Summer Soundtrack

Music for All
Nina Simone in 1965 (Ron Kroon / Anefo / National Archives of the Netherlands)

Last year when social media coordinator Max Foley-Keene started working at Commonweal, he created a Slack channel called #music4all. The purpose? For Commonweal staff to drop what we’d been listening to, along with a few lines about what made the song special. He and Nicole-Ann Lobo, then our 2019 John Garvey Writing Fellow, both regularly opined on their sonic sentiments, and in doing so, became friends. Inspired by Griffin Oleynick and Anthony Domestico’s summer reading series, they decided to share some of their conversations on music with Commonweal readers.

Over the next few weeks, Max and Nicole-Ann will be putting music they like in dialogue with some of the issues we face in our tumultuous times. While hardly expertsjust two friends who like good tunesboth hope that through their conversations you might discover a new favorite album, or come to appreciate an old favorite in new ways.

 

Nicole-Ann,

In the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, many well-meaning white people have passed around anti-racist reading lists. Quick and dirty anti-racism guides—such as Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility—sit on these lists alongside collections of some of the greatest works of African-American literature (Baldwin, Morrison, Ellison). The problem with these lists, as Lauren Michele Jackson points out, is that they treat their contents as having a singular purpose: pedagogy—specifically, pedagogy for white people. This assumption bypasses questions of genre and transforms Black authors, memoirists, and poets into teachers. Their art becomes something to be stripped for contemporary political meaning, rather than enjoyed and experienced on its own literary terms.

It would be quite easy to strip Ice Cube’s 1992 album, The Predator, for contemporary political lessons. Cube’s third solo album after leaving the legendary Compton rap group N.W.A., the record was released just a few months after the cops who assaulted Rodney King were acquitted; The Predator is a reaction to the acquittal and the LA riots that followed. Despite being nearly three decades old, much of Cube’s commentary is disturbingly applicable today. He directs rioters to avoid looting Black-owned businesses; he pokes fun at white liberals who think using the term “African American” will resolve entrenched racism; he embodies the character of a man getting beat up by cops, looking desperately to the crowd around him and asking, “Who got the camera?”

But The Predator is not an anti-racist instruction manual. It’s a work of art and a work of literature. What’s its genre? Sonically, that’s an easy question to answer: it’s a classic nineties West-Coast gangsta-rap album. Its literary genre is a bit harder to pin down. Cube spins lengthy tales of Black life in Compton, many of which are recounted in minute, hyperrealistic detail. It’s clear, however, that many if not most of these stories are fiction (Ice Cube didn’t, for example, track down the cops in the Rodney King case and brutally murder them). And there are often moments in these stories that are distinctly unreal, such as when Cube sees a Goodyear blimp carrying the message, “Ice Cube’s a pimp.” As Cube reports in the album’s first full track, “my mind’s playin’ tricks on me, too.”

The Predator is a series of fantasies, which together portray the psychology of a Black man under constant threat. Like many dreams, these fantasies flit between the hyperreal and the unreal; the through-line is threat, anxiety, and violence. Cube is seduced at a bar and goes back to a woman’s place—when suddenly four men in ski masks bust in, beat him up, and take him (naked) back to his house, where they rob his safe. In the title track he switches seamlessly between complaints about the editor of Billboard (who condemned his previous album) and wild imaginings about lighting white suburbanites’ homes on fire.

“It Was A Good Day”—the most commercially successful song of Ice Cube’s career—is superficially simple: Cube describes a day that went well. In a marked departure from the rest of the album, nothing terribly unusual happens: he plays basketball, has a romantic fling, and watches TV with his friends. What’s notable for Cube are all the things that don’t take place, all the threats he avoids. He “didn’t even have to use [his] AK.” As the song moves toward its close, Cube recounts seeing the Goodyear blimp with his name on it, suggesting that what we’re hearing is not pure memoir. And then, in a stunning moment, he orders Pooh, his producer, to cut the beat, wondering, “Hey, wait, wait a minute!... What the fuck am I thinkin’ about?” For a Black man in America, Cube seems to be suggesting, taking in a peaceful, pleasant day is just another fantasy.

