Category Archives: Music

Distant Relatives: Antiphony and the Original Call

By Alisha Hines

The problems of representation, authenticity, and legitimacy have always posed challenges for the producers and consumers of black culture and continue to do so. For example, Gilroy’s discussion of the disagreement between W.E.B. Du Bois and Zora Neale Hurston over the ‘authenticity’ of the Fisk Jubilee Singers is neither surprising nor unfamiliar if one considers the persistent and ongoing discourse around hip hop artists’ authenticity and legitimacy as practitioners of the art from. I would argue that this has even been institutionalized in the form of free-style battles and the sub-genre of diss-records. The dismay over contemporary black culture, though, seems to be the result of an unprecedented and widespread crisis of profitable mis-representation, illegitimacy, and inauthenticity.

It is important, though, to try to historicize these conflicts by trying to access the prevailing and dominant ethos in operation as a standard of authenticity. There are arguably many ways to arrive at a series of elements that seem to govern who gets to claim legitimacy in the hip-hop world. Yet, we would quickly run into the problematics Gilroy set forth. Legitimate to whom? And who are these terms modified in the complex global processes of production, distribution, and consumption?

If one looks closely at contemporary hip-hop music, it is apparent that Gilroy is right—the terms that define a black Atlantic diasporic cultural community has become increasingly problematic for “scholarly contemplation” as a result of complex global patterns of production and consumption.

As a result, one course to pursue these questions would be to reconsider those enduring tropes, such as the Black Atlantic as a historical or ancestral legacy. a viable basis for a contemporary political argument deployed via black musicians through musical production?

The guiding question of our exploration of the black Atlantic is what does the black Atlantic sound like? Hopefully my contributions will help illuminate the “syncretic complexity of black expressive culture” by examining the variations in the meaning of the black Atlantic depicted through sound and lyricism by black American artists.


In 1998, Hype Williams released the movie Belly, in which Nasir Jones, premier rap/hip hop artist, starred as Sincere—an enlightened street criminal who fosters dreams of moving with girlfriend and newborn to Africa. The audience learns that he realized this goal by the end as the movie closes with Sincere describing the peace, contentment, and harmony he had found there. In 2010, Nas and Damien Marley released the album Distant Relatives. Themes and imagery of Africa abound in its lyrics and musical arrangement. Although slightly less vague and indistinct as representations of Africa in the movie Belly, I’d like to consider here how exactly Nas and Damien Marley have conceived of Africa and the black Atlantic more broadly in this collaborative album. Many themes I have discussed converge with the production of this album. Although Nas has not reached the heights of fame and wealth of Jay Z, the two artists are highly comparable as they share a decades long history of conflict/collaboration. Nas is considered by many one of the greatest [if not the greatest] lyricists of all time. His accolades are endless; he is currently celebrating the 20th anniversary of his landmark debut album Illmatic, and was honored by Harvard University with a fellowship in his name.


As mentioned earlier, in the past few years Nas has openly criticized the state and quality of contemporary hip hop music. Teaming up with Damien Marley, reggae artist and one of reggae legend Bob Marley’s children, to create an album of such content, then, seemed ripe material for my inquiry. The album debuted at No. 5 on the U.S. billboard chart and sold 57,000 copies in its first week. However, it didn’t receive nearly the attention any of Jay Z’s most recent albums have. I know, musical trends are seriously mysterious things, and Jay Z’s audience almost certainly spans beyond the “black Atlantic diaspora” as I am defining it here—a geographically widespread cultural community that shares or believes itself to share a distinctly traumatic racial past and present. Or to use Gilroy’s words, “those residually inherited from Africa, and those generated from the special bitterness of new world racial slavery.”[2] However, the questions still stand: Where does one locate and how does one define “authentic black culture?” More specifically, what exactly does the black Atlantic mean for these artists and how do they conceive of its functionality as a concept in their cultural production?


In the same vein as my previous essays, I want to consider just a few songs from the album in order to arrive at another set of political imaginaries for the black Atlantic and hopefully make some broader conclusions about contemporary black culture and the real and imagined history of the black Atlantic. During Nas and Marley’s interview with Tim Westwood, Nas describes the content of the album as “African history,” or more accurately, “world history.”

He claims that a major theme of the piece is telling stories that haven’t been told. Things that he and Marley know, and perhaps a certain faction of their audience may know, but that the rest of the world must be informed about. When asked about their connection to Africa as African-American and Jamaican, Marley interjects with the insight that what is more important is that “we are all human.” The point of the album for Marley, the point of relaying African history, or constructing a narrative of the black Atlantic, is to demonstrate that that past constitutes an “all-inclusive” and equal human community. Nas adds that this narrative has an emancipatory effect in the sense that he believes they have captured through the album the political ideologies of those who have risen in protest throughout the world.  In The Black Atlantic, Gilroy poses the critique that contemporary black cultural production is guilty of ignoring the very place in which it locates its origins; the “problems of contemporary Africa” are almost completely absent from its concerns. He goes on to argue that this is precisely the problem that results from the conceptualization of a diasporic cultural community: “the idea of a diaspora composed of communities that are both similar and different tends to disappear somewhere between the invocations of an African motherland and the powerful critical commentaries on the immediate, local conditions in which a particular performance of a piece of music originates.”[3]

While “Africa Must Wake Up” is explicitly concerned with conditions on the African continent, conditions of poverty and disease, civil war, it is a message of uplift and empowerment directed at inhabitants of Africa.

“African Must Wake Up”

[Intro: Jr. Gong]
Morning to you man
Morning to you love
Hey, I say I say

[Chorus 2x]
Africa must wake up
The sleeping sons of Jacob
For what tomorrow may bring
May a better day come
Yesterday we were Kings
Can you tell me young ones
Who are we today

[Nas: Verse 1]
The black oasis
Ancient Africa the sacred
Awaken the sleeping giant
Science, Art is your creation
I dreamt that we could visit Old Kemet
Your history is too complex and rigid
For some western critics
They want the whole subject diminished
But Africa’s the origin of all the world’s religions
We praised bridges that carried us over
The battle front of Sudanic soldiers
The task put before us

[Chorus 2x]

[Nas: Verse 2]
Who are we today?
The slums, diseases, AIDS
We need all that to fade
We cannot be afraid
So who are we today?
We are the morning after
The make shift youth
The slave ship captured
Our Diaspora, is the final chapter
The ancestral lineage built pyramids
Americas first immigrant
The Kings sons and daughters from Nile waters
The first architect, the first philosophers, astronomers
The first prophets and doctors was

[Bridge: Jr.Gong]
Now can we all pray
Each in his own way
Teaching and Learning
And we can work it out
We’ll have a warm bed
We’ll have some warm bread
And shelter from the storm dread
And we can work it out
Mother Nature feeds all
In famine and drought
Tell those selfish in ways
Not to share us out
What’s a tree without root
Lion without tooth
A lie without truth
you hear me out

Africa must wake up
The sleeping sons of Jacob
For what tomorrow may bring
May a better day come
Yesterday we were Kings
Can you tell me young ones
Who are we today
Ye lord
Africa must wake up
The sleeping sons of Jacob
For what tomorrow may bring
May some more love come
Yesterday we were Kings
I’ll tell you young blood
This world is yours today

[Somali] Dadyahow daali waayey, nabada diideen
Oo ninkii doortay dinta, waadinka dillee
Oo dal markii ladhiso, waadinka dunshee
Oo daacad ninkii damcay, waadinka dooxee
Dadyahow daali waayey, nabada diideen
Oo ninkii doortay dinta, waadinka dillee
Oo dal markii ladhiso, waadinka dunshee
Oo daacad ninkii damcay, waadinka dooxee
Oh ye people restless in the refusal of peace
and when a man chooses religion, aren’t you the one’s to kill him?
and when a country is built, aren’t you the one’s to tear it down?
and when one attempts to tell the truth, aren’t you the one’s to cut him down?
Who are we today?
Morning to you
Morning to you man
Morning to you love
“Land of Promise” carries a similar tone of empowerment but a very different set of images. The song begins with a striking juxtaposition of African countries to major cities in the United States. Nas elaborates on this theme in the second verse by deploying familiar tropes of a royal African past (“Imagine a contraption that could take us back when the world was run by black men”), and considers what a restoration of that status in the contemporary world would look like. A 21st century African-descended royalty would be marked by access to finer things. In this way, the U.S. is posed, relatively uncritically, as distinct from the downtrodden black Atlantic world and is representative of something to be aspired toward by the people of Africa.

“Land of Promise”

Imagine Ghana like California with Sunset Boulevard
Johannesburg would be Miami
Somalia like New York
With the most pretty light
The nuffest pretty car
Ever New Year the African Times Square lock-off
Imagine Lagos like Las Vegas
The Ballers dem a Ball
Angola like Atlanta
A pure plane take off
Bush Gardens inna Mali
Chicago inna Chad
Magic Kingdom inna Egypt
Philadelphia like Sudan
The Congo like Colorado
Fort Knox inna Gabon
People living in Morocco like the state of Oregon
Algeria warmer than Arizona bring your sun lotion
Early morning class of Yoga on the beach in Senegal
Ethiopia the capitol of fi di Congression
A deh so I belong
A deh di The King come from
I can see us all in limos
Jaguars and B’mos

[Dennis Brown]
Riding on the King’s Highway

Promised Land I picture Porsches
Basquiat Portraits
Pinky Rings realistic princesses
Heiresses bunch a Kings and Queens
Plus I picture fortunes for kids out in Port-Au-Prince
Powerless they not allowed to fit
But not about to slip
Vision Promised Land with fashion like
Madison Ave Manhattan
Saks 5th Ave and
Relaxing popping labels
Promise Land no fables
This where the truth’s told
Use them two holes
Above your nose
To see the proof yo!
Imagine a contraption that could take us back when
The world was run by black men
Back to the future
Anything can happen
If these are the last days
And 100-food waves come crashing down
I get some hash and pounds
Pass around the bud then watch the flood
Can’t stop apocalypse
My synopsis is catastrophic
If satellites is causing earthquakes
Will we survive it
Honestly man it’s the sign of the times
And the times at hand

[Dennis Brown]
There’s alot of work to be done, O gosh
In the Promised Land

Both songs demonstrate that the directionality of the album is eastward across the Atlantic Ocean. Unlike much of Nas’s work, poverty, drugs, violence and disparity in urban America aren’t extensively critiqued or even referenced. The artists’ conceptualization of “distant relatives,” per their comments about the content of the album, boasts an expansive and all-inclusive audience. Yet the messages offered in the lyrical content are heavily directed toward poorer African locales and especially those suffering from unrest. Although the past, namely “ancient” African history and the experience of the middle passage, is believed by the artists to be shared vastly among world’s human community, the contemporary black Atlantic diasporic experience is quite uneven. This problematic is illustrative of one of Gilroy’s conclusions in The Black Atlantic. He stated, “the globalization of vernacular forms means that our understanding of antiphony will have to change…the calls and responses converge in the tidy patterns of secret, ethnically coded dialogue…the original call is becoming harder to locate.”[4]

Follow the link to learn more about how the Black Atlantic is musically represented through the album Distant Relatives.

