Tag Archives: activism

Music Retrospects #2: Tracy Chapman, class consciousness and womanism

These series were written by Cedric McCoy and republished here with the author’s and publisher’s consent. The 3-part series were originally published on The Michigan Daily webpage on Feb. 8, 21 and 23.

For Black History Month 2023, I will be publishing a mini-series of short music reviews under the title “Protest Music Retrospects.” The aim of this series is to both revisit some of the most pivotal moments in Black protest music history and to shed light on overlooked Black figures and musics, specifically those of Black women, that have contributed to socially-conscious popular culture. The reviews will be a mix of musical critique as well as historical and historiographical analysis of the works and their responses in media. I first highlighted Sister Souljah’s 360 Degrees of Power; for this next entry, I will continue the series with Tracy Chapman’s 1988 debut and self-titled album, Tracy Chapman.

Arguably, Tracy Chapman isn’t exactly “overlooked.” It is one of the best-selling albums of all time (having sold over 20 million copies worldwide and certified platinum six times over) and earned Chapman Grammys for Best Contemporary Folk Album, Best Female Pop Vocal Performance (for “Fast Car”) and Best New Artist. However, I argue that the political themes and lyricism of Tracy Chapman is frequently missed in discussions of protest music of the era; released in the same year as N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton and Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, the surviving narrative is that Black male rappers and emcees pioneered the new resistance. The intrigue of “Fast Car” quickly became what Tracy Chapman was known for, and in combination with the fact that she was a Black woman making folk music in the late 20th century, the politicization of her lyrics was lost on a majority of audiences. As a result of her commercial success, contemporary accounts strip Chapman of her evocative and powerful commentary.

Tracy Chapman is, at its core, an album that documents the experience of a working class Black woman. Chapman, in a traditional folk style, often positions herself as a narrator outside of the story actively being told; even so, she weaves her knowledge and experiences into the narrative. For example, in the lead track “Talkin’ Bout a Revolution,” Chapman discusses the rumblings of an impoverished and overexploited working class interested in a “revolution,” wherein “poor people gonna rise up / and take their share / poor people gonna rise up / and take what’s theirs.” 

Raised by a working-class family in Cleveland, Chapman knows firsthand the challenges of working-class Americans and is able to dictate the experience with a certain specificity: “While they’re standing in the welfare lines” in the first verse becomes “I’ve been standing in the welfare lines” in the third verse. “Talkin’ Bout a Revolution” sets the tone for an album unmistakably entrenched in the struggle.

Every subsequent track on the album continues this thread of what Southern University professor Dr. Rasheedah Jenkins describes as “unabashed critique of the economic system’s virulence during the Reagan-Bush administration and its global influence.” In songs like the album’s lead single “Fast Car” and “She’s Got Her Ticket,” Chapman tells stories of women desperately seeking an escape from poverty and lack of opportunity; “Why?” and “Behind the Wall” comment on violence against women, both domestically and globally; “Mountain O’ Things” critiques American materialism and exploitative labor practices and so on. In each track Chapman addresses these issues with nuance and empathy, directly personifying the resistance of capitalist oppressions and state violence.

Even beyond her searing indictments of American society and western greed, there is something unique and admirable about Chapman’s lyrics that I find especially worth noting. In contrast to the hyper-masculine and chauvinistic aggression found in some of her male contemporaries, Chapman centers love and understanding in her narratives. She connects herself to the stories she tells — not to center herself, but to engage the reader in a more personal listening of her lyrics. In “If Not Now…” Chapman spends the first few verses presenting economic and social liberation as the ruling class’s unrequited love for the working class, but then presents this line in the final verse: “Now love’s the only thing that’s free / we must take it where it’s found.” Immediately this could be read as a continuation of her running metaphor, that we should seize opportunity when it finds us; I argue that Chapman intends a second, more literal meaning with the lyric. In the same way that she has humanized the working-class stories throughout the album, Chapman humanizes our fundamental desire to be acknowledged and cared for. I feel that the album’s final track, “For You,” can also be understood in this double-meaning framework.

Essentially, I encourage the reader to see Chapman’s debut album through a womanist lens – especially regarding the second definition ascribed to the term by its originator, Alice Walker: 

“A woman who loves other women, sexually and/or nonsexually. Appreciates and prefers women’s culture, women’s emotional flexibility (values tears as natural counterbalance of laughter), and women’s strength. Sometimes loves individual men, sexually and/or nonsexually. Committed to survival and wholeness of entire people, male and female.”

