Since the deaths of Trayvon Martin in 2012 and Renisha McBride in 2013, the dialogue surrounding police brutality and institutional racism has reached the mainstream, becoming an integral talking point in the US election. Though there are structural differences between policing in the US and the UK, black and other ethnic minorities still suffer: earlier this year, Mzee Mohammed and Sarah Reed were both killed in police custody. Against this backdrop, it’s not surprising that more and more artists – whether consciously or not – are adding their own complicated and nuanced experiences to the conversation. Though 2016 has been dominated by the electoral success of Donald Trump in the US and Brexit in the UK, as well as the rise of far right politics across Europe and other parts of the world, this year saw a slew of artists respond to this violence by releasing albums of warm, calming music.
Chance the Rapper lifted spirits with his joyful Coloring Book mixtape; Noname, who previously collaborated with Chance on his Acid Rap mixtape, released a full-length debut mixtape of her own with Telefone; Jamila Woods’ HEAVN was a bold, expressive, yet soothing debut; and Solange’s A Seat at the Table was an honest and vulnerable narrative. Even Frank Ocean’s Blonde searched for answers, albeit in a more solitary and individualistic manner than these more community-minded albums, stressing the importance of self-care as a radical act in itself. These records all brought a sensuality and spirituality to hip hop, soul, and R&B and combined the music with socially conscious lyrics. They were curative pieces of work that black music fans collectively needed and desired in a particularly difficult year.
A Seat at the Table was perhaps the most inimitable album of the year due to its ability to reconcile different generations. Solange’s songs were mostly written about her personal life (the majority were recorded in New Iberia, Louisiana, where her parents first met and where Solange states her family’s lineage began), but the stories are relatable to the everyday black experience. The album opens with “Rise”, a song inspired by the police killings in Ferguson. “Weary” conveys the exhaustion that black people have felt from oppression, either directly or through generational trauma; it shares thematic similarities with Harlem Renaissance luminary Langston Hughes’ poem The Weary Blues, but what’s more sobering about Solange’s song is that so little has changed in the decades since the poem was first published. The ethereal videos that Solange created for “Don’t Touch My Hair” and “Cranes in the Sky” brought to life the strong spiritual themes that run through the album – perhaps not coincidentally as many black women are starting to reclaim ancient spiritual traditions like Umbanda, Candomblé, and Orisha. Finally, the message of “F.U.B.U.” sums up the understated rebellion of the album: she proclaims “this shit is for us”, subjugating white listeners who don’t understand the album’s themes.
On HEAVN, Chicago artist Jamila Woods’ poetry and spoken word background allowed her to softly and candidly approach sensitive topics. The record is full of soft lullabies, contrasting Woods’ visceral lyrics covering everything from racial inequality to PTSD amongst black people. The latter topic is explored on “VRY BLK”, with Woods proclaiming “If I say I can’t breathe, will I become a chalk line?”, raising the question of whether our ceaseless activism has been in vain. Despite ongoing calls for reforms to policing and indictments of individual officers, little has changed, and Woods dwells on these bitter truths. Both she and Solange gave fans the license and freedom to see themselves in the music and explore themselves intimately. In doing so, they created a collective spirit of harmony and solace within black communities.
“Not since the politically and socially conscious music of the 80s and 90s... has there been a wave of musicians able to galvanise the spirit of a worldwide community connected through diasporan closeness and ties”
Not since the politically and socially conscious music of the 80s and 90s – where artists from artists Gil Scott-Heron to Tupac to Queen Latifah both commented on social injustices and soundtracked the palpable anger – has there been a wave of musicians able to galvanise the spirit of a worldwide community connected through diasporan closeness and ties. The music can speak to black people on a personal and intimate level, providing uplift for its creator and solace for an entire community, pointing to the deeper value and impact solidarity can have.
Black artists were also able to provide euphoria by expressing their own personal joy, and no other artist was able to capture this as precisely as Chance the Rapper on his bright and illuminating Coloring Book. In September last year, the South Side Chicago rapper became a father, which had a significant impact on the direction of the mixtape’s key themes: on “All We Got”, for example, the rapper expressed his joy at having a child while also lamenting the environment that she’ll be raised in. His fears for his community and his daughter are clear in “Angels” when he says: “I got my city doing front flips / When every father, mayor, rapper jump ship / I guess that's why they call it where I stay / Clean up the streets, so my daughter can have somewhere to play.” With his faith and music, Chance has sought to make himself a better person, and it’s rare that an artist will take you on a journey through their growth from adolescence to parenthood in such a manner. His joy is infectious and edifying.
What these albums share sonically is a softness and delicacy in approach. Chance, Noname, and Jamila Woods all have a background in Chicago’s poetry scene, and their voices convey both joy and melancholy. They express exuberance in their own blackness – but they also explore the racial issues that they and their city face. Trumpets, xylophones, and wind instruments allowed us, as listeners, to submit to our own vulnerability, whereas the synths and delicate pianos on albums such as A Seat at the Table and Blonde sought to soothe the most worn and tiresome parts of our spirits that have been weathered by life and our environments.
It’s fitting that albums so honest and delicate should have all been released independently. Even the biggest of these artists avoided major label input – Chance the Rapper remains unsigned, Solange released her record through her Saint Heron platform, and Frank Ocean released Blonde himself after ending his Def Jam contract with visual album Endless – allowing them to alleviate themselves of the pressure to cater to people who rarely pay attention to their voices anyway. As the year draws to a sombre close, it can be said that this music is more than just a passive remedy. Throughout black history, and in an aggressive information age, music still remains the one outlet we are able to find solace for one’s spirit.
Follow Jesse Bernard on Twitter here @MarvinsCorridor