For full track listing:

To cite this article:

> Exploring the Black Atlantic Through Sound 

> The Political Imaginaries of Black Atlantic Cultural Creation

> Jay Z’s Oceans

[2] Gilroy, Paul. The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1993. 81.

[3] Ibid., 87.

[4] Ibid., 110.

Youssou N’Dour’s musical travels: West Africa and Senegal as Black Atlantic crucibles

By Andy Cabot

Youssou N'Dour

Listening to the song “4-4-44” by Senegalese artist Youssou N’Dour is a mysteriously peculiar experience. The sound and rhythm enters swiftly into your ear, and, at the end, as the distant drums and piano fade out, you realize that your body has quietly turned into a state of near total appeasement. Honestly, only one thought circles into your mind as the song comes to a closing stage: I need to play it again.

What’s so mysterious about that Youssou N’Dour piece? At first, I felt it could perfectly fit in as a fade out song for a Mad Men episode as the credit rolls in and Don Draper meditates on an empty Hawaiian beach about why he has cheated on his wife for the gazillion time this year. After further listening, another picture popped in my head. It felt like this could have been a reinterpretation of a famous popular folk song, or also an adaptation of a child’s song melody. All in all, there was one dominant feeling: this song was a masterpiece of quietness, the quintessence of what peaceful joy and harmony could sound like.


“4-4-44”: N’Dour’s tribute to Senegal’s fortieth year of independence

During the long career of Youssou N’Dour, “4-4-44” is probably an epiphenomenon. His duet “Seven Minutes” with Neneh Cherry and other songs he recorded with his band in the 1990s were more significant in bringing the Senegalese artist to international stardom. At that moment, western media music industries considered N’Dour as the synonym for benevolent feelings of fraternity, loose passion for human rights and more vague sentimental attributes like advocates of world peace trough music. For a long time, it seems like he had his image and personality completely appropriated by the dominant expectations of Western audiences.

Arguably, Youssou N’Dour was not in the best position to develop a radical critique of the West or become an apologist of Afrocentrism when he rose to fame in the late 1980s. Indeed, he never felt any hatred or extreme passion neither towards Africa nor towards either of the two dominant ideological camps of the Cold war era during his early musical career.  N’Dour was a quite discreet character, far from the strong political opinions and eccentricities of other Afro-artists of the same era like Fela Kuti. His politics were almost void, still, his musical interests were immense.

Interestingly, retracing N’Dour’s crooked musical path leads us almost inevitably to interrogate his country’s history. For centuries, the present-day territory of Senegal had been nurtured and shaped by the movements and intersections of different civilizations. Even before the Ghana and Mali empires rose to continental preeminence around the fifteenth century, the major linguistic groups who now constitutes the Senegalese community –Wolof, Serer, Lebu, Tukolor, Mandinka, Diola- had already established strong commercial relations with the Abbasid Caliphates. By the 11th century, these groups were thus already fully integrated to the circuits of trade, knowledge and diplomacy of the Transaharian world economy. Contacts with European kingdoms erupted later on and were mainly directed at improving the plantation economies of Euro-American colonies. Indeed, despite intense resistance on the part of different linguistic groups, the great majority of Senegambia kingdoms were turned into large-scale suppliers of African slaves in the 18th century. The demographic and cultural legacies of the slaves-trade are still largely observable nowadays. All in all, at the beginning of the 20th century, one can see the modern Senegalese state as shaped over centuries of intercontinental and inter-religious relations. The salience of these multifarious cultural influences was decisive in creating one among the most vibrant musical traditions of West Africa.

“Senegal’s geography has brought its people into close contact with North Africa and the West and made Senegal a crossroads where Black African, Islamic, and European civilizations have met, clashed, and [1] blended”. Though this statement might appear un-original to many regards, its importance does not singly lie in the significance of the historical identity the author seeks to demonstrate but also in its relevancy if considered under a musical perspective. Indeed, Youssou N’Dour came to music as History came to Senegal: by the passage of caravans. In the late 1980s, while his family held doubts about his musical potential, N’Dour relied on the financial aid of the French-Senegalese community to launch his career. In 1983, Senegalese cab drivers working in Paris helped him raising funds so he could produce his first title. The latter was released shortly after the fund raising campaign and became an instant hit in France. Its title was “Immigrants” and certainly left no doubt about the intentions of N’Dour who sought to express his gratitude and support to migrants all over the world and especially to Senegalese ones.

At the turn of the decade, N’Dour had achieved a near status of world-music icon. Similarly to Alpha Blondy or Fela Kuti, his Afro-rhythm pop was now commercially successful not only in Senegal and Europe but also in North America. He had recorded songs and toured with Peter Gabriel, Sting, Bruce Springsteen and Tracy Chapman while being held as a proud symbol of success in his native land. Still, by the mid-1990s, his commercial success declined along with financial funds from North American record companies. The artist was not too surprised by that situation. Surely, he felt disheartened by the neo-imperial logics that controlled and influenced the relation between world markets and access to music. To illustrate that idea, N’Dour did declare after the release of his LP Wommat (The Guide) in 1994 “It’s a matter of pride for me to have produced this album from A to Z in my own studio”[2] .

Shaped by various cultures ethnically divided by colonialism, Senegal and N’Dour entered the post-1991 world in a state of indecision about their destinies. In 1980, its leader Léopold Senghar Senghor- educated in the French métropole in the 1930s and strong advocate of pro-French views in foreign and domestic policies during his twenty years long presidency between 1960 and 1980- left the country in a state of strong democratic stability while domestic oppositions vilified its “reign” as favorable to neo-colonial nepotism and discriminatory against Muslim and traditional communities. During the subsequent decades, this divide between pro-French elites centered on Dakar and other demographically dominant communities in Senegal would not cease. By the end of the Cold War, Senegalese people recognized that distance from the Atlantic powers –especially France- would revitalize the country’s culture and economic dynamism.

The song “Immigrés” was a turning in point in that larger process. For N’Dour, it represented an early effort at creating music blending eclectic influences for Western audiences. The piece associated different styles of drumming and rhythms forged into Western African culture mixed with various musical tempos from Latin America (Tango), North America (Jazz) and the Caribbean (Reggae).  Known as mbalax, this genre would later being largely identified with Youssou N’Dour, whom while not inventing it transformed it into an extremely popular music in West Africa.

For a long time, this almost unavoidable association of Mbalax with N’Dour went unnoticed even by the artist. By the 1990s however, as the country’s faced economic difficulties and many of its African neighbors descended into full fledged civil wars, discontents towards this association emerged. As explained earlier, though N’Dour expressed few political stances while he experienced international fame, the backslash of the Western industry against its more traditional orientation in the late 1990s had left him disheartened. Within the space of a decade, N’Dour and Senegal once again followed an intimately related path. Faced with economic pressures from the West and internal pressures from inside, a certain return to tradition accompanied by a slight De-Westernization of the elites occurred.

Concerning N’Dour, this process achieved its maturity in 2004 when he released his album Rokku Mi Rokka. It came into the form of “4-4-44”. During the first part of the song, N’Dour proposes a blending of the joyful and celebration-like Mbalax sound that made him famous. Still, midway through the song, this rather fragile pop aesthetic turns into a denser atmosphere. As a son of a griot– central figure of Western African traditional societies transmitting communities history and legacy through songs and stories- N’Dour always remained close to the ancestral music of Muslim and animist communities of Senegambia. In “4-4-44”, this feeling of tradition is present in the most manifest way. Indeed, as the initial upbeat structure progressively fades when the song enters its second part, the Western ego of N’Dour relinquishes and its African self reappears as xalam strings make their way into the harmony.

Short video documentary on the tradition and influence of Xalam in West Africa

Music scholar Ronald Radano once argued that Black music in the US shared a strong sense of remembrance borne “directly out of the depths of social tragedy only to rise up miraculously in the voice of racial uplift”. In a recent article, Laurent Dubois attempted to go beyond this type of analysis centered on the Anglophone Atlantic by arguing that, by expanding the chronological and geographical frames of the Black Atlantic, one could easily seize the broader historical implications of Black music “Some songs also offer broader historical narratives, tracing the History of Haiti’s population from Africa through struggles in the new world”. Largely, Dubois’s analysis tends not to decenter the traditional questions of Black music scholars but rather to connect the often forgotten parts of the Black Atlantic to the dominant black Anglophone world. Indeed, while he focuses on traditional Vodou songs in 18th century Haiti, Dubois emphasizes on the contained metaphors and images evoking the slave-trade in the creole culture : “But that layers onto another set of symbols: the Atlantic ocean as giant graveyard for those lost on the Middle passage, as a site of ancestral death and memory. In this song, though, an origin in the depths of the water doesn’t preclude a soaring present, [3] uncaptured”.