While Chapman has never publicly disclosed information about her sexual preferences or identity, we do know that there is potential to see her life and work through a queer lens (ironically, as a result of Alice Walker herself disclosing her and Chapman’s affairs). I borrow musicologist Suzanne Cusick’s framework for understanding music through a lesbian lens from her article “On A Lesbian Relationship with Music” to extend this analysis. Cusick argues that a (assumedly oversimplified but fundamental in nature) lesbian relationship lacks the traditionally heterosexual power dynamic: 

(A woman) is non-power: to be in love with her is to be in love with, to be fascinated by, to be drawn to that which is non-power. With her, a self who is also non-power is more likely to create a relationship based on non-power…No one in the relationship has been formed to be the power figure, although all can play at it.

In short, Cusick claims that queer relationships (but that specifically of lesbians) defy a hierarchical, vertical power structure in favor of a horizontal, fluid power structure. I find this lens, applied to music specifically as Cusick later does, useful in understanding Chapman’s work because it lacks that exact power dynamic protest music had come to embody in that moment: in contrast to a prophet or speaker for Black America to rally behind and listen to, Chapman simply tells her story as-is and lends her ear to her working-class comrades.  Chapman, in the face of multiple jeopardy systemic oppressions, advocates intracommunal love and the liberation of all through mutual efforts. There is no appeal to violence or physical rage, as such devices are unnecessary in her approach; rather, it is more useful to understand one another and build solidarity in absence of hierarchical power structures, both in terms of race and gender but as well as sexuality.

Tracy Chapman will be remembered by, as it already is, Chapman’s transparent and relatable lyricism as well as her politically informed criticisms. In addition to the genre-defining musicality and emotion displayed throughout Chapman’s recordings, I hope that the album is revered for its revolutionary draw to love and its commitment to radical empathy within the canon of Black protest music for generations to come. The album is potent with themes, analysis and lyrics to pick apart for at least a few more decades.

MiC Assistant editor Cedric Preston McCoy can be reached at cedmccoy@umich.edu.

Music Retrospects #1: Sister Souljah, ‘360 Degrees of Power’ and the unapologetic radicalism of Black women

These series were written by Cedric McCoy and republished here with the author’s and publisher’s consent. The 3-part series were originally published on The Michigan Daily webpage on Feb. 8, 21 and 23.

For Black History Month 2023, I will be publishing a mini-series of short music reviews under the title “Protest Music Retrospects.” The aim of this series is to both revisit some of the most pivotal moments in Black protest music history and to shed light on overlooked Black figures and musics, specifically those of Black women, that have contributed to the socially-conscious popular culture of today. The reviews will be a mix of musical critique as well as historical and historiographical analysis of the works and their responses in media. For the first entry, I will be starting off with Sister Souljah and her 1992 album, 360 Degrees of Power.

Lisa Williamson, known professionally as Sister Souljah, is an activist, writer, film producer and musician. She first garnered attention as a campus activist while at Cornell University, before becoming a performing artist in the music industry. She was also a member of Public Enemy for a short period of time in the 1990s, serving as their minister of information. 

360 Degrees of Power is raw, aggressive and confrontational. Sister Souljah’s delivery is somewhat arhythmic and doesn’t quite fit into the popular rhythmic and rhyme-informed styles of rap of the era; her lyricism is best understood as a continuation of the musical poetry of the ‘60s and ‘70s, popularized by The Last Poets and Gil Scott-Heron.

Sister Souljah engages with a multitude of difficult and nuanced topics by making direct commentary on white power structures, as well as the complacency of some Black people in systems of their own oppressions. The album produced two singles –– The Hate that Hate Produced and The Final Solution: Slavery is Back in Effect –– a satirical skit that imagines the re-institution of slavery in the 20th century. Both works encapsulate Sister Souljah’s militancy and Black-nationalistic philosophies. The first single yields this powerful stanza, framing the overarching messages of the album:

Souljah was not born to make white people feel comfortable

I am African first, I am Black first

I want what’s good for me and my people first

And if my survival means your total destruction

Then so be it!

You built this wicked system

They say two wrongs don’t make it right

But it damn sure makes it even!

Throughout the album’s tracks, Sister Souljah tackles the issues of domestic abuse, alcoholism and sexism within Black communities. For example, in the fifth track, “Nigga’s Gotta,” she includes another short skit wherein a Black man sexually abuses his young daughter. The interlude is hard to listen to even today, but serves to make real and audible an often shared experience of Black women. Sister Souljah further uses the track to problematize Black masculinity and its simultaneous attraction to materiality and dismissal of political education. She mirrors the form and cadence of The Last Poets’ Niggers are Scared of the Revolution, speaking to Black men through indicting and ironic third-person references.

