Black Radical Thought in Sound

Lambros Fatsis

In the midst of the most recent wave of Black Lives Matter protests and the electrifying energy with which they infuse our civic conscience, public discourse and political imagination, some keywords of Black radical thought – police abolition and defunding featuring prominently among them – suddenly became mainstream. These words and the ideas they express, however, are as old as what Cedric J. Robinson famously described as the ‘Black radical tradition’; be it purely political or cultural and aesthetic, if such an artificial separation can (ever) be made. Black or Afro-diasporic music has always sounded a keynote that vibrates through such radicalism, yet it often remains an under-mined resource with which to think with about politics and the social world around us. Compiled in the spirit of The Sociological Review’s attempt to repair such tone-deafness in our thinking about “the social” – through its current Music and Sound series – the following “sociological playlist”, is intended as an aural commentary with which to make sense of policing, racism and social justice in a different, radical and hopefully exciting, register. Each selection will be followed by a brief paragraph to contextualise and sound out an interpretation of the message that each tune carries within, between and beyond its sonic content.

I. Leadbelly, Go Down, Old Hannah

Mournful and hopeful in equal measure, this prison work song pleads “Old Hannah” – a nickname for the sun–  to go down as it meant that the prisoners’ work day at state penitentiaries would soon be over. Yet, it also sends out a message of deliverance: ‘If you rise in the morning, well, well, well, bring judgement sure’ which summons hope as a resource against resignation and despair. What is also impressive about this song is the way in which it allows us to connect slavery to incarceration as a continuum of oppression and subjugation, as an aural contender to classic prison writings from Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks to George Jackson’s prison letters or Angela Y. Davis and Assata Shakur’s reflections on their imprisonment in their respective autobiographies.

II. Nina Simone, Four Women

Rightly hailed by Thulani Davis as ‘an instantly accessible analysis of the damning legacy of slavery’, Nina Simone’s unflinching portrait of violence against Black women during slavery can also be heard as a critique of the anti-Black racist misogyny (or misogynoir) of our times. The final lines by one of the Four Women that Nina Simone sings about, Peaches, has always nested inside my head as a perfect poetic way of expressing the remains of slavery and colonial ‘raceocracy’ today; ‘I’m awfully bitter these days/Because my parents were slaves’.

III. Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln, Driva’ Man

Mixing blues with modern jazz, this tune – plucked from Max Roach’s, We Insist! Freedom Now Suite – describes the violence of the slave driver and the overseer in the starkest terms, but both Abbey Lincoln’s powerful vocals and Coleman Hawkins’ screeching tenor saxophone solo communicate defiance, not subjugation.

IV. Syl Johnson, Is it Because I’m Black

Syl Johnson’s classic has always struck a chord with hip-hop sample diggers like Wu-Tang in Hollow Bones and Cypress Hill in Lock Down and reggae singers like Ken Boothe and Senior Soul, but it also sounds like the perfect accompaniment to Frantz Fanon’s concluding epigram in Black Skin, White Masks: ‘O my body, make of me always a man who questions!’. In fact, I often use it in my teaching to explain what Fanon calls the ‘racial epidermal schema’, in the same book, by way of musical illustration.

V. The 24-Carat Black, Poverty’s Paradise

This snippet from The 24-Carat Black’s classic soul concept album offers a haunting portrayal of urban poverty, as does the entire album which focuses on the idea of “the ghetto” as ‘misfortune’s wealth’. Much of the argument that the lyrics make, reminds me of Loïc Wacquant’s notion of a ‘deadly symbiosis’ where places of containment (ghettoes) ‘meet and mesh’ with spaces of confinement (prisons).

VI. The Heptones, Equal Rights

I have always considered The Heptones’ Equal Rights to be the musical equivalent of John Rawls’ First Principle as articulated in his Theory of Justice. Where Rawls writes about ‘each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive total system of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar system of liberty for all’, I keep hearing The Heptones singing this gem of a song from an essential album by Jamaica’s legendary, and my favourite, reggae label; Studio One.   

VII. Lion Youth, Rat A Cut Bottle

Narrating tales of urban poverty in London, this UK roots reggae classic can be heard as the heartbeat which ‘phonographs’, to borrow Fred Moten’s phrase, the turbulent events of 1981 when this tune was recorded. The New Cross Massacre, the Black People’s Day of Action and the Brixton uprisings against police violence all come to mind as the record plays. Essential listening for anyone interested in UK soundsystem culture, and required “reading” for its imagery of “hard times”.  

VIII. Johnny Clarke, Crazy Baldheads

Originally written by Bob Marley and also sung by Bunny Wailer, nothing compares to this version mixed by dub master King Tubby for producer Bunny ‘Striker’ Lee. Apart from its sonic richness however, Crazy Baldheads emerges as an anti-racist anthem which calls for ‘chasing crazy baldheads (non-Rastafarians) out of town’. The term ‘baldhead’, however, should be understood as a synonym for oppressors, rather than as a culturally-nationalist term which describes non-believers in the philosophy and theology of Rastafari. This assumes even greater significance if it is interpreted as a critique of the violence perpetrated not just by colonial overseers or metropolitan police officers, to echo KRS-One’s genealogy of policing in both sides of the Atlantic, but by the beneficiaries of and affiliates to racism as an ideology and a form of structural inequality.

IX. Brand Nubian, Concerto in X Minor

A seductively upbeat and witty commentary on structural racism and a study in Black Power, which impressively brings together critiques of policing and state violence, racial injustice and militancy in less than four minutes! This is what hip-hop can and does sound like, if and when it is not reduced to its commercialised siblings.

X. A Tribe Called Quest, We the People

Another exemplary “conscious”, progressive hip-hop classic of our times which attacks the punitive, authoritarian politics of (racial) capitalism and the hatred that produces and is produced by it. I can’t help but think of it as the soundtrack of Trump’s America although it clearly resonates further afield, if not close to home.

XI. Krept & Konan, Ban Drill

The perfect accompaniment to my Sociological Review article, ‘Policing the Beats: The Criminalisation of UK Drill and Grime Music by the London Metropolitan Police’, which is now Open Access as part of the journal’s ‘Music and Sound’ theme. A short film and a song by Krept and Konan who fire back at the criminalisation of UK drill music, in ways that make us rethink police racism, racial injustice and state violence in the light of the demands made by the current Black Lives Matter protests. As Krept and Konan put it: ‘Feds asked who’s responsible, I just kept it real I said “Whoever banned drill”.

This blog post gives the views of the author, not the position of the institution he works for.

(Dr.) Lambros Fatsis is a Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Brighton. When he doesn’t teach or write, he continues to exist as a never-recovering vinyl junkie and purveyor of Afro-Caribbean music. He tweets @lfatsis.

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