before Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated. Mandatory desegregation bussing sent him from majority-black schools in South Central L.A. to whiter, more affluent schools in the San Fernando Valley and West L.A. Manufacturing jobs that sustained black middle-class life left the city in the late ’70s and early ’80s, leading to mass layoffs. The sudden economic instability gave way to increased gang participation and violence, and the crack epidemic ravaged the city. 

But of course, history as he told it never unfolded in a clean, linear narrative. His anecdotes and field trips and history lessons accumulated over the years, providing the foundation for not just the father, but the person I know him to be. Music—and how he related to it—filled in the gaps that weren’t easy to fill, like the ongoing question of how to be a black person in America. 

Stevie Wonder’s “Innervisions,” the Grammy-award winning album that features “Living For The City,” is one of the first albums I remember knowing in full. And listening to “Living” was one of the first times I remember hearing the n-word. A dramatized interlude in the second half of the song finds the protagonist arrested for an unnamed crime, one he wasn’t aware he commited. “Come on, get in that cell, n—r,” a bailiff says before the song crescendos, then fades out. Every time I heard it, the song lingered with me long after it ended; the epithet—and the vitriol with which it was delivered—felt archaic and foreign, but also like something I needed to understand. 

I had this song in mind when I asked my dad if he was trying to teach us something with the music he played. “Put it this way: I just didn't want [you and your sister] liking wack music,” he says. “So I thought I had better introduce you to some good stuff.”

 
Ari Curtis