So, before I get into anything this week, I need to explain a few things. The first is that I usually steer well clear of anything to do with politics – both in this letter, and in life (it’s easier). The second is that I know that what I’m about to write below, I write from a point of privilege, and that I am far from being either an expert on, nor really qualified to properly talk about in its broadest sense. So I’m going to try and stick to the two things that I do know well (music and culture), and lightly reference the political and racial contexts. Also, if I’m clumsy with language, then forgive me…This week felt like a watershed moment. A few people have messaged me this week to ask if I’m including a certain song, and lots of people have been talking about the cultural impact of a certain video. Childish Gambino dropped new track This Is America
this week, and the video (directed by Hiro Murai) is earth-shatteringly important. If you haven’t seen it, then please watch it here
. It’s ok, don’t worry, I’ll wait.
It’s amazing, isn’t it? I think I’ve watched it at least ten times, and each time I find something new. Whether it’s spotting the SZA cameo, understanding the reference of a police car behind a white horse, or matching the lyrics to what’s happening on screen – it’s packed so densely with references that it’s blown my mind. There are a whole host of articles breaking down the references (this HighSnobiety one is good, as are the comments, the Guardian covered it well, and Pigeons and Planes’ piece was good too), and it reminded me of the excellent New Yorker piece on Glover from a few months back (worth another read).
The overriding thought that I took from This Is America was that of appropriation of culture, yet continued denial of persecution (and continued persecution itself). Why I felt so urged to bring this up, is because history is repeating itself. In Rickey Vincent’s excellent book Funk: The Music, The People, and the Rhythm of the One, he talks about funk as worth studying because “it has a place in popular culture as one more in a long line of black musical styles—ragtime, swing, blues, and rock—that are often borrowed but not acknowledged. One purpose of this book is to acknowledge The Funk as another chapter in America’s legacy of acquisition and assimilation of black music and culture.”
This Is America is our generation’s equivalent to James Brown’s Say it Loud, or Gil-Scott Heron’s The Revolution Will Not Be Televised. It is a cultural call to arms, through the medium of music, that will hopefully drive conversation to make societal (and political) changes. At the very least, it should drive understanding. This feels like a very 21st century version of James Brown’s call that he was “ready to die on his feet rather than be livin’ on his knees”. Brown kicked off a revolution in the late 60s in America – acting as a nexus between radical politics, black culture, and the mainstream popular culture. He was able to reflect what was happening to black people, while also shaping the future of black culture. This role is a once-in-a-lifetime role that comes to so few people, and there have been few over time who’ve been able to both reflect and shape something for the better. It feels like Glover is picking up where James Brown and NWA left off…
Vincent also believes that hip-hop is the new jazz, and that jazz (along with funk) is pure protest music. It’s a “deliberate reaction to—and a rejection of—the traditional Western world’s predilection for formality, pretense, and self-repression.” When we trace back from hip-hop to funk, you can see that funk was the cultural cumulation of soul, jazz, blues, gospel, and slave songs. This isn’t to say that these existed in a cultural silo – there were endless influences from lots of different cultures – but you can trace a direct line from hip-hop back to West African music. This FADER piece does a brilliant job of drawing the lines between Congo Square in New Orleans, Miles Davis, funk, and Flying Lotus.
What I find personally amazing is that throughout my own journey of musical and cultural discovery I’ve struggled to articulate what it is that I look for in music, and struggled to understand why my tastes have always had a jazz, soul, of funk edge to them. About halfway through reading his book, I saw that Vincent had done the work for me when he spoke about the thread that runs deeply from West African music to modern hip-hop; “perhaps the most important retention from Africa has been the spiritual element of music-making, the necessity to bring about trance, to raise rhythm to a cosmic level. African music, gospel music, and jazz were designed to accomplish this, and with The Funk the tradition has continued […] In the African musical experience, everyone is included, for everyone’s individual rhythms are essential to the total vibe. Thus, all participate as part of a greater whole. A locked, happening rhythm brings everybody together grooving as one.”
This idea that music was designed to create a sense of cosmic togetherness, and elevate people to a feeling of spiritual ‘oneness’, through rhythm resonated with me with a real intensity.
Tracing this back to Africa though, comes with challenges. Since the 1970s western artists have been accused of ‘stealing’ and appropriating African musical culture. This argument was stoked further a few years ago when David Byrne launched Luaka Bop, and the quest to find William Onyeabour became a thing for people like me. There are so many different sides to this argument, Abigail Gardner wrote a great piece late last year (here), and QZ covered the issue of ‘digging’ culture brilliantly (here), but there are people who are digging with the intention of unearthing brilliant (but overlooked) music. People like Antal, or David Buttle. Personally, I agree with Zaf from Love Vinyl – finding new records (whether from Africa or Accrington) is about finding something and sharing it with people who might love it as much as you do. It shouldn’t be about elitism or ‘flipping’ records, it should be about creating a sense of togetherness, and making people dance. Dizzy Gillespie nailed it; “jazz was invented for people to dance. So when you play jazz and people don’t feel like dancing or moving the feet, you’re getting away from the idea of music.… You want to dance when you listen to our music because it transmits that feeling of rhythm”.
What’s really interesting looking into African musical culture is learning more about artists like Fela Kuti and Ebo Taylor. Both drew inspiration from traditional African music, but combined it with Miles Davis and funk. They studied together in London, and would spend hours together in Taylor’s flat listening to jazz, James Brown, and funk. This WIRE piece on Kuti from 1998 is great at outlining his life, the culture he built, and the fine line between creating culture and cultivating a cult. From my understanding, both artists felt instrumental to the development of modern African music – but it’s also evident that both artists drew inspiration from, and gave inspiration to western artists – what connected them all was the view that music and rhythm could elevate us all to a cosmic state, and give us a sense of togetherness that’s often missing in society.
Ultimately, I ascribe to Vincent’s view that funk (and jazz) “is deeply rooted in African cosmology—the idea that people are created in harmony with the rhythms of nature and that free expression is tantamount to spiritual and mental health”. So that’s why this week’s mixtape is an exploration of music either from Africa, or directly inspired by African rhythms, culture, and artists. Sure, there are highlife and afrobeat songs, but hopefully the mixtape shows the insane richness of modern African music, while dropping in some stone cold classics too.
As always, if you’ve read to here, thanks for indulging me ♥️.
See you on the dance floor.
Love Will Save the Day