As I would argue here, N’Dour cannot be easily connects to “traditional” themes of the Black Atlantic: loss, displacement and painful remembrance. Indeed, as Saidiya Hartman beautifully explained in her book Lose Your Mother, though it is possible to draw an emotional connection between the African diaspora and African people, recent years have shown the historical gap increasing between the two continents in their relations to the slave-trade and its legacy. When the author retraces her journey through different iconic locations of slave-trade history in Ghana, she insists on the impossibility for native Africans to feel to what extent the wound of displacement is deep for those who were captured and deported “Love longed for an object, but the slaves were gone. In the dungeon, missing the dead was as close to them as I would come. And all that stood between artifice and oblivion was the muck on the [4] floor”. N’Dour explicitly tackles that issue in “4-4-44”. As first and foremost a tribute to Senegal’s fortieth year of independence achieved on April 4th, 2004, one can perceive N’Dour words as expressing a distinct –perhaps even new- feature of the modern Black Atlantic: namely the notion of a purely prideful remembrance of the Black past not rooted in the history of a “social drama” but rather in the mental overcoming of that trauma.

During his early musical career, N’Dour often took his distance with politics. In January 2012, while still recording albums and touring West Africa, he decided to present a bid for the coming Senegal’s presidential election. One of his first statement as a candidate epitomized N’Dour and Senegal’s intertwined historical fate “C’est vrai, je n’ai pas fait d’études supérieures, mais la présidence est une fonction et non un métier. J’ai fait preuve de compétence, d’engagement, de rigueur et d’efficience à maintes reprises. A l’école du monde, j’ai appris, j’ai beaucoup appris. Le voyage instruit autant que les livres »[5]  (I admit it, I have not attended higher education, but the presidency is a duty and not a job. I have proved that I’m skilled, that I’m hardworking and rigorous on many occasions. The world has been my classroom, and he taught me a lot, so many things. Traveling teaches you as much as books). The artist did not won the election and that was no surprise, it was a detail. As he contemplated his past experiences in relation to those of his country, N’Dour once again proved how personal histories can change you and thus History can be change if you stay faithful to your past. In Senegal as in other West African countries, N’Dour knew perfectly how to achieve just that: by not missing the next caravan.

 [1]Gellar Sheldom, Senegal: An African Nation between Islam and the West, Westview Press, 1982.

 [2]Frank Tenaille, Music is the Weapon of the Future: Fifty Years of African popular music, Lawrence Hill books, 2002, 232.

 [3]Dubois Laurent, Afro-Atlantic Music as Archive, 2013, [Online],Available <> [Accessed: 19 April 2014 , 15.]

[4]Hartman Saidiya, Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route, Farra Strauss, 2007, 135.

 [5]Aude Lasjaunias, Youssou N’Dour croit en son étoile présidentielle, January 2012, [Online], Available <>, [Accessed: 19 April 2014].


What’s past is prologue

by David Romine

Now here’s a little truth, open up your eyes
While you’re checking out the boom-bap, check the exercise
Take the word “overseer,” like a sample
Repeat it very quickly in a crude voice sample
Overseer, overseer, overseer, overseer
Officer, officer, officer, officer
Yeah, officer from overseer
You need a little clarity, check the similarity
The overseer rode around the plantation
The officer is off, patrolling all the nation
The overseer could stop you what you’re doing
The officer will pull you over just when he’s pursuing
The overseer had the right to get ill
And if you fought back, the overseer had the right to kill
The officer has the right to arrest
And if you fight back they put a hole in your chest (Woop)
They both ride horses
After 400 years, I’ve got no choices
The police them have a little gun
So when I’m on the streets, I walk around with a bigger one

–KRS-One “Sound of da Police”



As Alisha and Andy have pointed out previously, a discussion the traumas of the Middle Passage and legacy of slavery resides in many genres of music on both sides of the Atlantic. “Sound of da Police,” one of Bronx-born rapper KRS-One’s (b. Lawrence Krisna Parker)  most famous tracks, articulates the shared plight of African slaves and modern black youth by drawing a continuous line to the past, connecting the violent methods of control utilized on the plantation to that of the police in modern urban spaces. The past here is not a foreign country, but a place where people of color exist every day in a world in which police brutality is an everyday experience. Drawing comparisons between nineteenth century slavery and modern police brutality illustrate the history of African American poverty and oppression. While the forms are different, the results are the same.

Lyrics, however, are not the only connection that music draws with the past. Hip-hop as a musical form provides a unique sonic archive because it is constructed from pre-existing musical samples. The preference for soul, funk, and R&B records in the construction of hip-hop tracks, mostly from the 1950s through the 1970s, is due in part because of trend in those genres to feature songs which contain musical breaks. In mid-century music, the “break” was when a bass or drum-driven rhythm was repeated for several bars without overlaid vocals. This allowed that segment to be isolated and, with the right equipment, to be repeated. That repetition of the break through a mixing unit, functioned to create a new rhythm from the old. When paired with new lyrics or other samples, the finished result emerges as a unique, and new, work of music. This process forms the basis for the earliest examples of modern hip-hop, originating in the Bronx.


(A photo of an early sound system party DJed by one of the founders of hip-hop, Kool Herc)

The appropriation of earlier musical forms through the process of sampling also serves to create new sonic archive that resides on a register distinct from the lyrical. “Sound of da Police,” for instance, is constructed from a break in a song by legendary funk and soul group, Sly & the Family Stone. “Sing a Simple Song,” the B-side to the group’s famous track “Everyday People,” was released in 1968, arguably at the height of the band’s fame. As a song, it would have a great deal of resonance to those of KRS-One’s generation, something that they would have listened to during their childhood or that would have been playing at neighborhood sound system parties. While many casual listeners of the song might not pick up on the sample, other musicians and DJs would notice and mark it. The choice of a guitarist to utilize steel strings or electric pickups, as opposed to vinyl or acoustic, is an artistic decision which affects the construction of the song produced. The choice of sample serves the same purpose.


(Promo shot of Sly & the Family Stone c.1968)

As Russell A. Potter points out, “hip-hop’s continual citation of the sonic and verbal archives of rhythm and blues, jazz, and funk forms and re-forms the traditions it draws upon.” KRS-One’s choice of Sly & the Family Stone was both a recognition of the band’s influence and a testament to its familiarity, but arguably a reference to its politics and philosophy. In its heyday of the late 1960s, the band was politically and socially on the cutting edge. Their songs featured impassioned please for love, peace, acceptance of difference, and understanding among different peoples. Sly Stone consciously and publicly integrated his band at a time which integrated bands were still rare. Similarly, the female members not only sang backing vocals, but played instruments on stage, another rarity in a time in which most female band members were there for stage presence and backing vocals only. KRS-One’s choice of Sly & the Family Stone suggests both his political leanings and illustrates this continual revival and appropriation of past musical forms, based on their perceived value, familiarity, and utility. Early hip-hop was quite literally constructed from the soul, funk, and R&B from the 1950s and 1960s, by a generation who had listened to those records and those artists growing up. The crates of second-hand records became the DJ’s sonic archive, both a way to reference the old and create the new.

Historians generally bristle at the over-simplified idea that the past repeats itself. The distinct context of each moment means that nothing ever truly happens twice, but there can be no denying that similarities resonate from past to present. The past of African-American music is not simply the repetition of older forms, but their re-appropriation, revision, and reconstitution such that they are able to serve the needs of people in the time of their creation. In doing so, artists, producers, and DJs leave a sonic archival trail of the musical forms and ideas that they chose to utilize. Tracing this trail backwards not only leads historians on a chronological path, but it also leads those who look on a path that moves in and out of space. “Sound of da Police” as a musical archive originates in San Francisco with Sly & the Family Stone and ends up in the Bronx with KRS-One’s appropriation of the sample, but the trail does not stop there. According to the website WhoSampled?, “Sound of da Police” has been sampled over 88 times in the nearly three decades since it was released. Those samples are mostly from other American hip-hop artists, but the influence of hip-hop world-wide meant that the song moved far afield from its origins in the United States. Crossing the Atlantic, it became a part of the burgeoning French hip-hop scene through its appropriation by French DJ Cut Killer in his track for the 1995 movie “La Haine.”

Cut Killer (b. 1971 as Anouar Hajoui) builds his track from a variety of samples, beginning with KRS-One’s infamous opening “Woop!”. The track also includes a distorted rendition of Edith Piaf’s famous “Non, je ne regrette rien” which the singer famously dedicated to the French Foreign Legion fighting to maintain France’s crumbling colonial empire in North Africa. Piaf’s distant, thin vocals are overlaid by short bursts of angry lyrics from the French hip-hop group, Suprême NTM. NTM, as they are also known, was a product of the Paris banlieues that encircle the city, emerging from Seine-Saint-Denis département. Seine-Saint-Denis, one of the smallest départements at 236 sq. km, also has one of the highest populations (1.5 million), 21.7% are immigrants. [edited to correct earlier mistake citing Suprême NTM as originating from Marseilles]

In addition to the sample from KRS-One and NTM, Cut Killer also includes other samples from American gangsta rappers on the American West coast (N.W.A.’s “Fuck tha Police”) and East coast (Notorious B.I.G.’s “Machine Gun Funk.”) The resulting track lacks a lyrical, linear narrative, but instead of resulting in cacophony, it emerges as pastiche, explicitly referencing the experience of the black Atlantic in the “West” through the interpolation and appropriation of sonic forms and directly connecting them to the experience of blackness in France. The violence that characterizes that relationship and the frustration that generations of young people have articulated at the system in which they live is rendered in sonic form. While many of the tracks that make up “La Haine” have lyrics, they are deliberately distorted and layered atop one another, rendering them less important than the track as a whole.