The Predator debuted at number one on the Billboard albums chart. It was also in 1992 that Nirvana’s Nevermind shocked the pop world by knocking Michael Jackson off the top of the charts. It was the height of American hegemony, the beginning of the end of history. But both these records suggest that something dark remained at the edges of the American psyche. As Francis Fukuyama has said, “The end of history will be a very sad time.”

*

Max,

Works of art, music, and literature must be contextualized through the wider inequities in which their creators lived.

You write about the anti-racist readers that made rounds following George Floyd’s murder—and pedagogy was indeed a primary concern for well-meaning white people, as the largest movement in American history commanded headlines nationwide. But in the two months since, the demonstrations have slowed, the black squares and colorful infographics that proliferated on social media have dwindled, and those anti-racist books that sold out now sit on shelves. While systemic racism remains a fundamental problem, we now hear terms like “allyship fatigue”: for some white people, exhaustion followed a few weeks of donations and petitions, and many seek a return to their versions of “normal.” This, as Sherronda J. Brown wrote, is an insult to Black folks, for whom everyday racism can pose not just bodily fatigue but a sense of “spiritual collapse.”

Nina Simone’s 1964 “Mississippi Goddam” addresses spiritual exhaustion at the perpetual presence of white supremacy. She wrote the track, which she described as her first “Civil Rights anthem,” following the 1963 murders of activist Medgar Evers in Mississippi and four Black schoolgirls in the Alabama 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. Raw and transcendent, Simone’s voice soars with unwavering confidence: “Lord have mercy on this land of mine / We all gonna get it in due time / I don’t belong here / I don’t belong there / I’ve even stopped believing in prayer.” After the nation’s repeated failures to achieve justice, Simone channeled the “rush of fury, hatred, and determination” she experienced into the song, which was banned in several southern states after its debut: “Alabama’s gotten me so upset / Tennessee made me lose my rest / and everybody knows about Mississippi goddam!” Despite its dark subject matter, it possesses an uneasy sunniness: Simone described it as “a show tune, but the show hasn’t been written for it yet.”

Unlike Ice Cube, Nina Simone’s music is genre-defying—she draws from a host of styles to curate a sound she identified as “Black classical music.” She recorded a cover of “Strange Fruit” two years after Billie Holiday’s haunting release, and “Why? (The King of Love Is Dead)” after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. But as you note, Max, it can be too easy to strip works of art simply for political instruction. Simone’s music isn’t always explicitly political, and she often waxes rhapsodic on universal human emotions—longing, heartbreak, forbidden love.

But can we ever fully separate the private self from one’s public, political existence? Simone was constantly criticized as “temperamental” and “angry,” the same racialized stereotypes faced by men and women who are forced to reconcile pervasive trauma with everyday life. During the recent Black Lives Matter protests, for instance, accusations of militancy and anger have been hurled at protesters to distract from real injustice. You aptly describe The Predator as a series of fantasies which portray the psychology of a Black man under constant threat. That sentiment of resistance, misinterpreted as anger or threat, is found throughout Cube’s verses. In “When Will They Shoot,” he derides racist fear at his self-empowerment: “Them motherfuckers shot but the punks missed / Ice Cube is out-gunned, what is the outcome? / Will they do me like Malcolm?”

As a work of literature, The Predator successfully integrates another style: collage. Throughout the album, Cube samples audio clips from the contemporary news cycle, particularly in three short insert tracks interspersed between his main tracks. “I’m Scared,” for instance, features ninety seconds of clips from various women in the audience of The Phil Donahue Show talking about fear in their perceptions of Black militancy: one claims, “What scares us is I think we hear violence.” In “Fuck ‘Em,” by contrast, Cube samples from an interview he himself gave: “I do want the white community to understand our community more.... And see what’s going on, and see what...the things they’ve done to us in the past...are still affectin’ us now...mentally, you know?”

This psychological dimension of racism reveals the imbrications of private and political life. Audre Lorde has made rounds on some of the anti-racist readers you mention, and she’s often quoted for her famous declaration that self-care is not indulgence, but an act of “self-preservation” or even “political warfare.” While this has been co-opted by our consumerist culture as a feel-good excuse to “treat ourselves,” Lorde’s intention was quite different: when one’s identity is constantly under threat, joy itself becomes an audacious act of resistance.