Sister Souljah also addresses American militarism and imperialism globally and domestically in her lyrical presentation, while holding absolutely nothing back. In the song Killing Me Softly: Deadly Code of Silence, she begins with this scathing critique that continues to reflect Republican leadership in the 21st century:

George Bush is a terrorist / He creates terror in the minds, hearts and neighborhoods of Black people.”

Later in the album, on the song titled Brainteasers and Doubtbusters, she includes the still-relevant reflection:

They give you scholarships to their schools / So you can learn to think and act like them / So they can use you against your own people / Like these weak pitiful Black mayors and Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

All of these examples demonstrate Sister Souljah’s unique positionality within the Black experience: she combines her personal perspectives with her politically informed commentary to craft a narrative that both draws upon an intellectual tradition and pioneers a new space for Black women to participate in cultural critique. I find her lyrics potent even today, as we navigate conservative “anti-woke” movements and rejections of Black voices (especially Black feminist voices) in the teaching of Black histories.

Despite only publishing one studio album, Sister Souljah has had a prolific creative career. Shortly after the release of 360 Degrees of Power, she began a career as a writer and novelist. Her memoir, “No Disrespect,” was released in 1994, and her first work of fiction, “The Coldest Winter Ever,” was published in 1999. Sister Souljah remains an activist and author, having written five other novels and contributing to various journals and newspapers.

Under normal circumstances, a project such as 360 Degrees of Power would have been lost to obscurity: not only was it a debut from a widely unknown artist, but it also came at a time when Black women rappers were often disregarded for their political commentary and critique. However, in a 1992 interview with The Washington Post, Sister Souljah gave her now-infamous critique of American policing in response to the LA riots: 

“If Black people kill Black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people?”

The comment was widely and harshly received by the media (and largely white America). Bill Clinton — at the time a presidential candidate — criticized her language and sentiment, comparing her approach to that of David Duke (“had the words ‘white’ and ‘Black’ be reversed”) spawning the “Sister Souljah Moment” phenomenon. Sister Souljah’s “Sister Souljah Moment” forced her to the front of contemporary rejections of rap and signaled a new beginning in the respectability politics of the neoliberal ‘90s: an epoch where racially-charged political thought was reduced to “extremism” and dismissed by the conservative hegemonic culture. 

Despite her short stint in the music industry, Sister Souljah represents the end of an era of protest music. The dominant cultural structure had already begun resisting the profane and deeply assertive messaging of political rap with Public Enemy, N.W.A. and others in the leading years. The early ‘90s did not bring an end to politically conscious rap; however, subsequent years were filled with more avant-garde, music-focused approaches to the medium that ultimately would remain at the forefront of the genre. Still, her contribution to the movement was unique and worth remembering and reflecting upon: so often are the voices of radical Black women ignored in favor of the hero-worship of their male contemporaries. Though overlooked, 360 Degrees of Power has earned its spot in the canon of 20th century Black protest music.

MiC Assistant Editor Cedric Preston McCoy can be reached at cedmccoy@umich.edu.

Yuca Brava (Puerto Rico) Release A New Single Honoring Justice Fighters Everywhere

‘Cara al sol’ is one of the singles from the upcoming album “Lo olvidado” by Puerto Rican rapcore duo Yuca Brava. I hit up the band’s DM to get some more info about the release. Félix Castro, one half of YB, told me about the inspiration behind the song.

The song is based on a piece from a Jose Marti’s poem “Versos Sencillos XXlll”: “No me pongan en lo oscuro a morir como un traidor, yo soy bueno y como bueno moriré de cara al sol” which roughly translates to “Don’t put me in the dark to die like a traitor, I’m good and as such I’ll die with my face towards the sun”.

See also: A Protest Music Interview: Fenix Castro

With the new single, the band intends to pay tribute to all people fighting injustice around the world. Félix tells me that more often than not there is a collective noise drowning the actions of hardworking activists or their efforts are completely overlooked by mainstream media. But they shall not go unnoticed or forgotten.

“We want to send a message to the people who are day by day in the streets fighting without expecting anything in return or aware that they will not see the fruits of their struggle but still keep going forward. We may die, but we will die facing the sun, knowing that what had to be done was done.”

‘Cara al sol’ drops today, Friday Jan. 27, and is available on all streaming platforms. Check out more of Yuca Brava’s music via their webpage and social media: Facebook | Twitter | SoundCloud | YouTube | Instagram