That this track was made for the 1995 French film of the same title thus seems rather fitting. “La Haine” tells the story of three young men from the banlieue, an impoverished suburb of Paris where immigrants from former French African colonies now live, and their struggle with hate, violence, and the dehumanizing, destabilizing nature of poverty. Their encounters with the authorities result in dislocation, pain, suffering, and death and their recognition that their situation is related to the French colonial past is referenced continuously throughout the film. The film, a commercial and critical success, helped bring more attention to both French hip-hop and the suffering in the banlieues, though the uprisings in 2005 suggest that attention has not been enough to improve conditions in which so many people live.

(Promo shot from “La Haine”)

The legacy of Cut Killer’s track as a pastiche of European and American forms should rather be considered a collaboration across the African diaspora. Hip-hop’s sonic archive offers a way to literally listen to the movement of ideas and shared expeeriences back and forth across the Atlantic. It is both past and present, piled up atop the legacy of the Middle Passage and colonialism, and continuously recognizing the oppression of the marginalized. The present, like the past from which it is contracted, articulates forms of resistance and testimonies of violence, the sonic archive of the black Atlantic is as rich as that of the written.


(KRS-One in 2002)

Roll Jordan Roll: A Community in Song and Sound

After watching Lupita Nyong’o win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress and the film itself, 12 Years a Slave, win Best Picture a few weeks ago, I couldn’t help but return to the film for a second viewing. I happened to find the time on a 11 hour transatlantic flight, and while somewhere over that big open expanse of water, I watched and listened to the now famous scene where Chiwetal Ejiofor, playing Solomon Northup, first seems to embrace his fate, joining in song with his co-enslaved peers. The scene is haunting, and I recommend watching it here.

Topsy Chapman – (feat. Chiwetel Ejiofor and moviecast) “Roll Jordan Roll” From the movie “12 Years a Slave” (2013)

(Adapted by Nicholas Britell)

The lyrics themselves are simple, and the chorus repeated numerous times.

Went down to the river Jordan,
where John baptized three.
Well I woke the devil in hell
sayin John ain’t baptise me
I say;
Roll, Jordan, roll
Roll, Jordan, roll
My soul arise in heaven, Lord
for the year when Jordan roll

Well some say John was a baptist
some say John was a Jew
But I say John was a preacher of God
and my bible says so too.

A quick google search for the song provides the viewer/listener with some historical context. The song was originally written by an English Methodist preacher, Charles Wesley sometime in the 1700s. The song became popular in the United States sometime during the Second Great Awakening of the 1800s, and eventually reached Black slaves as a means to Christianize them, in the hopes that doing so would make them more cooperative in their slaved condition. (1) But the song ultimately had the opposite effect. Ann Powers described the song as “a primary example of slaves’ claiming and subverting a Christian message to express their own needs and send their own messages…Songs like this one, speaking of rivers, often sent coded messages about the hope for escape – passing over the Mississippi or the Ohio and northward.” (2) Powers claims that the song, and Northup’s joining in during the middle of a chorus, is further affirmation of Northup’s statement upon being captured, “I don’t want to survive; I want to live.”

I can’t help but question that conclusion, or at the very least, to read more depth into the simple claim that Northup is asserting his intention to “live” rather than “survive.” Though I’m far from an academic film critic, I think the scene warrants a closer reading, and that through just such a reading, it becomes clear that while Northup (and the director McQueen) may be signaling rebellion, the lyrics along with the setting of the song signify a community dynamic that is both hopeful and resigned. Northup’s joining is then more complicated, and demonstrates both a joining to that community, and one can’t help but hear his hopelessness as well.

The setting of the funeral is key to this reading. The man who died was another slave, one who simply dropped dead in the middle of the cotton fields, assumedly from exhaustion. While the song may have been meant to signal a hope that those enslaved singers would find some freedom, the freedom in this scene is not to another land where they are no longer enslaved, but to death and perhaps an afterlife. There is a certain macabre rebellion even if one reads this as a hopeful escape through death; in a way the dead man himself has robbed his owner of something by making further labour an impossibility. One can’t help but hear the respect for the man in the voices of the other singers; there is a resolution in their expression and the generally upbeat nature of the song that would seem to signify their standing proudly at this man’s graveside, saluting his ability to leave the fields.

And while the song is lead by the more elderly woman, the sense of community is not a hierarchical one. There is no preacher standing in a position of power, and the men and women are scattered equally through the small group. They clap in unison, bound together by the repetitive sound of flesh meeting flesh, perhaps ironically reversing what would usually be a violent contact of master-slave and turning it into one of community. All these factors might suggest a sort of egalitarianism worthy of praise; even in an enslaved state these African-Americans are able to preserve human dignity and respect for one another by coming together in a way that shows no more respect for one over another. But the rest of the movie itself provides a different reading. We do not know any of these other slaves standing around Northup. They haven’t been introduced to us, and we don’t know their life stories at all. The community has at the most basic level only one thing in common, their enslaved state. They did not choose to come together, there is not sense of family units within the crowd. They are simply together because there is no one else with whom they could be. The community then is forced, in much the same way as others have stated that the creation of African American culture in the early slave period was simply an amalgam of all the different cultures the Africans brought with them, so too are these individuals struggling to find connection, and triumph, in horrible circumstances.

And perhaps therein lies the beauty, and satisfaction, present in this scene. Though Northup is joining that community through his singing, he is not just joining the hopelessness (though he certainly seems to be accepting that as well). He joins a tragic community, one bound by circumstances yes, but also through their combined dignity of rebelling, at least through song and sound, against their oppressor. The repetition of the lyric, “roll, Jordan roll,” itself suggests the unstoppable power of water, and eventual freedom, as a force. Though traveling over that water first enslaved them, so will it free them, whether in crossing over a physical river to freedom, or perhaps, as the dead slave, passing over the river Styx into death. Again, though it may be rooted in the dark hope that freedom must come eventually, even in death, Northup’s joining is a signal that he finally identifies with those enslaved around him, no longer differentiated by his previously free state. The scene is haunting, and Chiwetal Ejiofor’s portrayal of Northup, joining in song with a look of triumphant defeat, warrants the more complicated reading of rebellion. And while McConaughey doubtless gave a great performance, Ejiofor could just as easily have won for this scene alone.

  1.  See Calt, Stephen (2008). I’d Rather Be the Devil: Skip James and the Blues Chicago: Chicago Review Press.
  2. Ann Powers (2013). ’12 Years a Slave’ Is This Year’s Best Film About Music. NPR.

Empire State of Mind: Kery James and the Colonial Complex


Cabot Andy

Nos rapports avec Haïti sont plus délicats, émotifs et rétractiles parce qu’en clair-obscur, ils mettent en jeu les rapports de la France avec elle-même. (Régis Debray and Comité Indépendant de réflexion et de propositions sur les relations Franco-Haitiennes, 2004)

(Our relations with Haiti are delicate, emotional and subjected to mutual discontents because of their shadowy nature, they say something about the relation of France with itself)

 In 2004, the publication of an official diplomatic report on French Haitian relations marked a turning point for the two countries. After almost two centuries of near abandon, the French government decided to survey diplomatic relations between the two countries as the Caribbean state celebrated the bicentennial of its independence.

 Diplomatic relations between France and Haiti represents a critical aspect in what we could refer to as the “post-colonial world”. In January 1804, after thirteen years of tumultuous conflicts opposing it to France, the colony called Saint-Domingue became the Republic of Haiti. What started as an isolated slave revolt in 1791 against planters in the Northern Province of Haiti became a national war of liberation. Though this rather quick summary might provide a good overview of the situation, the historical fate of the newly founded Haitian Republic was everything but simple.

 Indeed, Haiti’s independence was won primarily by the blood and sacrifice of former ”Bossales”—slaves recently deported from their home societies who had no blood relations in the colonies—a mass of gang labor slaves that defeated Napoleon’s brother in law Charles-Victor Leclerc and his troops, which was then the strongest military force in the world.

 In the aftermath of its defeat, France devoted sustained international efforts to silence and suppress the consequences of this colonial disaster. In 1825, French King Charles X and Haitian President Jean Pierre Boyer agreed that Haiti should pay reparation amounts to French planters who had fled during the Revolution. By 1914, as the Haitian state credit interests to French banks rose to extreme proportions, the country was concentrating almost 80 percent of its national wealth to repair its debt to France. Even today, there might still be interest payments due that had been frozen by the French government (Laurent Dubois, Aftershocks, 2012, 7-8)

 In the early 21th century, relations were still very precarious. As the 2004 report indicates, while two American presidents chose to visit Haiti during the 20th century, no French president or high official bothered to set foot on the island. Still, regardless of this ideological denial by France and other Western countries, the former colonial power managed to maintain strong connections with Haiti and its other colonies throughout the years. In the Haitian case, the fact that the French language was still being spoken by the great majority of the elites—as well as the growing presence of Haitian migrants in French-speaking areas—offered possibilities for a diplomatic rapprochement. In many ways, this twofold factor (language-migrations) also characterized the destiny of many African countries that achieved their independence from France in the 20th century. Still, this rather “bright” picture of a possible new future between an imperial power and its former colonies leaves us with an idyllic contemplation of the problems facing what has now come to be understood as the “Francophone” world.

 In 2013, the French rapper Kery James expressed these hardening concerns in most blatant terms. The new title track of his recently released compilation “Lettre à La République” provoked outstanding reactions from public figures in the French media. The song was violently dismissed and degraded for being a model of anti-Frenchness, an insult to the nation, and almost an act of betrayal. In effect, James’s song is not moderate in any sense towards the national sentiment in France. Castigated as a remnant of colonial domination and inherent national racism, the words “France” and “Republic” are successively portrayed as engines of destruction, cultural mechanisms of superiority primarily directed at submitting French migrant population to a colonial continuum. At the height of his suffocating prose, James declares “Mon respect s’fait violer au pays dit des Droits de l’Homme. Difficile de se sentir Français sans le syndrome de Stockholm” (My respect got raped in the country of the Rights of Man. Its hard to fee French without the Stockholm Syndrome).

