It’s Time to Lift Every Voice: Black Music Month Arrives at a Crucial Turning Point

When 12-year-old singer Keedron Bryant lifted his voice to poignantly decry the senseless murder of George Floyd in a May 29 Instagram post that’s since drawn nearly 3 million views, the pre-teen joined the countless voices that have been fighting to end racism for the last 400 years. Music has always played an integral role in black people’s fight for equality and justice. So as that hard-fought struggle boils over onto city streets across the country, this year’s celebration of Black Music Month arrives at a crucial turning point.

When black people were uprooted from Africa to become slaves in 1600s America, one of the things they brought with them was call-and-response music. It not only helped while away hours of back-breaking field work but also doubled as a coded means to send news and other information across the slave network. Out of that came the spirituals that strengthened slaves’ unyielding faith, hope and perseverance. The lyrics of two such spirituals, “Steal Away” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” have been viewed by some as references to the Underground Railroad, which helped slaves escape to the North and Canada.

Since then, the long march toward equality has been fueled by other musical touchstones. Early civil rights activist and songwriter James Weldon Johnson penned the liberation poem “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” in 1900. Set to music by Johnson’s brother a few years later, the song — included on Beyoncé‘s 2018 Coachella set list — is now popularly known as the black national anthem. Jewish civil rights activist and teacher Abel Meeropol protested racism through his composition “Strange Fruit,” using the South’s lynching of black men as a metaphor for fruit hanging from trees. Billie Holiday’s stark yet visceral interpretation of the song, which she recorded in 1939, still resonates.