This is a playlist curated with the intent of bringing my readers an array of music that I consider necessary to hear at this watershed moment. Mostly from Black artists, this is an entourage that has been assembled with both impulsiveness and compassion. I could have spent another month searching for pieces to include, but the time is now. The energy must be sustained. Inspiration awaits everywhere.
As an avid listener, so many of the musicians I turn to are Black, so here is a list of just a few of my old and a lot of my new favorites. I’ve concentrated on work from the past few decades. Some songs are political, some uplifting, and some just in a deep groove.
Here’s a caveat – some of these tunes are intense raps and may be outside of your usual taste. Can you handle it? At least give it a minute or two. Listen to H.E.R – the 23-year-old double grammy winner Gabrielle Wilson – who takes all the same fury as older male rappers and makes it her own. And hear why Alicia Keys is such a pre-eminent artist, capable of amazing lyricism and here, astounding power. Another Grammy award winner, J. Cole, graduated college Magnum Cum Laude yet reflects upon the effects his reputation as a rapper has on younger men. Pull down the lyrics on the rap tunes. This stuff is real. Like it or not. There’s energy and pain bottled up in these works, and sadness. Michael Kiwanuka’s Black Man in a White World is a stunning plaint to the hardship inflicted on the Black man. Watch the amazing video of America, by Childish Gambino and Kendrick Lamar’s explosive film to his tune Alright. It’s important to experience all of this.
The time is now. The energy must be sustained. Inspiration awaits everywhere.
But beyond the pain in this playlist is great joy and exuberance and hope. Rise, the last tune in the list, is full of it. So is Afro Blue, by Mongo Santamaria. (Covered by Coltrane and here sung by Erykah Badu with the Robert Glasper group, it hails originally from the black quarters of Havana and lyrically invokes the soulful dance of two lovers.) And there is enormous power – listen to Go Ahead John, from the Miles Davis soundtrack to the documentary Jack Johnson, about the legendary heavyweight boxer winning championships during Jim Crow. Esperanza Spalding, the brilliant bassist and now professor at Harvard, wrote Black Gold as a self-love anthem for young Black women.
I’ve layered in some gorgeous songs from earlier years: The Impressions’ People Get Ready and, because it’s so sumptuous and transcendental, Alice Coltrane’s* Translinear Light. Then, because I feel we need to focus on the young spirits we’re bringing into the world and the future we build for them, I chose Baby (Bobby McFerrin’s inimitable grace and joy offers a ray of light and hope, as does Gary Clark Jr.’s Feed the Babies. (This is why I chose the image of the Alicia Keys’ son Egypt, from her tune Blended Family, about interracial families.)
I don’t want to tread on your groove here, so only a few other lines of thought.
re the tune White Privilege: Macklemore is a white boy rapping about his awareness that white rappers are profiting from their cultural appropriation of Black Hip-Hop. Macklemore got props for being one of the only white rappers to acknowledge their debt.
re the tune Marion Anderson: as a jazz freak, I felt this abstract homage to the great Marion Anderson had a place here as well. It’s from an album considered by many reviewers as one of their Favorite Jazz Albums of 2016. (Leo Wadada Smith’s horn playing recalls mid-period Miles Davis but more free. Vijay Iyer’s keyboard, though discreet, sustains this intimate conversation as it ascends to poetic levels.)
* Unknown to many, Alice Coltrane was a gifted keyboard player who played with some of the most important jazz groups in the fifties and sixties, including with John Coltrane, who then became her husband. When he passed away at 40, she set off on a spiritual journey, which led her to India and ultimately to create an ashram in the Santa Monica Mountains. Her later albums gorgeously reflect her quest.
You can sign up for a free, 3 month trial with Apple Music, and that will give you the chance to hear the entire playlist, instead of 30 second shots. Just click on the tiny “Sign in” icon in the upper right of the playlist. If you’re not a die-hard listener like me, I’ll give you a tip: there’s a cool feature in Apple Music – the pull down lyrics. (* see below…)
And watch this video, starring Kendrick Lamar. It will realign your sense of what the reality of life is like for a young Black, urban, American male.