The Moment newsletter

Published — October 7, 2020

How does pop culture influence political moments?

Mark Anthony Neal from the documentary “Boss” (Twitter)


Welcome to The Moment. I’m Susan Smith Richardson, CEO of the Center for Public Integrity.

In September, I interviewed Mark Anthony Neal about virtue signaling, how corporations were expressing support for racial justice in the wake of the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. I promised a follow-up with Neal, the James B. Duke Distinguished Professor of African and African American Studies and chair of the department at Duke University. In today’s edition, here’s more from our conversation about the intersection of culture and politics.

Over the years, certain songs have been associated with social and racial justice movements, becoming, in hindsight, the soundtrack for the movements. Think Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” and Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come,” released in 1963 and 1964, respectively, or more recently, Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright,” part of the sound and signs of the protests following the 2014 death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.  

In the second part of our interview, I ask Neal, whose work focuses on Black popular culture, how popular culture influences and reflects the political moment. He says the songs that are often viewed as a reflection of the times didn’t always emerge organically from the moment and have more complex histories.

And now another moment with Mark Anthony Neal…

*This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.

What’s the dynamic between popular culture and racial justice and progress?

I’ll go back a little bit and think about the New Negro Movement and folks like Langston Hughes and Alain Locke who coined the term and [W.E.B.] Du Bois and all those folks who had a firm belief that if they created a culture that could flourish, that could articulate fully the humanity of Black folks, that white folks would recognize them for being the full humans that  they are. That absolutely makes sense. What we’ve seen over the last 100 years is that’s not always the case, that something happens in this transition from the actual Black bodies that create culture and in the consumption of that culture. And the humanity of Black folks gets lost.…

I think we’re at a different moment now. Prior to the 21st century, so much of Black public culture was about representation politics. … [It was] around how do we get positive images of ourselves into the mainstream. I think we’re at a moment now where Black culture makers are not so consumed with positive images in that sense. We see a more diverse and wider array of Blackness in terms of representation, but also because there’s a way in which Black culture is so profoundly integrated into mainstream culture. … Now we have a generation of kids, regardless of race, in which rap music is just regular pop culture.

To the extent that Black culture makers and producers have the capacity to tell the stories that they want to tell, we’ll start to see movement. Think about [the HBO series] “Watchmen.” We have more people in the United States who know about the history of the Tulsa riots of 1921 than ever before in this country’s history, and they know it largely through [“Watchmen”].

Three album covers from popular culture.

Are there works of popular culture that you think really amplify this political moment we’re in?

That’s always an interesting question, because I think we expect anthems for the moment to emerge in an organic way. And it’s not necessarily the case. I actually find in some cases historically it’s actually pulling from the past. The songs that we think of now as civil rights anthems predated the civil rights movement for the most part, and were used in other contexts. I find just as many young folks now being drawn to the music they listen to now as they’re drawn to Public Enemy’s [1989 song] “Fight the Power.” And Chuck D, we’ll talk about part of his motivation for that song was growing up listening to The Isley Brothers saying “Fight the Power” in the 70s. For me, it always feels like it’s something that’s much more archival.

And then the songs that typically become the soundtrack to those moments were never intended that way. I don’t think Kendrick Lamar recorded “We Gonna Be Alright” to be an anthem in any kind of way. It got picked up that way and brought to the [anti-police violence] movement. The number of folks in the late 60s who grew up hearing Aretha [Franklin] sing “Respect” on the radio, in particular that breakdown where she literally spells out the words, hear it as a political anthem [for women]. But it’s not that. It’s a song about her telling a man to respect me that was actually her covering a song by Otis Redding telling a woman to respect him. … And I think that’s often the case, songs organically become part of the movement that weren’t necessarily recorded for that particular reason.

Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” was sung by Jennifer Hudson at this year’s Democratic National Convention, and it was also on the soundtrack of Spike Lee’s 1992 film “Malcolm X.” In hindsight, it felt like it was connected to a moment. What’s the history of the song?

That song is really interesting because Cooke recorded the song in the last six months of his life. So, he never performed it in front of an audience. But he talked about the fact that he was really inspired by Bob Dylan’s “Blowing in the Wind,” and on some level, he was offended that this anthem for the civil rights movement wasn’t actually written by a Black person. … The original version of the song has a second verse that was deleted at the top of its release because there’s a part of the song where he explicitly talks about segregation in the South. The record company was concerned about releasing it. So, they deleted the second verse [which] wasn’t actually inserted into the record until 1988. On the one hand, we have a generation of folks now, young folks, who know the song and its full power. For many Black folks who first heard that song in 1964, they wouldn’t actually hear how the song was intended for almost another 25 years.

Mark’s must-hear jam:

“Dinner Party” is a supergroup including saxophonist Kamasi Washington, pianist Robert Glasper and producers Terrace Martin and 9th Wonder. Their self-titled album debuted in July in the midst of ongoing protests over the death of George Floyd. Neal describes the track “Freeze Tag,” a metaphor for police officers telling someone running away from them to freeze, as a “musical blanket” and a personal balm in these times.

Thanks for reading The Moment. What questions do you want to explore? Send them to me at Until next time.

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