As I write this piece, everyone I know is retweeting, re-posting, and petitioning to get the word out
about the Troy Davis case and why they believe it is a gross miscarriage of justice (for more information
you can click here). By the time this goes to print, there is a good chance that Mr. Davis will be gone
from this earth. And while there is nothing new about rallying via social networks -- the rapturous
support causes get when they reach a critical mass of millions of people -- I was pleasantly surprised
that a number of hip-hop artists and tastemakers took a stand (Big Boi, Russell Simmons) and similarly
confounded that many have not used their music as a platform for their activism. It dawned on me: we
need a movement.
When I say a movement, I don't mean causes people select at random based on their trending topics. I
mean initiatives that have, well, initiative, manifestos, agendas and express goals. Everyone loves to
talk about the Harlem Renaissance, but few really get to the meat of why Zora Neale Hurston, Alaine
Locke, Countee Cullen, and Langston Hughes wrote the way they did, or why the jazz artists of the day
continued searching for new ways to express their music. It was because their end goal was proving
black humanity through the inherent beauty and complexity of their artwork. The message was clear:
we are human, and we are beautiful.
Roughly 30 years after the Harlem Renaissance, art, particularly music, played an enormous part in
both the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Power/Black Arts movement. Mahalia Jackson lent her
soulful voice to the March on Washington, Nina Simone put the hot damn' in "Mississippi Goddam,"
and James Brown's "Say It Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud" became a rallying cry for all the black and proud people of the
time. In these cases the music reaffirmed the faith of the people in their causes. Even if mainstream
society and culture wouldn't see us as whole, we would do it for ourselves.
And roughly 20 years after that, hip hop burst onto the scene, giving a gritty and honest portrayal
of inner city life. Grandmaster Flash's "The Message" was not just a rhyme, but rather a sociological
examination of the problems faced by poor people of color. He just gave them a voice. And artists like
Afrika Bambataa, KRS-One, and Public Enemy have, too. I'm just wondering when the spirit will
move my generation.
W.E.B. DuBois said it best, "[t]hus all Art is propaganda and ever must be, despite the wailing of the
purists." Music, particularly in the black community, has historically been our microphone to the
universe, and our voices have left an indelible mark on the world as we know it. The question becomes
then, what's next? It has been over 20 years since there has been a serious cultural movement,
and it is not as if there aren't issues that need to be spoken to -- Troy Davis' case being a prime example,
and the unemployment rate, particularly among blacks, being another. This is not to say that "art for
art's sake" music doesn't have its place, but it can't be the only thing we consume if we want to be
responsible global citizens. Culling the lessons of our rich past may be just what we need to
impact our future.