 At first glance, one could be tempted to see these words as emanating from pure hatred and resentment. After all, a consequent segment of the French rap industry tends to produce short-minded lyrics about what is often perceived as the country’s colonial legacy. James is not this kind. Indeed, his letter opens us a diverse series of interrogations on the past, present and future of relations between France’s ex-colonial “subjects” and the former “métropole”. To some extent, his song epitomizes in a highly polemical but also poetical manner the unresolved issues of French imperial history brought back from the past by migrants from ex-colonies residing in France. In the same vein, this song is also primarily addressed to these populations. It conveys the sense that a different set of relations between these migrants and the Republic has recently emerged—one that contradicts the basic pattern of the French tradition of national assimilation.

 As a resurgence from military and administrative practices in the different French colonies, the idea of national assimilation took shape in the “métropole” by the late 19th century. In order to compel the first waves of non-French migrants to follow the rule of the Republic, the theory of assimilation dominated the country’s relation to migrants without any serious alternative until the late 1980s. To put it simply, it advanced that if one wished to become a citizen of the French Republic, he had to categorically abandon all traces of his home culture to prove his willingness to learn and assimilate the superior codes of French culture. As essentially a state-controlled ideological force, national assimilation turned out to become an extremely tense subject by the late 1980s when large group of migrants from North, sub-Saharan Africa and Southeastern Asia started to flood the métropole in the aftermath of decolonization. By the late 20th century, assimilation was presented by representatives from the entire political spectrum as in a state of crisis while migrant populations – through the use of popular genres of music like rap – started to voice their concerns about the place of their cultural identities in contemporary French society.

 It is only throughout these recent debates that James song puts on meaning. On many occasion, the rapper does not hesitate in drawing a parallel between migrants from North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa. As he says as a run-through during the song:


 La République n’est innocente que dans vos songes. Et vous n’avez les mains blanches que de vos mensonges. Nous les Arabes et les Noirs on est pas là par hasard. Toute arrivée à son départ.


 (The Republic is only innocent in your dreams. Your hands are filled with white lies. Us, Arabs and Blacks are not there by accident. All arrivals have their origins)

Interestingly, the words used are contemplating different levels of the French colonial and post-colonial realities. When he refers to “us”, James immediately assembles “Arabs” and “Blacks” in a single community. To some regards, this kind of counter-assimilation is very surprising at an historical level while being more sensible in terms of the present-day social conditions of migrants in France.

 When the first wave of migrants from France ex-African colonies massively disembarked in the “métropole” by the late 1960s as cheap labor force for boosting the domestic economy, the rather separated entities of the French Empire in Africa (the North African regions were composed of the three Algerian departments, the protectorates of Morocco and Tunisia while the Sub-Saharan colonies stretching from Guinea to Cameroon were separated between the AEF and AOF) were forced together in the same urban and social environment. As poverty and weaker social aids started touching those areas in the outskirts of Paris by the late 1980s, the second and third generation of “Arabs” and “Blacks” tended to develop a shared sentiment of ostracism and abandonment.

 James’ childhood experience in France relates directly to this historical background. Born in 1977 in Guadeloupe, James’s parents chose to move to France in the mid-1980s. His parents were both Haitians and James apparently chose never to return to Haiti even during his adult life. As he experienced distance and displacement from his native land, he started recording at a very early age with different musical acts. In one of his iconic early track “28 décembre 1977”, the then coming-of-age James powerfully demonstrated the meaning of what he saw as another form of forced migration inflicted to peoples of African descent « D’une famille plus proche d’êtres pauvre que fortune 28 décembre 77, aux Abymes j’suis né Et a une date que j’ignore un jour je partirai… » (From a poor family rather than a rich, December 28 1977 in the Abyme I was born, and at an unknown date I will leave) before insisting on the dreadful social conditions his family had to put through in France. “J’ai grandi à Orly dans les favelas de France. J’ai “fleury” dnas les maquis j’suis en guerre depuis mon enfance” (I grew up in Orly in the French favelas. I came to age in the guerilla fields, I’ve been at war since my childhood). All in all, as he relates his own experience to those of African migrants, the artist here succeeds in bringing together a continent into a unique historical condition of imperial sufferings and domination.

 Twelve years after this song was recorded, James’ letter still resonates to this original separation from his home country while it meddles with his call against the ideological pressure of assimilation:

 Ici, on est mieux que là-bas on le sait. Parce que décoloniser pour vous c’est déstabiliser. Et plus j’observe l’histoire beh moins je me sens redevable. Je sais ce que c’est d’être Noir depuis l’époque du cartable

 (Here we are better than there. Because for you to decolonize is to destabilizeThe more I contemplate your history the less I feel proud of it. I know what it means to be black since playground times)

 In a broader sense, it is extremely striking to see the effectiveness of James words if one knows a bit about the common sentiments of African migrants in France. On the one hand, it is interesting, though not surprising, to hear such radical and deeply-researched prose from James. As mentioned above, the feeling of resentment against assimilation is a common theme that runs throughout many popular rap songs in France. Nevertheless, James’ song is one of the few that successfully manages to tackle the core problem that is still at stake in debates around the French colonial past: that of the relational condition of two different versions of France since the beginning of the colonial experiment in the early 17th century. Coming from a family born in Haiti, brought up in Guadeloupe in his early childhood before being thrown into the African suburbs of Paris, James had experienced the relationship between the colonial and colonized France in many different ways when he started his musical career.

 His “Letter to the Republic” acts as a highly symbolic gesture for the present day condition of migrants in France while being also closely related to a sound and significant lyrical inquiry of French imperialism. Though a bit flawed and tangling in some occasions –as when James gathers “Arabs” and “Blacks” within a supra-ethnic category of imperial sufferers- it is through the deeper roots of the artist one can find the most profound challenge contained in the letter.

 As a distant son of Haiti, James does remind us of the still pervading difficulties for solving the unresolved matters of the French colonial past. Almost two centuries after the death of Haitian independence hero Toussaint Louverture, the French remains of colonial prejudice tend to portray James in the same manner as Toussaint: a hybrid other, a talented man but also a sulfurous agitator. These realities still formed a highly complex set of ideological interests. When James calls France to its historical responsibility when he repeats, “Every arrival has an origin”, the 2004 report on responds « Would we be able to seize this occasion to remember our slaveholding past and get rid of the weight that servitude imposes to the masters? »Puissions-nous saisir l’occasion de nous rappeler que nous fûmes desesclavagistes, et nous débarrasser du poids que la servitude impose auxmaîtres. »

 All in all, despite all the difficulties facing France in its relations with its ex-colonies, the former “métropole” and “colonies” seem to have entered enter a new era of diplomatic relations by the early 21st century. Nevertheless, as James’ words seem to remind us, questions still remain unanswered as history’s shadows continue to weigh down on these two entities: the two versions of France.


Laurent Dubois, Haiti: The Aftershocks of History, Metropolitan Books, 2012.

Régis Debray and Comité Indépendant de réflexion et de propositions sur les relations Franco-Haitiennes, Rapport au Ministrèe des Affaires Etrangères, M. Dominique de Villepin, January 2004. Available :  [Accessed 11 March 2014].


Jean R. Perrault’s “Exodus” and the Sounds of Suffering

Dedicated to all those forced out of their homelands.

Many scholars, writers, and artists reflecting upon the transatlantic slave trade often seek to empathize with the slave experience. They want to feel what they felt, see what the saw, for in doing so the memory of those lost is somehow kept alive. This emotional catharsis, however, at times seems ineffable, while the catalogs of records and newspaper clippings chronicling the lives of the enslaved leave the seeker numb to mountains of repetitive data. One of the most powerful ways to assimilate the experience is to forgo the constraints of words through music. Haitian composer Jean R. Perrault’s string quartet entitled “Exodus” facilitates a meditation on the experience of the enslaved, combining disorienting time signatures and complex tonal structures with heart-wrenchingly sonorous violin solos to offer an emotional reflection of the island’s history.

The quartet’s dedication reads as above: “to all those forced out of their homelands.” Before hearing one note of the music, the listener’s mind is propelled back to the diaspora. The piece focuses on the theme of exile and experiments in eliciting the broad range of emotions that accompany it. “Exodus” is structured in three movements[1][2]:

I. Tale

II. Exodus

III. Hope

The three-movement structure, unusual for a string quartet, suggests metaphorical significance; Perrault alludes to the past-present-and-future of Haiti while also elaborating on each movement’s designated theme. Each section is characterized musically by several elements: complex, syncopated, and often unpredictable rhythms; frequent key modulations; emotional and passionate musicality directions; and varying stylistic markings such as pizzicato, staccato, sosenato, and so forth. The effect of this stylistically diverse work is one of intense emotionalism: the listener is at times frantic, depressed, mournful, and at others hopeful and inspired. In a review of a performance of Perrault’s work by the Borromeo String Quartet, Ann Klefstad writes that:

Memory, distance, loss, fragmentariness characterize this music in its relation to the history of music, as well as the life experiences that the music is trying to transmit. The bricolage of the composer mimics and mirrors the bricolage imposed on refugees, who must cobble together from whatever offers a whole and meaningful life.

The first movement – “Tale” – tells a story of disorientation, disunity, and longing. The discord is mirrored through the disharmony of the 4 lines while the strong melody vivaciously carries the piece forward. After several minutes, the listener is bombarded with a succession of ascending and descending scales, contributing to the frantic tone. Yet, near the 3-minute mark the sustained, mournful tones of the cello emerge. The tale evolves into one of longing, perhaps for a lost homeland or those left behind. The following forceful pizzicato section (instructing the musicians to cause the string to slap against their fingerboards) suggests bitter anger, yet the emotional quickly diminishes as the final notes fade into pianissimo.

