Protest songs, classic and new, soundtrack these troubled times

STEVIE221
Dallas Police Chief David Brown memorialized five slain officers last week by reading lyrics to "As" by Stevie Wonder.

When Dallas Police Chief David Brown stepped to the lectern last week to memorialize five officers slain by sniper fire, he chose to lighten the somber mood by first talking about his failures at teenage romance, and his love for 1970s rhythm and blues.

Because he was so inept as a conversation starter, Brown recalled, he would break the ice with a girl he liked by reading aloud lyrics to songs by favorite soul singers. That meant regaling them with a little Al Green, or Isley Brothers, or Philadelphia's own 1970s master of the boudoir, Teddy Pendergrass.

But when he wanted to express how much he really loved and cared about someone, Brown had a superior option: "I had to dig down deep and get some Stevie Wonder."

The shaven-headed public servant asked the assembled to imagine him "back in 1974 with an Afro, and some bell bottoms and a wide collar." Then, he demonstrated abiding love for his officers and their families by reading lyrics to "As," from Wonder's wondrous double LP Songs in the Key of Life, which, sorry, Chief, actually came out in 1976.

Brown gets major props for choosing a deep track with gospel overtones that demonstrates music's spiritual uplift - and the comforting sense that there's a larger plan at work in the universe - in the wake of unfathomable sorrow. The more obvious Wonder song that's been running through my mind and social-media feeds since the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile in Louisiana and Minnesota, and the subsequent targeting of police in Texas, has been "Love's in Need of Love Today."

That one's included, for instance, on "Songs for Survival," a playlist that Jay Z posted on his Tidal streaming service in the aftermath of the Sterling and Castile deaths. The rapper has also released a new song, "Spiritual," originally inspired by the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014. It's one of a flurry of #BlackLivesMatter-sympathizing songs posted recently, including Miguel's moving, unfinished "How Many," and Scarface and Swizz Beatz's "Sad News."

Those songs are part of a pop-cultural reaction to the deaths of Sterling and Castile - and a seemingly unending cycle of violence that has claimed the lives of young black men going back to Amadou Diallo in 1999, Trayvon Martin in 2012, and Freddie Gray last year - that has moved musicians and actors and athletes to speak out in uncommon ways.

Alicia Keys, who will perform at a Politico-presented event at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia next week, has led a "23 Ways You Could Be Killed if You Are Black in America" public service announcement video that honors the dead and features Philadelphians Kevin Hart and Pink along with celebs such as Rihanna, Maxwell, and Rosario Dawson.

And the extent to which the usually apolitical are raising their voices is best exemplified in the carefully corporate sports world. The day after Dallas, New York Knicks star Carmelo Anthony issued an online salvo that read, in part: "There's NO more sitting back and being afraid of tackling political issues anymore. Those days are long gone. We have to step up and take charge. We can't worry about what endorsements we gonna lose."

Anthony's statement led to a joint appearance Wednesday on ESPN's awards show, The ESPYs, in which he and NBA stars Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade, and LeBron James decried gun violence on a show where Muhammad Ali's outspoken political activism, so atypical among athletes today, was celebrated by Chance the Rapper.

The previous evening, politics spilled over into baseball's All-Star Game when a singer from the Canadian vocal group the Tenors altered lyrics to "O Canada," to add "All Lives Matter," a phrase often used by critics of the Black Lives Matter movement.

The Jay Z "Survival" playlist mixes a smattering of newish cuts - Beyonce's "Freedom," Kendrick Lamar's "Alright," Kanye West's "Ultralight Beam" - that ring out in these tense times.

But mostly it relies on songs from the civil rights and black power eras, like James Brown's "Say It Loud (I'm Black and I'm Proud)," Marvin Gaye's "Inner City Blues (Makes Me Wanna Holler)," and Curtis Mayfield's "Move on Up." Missing is "What's Going On," Gaye's timeless soul cry from 1970 that succinctly sums up the status quo: "Brother, brother, brother / There's far too many of you dying."

Those familiar songs are turned to in times of trouble - to paraphrase "Let It Be," which Paul McCartney performed in South Philadelphia last week - in part because they express, along with sorrow, a sense of pride and steadfast belief. They mesh with the biblical tenets President Obama laid out at the Dallas memorial: "Scripture tells us that in our suffering there is glory, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope."

Of course, Americans as a people need to feel all of those things as they try to make sense of a world fraught with smartphone-shared anxiety in which the most resonant Bob Dylan song is "Everything Is Broken." And those socially conscious songs hail from an era - the Sixties - that remains the benchmark when we talk about times of tumult. Hence, the frequent comparisons, as we nervously approach two political conventions while protesters take it to the streets, between the momentous years of 2016 and 1968.

All that leads a socially concerned musical citizenry to seek out old reliables like Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come" as stress relievers, songs born in a time when the fabric of society was torn and the threat of being drafted to fight an unpopular war in Vietnam put fear in the hearts of protest-minded songwriters.

But although baby boomer anthems of societal strife aren't going anywhere - Mavis Staples sang Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth" opening for Dylan last week - recent bloody events are resulting in contemporary songwriters' responding to the world around them with new urgency.

"Tired of human lives turned to hashtags and praying hands," Miguel sings in "How Many," which the Los Angeles nuevo R&B singer plans to update weekly, like a musical news bulletin. Scarface and Swizz Beatz's "Sad News" is mournful, shot through with self-loathing as a learned behavior: "I'd be lying if I said I ain't heard 'em when they told me I was just a n-- / Nothing but a burden to society."

White rock artists have started to join in too, on songs that engage the gun control debate. Jenny Lewis' new band, Nice As F*#k, includes a song called "Guns," targeting domestic shooting with lines like "Crisis is not Isis, spilling our own blood." And Louisville, Ky., jammers My Morning Jacket joined the fray with the electro-funk "Magic Bullet," which calls for collective hope: "I know there's a solution deep within myself / But I ain't ever gonna reach it without somebody's help."

Some of the most powerful sounds are coming from black Britons. Emeli Sande just issued the minute-long "Not Another One," a piano lament that feels unfinished and more immediate for it. Love & Hate, the new album by Michael Kiwanuka - think a young Bill Withers - contains the moving, self-explanatory "Black Man in a White World."

Freetown Sound, the new album by Blood Orange, the indie-R&B project of songwriter Dev Hynes, is an album-length exploration of black identity, with spoken-word quotes from author Ta-Nehisi Coates, and a song called "Hands Up." "Are you sleeping with the lights on, baby?" Hynes sings, advising his loved one to "keep your hood off when you're walking."

The song is a smooth soul enterprise fraught with anxiety, and it ends with chilling sounds of gunfire and the words so many new protest songs ultimately boil down to: Don't shoot!

ddeluca@phillynews.com

215-854-5628@delucadan

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