On 21 May the all-star quartet of Carleen Anderson, Nikki Yeoh, Speech Debelle and Nubya Garcia take to our stage backed by a band featuring the talents of bassist Renell Shaw and drummer Rod Young. Together they will perform interpretations of iconic songs from the time of the 1960s struggle for civil rights through to today.
Titled A Change is Gonna Come this unique concert explores the power of protest songs. Ahead of what is sure to be a memorable performance Carleen Anderson and Kevin Le Gendre explain why, far from being merely a tool of the past, protest music and arts can still have a resonance in today’s fractured world.
Although the torch of artists expressing activism has stayed lit throughout the generations, the superficial economic shift in society’s landscape has dimmed its light.
The shouts of ‘No Justice, No Peace’ are countered these days with ‘But there was a Black U.S. American President’, and, ‘What about all the Women that are now included on various platforms’, and, ‘Homosexuals can even get legally married now’. As remarkable as these community progressions are, worldwide disenfranchisement remains in abundance.
Old and new protest songs and poetry are but a commentary and taste of what is still happening in even the supposedly more enlightened countries on earth. Sanctioned murders of certain types of people, politicians advocating hate in their speeches, organised chaos to benefit only the few whilst the majority, mislabelled as the minority, are unjustly assigned lives of despair.
Modern civil rights campaigns carry an ongoing disparity between the anxiousness in the young and left-out that’s imbalanced against the measured strategy of the older and privileged, which continues the rope pull amongst even those championing the same cause. Add to that, in our futuristic environment, the element of anger that can escalate into pandemonium much quicker than ever before.
False rumours routinely spread faster than the reality that has time to take hold. Art, especially music, can be a band-aid, that plaster to keep things from erupting into immediate bedlam. What might have taken hours or days to develop into mayhem in times of yore, is now only a finger-tap away from causing cataclysm within a heartbeat.
Artists, even at the risk of commercial career damage, are paramount in every culture to organise themselves to draw attention to widespread injustices. In doing so, this can galvanize people to change our outdated and unfair pandemic practices. Music, as ever, can be, and is, a mighty tool to show how we are far more the same, than we are different.
This piece first appeared on the website of Sound UK.
A Change Is Gonna Come is a timeless melody with one of the great opening lines in pop. It evokes the river, symbol of Mother Earth’s riches, that does not stop running, just like the disenfranchised, those born ‘in a little tent’ on its banks, who look forward to the dawning of a new day, or, more specifically, a brighter tomorrow.
When Sam Cooke wrote the song in 1964 the right to vote for people of colour in America, still commonly referred to as Negroes, was yet to be granted. Dr. Martin Luther King jnr, had delivered his landmark I Have A Dream speech at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, the previous year. Both men were slain at a young age, at crucial junctures in the Civil Rights movement, but their bold statements have still retained an inspiring permanence that outweighs the transience of their precious lives.
Protest music is a term that can be applied to all manner of genres, from soul and jazz to folk and rock, but the defining feature of any work that might be deemed the sound of resistance is its awareness of the all-consuming nature of struggle and desire to stay the course, all the way to King’s ‘mountain top’, the promised land of equality.
Creating continuums between one generation and the next, cementing the links of community while smashing the chains of slavery and the shackles of segregation has always been a priority for these exponents of protest music. The recognition of elders who made sacrifices for youngers and fought valiantly for equality on either side of the Atlantic - potently epitomized by Rosa Parks, Medgar Evers, Claudia Jones and Marcus Garvey - galvanizes countless melodies written against the abuse of power. Acts of remembrance thankfully counter those who would seek to deny real history.
The tone of protest music can vary enormously from one artist to the next. However there is a recurrent theme in the seminal entries of the canon: the look to the future, the peremptory affirmation of what will, rather than might come to pass. It is as much in Gil Scott Scott-Heron’s stark warning that The Revolution Will Not Be Televised as it is Sam Cooke’s soothing promise that A Change Is Gonna Come. Oh yes, it will.
This piece first appeared on the website of Sound UK.
Gifted soul, jazz and rap artists Carleen Anderson, Nikki Yeoh, Speech Debelle and Nubya Garcia joined forces to explore the power of protest songs for A Change Is Gonna Come: Music for Human Rights in our Queen Elizabeth Hall on Monday 21 May.
Though this event has now passed, Southbank Centre boasts a year-round programme of contemporary music spanning from electro to jazz, blues to dance, and everything in between.