Simone’s famous 1965 version of “Feeling Good” attests to joy as resistance. Released in the ferment of the civil rights era, the anthem celebrates life and its enjoyment in the face of adversity. Arranged with a big band, Simone declares her freedom in rich crescendos: “It’s a new dawn / It’s a new day / It’s a new life for me / And I’m feeling good.” Less-circulated clips from the recent protests have attested to this spirit of liberation—joyful dance circles, resolute cheers, a sense of triumphant solidarity.

It may be reductive to strip a piece of music purely for its political instruction, but works of art, music, and literature must be contextualized through the wider inequities in which their creators lived. For when confronted with systemic challenges that can feel insurmountable, Simone’s voice brings a reminder of Black joy. It is, true to form, “the essence of Black life—the struggle, beauty, and strength” born of resilience.

*

Nicole-Ann,

Your discussion of Nina Simone’s resistive exhaustion immediately made me think of “a few words for the firing squad (radiation),” the stunning closing song on the new album (released shortly before the George Floyd protests) by hip-hop duo Run the Jewels. Rapper El-P attempts to console all those groaning under the weight of spiritual exhaustion: “For the holders of a shred of heart even when you wanna fall apart.” In the song, El-P and his fellow Run the Jewels member, Killer Mike, consider the cumulative trauma of social degradation, the ways that the political cannot transcend the personal, and the struggle to weigh political obligations against obligations to family and self.

In all four of their albums, Run the Jewels manage to sound fresh without being especially cutting edge. Both members are solidly middle-aged; they rap in a distinctly un-melodic, old-school style; El-P’s production is defined by gritty, jabbing samples. All this could be a recipe for something tediously nostalgic, music for people who complain about “mumble rap.” And yet it works, for several reasons: both members are very proficient rappers; they take infectious joy in performing together; and they share a political sensibility—paranoid contempt for both state and corporate power—that’s well suited to our era of economic plunder and state failure.

For Killer Mike—a Black man who’s also the more outspoken activist of the duo—threat lies around every corner. In “a few words for the firing squad (radiation),” he honors those who have been “hung from a tree like a piece of strange fruit,” citing Billie Holiday and Nina Simone. And like Ice Cube, Mike fears his activism will mark him for the same fate as Malcolm X. He’s intimately familiar with what constant threat can do to Black life, rapping, “Black and beautiful / the world broke my mama heart / and she died an addict.” And El-P adds texture to the interior experience of spiritual exhaustion, describing “feelin’ like a fox runnin’ from another pack of dogs.”

Of course, in the face of exhausting threats, one might want to retreat from public activism, either for the sake of self-preservation or to attend to familial obligations. Killer Mike quotes his wife’s heartbreaking plea, “I need a husband more than the world need another martyr.” For Audre Lorde, caring for those closest to you constitutes something like political action. Run the Jewels seem to agree that care can be a treatment for spiritual exhaustion. El-P also prescribes solidarity, a recognition that we’re all entrusted to each other. He directs the beaten-down and trampled-upon to “put the pistol and the fist up in the air,” promising his listeners, “we are there, swear to God.”

Run the Jewels also insist on the obligation to tell the truth defiantly in the face of illegitimate power. Mike dedicates the track to the iconoclasts, punished gravely for their courage, “the truth tellers tied to the whippin’ post, left beaten, battered, bruised.” Their model of dissent is a middle finger. In the last lyrics on the album, Killer Mike delivers the punchline: “last words to the firing squad was, ‘Fuck you too.’” It’s reminiscent of Nina Simone’s parting words on “Mississippi Goddam,” an exasperated yet defiant declaration: “That’s it!”

Max Foley-Keene is a writer and doctoral student at Brown University studying political theory, and a former Commonweal intern. Nicole-Ann Lobo is an MPhil candidate in Modern South Asian Studies at Christ's College, Cambridge. She was the 2019 John Garvey Writing Fellow at Commonweal.

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