Posted Sep 4th, 2015 (9:42 am) by Justin Goodman
The Migration
Image by Jacob Lawrence - "The migration gained in momentum [to the north]" from the NAARA via Wikimedia Commons

Along the walls ran the story of the Great Migration in blocky, concise palettes accompanied by paragraphs equally blocky, equally concise. After 20 years, the 60-year story of the 6 million African-American northward movement is all together. Behind Jacob Lawrence’s re-vision, Muddy Waters, Ma Rainey, and other long-dead blues musicians sing sweet melancholy. It would be only 5 years after Lawrence’s completion of The Migration Series in 1941 that Pete Seeger could be seen in the documentary To Hear Your Banjo Play, teaching the history of Appalachian music. There would be a brief mention of its origins among the “negro slaves,” one discernible African-American performing, and a description of the music’s sound as possessing “strength that made millions of bales of Southern Cotton.”

Calling 1941 primitive from the standpoint of 2015 is absurd, as “it is the nature of injustice that we may not always see it in our own times,” to quote Justice Kennedy’s recent majority ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges. We can recognize the advancements that have occurred, nonetheless, and without too harshly criticizing some of the most active civil rights defenders of their time (i.e. the late Pete Seeger). All this came to mind after reading Justin Slaughter’s Guernica essay, “Music Meant to Change the World,” about his observations of the Folk City: New York and the Folk Music Revival exhibit at the somewhat redundantly named Museum of the City of New York.

My problem is not the subject matter – Slaughter does an amiable job giving us a tour and outline of both exhibit and history – but the stepping stone which he, and many others, begin from today: Kanye West. There aren’t that many musicians that can raise an army against themselves without having explicit sexual violence in their lyrics, or explicit sexual violence in their criminal record, but Kanye is one of them. Even the ‘rude’ (and justifiable) award incidents don’t merit the Twitter Reign of Terror that follows Kanye everywhere he goes. Slaughter’s essay makes it clearer why this is the case.

There are three points about Kanye in the essay:

  1. “Kanye West was bold to sample a song about a real-life double lynching for the Yeezus track “Blood on the Leaves,” on the perils of celebrity and love. But it has none of the gravitas of the sample, “Strange Fruit,” famously performed by Billie Holiday at the nation’s first integrated nightclub, Café Society, in 1939, and later recited by folk singer Josh White at his testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1950.
  2. “But as the journey of “Strange Fruit,” from White’s testimony to Yeezus’s auto-tune accompaniment, suggests, no one knows what future generations will do with the music meant to change the world.”
  3. “It is hard to contemplate that the music so many of us hold dear was in some sense subsumed by a culture now dominated by Kanye.”

It’s a strange comparison, Kanye and Holiday, as if you could just as well compare Aerosmith and RUN DMC because the latter samples the former. But I’m being finicky. That “Blood on the Leaves” does not have the gravitas of “Strange Fruit” is a reasonable argument…Assuming that Kanye is only singing about “the perils of celebrity and love.” This is both true and inexact. In this more saccharine track Kanye spits “Two-thousand-dollar bag with no cash in your purse/Now you sittin’ courtside, wifey on the other side/Gotta keep ‘em separated, I call that apartheid.” Other than the word “apartheid” evoking race, fans of Ye should recognize the theme of pretension created defensively against a culture of racism. Just listen to “All Falls Down” from The College Dropout.

In the context of Yeezus, parallelling the sacrifice of a man for the world’s sins – demonstrated specifically with the Kanye hate, and metaphorically with too many African Americans to link (Claudia Rankine: “Because white men can’t/police their imagination/black men are dying”) – and Ye as a prophet for a faith of love and redemption, realize that Kanye doesn’t need to be standing before Joseph McCarthy to be persecuted. In fact, the internet is a far more effective tool for persecution. And then of course you must factor in the relevance of “New Slaves,” “Black Skinhead,” and “I Am a God.”

As I see it, the Folk legacy goes in two directions. At the forefront of Folk as a sound are the shards called Anti-Folk, Freak Folk, and New Weird America. Bands like Grizzly Bear, Neutral Milk Hotel, Dirty Projectors, and solo artists like Vashti Bunyan, Joanna Newsom, Connan Mockasin all forming an incest network of the genres. The recently deceased Pink Floyd even makes an appearance. I urge you to go to the Wikipedia pages to see the mess of classification. But what seems the common theme among them is the acoustically driven chordal inheritance, lyrical depth, and vocal focus that was old Folk’s modus operandi. Unlike their predecessors though, they’re projects of l’art pour l’art, generally avoiding the political activism that colored the early pioneers ideas. An Aesthetics Folk.

The contemporary has shown that “the music meant to change the world” is a protean title. Need I mention the Beatles, or the Stooges, or any of the other various bands of other various genres that challenged the status quo? No, I don’t. In our time, rap is the inheritor and Kanye is one of its symbols. I suppose it’s the nature of this absurd world that a genre derived from African Americans, and popularized and remembered mostly for its white practitioners, should have its African American inheritors be declaimed as “music so many of us hold dear was in some sense subsumed by a culture now dominated by Kanye.” Man, just read this.

Slaughter pulled a Seeger: In defending the laudable and true, he ironically overlooks his representation of that truth. Imagine someone, after viewing Jacob Lawrence’s exhibit on the Great Migration, tweeting The Migration Series, but #AllLivesMatter: “Yes, all lives matter but we’re focused on the black ones right now, ok? ...if you can’t see why we’re exclaiming #BlackLivesMatter you are part of the problem.”

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