Black Music as a form of Protest

By Michelle Aboagye

What makes protest so impactful and so effective is its versatility. Protest comes in many shapes, forms and mediums, and as seen through history it can be inspired from even the smallest events. Protest is a human response to unpleasant and unfavourable conditions. Protest can be something as unifying as taking to the streets in rallies or demonstrations, something more individual such as a hunger strike, or even something more conceptual like an art piece. Certainly, the arts have always been a readily-available form of protest. An abstract art piece, calls to action in song lyrics and more are some of the common ways the arts can be used as mediums of protest. 

As for why the arts are used as mediums of protest, the reasons could be many. Perhaps the main reason is because participating in the arts often allows us to express ourselves in ways that our everyday lives are not able to. These can be our ways of life, our obstacles in life, and the things that are imposed on us. The arts place an emphasis on the unpleasant conditions we face. This is particularly the case for Black people and our relationship with music. Music for Black people has always been a means of expression and celebration on one hand, and a means of maintaining hope and inspiring protest on the other. The list of music genres which have protest embedded in them is endless and includes soul, reggae, hip-hop, and samba. In this blog post, although we will explore some music genres as a whole, we will also shed light on samba and its unique origins.

When you think of soul, you usually think of smooth voices, soulful, deep melodies and elements of jazz. Popularised in the 1950s and 60s and African American in its origins, soul music was more than this. It also touched on social issues that impacted Black Americans during the time, particularly the Black American Civil Rights Movement. Soul singers such as Nina Simone placed emphasis on racial injustice Black Americans faced in her lyrics, and she was a strong supporter of the Civil Rights Movement. In fact, one of her most famous protest songs Mississippi Goddam was written after harrowing events in Black American history, namely the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing of 1963 which saw the death of four young Black girls in a white supremacist attack and the assassination of civil rights activist Medgar Evers in Mississippi that same year. After its debut in 1964, there were several complaints over the song. Many complaints stated that it was in ‘poor taste’.

By writing and performing Mississippi Goddam, Nina Simone drew attention to how Southern American states subjugated Black Southern Americans with their degrading and dehumanising Jim Crow laws and their hostility to Black Americans. She would change the original lyrics of Mississippi Goddam that mentioned Tennessee to other places such as St Augustine and Selma to raise awareness or honour whatever civil rights-related events or moments occurred around the time. An excerpt of lyrics from Mississippi Goddam can be found below:

“Alabama’s gotten me so upset 
Tennessee made me lose my rest 
And everybody knows about Mississippi goddam
Hound dogs on my trail 
School children sitting in jail 
Black cat cross my path 
I think every day’s gonna be my last 
Lord have mercy on this land of mine
We all gonna get it in due time 
I don’t belong here”

Mississippi Goddam, Nina Simone, 1964

Mississippi Goddam also critiques the slow pace in which change is enacted in America, and justice is received for those who deserve it. Nina Simone would later recall the song as being her “first Civil Rights song” and that the song “erupted out of her quicker than she could write it down”. Other songs of protest that Nina Simone made include I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free and Why? (The King of Love Is Dead) which was a tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. after his assassination 1968.

Aside from soul, another Black music genre which has resistance and protest embedded in its lyrics is rap music. Rap music, alongside its call to action of resistance and critique of institutions which oppress Black people, also sheds light on power, communication, and Black cultures. It also helps to capture sentiments and gives a platform to the experiences and lives of Black people who live in inner city areas and areas with high levels of deprivation. Rap music sheds light on socio-economic issues and gives a voice to Black people who are often ignored. It is a medium of identity, solidarity, and critique of corrupt institutions, such as policing. 

Certainly, across the diaspora, Black people have pioneered genres that amplify their protests. This is also the case in South America, where enslaved Africans and their descendants pioneered music like samba, rumba, cumbria, and tango across the continent. Samba in particular has a long, rich history with origins in enslaved Afro-Brazilian communities before it gained popularity in Rio de Janeiro. This history is one which involves the bravery and persistence of an Afro-Brazilian woman called Hilária Batista de Almeida, but known by her community as Aunt Ciata or ‘Tia Ciata’ as she would have been called in Portuguese. 

Tia Ciata arrived in Rio de Janeiro around 1876 at the age of 22. In this time, Rio was a busy and bustling Latin American capital that attracted working class people from neighbouring countries, Latin Europeans such as those from Portugal, and Afro-Brazilians from the north-eastern region of Bahia. They sought better living conditions and opportunities that an international city such as Rio could provide. Tia Ciata was one of those Afro-Brazilian migrants searching for a better life. Upon moving into a neighbourhood known as Little Africa due to the large presence of Afro-Brazilians, she would later become one of the ‘aunts’ or ‘tias’ that helped to shape her community, and be recognised by many to be the patron and custodian of samba.

Samba involves the use of instruments such as a range of drums, bells, tambourines and other percussion instruments. It uses rhythmic patterns and melodies, and even has its own accompanying dance of the same name. It was pioneered by enslaved Africans in Brazil. Tia Ciata would bring the culture she inherited from her African ancestors with her to Rio. During the day, she would sell her homemade Bahian delicacies on the streets of Rio, and at night, her home would act as a cultural hub of sorts, hosting samba parties in her back garden and worship gatherings – sometimes the former would even be disguised as the latter to avoid prosecution! Samba parties were a place to meet others, mingle, dance, eat, and drink. It is worth noting that at the time, there were no dedicated public spaces for Afro-Brazilians and poor people to socialise and interact, so family homes became hubs and meeting places.

Although today, samba is synonymous with Brazilian culture it was once heavily policed by the Brazilian government. Samba musicians were frequently arrested and had their instruments destroyed or confiscated, and samba parties were often shut down. The Brazilian government restricted expressions of Afro-Brazilian culture. This did not stop Tia Ciata however. Her parties became renowned in Rio, and she became smarter at evading police as she hosted more parties by disguising parties as religious gatherings. Her parties also transcended ethnic barriers, with working-class Jewish people, Latin Europeans and more participating in the festivities. At times, her parties would even last for five, even seven days! She hosted some of the most famous musicians of her time and even participated in one of the earliest recorded hit samba songs ‘Pelo Telefone’ between 1916 and 1917. 

All things considered, it is no wonder Tia Ciata is hailed as the patron of samba and its custodian. Today, samba is an integral part of Brazilian culture despite this not being the case 100 years ago. Her bravery and persistence in maintaining and sharing the culture of her African ancestors ensured that samba was not a forgotten or erased practice.

Black music has often served multiple purposes, but one of its most impactful uses is as a medium of protest. From Tia Ciata in Brazil, to Nina Simone in the US. Across the Black diaspora, Black people have used music as a means to resist and call others to action. As history continues to unfold, we will always look forward to seeing how music evolves and what points of protest we will make.

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