We’d rather die on our feet
Than keep living on our knees
Say it loud
I’m Black, and I’m proud
“Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud)” – James Brown
This October marks six years since my dad passed away. My strongest and fondest memories of him involve his stories and his music. As a young child and through my young adulthood, I remember having conversations with him for hours about politics and social issues, about race, about class, about addiction, about mental illness, about life. I also remember the music. Often I could find him lying on the couch or my parents’ bed or maybe sitting on the edge of their bed bobbing his head along to the music, singing along with the lyrics, and turning it up as loud as he liked. The music he loved and listened to when I was a child, soul, funk, Motown and Motown-flavored pop, underscored many of the themes of our conversations.
My dad and I often talked about race and racism. He grew up in Milwaukee, dubbed the “Selma of the North” because it was and remains one of the most segregated cities in the Northern United States and saw a lot of civil rights action. My dad shared that one of his earliest memories as a child involved trying to eat at a lunch counter after a morning of shopping with his mom and them being refused service. He shared his experiences hearing sirens that told everyone to head inside because of the racial tensions and possibilities for riots. He talked about how Black people kept to their side of town and white people to theirs.
The music he listened to from that time touched on the same issues. My dad and the rest of us often rocked out to James Brown, who demanded us to proclaim our pride in our Blackness and to assert our own demands for liberation from racist oppression. Perhaps ironically, Brown himself was very conservative. He later said that he thought of his song, “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud)” as a children’s song that he wouldn’t have recorded if he’d had his way. He believed that such sentiments as expressed in the song could only lead to separatism. Still, this song reinforced that naming and speaking out about racism and myriad other issues might engender negative reactions and attempts to undermine the character of those doing so (to say the least), but that we should speak out nonetheless.
Some people say we got a lot of malice
Some say it’s a lotta nerve
I say we won’t quit moving
Til’ we get what we deserve
“Say It Loud (I’m Black & I’m Proud)” – James Brown
In the same song, Brown touched on the intersections of race and class and particularly the exploitation of Black people’s labor to benefit upper class white men.
I’ve worked on jobs with my feet and my hands
But all the work I did was for the other man
And now we demands a chance
To do things for ourselves
We’re tired of beating our heads against the wall
And working for someone else
“Say It Loud (I’m Black & I’m Proud)” – James Brown
My dad often talked about those same issues. He worked only sporadically when I grew up because of mental health reasons. But, he often worried about money and how to help provide for us kids. He also shared stories of his past and having taken part in criminalized activities in order to make some cash and how he ultimately ended up in prison. That past always came back to taunt him because, when he was angriest about our poverty, at the inability to make bills and to provide us children with financial stability, he’d throw up his hands and wonder aloud if he’d have to turn back to such activities to make ends meet. Marvin Gaye’s lamentations on inner city living and how it undermined his emotional well-being hit close to home.
Inflation, no chance
To increase finance
Bills pile up sky high
Send that boy off to die
Oh, make me wanna holler
The way they do my life
This ain’t livin, this ain’t livin
“Inner City Blues” – Marvin Gaye
I now know that Black men comprise a hugely disproportionate amount of the prison population in the United States, and that Black people are disproportionately likely to experience poverty (poverty is the biggest indicator in committing property crimes). According to Michelle Alexander’s landmark book, The New Jim Crow, these disparities can be traced back to the institution of slavery. She argues that anti-Black racism is embedded in the very structure of the United States; therefore, as time moves on and Black people attain further liberation in some areas, the nature of Black subjugation changes in such a way as to hide the racism, but the subjugation of Black people continues. That’s to say, slavery gave way to Jim Crow which gave way to mass incarceration. In the United States, once you are labeled a criminal, you may be legally discriminated against in housing, employment, education, and many other areas depending on the nature of the crime and the individual state. This can make it quite difficult to keep from turning backto criminalized activities because many legitimized ways of living have been closed or made less accessible. My dad spoke to that as did Bobby Womack when he said he’d:
Been down so long, getting up didn’t cross my mind
I knew there was a better way of life that I was just trying to find
You don’t know what you’ll do until you’re put under pressure
“Across 110th Street” – Bobby Womack
My dad also asked what politicians meant to do about such issues. He followed local, state, federal and world politics very closely, and even as young as eight years old, I recall watching presidential campaign debates with him and him explaining what was happening, who he wanted to win and why he wanted that person to win. He told me about the meanness of the Reagan years and, later, the Bush Sr. years. He proclaimed himself a Clinton supporter but decried Clinton’s part in cutting Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) and struggled to help keep the family afloat when we lost that aid. He expressed anger and disappointment when Republicans instigated a nearly month long government shutdown. He also expressed anger at the disconnect between politics in Washington D.C. and the lives of people in the “real world.”