“Exodus,” the second movement, continues the wistful cello line, interspersing major chord moments of hope with its previous sorrow. This hope is later passed to the first violinist, who after desperately trying to sustain it around 03:28 eventually disintegrates back into a tale of woe. This minor to major key wobbling creates a feeling of uncertainty—with an exodus, there is hope for the future, but also fear of the unknown.

Jean "Rudy" Perrault
Jean “Rudy” Perrault

The third movement, “Hope,” takes up this theme but seems to offer more questions than answers for the future. The beautiful opening lines of the violin cadenza with their block chords and sustained double stops immediately defy the listeners expectations of hope and plunge them into a complex array of emotions. The music becomes both heart-breakingly sad, reflective, and inspiring. Perrault plays with his audience’s expectations of hope by interspersing moments of a major key, but the instances are brief. One is prompted to ask, What is hope in the context of Haiti’s future? and Is it even possible? Without words, Perrault appears to answer the latter with a resounding “yes,” as the sustaining tones of the violin line morph into “vivace – con fuoco” and the work culminates in a furious, passionate finish.

Perrault’s aim for “Exodus,” then, is a decidedly optimistic one. Although moments of suffering and sadness are inescapable, hope, while fleeting, refuses to die. The spirited finale could hearken to a connection with the intense spirituality of “those forced out of their homelands.” Moreover, Perrault finds ways to connect to the traditions of these peoples, weaving passionate tales and syncopated beats that are reminiscent of the island’s unique musical environment. The form and content of this string quartet both nod to and stray from the classic form, mirroring, perhaps, Haiti’s assimilation of European and African cultures to generate something uniquely their own.

Although little has been written on the work on Perrault, his repertoire will undoubtedly grow in the years to come. To learn more about him or to hear other examples of Caribbean classical music, check out the following sites:

[1] Links provided here to the recording of each movement; performed by the Borromeo String quartet on the Living Archive label.

[2] Scores for each movement can be found on Perrault’s website here:


The Omnipresence of the Past: Leyla McCalla, Langston Hughes, and Revolution

By Courtney Young

Leyla McCalla writes an album that’s a tribute to Langston Hughes, it’s true.  But what she also does is ties the listener through Hughes to the Harlem Renaissance, to his prolific writing about race relations in the US and, ultimately, to Haiti and its slave revolt, the only successful slave revolt in history.

Leyla McCalla
artist and musician Leyla McCalla

It’s a deft slight of hand, but McCalla passes the listener through time effortlessly, carried on her swinging, warm voice and the strings of her cello plucked more like those of a guitar or mandolin.  In this way she connects the dots between contemporary New Orleans (the place she calls home), Harlem in the 1920’s, and Haiti (or Saint Domingue) in the 1790’s and early 1800’s. It’s no small feat. But in this feat she distills to the surface not only the traumatic experiences of slavery and racism in the US and around the world, but connects the listener to its omnipresence – to the reality that while slavery in its colonial form in the US and the Caribbean colonies might be over, it is still very much present.  In other words, the Haitian revolution took place over 200 years ago, but it’s consequences and traces echoe through history in Langston Hughes, his poetry, and his writing, and reach us today through Leyla McCalla’s vibrant music.  With McCalla’s beautiful album, she connects the past to the present noting that even if something is technically past, it’s still very much present, and something that must be addressed.

The album, ‘Vari-Colored Songs’ takes the title itself from one of Hughes’ poems and most of the songs take their lyrics from his poetry with a handful of traditional Haitian folktunes interspersed.

Vari-Colored Songs Leyla McCalla

The songs deriving their lyrics from Hughes poems make the connection for the listener to the Harlem Renaissance and his entire body of work while the folktunes connect the listener more directly with Haiti, its culture, history, and story.  The opening song, ‘Heart of Gold’, with its lyrics pulled from the poem ‘Vari-Colored Songs’ itself, frame the whole album and tip the listener off to where it is that she’s going with the entire work.  McCalla says, “The words have always felt to me like a view into the mind of Langston Hughes — a glimpse of the life experiences, colors, and themes that run throughout his immense body of work.” (“American Songwriter”). The poem (and lyrics) follow (click image below to see video):

If I had a heart of gold,
As have some folks I know,
I’d up and sell my heart of gold
And head north with the  dough.

But I don’t have a heart of gold.
My heart’s not even lead.
It’s made of plain old Georgia clay.
That’s why my heart is red.

I wonder why red clay’s so red
And Georgia sky’s so blue.
I wonder why its’ yes to me,
But yes sir, sir, to you.

I wonder why the sky so blue
And why the clay’s so red.
Why down south is always down,
And never up instead.

Leyla McCalla video YouTube

Through Hughes’ poetry and her own music, McCalla speaks to themes (as she says herself) that run through not only America’s past but also it’s present. The lyrics (poem) themselves are mournful, yearning to “sail my heart of gold and head north” away from the virulent racism, trauma and violence plaguing the American South (though certainly not exclusive to it). There’s a significant sense of wonder (it’s repeated three times) and questioning about the world and why it is the way that it is.  Wondering why the clay is red and the sky is blue mirrors the senselessness (yet stark reality) of why for some (white) people a ‘sir’ is required in greeting but for others (black) it’s not.  Hughes toys with the meaning of ‘down’ and ‘up’ alluding to its obvious geographical context (the South being literally down) but also to its emotional state being ‘down’ or otherwise sad, depressed, or low, reflecting Hughes’ experience of the South. An experience undoubtedly resonant with others during his lifetime as well as before him and still after him. That’s a powerful entry into an album. Before we even make it to song two, the listener has been connected to the powerful themes of the Harlem Renaissance and the stark reality of racism in the United States. But in truth even more has happened if we care to dig a little deeper.

Langston Hughes is an interesting choice for McCalla not only because she provides a platform through her music for his poetry and the messages but also because of the strong connections he himself had to Haiti, the land of McCalla’s own ancestry.  He traveled to Haiti in 1931 along with friend and artist Zell Ingram (Black American Literature Forum, vol. 15 #3).  They drove through Florida and then made the remaining trip by boat via Cuba.  For two months they relaxed in anonymity and only on the last day did Hughes put on a coat and tie and visit Jacques Roumain, leading writer and thinker born to an affluent, mixed-race family and raised in Haiti (ibid).

Langston Hughes in Haiti

 It seems these two legendary individuals struck up an immediate friendship that would last until Roumain’s early death at 37 (ibid). This connection to Haiti would last through Hughes’ own lifetime and, over the course of it, would include a body of work that included not only poetry but also memoirs of his journey including I Wonder as I Wander in which he comes to understand, in his own words, that, “It was in Haiti that I first realized how class lines may cut across color lines within a race, and how dark people of the same nationality may scorn those below them.” (ibid) His interest in Haiti compelled him, additionally, to pen a play (that would become the opera, Troubled Island) about the Haitian Revolution (wikipedia).  Following this path through Hughes’ writing, life, and interests, it becomes clear that artist and musician Leyla McCalla has invited her listeners not only to hear an album of incredible music, but also to walk through (and think through) international issues of race and racism, classism, the African Diaspora, and how moments of the past (like the Haitian Revolution) resonate throughout history and are omnipresent.  We see the past as omnipresent clearly below as Langston Hughes grieves in the poem (an excerpt) written in response to his friend, Jacques Roumain’s, death.

You’ve gone
But you are still here.
From the point of my pen in New York
To the toes of the blackest peasant
In the morne [hill]

You will be
Finding out about
The ever bigger world
Before him.
Always you will be

Hand that links
Erzulie to the Pope
Damballa to Lenin,
Haiti to the universe
Bread and fish
To the fisherman
To man
To me….

(Black American Literature Forum)

Like Jacques, and now like Hughes himself, the Haitian Revolution is technically gone, but in fact it’s very much still here.  It lives in the lyricism and message of the poems of Langston Hughes, and vibrates today through the music of Leyla McCalla whose own history resides in Haiti even as she plucks the strings of her cello in the present. The past is, as Hughes repeats, not actually past.  It’s “still here”.  It’s always. As McCalla says herself, “The racism that we experience today is not as plain to see as it was before but it still exists. A lot of what I’m trying to figure out through my work is trying to understand why it still exists and how to deal with it” (rfi english).  That’s a lot to accomplish in a debut album, but McCall handles it effortlessly, and leaves the listener not only thinking, but humming along.

You can listen to McCalla’s compelling and vibrant album on her website (watch out, it may leave you wanting to kick up your heels in the streets of New Orleans) or click here to purchase it.


