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Everybody’s Protest Music: Anthems of Life + Love + the Spirit

By Mark Anthony Neal | @NewBlackMan | With thanks to NewBlackMan (in Exile)

Sunday, November 8, 2015.

“The failure of the protest novel lies in its rejection of life, the human being, the denial of his beauty, dread, power, in its insistence that it is [man's] categorization alone which is real and which cannot be transcended." -- James Baldwin, “Everybody’s Protest Novel” (1949)

“The question is, do we want to be free? Do we dare take our life in our own hands? Do we have the chops for it? To whom do we afford the right to join that ensemble of liberation? Who can afford to improvise? Who could afford not to?” -- Tsitsi Ella Jaji, “The Price of Listening”: James Baldwin, Black Music, and Black Lives” (2015)

Just so it’s not forgotten at a time when so many of the words that James Baldwin breathed have been collapsed into celebratory gestures of mainstream acceptance--truly evidence of things not seen--Baldwin’s most often position was on the defiant margins.  The violence that the so-called Protest Novel did to language were among the charges that Baldwin directed at Beecher’s Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Wright’s Native Son--in Baldwin’s formulation Uncle Tom and Bigger Thomas were indeed kin--the failure of all named, resonating in the epigraph above.

To be sure, Guthrie Ramsey, Jr. need not issue such brash sentiments; this an era when protesting the neo-liberal State often means spending a hundred dollars at Whole Foods (or Trader Joe’s for real progressives). But like Baldwin’s essay, Ramsey’s Everybody’s Protest Music, recently presented with the collective Dr. Guy’s MusiQology at the Annenberg Center on the University of Pennsylvania campus, offers critique of a body of work that ostensibly aims, per Baldwin, to “bring greater freedom to the oppressed.”

One of the criticisms directed at contemporary Black artists, by their kinfolk, is that the music is no longer attuned to the “struggles” of Black people, as if the people don’t struggle to be loved, touched, caressed, doted on, inspired, spiritually fed, desired, and indulged.  What folks are really asking for is music to protest to--marching music, classic anthems like “Aint Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around,” Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power,” or Janelle Monae’s recent “Hell You Talmbout.” There is of course need for such anthems; there is no movement without bodies, and simply put, bodies need something to move to.

Yet to consider a protest tradition, a Black Protest Tradition in this instance, is to consider a tradition that not only inspires folk to take to the streets, but to imagine a future and a freedom, where such instances are no longer necessary.  Freedom is about the will to dream it, and the struggle to create the space for that dreaming. Freedom is the late Sekou Sundiata reminding us that we are the dream of  “some slave...whenever they got a little space to climb inside their heads and be free.” Protest music, is thus also about finding the collective rhythms, melodies--lower frequencies, to again embrace Iton from the land of The Black Fantastic.

When Tsitsi Jaji asks “The question is, do we want to be free?” she conjures an open query well known in the tradition, finding resonance in Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On?” or Les McCann and Eddie Harris’ or Roberta Flack’s  (by way of Eugene McDaniels) “Compared to What?”  If Everybody’s Protest Music had a center, it was the band’s rendition of the McCann and Harris classic, which has been a regular go-to for contemporaries from MeShell Ndegeocello to John Legend and The Roots to the folk at Coca-Cola.  Ramsey’s genius--borne out the the utility of needing to make everybody feel at home during a career that has spanned from the requisite teen-aged Funk band, to choir director, to University of Pennsylvania professor, to this October moment of leader of a seasoned groove collective--was in the arrangement.  Indeed Ramsey’s ability to re-imagine the music in ways that bridged generations and genres was a highlight of the evening.

Ramsey opened his set with a fast-ball, the foot-tapper “Match Play” from his most recent The Colored Waiting Room, one of the handful of originals that he performed, along with “Lake Como (The Remix)” and “Someone is Listening.”  The latter track, with lyrics from poet Elizabeth Alexander, was commissioned by the NAACP on the occasion of the Civil Rights organization’s 100th anniversary in 2009,  and featured vocalist Matre Grant, one of Ramsey’s undergraduate students.  Ms. Grant’s contribution was evidence of  Ramsey’s collaborative spirit, creating spaces for young musicians, like his daughter Bridgette Ramsey, who provided vocals on the standard “The Wildest Gal in Town,” and creating musical terrain for his seasoned backing musicians to get wide open, particularly guitarist Richard Tucker and saxophonist Matthew Clayton.

The most stellar contributions of the night came from vocalist Abby Dobson, whose work as a background vocalist can be heard on Talib Kweli’s classic “Get By” and his recent “State of Grace.”  Dobson was at home in the lead vocalist role on tracks like “Another Man Done Gone” first recorded by Vera Hall in 1940, a performance that also featured violinist Melanie Hill, and which served as an exclamation point to the bodies lost to death and incarceration. Dobson also provided lead vocals on Ramsey’s arrangement of the Negro spiritual, “Wade in the Water,” which featured original poetry from Philadelphia radio personality Stephanie Renee, one of three poets featured during the performance.  

Washington, D.C. based poet Abdul Ali read “Elegy (for Troy Davis)” from his striking new collection Trouble Sleeping intertwined with vocals from Dobson on the Pete Seeger co-penned “If I Had a Hammer.”  Philadelphia based poet Greg Corbin conjured Nat Turner--the Mystic--with his original “Water,” which was the dramatic peak of Everybody’s Protest Music.

Ramsey closed the show--close to his Chi-Town home--going back to his own roots directing and accompanying Gospel Choirs, with a rendition Twinkie Clark’s “There is a Word.” Joined by ACG and Company, his Chi-town homie Jerry Thompson on the Hammond B-3, and Dobson providing leads, “There is a Word” might have been the most political moment of the night.

In a moment when The Artist is so often forced to parcel out pieces of themselves and their art to the highest bidders (in an effort towards sustainability), there was perhaps no greater protest than Ramsey’s  willingness to gesture to some wholeness of himself and his art

Everybody’s Protest Music: Anthems of Life + Love + the Spirit

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