Beyonce thought she broke new ground with “Drunk in Love.” The brand of marketing involved with the evolution of Rihanna, Kanye, Kim Kardashian, and Jay Z is little more than the mild pornography peddled by Comcast on its late-night cable channels. Popular entertainment had some sense of dignity when Elvis, Grace Kelly, James Brown, the Beatles, and Earth, Wind, and Fire held the stage. Soul performers, in particular, kept a sense of politics at the foundation of their art. Freedom of sexual expression was always a facet of the performance, but it was often simply the lure to encourage audiences to achieve broader freedoms of knowledge, experience, and spirituality.
As one studies the drivel directed at today’s youth, a question might arise – “What if the most popular performers kept deeper politics in their work?” Suppose Biggie Smalls dedicated an album to the towering achievements of Marcus Garvey? ‘Marcus, Marcus, Marcus – can’t you see? Your flow and words have made us free. / We can’t catch your determined ways, this is why we’re broke, still trying to get paid.’ Or maybe Jean Grae wrote a bootleg track for Ida Wells-Barnett? ‘The lynch-mob choker, the jabberwocky of rap / never hibernatin, always perpetratin / now she’s finally back!’
There is just a different energy to music and lyrics that connect with histories of activism in pursuit of human equality. Music designed for its own sake, or worse, for the sake of corporate profits sacrifices the beauty embedded in both words and sounds. Public Enemy pioneered this combination with a series of classic hits ranging from “Rebel without a Pause” and “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos” to “By the Time I Get to Arizona” and “Unstoppable.” More recently, Philadelphia’s Reef the Lost Cauze used tracks like “Nat Turner” and “Bad Lieutenant” to educate his audiences about slavery and police corruption. These are the projects that reach beyond scholarly texts like “The New Jim Crow” and “The Warmth of Other Suns.” In a world that values entertainment more than education, the best educators must bathe their ideas in music and movies.
Independent, popular artists are incorporating this realization into bigger projects every year. For the limitations of a “Django Unchained”, “The Butler”, “Lincoln”, or “12 Years a Slave”, there are efforts like “Beasts of the Southern Wild” and “Fruitvale Station”. For the transparent plastic of Macklemore, Robin Thicke, and Miley Cyrus, there remains Immortal Technique, Pharoahe Monch, Yasiin Bey, and Bahamadia. The genius of the soulful artists survives, adapts, and triumphs again when lyrics like “As she combines all the force of our minds / Bethune breaks the track, re-writes freedom for our times / powerful impact (BOOM) from her cannon / not braggin, try to read her rhymes, just imagine / vo-cab-u-lary’s necessary when kickin into her library” emerge.
Instead of grinding on that wood and drinking watermelon seeds, Beyonce would inspire couples to go “building, building our own stores” and “laughing, laughing with our kids.” The lyrics might not require suggestive nudity, but it could still be sexy in ways that heal and uplift her audiences. Her ancestors and industry predecessors might then start singing, “Oh, baby.”