Why black artists are essential freedom fighters

“The name of this tune is ‘Mississippi Goddam’,” announces Nina Simone without losing a moment in the hopping and cabaret cadence that she beats on the piano keys. The predominantly white audience at Carnegie Hall let out a nervous laugh in response.

But Simone wasn’t kidding. She had brought her rage against the lynching of Emmett Till, the murder of Medgar Evers and the bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church to the Carnegie Hall stage that night in March 1964 – the same rage that had enabled her to write that iconic protest song in less than an hour.

“Mississippi Goddam” would be banned from Southern radio stations, would become an anthem of the civil rights movement, and the following year would be played during the famous March to Selma led by Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.

Simone is one of many black artists whose life and work illuminates the prophetic tradition that links black art and the struggle for black liberation. From Harriet Tubman singing “Go Down Moses” to announce her presence to black captives in Southern labor camps, to Marvin Gaye’s timeless anti-war anthem “What’s Goin On?”, To the co-founding of the Black movement Lives Matter, The Greatest Social Movement of Our Generation, by performance artist and abolitionist Patrisse Cullors, black performers have long assumed the prophetic burden of telling the truth about a society that refuses to confess its sins against black bodies.

An artist myself, I have returned to the work of black artists several times to reinforce my own sense of vocation in a world that often pushes me to make a false choice between being an artist or being an activist. A pantheon that includes Simone, Amiri Baraka, Toni Cade Bambara, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, Bob Marley, Ava DuVernay and others reminds me that such a choice should not be made.

These artists did not and do not only offer, as the theologian NT Wright often puts it, “the pretty little borderline” of black liberation: we are essential freedom workers.

Art is essential to black liberation movements because half the battle against oppression is a battle to disrupt a supremacist common sense that permeates the world, especially the nations that have been (or are) the perpetrators or the victims of European colonialism. No matter how many revolutions the world has won – by arms or by non-violent struggle – oppressive institutions will continue to reproduce if there is no value revolution.

This is why Occupy Wall Street co-founder Micah White writes in his 2016 book The end of the protest, “In our global struggle to liberate humanity, the most important battles will be fought on a spiritual level – in our heads, in our imaginations, and deep within our collective subconscious.”

Art communicates on this spiritual level, and powers know it.

The authority tacitly admits the revolutionary power of art when it bans songs like “Mississippi Goddam” or tries to cut books like Toni Morrison’s. Beloved school programs. Art can encourage the other side, too: the Ku Klux Klan never burned a cross until the men of the Klan in DW Griffith’s film “Birth of a Nation” did.

Given the power of art to influence social action, artists have a significant role to play in shaping the culture of freedom movements. In his book on the 1963 campaign to desegregate Birmingham, Why we can’t wait, King wrote that Freedom Songs were the “soul” of the civil rights movement.

“I attended a meeting with hundreds of young people and joined them as they sang” Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me “Round.” It’s not just a song, it’s a resolution, “writes King.” A few minutes later I saw these same young people refuse to turn around under the stampede of a police dog, refuse to do U-turn in front of a pugnacious Bull Connor at the controls of men armed with supply pipes. These songs unite us, give us courage together, help us to walk together. “

King’s words reassured me, but the more I engage in liberation work as an artist, I am convinced that art is more than useful in supporting activism. Art is the exhalation of a spirit which frees itself from the cognitive chains of colonialism.

When i opened Black Skin, White Masks, by the revolutionary and mid-20th century writer Frantz Fanon, I was surprised that he chose to start the book with poetry, rather than the elegant linear prose that I expected. Rather, the famous philosopher and psychiatrist began work analyzing the psychological aspects of racism with lyrical stanzas – stanzas whose form immediately challenged the epistemological biases we have inherited from European enlightenment that elevates prose over verse.

In art, we find the wisdom of ancestors who knew that truth is embodied, danced, sung, painted or embroidered, felt and even crossed in geographic space.

As we talk about radical solutions to systemic oppression – abolishing the police and prisons – we are forced to develop the same skills useful to the artist: imagination, collaboration and improvisation. We seek to create a beautiful new world out of the mess colonialism continues to create. We break with the rigid and oppressive structures of colonialism, as poets and songwriters break the usual rules of grammar.

Remaking the world without systemic racism will take our best creative selves. The artist must be among the politicians, organizers and clergy who have always been at the forefront of freedom movements.

We need artists concerned with social justice today to know that they are part of a deep tradition of prophetic truth tellers who have helped us understand the world better. You have to know the brilliance of the poet Aimé Césaire Discourse on Colonialism and his contribution to black anti-fascist thought. We should talk more about social analysis in Langston Hughes ‘anti-capitalist poetry, including his daring speech at the Second International Writers’ Conference where he denounces American fascism.

The role of the artist in society is not to be silent and sing, dance or dribble. We are creative leaders, and to paraphrase King, human salvation is in the hands of the creative minority who remain unsuited to injustice.


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