Music Essay by Jon Corbin, musician, poet, and educator at We Are Personic

The fear of the angry Black person was revitalized for a new generation in the late 1980s and early 1990s as mainstream society met a powerful cultural force: hip-hop music. The outspoken group Public Enemy aligned themselves with Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey and other “Prophets of Rage.” They ‘brought the noise’ to the culture and enthusiastically yelled, “fight the powers that be!”

That cry echoed across the U.S. all the way to the West Coast where artists like Ice-T, Ice Cube, and N.W.A. sent network news programs into a frenzy over their angry, anti-law-enforcement lyrics, sparking political debates about the influence hip-hop was having on the kids who listened to it. America feared the anger of these outspoken Black men, and they feared their influence. They retreated in fear, pointing accusatory fingers.

But America never asked why they were mad.

Aw I’m mad, and this is strictly from the underground

And Ima tell you why, there’s no need to wonder, clown

You tried to be a fake and lie to me

I try to see through all the hurt inside of me from this society

Finally, I’m strong, at least I try to be …

I ask for peace, but the only peace I really get

Is the end piece of your billy stick

But I still stay Christ like and humble

Although I’m living in a concrete jungle

The way you treat me like a beast, it enrage me, but

When I start acting like an animal, you cage me up

Separated from my family and peers for years and years

Only God knows the tears of a black man.

– Mr. Solo, from 1994’s “Tears of a Black Man” (Gospel Gangstaz)

Re-read these lyrics. Hear the anger. Then, hear the hurt. Hear the frustration, the desperation and the loneliness. Now consider your own reaction. Mainstream society is afraid of this man, and men like him. Are you? If so, can you ask yourself why?

Twenty-plus years of listening to hip-hop has led to a few areas of common understanding. A major one is the divide between Black communities and law enforcement. It is so clearly portrayed in the music that it would take an incredible feat to miss it.

But as we have seen, anger is never the first emotion. When I hear angry lyrics, I pause, sit, listen and ask questions about the emotions that preceded it. The first emotion I consider is loss. Loss of freedom, loss of dignity, loss of security, loss of protection.

Most people in larger society haven’t taken the time to consider how loss has impacted Black communities, even though there is a long and rich tradition of Black artists expressing it. Somehow, we missed it. Somehow, it is only impacting our souls now. It’s incredible and bewildering that so many people were oblivious to it for such a long time.

In the days after George Floyd’s murder, I saw a painting of Floyd’s face attached to the body of Radio Raheem, a character from Spike Lee’s definitive movie Do The Right Thing. The painting blended the two images together as Raheem‘s large, outstretched arms held two rings with words attached: The right hand held Love, and the left, Hate. This image has moved me so deeply, and I alternate between gazing at it and looking away quickly because I can’t take the emotion.

#georgefloyd #phreshlaundry #justiceforgeorgefloyd #PAINTINGWHILEBLACK TEXT FLOYD to 55156
MAY 27, 2020

I’m reminded of the climatic scene in Lee’s film, where police are called to break up a fight and put Radio Raheem in a chokehold, leaving Raheem in a fate similar to the real-life case of Eric Garner. Lee’s camera cuts between the image of a lifeless Raheem on the city street, and the crowd erupting in anger. In the film, this senseless violence only leads to more violence.

Do The Right Thing radiated the anger of Black communities, and it is up to us to ask the curious questions about the other emotions behind it — both for the fictional characters and for the viewers of the film. When I ask my questions, I see fear. I see frustration. I see feeling stuck. I see a feeling of competition between groups. Essentially, I see groups of people viciously competing to determine who really matters.

This essay was originally published on Jon’s substack page and was republished with permission. To read the full essay, go here.

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