Because of this, it became apparent to me at a young age that party politics and the general political apparatus that controlled and governed this country could not adequately respond to the needs of the most vulnerable and marginalized peoples in this country. As I’ve grown older, this conviction has only grown stronger. Again, my dad’s music expressed the same frustrations and explicitly pointed the finger at politicians removed from the reality of their constituents and making bad policy decisions as a result.
Where is the mayor?
Who’ll make all things fair?
He lives outside
Of our polluted air
“Little Child Running Wild” – Curtis Mayfield
I could write for pages and pages about the political education I received from my dad and reinforced by the music he listened to each day. But, the heart of it is that my dad and his music challenged me to always think critically about the world, to question the current state of things, and to push back against injustices and the status quo. And, that’s what I remember most fondly about my dad.
Look around you, look around you, look around you.
“Across 110th Street” – Bobby Womack
6 replies on ““Make Me Wanna Holler”: How My Dad & His Music Influenced My Politics”
Wow, what a great tribute to your father! Music can be so powerful in capturing and distilling the sentiments of an era or a people. I love how you weaved the lyrics into this piece.
Yes, I agree with this so, so much. I have everything from Motown to metal on my iPod, and all of it carries special meaning to me in one way or another and a lot of the older music plays like a history to me, in little bits.
Thanks for reading!
I second Ladyoverseas – I’ve been trying to find out more about the indigenous peoples in Canada mainly, since I’m Canadian, but I’m also interested in the similarities and differences of how the US gov’t has treated them compared to Canada. I desperately want to read an alternative reality series of what Canada/US would be like if Europeans hadn’t shown up for some reason. I’m not sure how anyone would piece together all the lost languages and tribes enough to do them justice, but I guess I like imagining the wealth of culture and language that might have shaped a very different society than the current one.
I would like to learn more about First Nations peoples in Canada myself and especially since there are bands of Oneida and other Haudenosaunee people that way. Another commenter on another post shared this link with me with a huge library of documentaries about Indigenous peoples in Canada: Aboriginal People’s Channel.
And, AH, I would love to read something like that! That would be an amazing alternate history novel or novels. There are a few alternate history novels that are similar of which I’m aware, but they primarily deal with the Aztec Empire (Age of the Aztec, Aztec Century, & Conquistador are the ones of which I’m aware). But, they’re all from the perspective of non-Indigenous characters and have varying problems. Like you said, I imagine that such a re-telling would be a huge undertaking, but great idea!
Hey Marena, I know Persephoneers don’t tend to comment too often (I’m totally guilty of this), but I just want to say how much I love your posts! Please keep them coming. I’m especially interested in your writing about indigenous peoples in the US, since, as you have pointed out, indigenous voices are often excluded or outright suppressed in general media. Thank you for taking the time to write here!
Thanks for reading my posts. :) I am really glad that Selena (editor-in-chief) gave me an opportunity to discuss some of the issues affecting Indigenous peoples, in addition to other issues, here in the Magazine. Also glad people are reading and getting something out of it!