As a Black American writer, I know that Black music is an entry point to self. It’s a way to capture the essence of who we are, to resurrect culture that has been packed away, forgotten, or repressed.
Growing up, I learned that knowing my dad’s music—Cameo, Randy Crawford, and Con Funk Shun—was currency. It was worth something. My dad taught me that the magical memory of my great grandmother—a housekeeper who taught herself to read—dancing, and my grandfather, a rolling stone—a man whose tally of excuses ran longer than the song’s extended instrumental intro—were snippets of song and passed down dances that helped me comprehend my family.
I also learned that reading isn’t limited to novels and newspapers. Black people read in a myriad of ways—we can read the room or read you for filth. How else would we know to follow the Big Dipper unless we could read the stars?
My sister and I would turn into ninjas before the beat dropped to our favorite songs. We’d run around the house screaming when it happened anyway. We learned to love Fridays nearly as much as Saturday mornings when we woke up to The Spinners, The Supremes. My mother did the robot, popping her neck out like it’s detachable from her body. When she and my dad did the bump, he dropped to push-up position and met her knee with his elbow. Black music is love.
At Howard University, Black students whose lineages trace back to small, faraway countries—Togo or Benin, international students from St. Lucia, Trinidad, Nigeria—bonded through music. We did the Bunny Hop in New Orleans, Wu-tanged through Philly, went Hyphy in California, and sang Murder She Wrote a hundred thousand times. We belted Before I Let Go, preached This is How We Do It, crooned Sexy Lady. Singing along to our countless anthems was the pinnacle of Black love, a keen awareness of our bodies and what it means to be us.
Black music is multifaceted, often ritualistic, always of love. It’s a transportive chariot, a mothership, an emblem of Afrofuturism. It’s a genre used “to grapple with social problems, propose better futures, or to imagine society’s disastrous potential in dystopian worlds.” Swing Low Sweet Chariot is sampled over fifty times, keeping Fisk University from financial ruin when a group of students, the Fisk Jubilee Singers, sing it as a fundraiser in 1909.
In Love Jones, Darius’ spoken word piece, Brother to the Night (A Blues for Nina) is the first “song” on the soundtrack. The blues derive from the call-and-responses, the ring-shouts of Black people, specifically African enslaved people, the use of melismatic riffs to convey a range of emotions.
Chance the Rapper’s Sunday Candy was a saving grace at a residential treatment facility for high schoolers where I worked. We listened to it and heads nodded. I explained that it was an extended metaphor and that his grandmother was his church.
Marcia Griffiths in a floral hat dancing in the street popularized Ric Silver’s 18-step line dance that is now used in more ways than a Crown Royal bag—at nearly every celebratory gathering of Black people in any city across America. Beyonce’s latest albums, Renaissance and Lemonade have had an immense impact on global music culture. Artists like Wizkid and Burna Boy, Tems and Master KG have taken Black music to new heights with their faith-based lyrics and viral electric slides.
Black music is cool, culture, liberation. Love, context, metaphor. Like food, it keeps us alive. Like food, the act of consuming it is joyful, nourishing, cathartic. Black music pulls from our past, reaches into the future, and uses the two to create a blurry, beautiful family portrait. It ping pongs from country to country, across seas, between continents. It is a beautiful cycle, a ring shout, a call and response. It never really starts where you think it does. And maybe, hopefully, willfully, it never really ends either.