Several months ago, a regular troll on the CityBeat website whose frequent baiting insults I long gamely tolerated finally struck a nerve in me. He (or she, or it … who knows with anonymous comments) took a swipe at me for mentioning a Hip Hop song in our until-then congenial back and forth. The commenter accused me of referencing “black music” to appear hip and assuage my “white guilt.”
I felt so personally insulted because of the profound effect the music of artists like Charles Mingus, Public Enemy, Bob Marley, Billie Holiday, Bad Brains and thousands of others have had on my life. I’m one of those weird people who honestly feels “Music saved my life,” and, therefore, it is and will forever be the most important thing to me outside of my family.
But my heated reaction was much more than just the result of hurt pride. It belittled the indispensable contributions black musicians have made to the development and history of music and society.
Music doesn’t have a race. While I might think about it upon later reflection, in that initial moment when a piece of music grabs my ears and heart, the color of the skin of its creator does not enter my mind.
But race can be very important in music. Or, rather, particularly in the case of African Americans, music can be very important to race. The history of black people in America is riddled with key moments and eras that are inexorably tied to the enduring music created. (Black History Month has the best soundtrack of all the History Months.)
If you doubt this and think it’s just the “white guilt” talking, visit the current exhibit Music of Change: Hymns, Blues & Rock at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center (NURFC) and then let’s have the discussion.
The gorgeous Freedom Center (by far the most underappreciated museum in Cincy and one of the best I’ve ever visited) does a magnificent job with Music of Change.
I am pretty picky when it comes to music exhibitions like this — too often, an exhibit will be too reliant on reading (NURFC offers listening devices to guide visitors through displays) or overly dependent on simple displays of memorabilia.
Music of Change finds the perfect balance and, ultimately, succeeds in providing a fascinating journey through the roles black music have played in America’s history, eloquently showing how African-American music has been celebration, protest, spiritual uplift, a means of communication and information sharing … sometimes all at once.
The exhibit begins with a representation of how slaves orally shared songs and passed them around — songs were often used as “signals” along the Underground Railroad route, while sharecropper workers would use chants to pace workers (slowing down if some can’t keep up). From there, visitors can learn about despicable “coon songs” and “race records,” with nausea-inducing titles like “Who Likes A Nigger?” (a four-song EP on display).
But mostly, when not being used as exploitation by others, music was empowerment. The exhibit doesn’t purely focus on African-American artists — the music echoing through the exhibit also included Folk tunes by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young and Bob Dylan, connecting the dots between the songs of justice from the Civil Rights era and the songs of justice from the Folk and Rock eras. The suggestion is (and I don’t disagree) that all contemporary protest music can be traced back to the early music of African Americans (up through today’s more politically-minded Hip Hop, which gets somewhat of the short-shrift in the exhibit, briefly touched on at the very end).
The memorabilia and artifacts range from a sparkling red suit worn by James Brown to old records, instruments and sheet music. Artist Ricci Michaels’ glorious abstract paintings reflecting on various eras of black music are also a great touch.
The last room of the exhibit includes a play area for children, with a few instruments laying around, and gives younger visitors the chance to add a leaf to the “musical tree” with their favorite performer’s name written on it.
It made me immediately think that this exhibit, while fascinating and educational for all, should be required visiting for young people. It masterfully provides a broad perspective of the black experience with a musical connection that makes it easier for young people to connect with the message.
How different would American music sound without any contribution from African Americans and their ancestors? It’s impossible to say; all I know is, I doubt music would have ended up being so vitally important to me.
MUSIC OF CHANGE: HYMNS, BLUES & ROCK is on view at the National Underground Freedom Center (freedomcenter.org) through Sept. 22.