As calls for racial justice ring out across the country, a number of voices from the public radio community have emerged to provide perspective on the pain experienced by Black people in America.
One such voice is that of my colleague Bill Johnson, General Manager at NPR-member station WRTI in Philadelphia. Bill wrote a powerful personal essay following George Floyd’s death that he graciously gave me permission to share with JPR listeners.
Why Black Music Matters Now More Than Ever
By Bill Johnson
I hurt. As a Black man in America, I hurt. I don’t need the highlight reel of victims, no matter their color. I don’t need calls for peace that dismiss the rage inside. I don’t need tone-deaf calls for dialogue with people who don’t speak my language. I don’t need other’s stories of their cultural atrocities. I don’t need to hear, “That was a long time ago.” I don’t need to hear move on. I don’t need to hear we’re all equal. I don’t need to hear about wrongs being righted in Heaven. I don’t need to hear, “But they DID break the law.” I don’t need to hear anyone. say. anything.
I need some Black Music.
And then I need the rest of America to listen to a LOT of Black Music.
Listen for the voices of my ancestors in the holds of ships crossing the Atlantic. Listen for the screams of pain from the whip across their backs. Listen for the fear of hooded men gathering under cover of night. Listen for my father’s voice telling me how a diner wouldn’t serve him as a young airman in basic training as he prepared to put his life on the line for this country.
If America wants to understand, truly understand, the anger and the pain and the frustration and fears of Black America then listen to Black Music.
Listen for Brother Hannibal and Sister Rosa. Listen for the man who called me a Nigger out loud in a local bar. Listen for the racist who said to me, “I don’t like Black people but you’re not like them.” Listen for the cries of people shot in the street for exercising rights promised on paper but denied in practice. Listen for the sound of feet crossing the street because you’re coming their way. Listen for the sound of code-switching. Listen for the sound of a school without books or computers. Listen for the sound of the Church taking the pain away. Listen for the sound of being called an Oreo. Listen for the sound of my mother telling me to be careful in those streets to this very day. Listen for the sound of chain gangs digging ditches. Listen for the sound of families turned to dust on the auction block. Listen to Black America. It’s all there. Just Listen.
Black Music is the story of the Black Experience. From rhythms and melodies heard in the fields to the sounds of violence in the streets. It’s all there. The stories have been told over and over and over and over. No conversation necessary. In fact no conversation POSSIBLE—until you hear the story.
Whether it’s Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Ma Rainey, Mahalia Jackson, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Little Richard, John Coltrane, Curtis Mayfield, Hannibal, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, The Last Poets, The Roots, Robert Glasper, Kendrick Lamar, or thousands of other Black voices, there is no shortage of narrative about the Black Experience—a living narrative continually being written by Black artists hoarse from shouting so loud.
George Floyd’s death and the country’s response were utterly predictable. And that breaks my heart. It was simply a question of how many George Floyd’s did there have to be before enough was enough? Black Music has posed this question incessantly for over a century. Black Music chronicles the Black Experience which in my mind, by definition, is the American Experience. A country built on the sweat and subjugation of Blacks is a country defined by the Black Experience—an American Experience.
For me, Black Music is an immediate reminder that I am not a victim but rather I’m part of a powerful legacy. A reminder that I cannot and will not fail my elders or ancestors who endured so much more than me. I am of a people who have withstood horror and evil in this country for 400 years. Yet we stand. Our backs are not broken and our hearts are strong. In fact, our story has changed the world through music—gospel, jazz, hip-hop, R&B, the blues, funk, soul—Black Music.
If America wants to understand, truly understand, the anger and the pain and the frustration and fears of Black America then listen to Black Music. Listen past the feelings of guilt over slavery. Listen past the horrors of lynchings. Listen past the rapes, killings, and torture. Listen until the Truth emerges; that despite it all, together, as equals, valuing love for each other over all else we can conquer all things. It’s in there.