ART: HOW MUSICAL ARTISTS ARE CAPTURING THE ZEITGEIST OF 2020
Music has the power to completely shift your mood. It can transport you back to sweet childhood memories, hype you up before a night out and everyone has that one track they cry to. Music is an art form that has assisted in rich storytelling within Black culture for centuries, and 2020 is no exception. Over the past few months communication has been limited to phone calls, facetime and socially distanced walks. However, music has connected listeners around the world who are celebrating or even mourning similar events together. We’ve both reflected on and escaped our lives via sound and their visual accompaniments. Reminding us of the significant role music has on how we choose to express our emotions, celebrate our wins and mourn our losses.
“Providing us with a rhythm, hook and choir that gives you no other choice but to get up and celebrate the magnificent mystery of the future.”
Graduations are a prime example of a typically physical ceremony that found alternative ways to celebrate due to COVID-19. Ceremonies are a means of marking significant moments in our lives, and music has always played a role in setting the mood and narrative for such events. Thus the music industry came together to commemorate the graduates of 2020. Teyana Taylor released feel-good single ‘Made It’, whose video was directed by Spike Tee, featuring appearances from 2020 graduates. YouTube Originals hosted ‘Dear Class of 2020,’ a commencement ceremony that included performances from artists such as Lizzo, Janelle Monáe and Chloe x Halle. Likewise, The Lebron James foundation organised #GraduateTogether, a live-streamed ceremony which featured entertainment from several artists like Chika who performed ‘Crown’ from her 2020 EP ‘Industry Games.’ The song was written by a then 19-year-old Chika who considered dropping out of college at the time. She speaks candidly to the youth, touching upon depression, the pressure of parental expectations and persevering with passions that aren’t seen as a “real job.” All while providing us with a rhythm, hook and choir that gives you no other choice but to get up and celebrate the magnificent mystery of the future - ‘I’m on the elevator / I’m on to something greater / Ain't nobody gonna take my crown.’
There are also moments when you need to dance for no specific reason and There's No Signal radio fulfilled this need. The UK based #blackradio station was created by the Recess team who host music from across the diaspora. The mood of No Signal is reminiscent of Pirate radios like The Dread Broadcasting Corporation and Solar Radio who housed Black music that was rarely placed on commercial airwaves. With many people isolated throughout this period, No Signal offered out a virtual hand leading us to the dance floor, and with the aid of Twitter, or more specifically "Black Twitter", listeners were able to cast their votes in their 10v10 battles. These battles hosted by DJs and UK personalities, battled genres, artists or eras against one another for 10 rounds. It soon became the motive of the day and "are you tuning into 10v10?" texts floated across from one phone to the next. There’s No Signal created a perfect blend between nostalgia and originality during a time when we needed both.
Music serves as the soundtrack of our celebrations, whether it’s a graduation or just a good day. However, it has also provided us with comfort as we collectively grieved following the deaths of Black people at the hands of the police. Regulations put in place due to the pandemic meant that many of us were not able to connect with our families during a period where we desperately needed to break bread, share thoughts and music. However, music still played a large part in managing our sorrow and anger, especially during the moments when we were confined to our homes. Theologist James Cone once said that ‘art and thought cannot be separated,’ it’s filled with social and political messaging and Black musicians have proven this true once again. British band RNSM and singer H.E.R both created songs titled ‘I Can’t Breathe’ that featured video footage from protests taking place globally. YG released ‘FTP’ an acronym for Fuck The Police, sampling that of NWA’s famous anti-racist anthem of the same name. Soul singer Leon Bridges and Terrance Martin revealed their song ‘Sweeter’ ahead of the original release date and on the topic Bridges said, ‘Just as Abel’s blood was crying out to God, George Floyd was crying out to me. So, I present to you Sweeter.’ In the same way people record history in books, these songs and music videos capture not only the current climate but the emotions and opinions of those directly affected. It also led to musicians rallying support for and holding conversations around Black-owned organisations and businesses. British singer Trey Gordon wanted to raise support for All Nations Vegan House, a Black-owned business in Dalston, London, and ‘shed light on any experiences and/or hurdles they may have faced.’ He did so with his song ‘Grind Hard, Shine Hard,’ where 50% of all earnings from the song went to All Nations Vegan House and the other half going to the Black Lives Matter organisation.
“For a long time, the art form that was healing Black people was music.”
Grief isn’t a moment it’s a process, and so is healing. Music is often referred to as ‘soul-therapy’ and as quoted by Toni Morrison ‘for a long time, the art form that was healing Black people was music.’ While she did highlight that music created by us is no longer exclusively ours, the power of it has not faded away. The Jill Scott and Erykah Badu Verzuz Instagram battle was a moment of communal healing for those who tuned in. The two Queens of Neo-Soul worked their way through their catalogue of songs whilst sipping on tea and wine. It was an evening of mutual admiration and respect, transmitting a sense of peace and tranquillity throughout this restless period. The Verzuz team also held a live stream called ‘The Healing’ featuring contemporary gospel artists Kirk Franklin and Fred Hammond. Gospel music is known as rhythmic spirituals based on bible messages. The focus of this genre is often on healing, celebration and hope, making this Verzuz the perfect opportunity to soothe suffering and provide a sense of restoration.
Music has always had the ability to form a collective out of individuals and provide a safe space. However, there was something particularly magical about the power of music during Lockdown. This could be because music often feels more intense during periods of uncertainty or pain. On this topic Ani Kalayjian and Dominique Eugene in ‘Mass Trauma and Emotional Healing around the World’ said that ‘music gave Black people a way to testify to their plight, to bemoan their agony, to rebuff enemies without their knowing it, and all while the music soothed and intoxicated with its unique melodies and rhythms.’ During lockdown we had nowhere else to go except where music could transport us. It was the furthest we could get from experiencing loneliness and singular pain, while being the closest to feeling connected with Black people across the diaspora and our concentrated emotions.
Kalayjian, A. and Eugene, D., 2010. Mass Trauma And Emotional Healing Around The World. Santa Barbara, Calif.: Praeger, p.244.
Morrison, T., 2019. Song Of Solomon. New York: Vintage International. Vintage Books, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.