“I’ve never been so proud to be an artist,” a shocked Gabriella Wilson — better known as H.E.R. — said to a socially distanced audience at the 2021 Grammys. Wilson, who was also awarded the Academy Award for Best Original Song for “Fight for You” from the Judas and the Black Messiah soundtrack this year, was accepting the award for Song of the Year for “I Can’t Breathe.” Co-written by singer-songwriter Tiara Thomas, who stood beside Wilson as she accepted the award, the moving ballad became the cry of the people during what was undeniably one of the most tumultuous eras in history. “We wrote this song over FaceTime, and I had no idea that my fear would turn into change,” Wilson continued. “But that's why I write music, that's why I do this.”
Black voices have been ushering in change for centuries. Prior to the 20th century, music provided a way for Black people to express their feelings, to find solace amid the terror of enslavement, and to provide hope for a better future. Black spirituals, which originated from African enslaved people’s 18th century outdoor gatherings called “praise houses,” and meetings sometimes referred to as “bush meetings” or “camp meetings,” were used to build community amidst their growing relationship with Christianity. According to The Library of Congress, the term “spiritual” comes from the King James Bible translation of Ephesians 5:19: “Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord.” Spirituals like “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen,” “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” and “Wade in the Water” gave space for both lamentation and rebellion. Harriet Tubman also used spirituals like “Go Down Moses" to alert any enslaved people who were ready that it was time to escape with her to freedom.
“African American musicians and activists have used music to express their desire for freedom, to demand rights, and to assert individual and group identity in the United States, a context where African Americans have historically been denied full citizenship and personhood,” says NYU Associate Professor and cultural anthropologist Maureen Mahone. “There are many instances of artists making political statements that challenged the status quo.” Mahone cites several examples, like Billie Holiday’s song about the injustice of lynching, 1939’s “Strange Fruit,” and Nina Simone’s 1964 song “Mississippi Goddam,” which encapsulates Black people’s rage in response to persistent, violent racism. “During the Civil Rights movement, activists sang together to galvanize themselves before, during, and after taking to the streets to protest,” Mahone continues. “The most well-known of these songs is ‘We Shall Overcome,’ but there are others—’We Shall Not Be Moved’ and ‘Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Round,’ for example.”
Today, this tradition lives through the music of contemporary musicians like Noname (“Song 33” and “Rainforest”), Adia Victoria (“South Gotta Change”), Georgia Anne Muldrow (“Mama, You Can Bet!” recorded under the name Jyoti), and even viral sensations like Johnniqua Charles’ impromptu bop, “You About To Lose Yo Job,” which protesters then turned into a chant during summer 2020’s uprisings in response to police violence. This music serves as a platform for social commentary, protest, and critique. And Black people, especially Black women, are in a moment where such catharsis is critically necessary.
The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated over and over again how American institutions still do not protect Black women. Breonna Taylor’s murder by police amidst the pandemic was just another harrowing example. Black women and women of colour were also disproportionately impacted on an economic level due to COVID-19. And according to the Harvard School of Public Health, Black women died from COVID-19 at more than three times the rates of white men. Beyond the pandemic, the music industry — and the hip-hop community in particular — continued to mistreat and attack Black women both inside and outside of the business. See: the shooting of Megan Thee Stallion; Talib Kweli’s year-long, multi-platform harassment of Maya Moody (Twitter permanently suspended Kweli for violating its harassment policies); the lack of a #MeToo reckoning in hip hop evidenced by the continued platforming of Russell Simmons after his Black women accusers’ documentary alleging his pattern of rape On The Record was released (Simmons has repeatedly denied all of the allegations); Verzuz battles featuring alleged abusers of Black women; and the condemnation aimed at Megan and Cardi B in response to “WAP.” During these moments, having anthems to pull us through turmoil is crucial. For Black people, music is a healing salve. And for Black women who have been amplifying our stories through song throughout history, it’s often one of the only ways our voices are heard.
[Black women have] been fighting to have our voices heard. We kind of have to be good storytellers in order to be understood, in order to be seen.
“I can't speak for other people's experiences, but one thing I can say is I know that Black women, whether you grow up middle class, lower class, or upper class, when we get into the world, we can all relate to each other and we have similar experiences in the way society or the world views Black women,” says Thomas. “Because of that, I feel like we do have very intricate stories to tell. We've been fighting to have our voices heard. We kind of have to be good storytellers in order to be understood, in order to be seen.”
Beyond the recording booth, music by Black women has also transformed our timelines into sanctuaries. As we explored in 2020, social media has become a space of refuge for the Black community. This has especially been the case in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, during which social media activity significantly upticked, with Chloe x Halle giving epic YouTube performances of songs from their angelic and grown sophomore album Ungodly Hour from their tennis court, and catchy dance challenges taking over Instagram and TikTok. From Jalaiah Harmon’s “Renegade” dance to Keara "Keke" Wilson’s “Savage” challenge, social media influencers used dance as a way to bring joy across people’s timelines while many were quarantined inside their homes. Not only was it an outlet for their audiences, but it was a source of inspiration for the creators as well. “I can't speak for others, but I feel that I have done something really cool and the whole world is doing what I have created,” Wilson, a former cheerleader and competitive dancer, told R29Unbothered last year. “Knowing that people are reaching out to me and want to pay me to dance to their new song or beats has been an awesome experience for me. This encourages me to continue to do what I love to do, which is dance.”
The pandemic became a space in which artists took the time to make sense of the world around them and defiantly tell their stories, whether personal or political. Jazmine Sullivan’s Heaux Tales — a masterfully crafted manifesto detailing the ups and downs of life, love, and sexual liberation — is one of her most raw and honest offerings to date. “These are conversations I’ve had since I was in high school and now in my early 30s,” Sullivan told Clover Hope for Pitchfork earlier this year. Heaux Tales provided a safe space for Black women to be — authentic and raw and sometimes messy — without judgment from others. It advocates for the unabashed, and it’s the sort of space not often granted to Black women in the real world. And because of that, the album was met with wide acclaim amongst the Black femme community.
“I’ve had my own personal relationship with shame as a Black woman, growing up in church, when it comes to my body and my sexual experience. It’s kind of deeply embedded in our culture for women to feel shame in regards to sex and their bodies,” Sullivan shared. “Lately, there have been women fighting against that. . . I wanted to be a part of the revolution and evolution of women owning who they are.”
At the end of H.E.R.’s acceptance speech, she thanked God for using her as a vessel amid Black people’s fight for freedom. And while music has proven its ability to rally communities, the work is far from over. “Remember, we are the change we wish to see,” she said. “And you know that fight that we had in the summer of 2020? Keep that same energy.”
— Presented by BET —