On Contemplation Mountain : Abd Al Malik or Modern Blackness in Jazz

Andy Cabot

Abd Al Malik Gibraltar Live 2007

“Sur le détroit de Gibraltar, y’a un jeune noir qui pleure un rêve qui prendra vie, une fois passé Gibraltar.
Sur le détroit de Gibraltar, y’a un jeune noir qui se d’mande si l’histoire le retiendra comme celui qui portait le nom de cette montagne.
Sur le détroit de Gibraltar, y’a un jeune noir qui meurt sa vie bête de “gangsta rappeur” mais …
Sur le détroit de Gibraltar, y’a un jeune homme qui va naître, qui va être celui qu’les tours empêchaient d’être.
Sur le détroit de Gibraltar, y’a un jeune noir qui boit, dans ce bar où les espoirs se bousculent, une simple canette de Fanta.
Il cherche comme un chien sans collier le foyer qu’il n’a en fait jamais eu, et se dit que p’t-être, bientôt, il ne cherchera plus.
Et ça rit autour de lui, et ça pleure au fond de lui.
Faut rien dire et tout est dit, et soudain … soudain il s’fait derviche tourneur,
Il danse sur le bar, il danse, il n’a plus peur, enfin il hurle comme un fakir, de la vie devient disciple.
Sur le détroit de Gibraltar y’a un jeune noir qui prend vie, qui chante, dit enfin « je t’aime » à cette vie.
Puis les autres le sentent, le suivent, ils veulent être or puisqu’ils sont cuivre.
Comme ce soleil qui danse, ils veulent se gorger d’étoiles, et déchirer à leur tour cette peur qui les voile.
Sur le détroit de Gibraltar, y’a un jeune noir qui n’est plus esclave, qui crie comme les braves, même la mort n’est plus entrave.
Il appelle au courage celles et ceux qui n’ont plus confiance, il dit : “ramons tous à la même cadence !!!”.
Dans le bar, y’a un pianiste et le piano est sur les genoux, le jeune noir tape des mains, hurle comme un fou.
Fallait qu’elle sorte cette haine sourde qui le tenait en laisse, qui le démontait pièce par pièce.
Sur le détroit de Gibraltar, y’a un jeune noir qui enfin voit la lune le pointer du doigt et le soleil le prendre dans ses bras.
Maintenant il pleure de joie, souffle et se rassoit.
Désormais l’Amour seul, sur lui a des droits.
Sur le détroit de Gibraltar, un jeune noir prend ses valises, sort du piano bar et change ses quelques devises,
Encore gros d’émotion il regarde derrière lui et embarque sur le bateau.
Il n’est pas réellement tard, le soleil est encore haut.
Du détroit de Gibraltar, un jeune noir vogue, vogue vers le Maroc tout proche.
Vogue vers ce Maroc qui fera de lui un homme …
Sur le détroit de Gibraltar … sur le détroit de Gibraltar …
Vogue, vogue vers le merveilleux royaume du Maroc,
Sur le détroit de Gibraltar, vogue, vogue vers le merveilleux royaume du Maroc …”

 In 2006, the French rapper Abd-Malik released « Gibraltar » as the first single of the eponymous album. During an interview, he described the song as a landmark in his career, an artistic gesture incarnating his spiritual and human journey :

En fait, ce Noir, c’est moi. Mais, j’ai essayé de faire en sorte que d’autres puissent s’y projeter et en faire une toute autre interprétation. C’est l’idée que le Nord a évidemment fait de moi ce que je suis. Mais ce qui m’a rendu vivant, c’est le Sud. Ce rapport particulier que j’ai avec le Maroc, avec l’Afrique, c’est ce qui fait de moi l’individu que je suis. J’ai eu envie de dire : tout le monde va dans un sens et bien moi je vais dans l’autre

 After the single’s release, the young artist gained increased recognition in his home country. Leading media and newspapers and France endeavored the multiple musical traditions Abd Al Malik considered as primordial. In 2012, after publishing his third written novel Le dernier français he praised the many authors and artists which had influenced him. These names that came to define his sound, his music and his thought demonstrated its extremely large culture: Seneca, Dante, Deleuze. Aime Cesaire, Jacques Brel, Juliette Gréco and Raymond Carver.

 Today, at the height of his musical career, Malik is widely considered as a talented musician and author. Some even called him the « last poet » in a country where the influence and commercial impact of rap music still unleashes heated intellectual disputes from time to time.

 However, at the time of « Gibraltar », Malik had not experienced a significant commercial breakthrough. As he meditates on his coming of age in his largely autobiographic novel, a feeling of discomfort and bitterness animates the artist:

 Il resta debout et regarda ses baskets en fredonnant le refrain du morceau 3 qui se terminait. Les cris avaient commencé dès la fin de la matinée, pendant qu’il prenait son petit déjeuner dans la cuisine. Alors, le jeune homme de 24 ans s’était enfermé dans sa chambre et n’en étant plus sorti. Ils s’engueulaient comme ça depuis toujours, son frère aîné et sa mère. Peut-être même déjà avant que le père s’en aille (Abd Al Malik, 28-29)

 In a large sense, Malik’s childhood experience was typical of many young migrants from France’s ex-African colonies who left their native countries after the 1960s decolonization. Born in Paris in 1975, Abd Al Malik, Régis Fayette Mikano of his real name, moved back to Congo Brazaville with his family in 1977 where his father held a high placed position in the Congolese government. In 1981, ethnic conflicts forced him to leave his country with his family. By then, the Mikano’s family was settled near Strasbourg in the North East of France.

 Isolated from his father and the rest of his family, the then Régis Fayette found a refuge in literature and street violence. During his teen years, he got involved in several cases of house break-ins and aggressions while being at the same time a model schoolboy. As he later admitted, this world of words and rage was embedded in its complex relation to literature « There’s everything in literature. Its like a fireshot ». Lacking vision and models, Malik’s adolescence was thus marked by a restless search for inner peace.

In the late 1990s, two discoveries played a decisive role in his life : Music and Islam. The spiritual questioning on his condition first emerged. In 1998, after several encounters with Hamza al Qâdiri al Boutchichi, spiritual guide of the Qadirriyya Boutchichiyya brotherhood located in Morocco, Kayette became a new convert. Close to Sufism –a branch of Islam religion focused on the internalization of its creed and close readings of the Quran- the artist described his conversion to as a turning point in his life, a way to return to a mythical African self. Then, a new found passion in music completed this spiritual journey. As he went through religious education, music found its way into Kayette’s heart. In 1996, his first musical act New African Poets released their first LP album and helped him along with his stage partners gain national attention from well-known French rappers. (Abd Al Malik, 72-77)

During his first years as a solo artist, the once lost teenager started to reflect on his past years. At the turn of the century, he decided first to change his name for a Muslim patronym. Régis Fayette Mikano thus became Abd Al Malik.

 « Gibraltar » is first and foremost a remembering of these years. A manner of speaking the inner Malik faced with the remains of colonial prejudice, the distant « Africa », the lost familial bound. In a sense, it relinquishes on traditional themes of a highly symbolic exile (the African captive) faced with its modern condition (Diasporic migrations). Interestingly, Malik uses a simple melodic pattern throughout the song borrowed to Nina Simone’s “Sinnerman” thus showing the deep emotional relation with past African-American melancholic yearning and other diasporic communities : “Il cherche comme un chien sans collier le foyer qu’il n’a en fait jamais eu, et se dit que p’t-être, bientôt, il ne cherchera plus.”

In many ways, the song is also a strong vindication of a universal Islam unified with Black African culture. It considers in the most blatant terms the cultural genocide committed by Western nations against Islam in the aftermath of 9/11 : “Sur le détroit de Gibraltar, y’a un jeune homme qui va naître, qui va être celui qu’les tours empêchaient d’être.”

 Throughout journeys evoked and spiritual transformations, « Gibraltar » appears as a centerpiece of many debates : the place of migrant communities in contemporary France, the renewed interest in Islam for Black communities in Europe but also the rapprochement of Diasporic communities throughout the Atlantic. But, in a larger sense, its prime interest points us towards another direction : the still infinitely complex condition of European blacks in the 21th century.

References :

MALIK Abd Al, La Guerre des Banlieues n’aura pas lieu, Paris, Le Cherche Midi, 2010.


Jay Z’s Oceans: Cultural Production, Historical Imaginaries, and Collective Identity

By Alisha Hines

Who gets to speak for or claim a history so long passed? Historical memory and the historian’s capacity to access the experiences, desires, and suffering of the dead are the subjects of much scholarly inquiry. Many analyses mobilize cultural expressions from the past to describe a collective that subscribes, or comes to subscribe, to a set of shared sensibilities that are subsequently operationalized to build community and negotiate power. It would be interesting to ruminate on how current, popular narratives of historical events that emanate from without the academy draw on subjective interpretations of a largely imagined past. Furthermore, I’d like to think about how times passed, in the most abstract sense, continue to live within and inform contemporary experience. The deployment of historical narrative in popular cultural expression is not a new phenomenon, however, I think these explicit articulations of a particular rationalization of the present through the past continue to offer opportunities to theorize about how history lives in and through cultural expression to reproduce subjectivities and group-consciousness.

I have included the audio of the song Oceans by Jay Z and Frank Ocean from Jay Z’s latest LP Magna Carta Holy Grail (2013):

The lyrics to the song’s hook are as follows:

See elephant tusk on the boar of a sailing lady
Docked on the Ivory Coast
Mercedes in a row winding down the road
I hope my black skin don’t dirt this white tuxedo
Before the Basquiat show and if so
Well fuck it, fuck it
Because this water drowned my family
This water mixed my blood
This water tells my story
This water knows it all
Go ahead and spill some champagne in the water
Go ahead and watch the sun blaze
On the waves
Of the ocean

Frank Ocean’s chorus clearly takes the Middle Passage as its principle referent, but the song taken as a whole indicates that the artists were not interested in simply recalling or lamenting a history, they offer a re-presentation of that past and make explicit connections between it and their current social position as successful and highly paid musicians. As Frank Ocean sings the hook, he seems an omniscient onlooker witnessing at once the slave ship docked on the coast and a row of luxury cars in what is not actually indicated as a wholly different time and space. “Because history comes to us not only as a flash of revelation but piling up. Because this is, not was. Because this is the Atlantic, now. Because all of it is now, it is always now, even for you who never was there” (Baucom, 2005).

We learn the ship represents violence and processes of commodification by the reference to the elephant tusk suspended on the ship’s boar. The apprehension and insecurity Ocean reveals in the next few lines I think reflects his acknowledgment of the transgressive nature of his social position as an African-American enjoying the luxuries of fine clothing and an art showing (albeit that of Basquiat, a Haitian-American artist whose work is severely political and subversive). But fuck it. Ocean reintroduces the tragedy of the Middle Passage and its consequences for black Americans: loss by literal death and social death—the destruction of kinship networks and the sullying of a purer heritage and ancestry by “mixing” blood—in a way justifies and legitimates Ocean’s participation in a hyper-commodified contemporary world. The final lines of the hook conjure the imagery of the legal transcript of the Zong case recounted by NourbeSe Philip: “Sixty Negroes died for want of water…and forty others…through thirst and frenzy threw themselves into the sea and were drowned; and the masters and mariners were obliged to throw overboard 150 other negroes” (Philip, 189). Ocean at once transcends and remains at the center of his narrative in the sense that he survived to avenge a tragic past, which is indicated by his consumption of luxurious commodities, and yet he is ever haunted by his story.

