I grew up in a seaside town in Devon where practically the only faces that weren’t white were Chinese and ran takeaway restaurants. The only black people I knew as a child were my friend Ben and his brother, who lived on the same estate at the edge of town as I did, and whose mum was white, and a lesbian. It was quite a combination for the 80s. And so ‘black music’ – Motown, Public Enemy, Miles Davis, etc etc – was my principle exposure to cultures and identities other than my own when I was growing up. I still live in the south west, obviously, and while I work at a university with an international outlook the culture here remains predominantly white, more so than most other places in the UK.
I’ve always felt slightly guilty that I mainly listen to music made by people like me – white men, generally suburban or provincial rather than urban – and not enough by people from different races (or religions, cultures, countries, or gender identities for that matter). I do feel a need to performatively demonstrate my ‘wokeness’ in many ways, to prove I’m not a racist asshole from a backwards part of the country. But that makes it about me, and this is not about me. All white people are part of the problem, because the nature of the problem is systemic and ingrained in our culture. Acknowledge and accept this, educate yourself, be as anti-racist as you can, and try to make things better: don’t think just because you own a Marvin Gaye record that you’re somehow not part of the problem. Black lives matter.
But anyway, the songs I picked:
“We Need a Resolution” – Aaliyah
Ostensibly about a damaged and damaging romantic / emotional / sexual relationship between two people, but nevertheless the title as a phrase in and of itself was one of the first things that jumped into my head. Plus the song itself is a deep and long-standing favourite, a synthesis of artist and producer that promised an amazingly fertile creative partnership, which sadly did not come to pass. Aaliyah’s tragic life story and abuse at the hands of R Kelly feels like some kind of fucked-up metaphor.
“Umi Says” – Mos Def
Another beautiful song that I’ve loved for a long time, but it’s only in the shadow of this shitshow that it’s struck me that the key lyric and feeling of the song is from the backing vocals rather than the lead – “I want black people to be free, to be free, to be free / all my people to be free, to be free, to be free”. The US might have abolished slavery and segregation years ago, but as the documentary 13th by Ava DuVernay brutally reveals, those laws were just replaced with others that prevented black people being truly free and equal. 21 years on from this song, and though there has been a black president the black prison population has increased massively. Black people are still not free.
“New Way New Life” – Asian Dub Foundation
Racism in the UK is as much about Asian lives, and there’s a positivity and hopefulness about this song – 20 years old, pre-9/11, written and released during the honeymoon of Tony Blair’s Britain – that seems almost quaint now, but which is still energising and vital. Integration, progression, celebration: a blueprint for how we could live together.
“The Charade” – D’Angelo and the Vanguard
A masterful moment from an astonishing record, this was released in late 2014, shortly after my daughter was born. The chilling refrain of “all we wanted was a chance to talk / ‘stead we only got outlined in chalk” seemed back then like it could signify a turning point – surely racist police brutality and murder couldn’t continue anymore? But it’s got worse. With every death this song becomes more horribly relevant.