Below is a short interview in which Jay Z explains the inspiration behind some of his lyrics:

Jay Z’s lyrics elaborate on the theme of survival with a tone of arrogance meant to denote, again, a particular self-awareness, an acknowledgment that his success is an individual affront not only to the guiding principles of mainstream popular culture, but to a centuries long history of oppression. On those “troubled waters” of the Middle Passage, Jay Z “learned how to float” and the boat in Jay Z’s lyrical illustration is docked outside of a luxury-clothing store where he now “picks cotton.” Overall, the song is not politically radical in the sense that it doesn’t offer an explicit critique of those processes of commodification or the status quo. He sets forth an almost apolitical stance by stating “can’t believe they got a nigga to vote,” and quickly recalling his classed and raced experience selling drugs in the Marcy projects in Bed-Stuy, New York (“Democrat, nope, I sold dope”). This line also, though, summons in listeners the memory of Jay Z and his wife Beyonce at the presidential inauguration and the couples close friendship with the Obama’s.

The politics of hip hop and black American cultural expression more generally constitute a field of scholarly inquiry that I won’t recall here. Yet, as I hope the above ruminations on Jay Z’s Oceans have demonstrated, something unique can be gleaned from examining cultural expression that is rooted in historical imaginaries as operational in ways that shape subjectivity and reproduce narratives of a shared past that, in turn, can feed and sustain collective identities. Although Jay Z has achieved a level of wealth that arguably alienates him from many members of his listening audience such as those who still live in Marcy projects or those that have been imprisoned along with hundreds of thousands of other black men for selling crack cocaine as he did only a couple decades ago, a shared ancestral history located in Africa and the Atlantic, lodged in the depths of an abstracted historical memory can be deployed to reinforce a shared black American experience.

“Ship Ahoy”: The Sounds of Slavery

By Sasha Panaram

Slaves have long been credited with developing a rich musical heritage.  Traces of that heritage still permeate our world today.  Musical genres such as ragtime, the blues, gospel, and jazz each contain elements inspired by Negro spirituals, slave work songs, and plantation life.

While the musical influences of slavery can hardly go unnoticed, especially if listeners consider the rhythms particular to certain songs or even the instruments used in current music, popular entertainers are working overtime to keep slavery on the forefront of their consumers minds.  By explicitly referring to slavery in their lyrics, a handful of singers, mostly from the hip-hop community, force their patrons to consider where slavery exists in America’s cultural memory, whether or not the deep trauma associated with slavery still resonates today, and what new forms of slavery persist in the twenty-first century.

But before Nas referenced the Middle Passage in “Warrior Song” with Alicia Keys in 2002 or Tupac Shakur acknowledged the ramifications of slavery while critiquing the “American Dream” in “Panther Power” or Kanye speculated about how the incarceration of black males constitutes a modern form of slavery in “New Slaves” another set of musicians endeavored to highlight slavery in their own work: The O’Jays.

Formed in 1958 in Canton, Ohio, the O’Jays, an R&B group, first started with five male vocal performers including Eddie Levert, Sr., Walter Williams, Sr., William Powell, Bobby Massey, and Bill Isles.[1]  Originally known as the Triumphs, the O’Jays adopted the name they still use today when a Cleveland disc jockey, Eddie O’Jay took them under his guidance and renamed them.  While the group has changed over the years retaining only two of their original five singers – Eddie Levert, Sr. and Walter Williams, Sr. – and adding Eric Nolan Grant, their music is no less powerful even with the alternations.


Best known today for their contribution to soul music, the O’Jays toped the charts with their music releases in the seventies.  Some of their hits include “Back Stabbers,” “For the Love of Money,” and “Use Ta Be My Girl.”  Although originally from Ohio, the O’Jays put Philly Soul, otherwise known as “The Sound of Philadelphia” [TSOP], on the map after producers Kenneth Gamble and Leon A. Huff recruited them to sing for their project, Philadelphia International, in 1972.[2]

When people think of 1970s soul protest music Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On?” and Curtis Mayfield’s “(Don’t Worry) If There’s a Hell Below, We’re All Going to Go” come to mind.  But few seriously consider the O’Jays 1973 song, “Ship Ahoy,” either because they cannot grasp its impact or more frequently, have never heard of it.

The 1973 song appears on the O’Jays album also named Ship Ahoy.  Written by Gamble and Huff, this album became the highest selling R&B album on the Billboard Year-End chart in 1974.  In a New York Times article from Mach 31, 1974 entitled “The Philly Sound of Brotherly Love,” critic Clayton Riley raves that the O’Jays produced several of their most spectacular songs on Ship Ahoy.

While the song, “Ship Ahoy,” demands serious attention so, too, does the album cover that contains the song.  The artist, James Barkley, painted two sets of images of the front of the album.  The first image reveals a group of African slaves cramped together aboard a ship.  The image immediately below it is a close-up of the O’Jays members including Walter Williams, William Powell, and Eddie Levert.  While it is possible to identify the images of the O’Jays, it is far more difficult to recognize the slaves at the top of the album.  In fact, apart from their faces being indistinguishable and some having no faces at all, their bodies appear melded together as if they are one inseparable creature.  Shaven, unclothed, and shrouded in darkness, Barkley reminds people of how very little is known about the slaves who were distributed during the Middle Passage through this image.  As he paints the slaves leaning on one another, he both alludes to their forced kinship and their utter helplessness on their journey across the Atlantic.  The juxtaposition of the image of the faceless, nameless slaves with the image of the O’Jays – a band headed for stardom – suggests that one way of accessing stories about the past is by listening to the storytellers who exist today including singers.


Interestingly, the backside of the album Ship Ahoy displays a painting of an illuminated slave ship.  Unlike the images on the front of the cover, the ship is grand and dominates the entire frame of vision.  Compared to the slaves on the front of the album, the slave ship has a known past that is traceable through history.  Moreover, in the water, where there is supposed to be a reflection of the ship, all we see is a reflection of slaves, which suggests that today slaves only exist as a faint image; a memory.  When Barkley places the slaves on the front of the album cover and the slave ship on the reverse side, he indicates that one purpose of Ship Ahoy is to focus on the narratives of the untold; to shift the attention of the viewers through music.

Ship Ahoy

The song, “Ship Ahoy,” itself is unlike anything of its time.  First off, “Ship Ahoy” is nine minutes and forty seconds long – three times the length of any song typically produced today or even in the 1970s.  The first voice of the song that appears roughly forty-seconds after the song begins is that of a long drawn out groan or sigh.  Prior to this voice, listeners sense they are on a ship after hearing sounds resembling strong winds, splashing water, wooden creaks, and thunderous storms.  When the O’Jays start singing their lyrics describe the people onboard – “men, women, and baby slaves” – and their journey to the “land of liberty” where “life’s design is already made.”  As the O’Jays sing of the tiring journey across the Atlantic, the only constant in the slaves’ lives is the sun that beats down on them.  By the end of the song, the O’Jays initial description of the “land of liberty” becomes a “jail” – an unpromising destination where slaves are beaten, exploited for labor, and forever subordinate to their masters.

While the lyrics of “Ship Ahoy” tell of the exhaustive journey of the Middle Passage and the slaves arrival in the Americas, the silences of the song are equally important.  The long gaps and pauses apparent throughout the song and especially at the beginning reflect the waiting that the slaves endured as they were shipped from one location to another.  Although the long pause at the start of the song is unsettling to listeners since we are used to hearing words shortly after the music begins, the silence attempts to replicate in listeners the feeling of uncertainty in slaves who embarked on journeys with very few details, if any, about their impending trips.  The one phrase used the most in the O’Jays song is “Ship Ahoy.”  “Ship Ahoy” is the phrase the O’Jays belt out between verses.  While the exact origin of this phrase is unknown, “Ship Ahoy” was generally used by sailors to both greet ships and announce their presence.  That the O’Jays choose to not only name their song “Ship Ahoy,” but also repeat the phrase excessively throughout the song suggests their desire to call attention to the hundreds upon thousands of ships that facilitated the Middle Passage.

The O’Jays production of “Ship Ahoy” warrants attention, not unlike other songs that discuss slavery, because it forces listeners to consider the manifold ways that history is told and the effects of those different mediums be it art, song, performance, or literature. The topic of slavery has been ever present in recent years through television series including Henry Louis Gate, Jr.’s “The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross,” movies including Django Unchained and 12 Years a Slave, songs including “New Slaves,” and literature including The Invention of Wings.  In listening to the O’Jay’s hit song “Ship Ahoy” and reflecting on recent productions that emphasize slavery, one persistent question that emerges is: Why are we still talking about slavery?  One answer may be that we have not yet fully developed a language that is capable of discussing slavery and these different productions serve to help start the conversation over anew in different ways with different voices.

Another question “Ship Ahoy” demands listeners to ask is how effective is socially conscious music?  To put another way, does the music of the O’Jays inspire people to turn to other sources to learn about slavery or does it further commodify the slave and serve as the only means people today, especially students, even encounter slavery?  While I’d like to think – and to some extent do think – that “Ship Ahoy” and other similar music is purposeful when it makes the issue of slavery accessible to everyday folk, it may also function as a disservice if listeners do not venture beyond the lyrics to learn more about the issue at hand.  It is not implausible to suggest that artful representations of slavery serve as replacements for how students learn about slavery instead of reminders of the incidents that actually occurred.

As the O’Jays album and song, “Ship Ahoy,” endures for another year alongside new music, new art, and new literature about slavery, we, as consumers, must be prepared to ask at what cost, literally and figuratively, are we letting ourselves learn about slavery and how might we best use new material on slavery to supplement what we already know and not replace it.