Updated: Dec 12, 2020
Content warning: racism and police brutality.
On the 9th of August 1988, N.W.A released ‘Fuck tha Police’, an iconic indictment of police brutality and systemic racism. In June 2020, 32 years after its release, the song saw a 272% increase in streams as a result of its use during protests in response to the murder of George Floyd. From this, we can draw two conclusions: Firstly, and most obviously, racial profiling and police brutality are as real and as devastating as ever. Secondly, music – due to its ability to depict the lived experiences of marginalised communities - is still utilised as a means of inspiring political resistance. Hip-hop in particular is a genre that is, and has always been, rooted in social commentary and resistance, as demonstrated by songs such as ‘The Message’ by Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five, Public Enemy’s ‘Fight the Power’, ‘Alright’ by Kendrick Lamar- the list goes on. As Larry Starr and Christopher Waterman note, rap music frequently ‘constitute[s] a cultural response to historic oppression and racism’, highlighting the space that music provides to express and process emotions such as anger and grief as a result of social, political and economic disenfranchisement. Starr and Waterman go on to observe that rap is used as ‘a system for communication among black communities throughout the United States’. This ability of music to act as a means of both expression and communication indicates its potential use within the practice of collective healing justice, a framework which ‘identifies how we can holistically respond to and intervene on generational trauma and violence’.
As well as inspiring political mobilisation and aiding the process of grieving, music and other creative practices provide a space for marginalised groups to express joy, which in itself can be regarded as an act of political resistance. In their last album, ‘You Can’t Steal My Joy’, Ezra Collective do exactly this. In addition to the infectious sense of celebration that permeates the album, its title serves as an assertion of resistance against structures of power designed to oppress and exhaust black people. This assertive intention is reinforced by a comment made by the band’s drummer, Femi Koleoso: ’You can steal a lot of things from us - our ability to travel freely, our access to education, our right to a level playing field, even our ability to live life at its full potential - but as long as we don’t forget our core truth, you can’t steal our joy’. A similar philosophy to this one is what led to the creation of Resistance Revival Chorus, ‘a collective of more than 60 self-identified women who come together to sing protest songs in the spirit of collective joy and resistance’. Their use of the word ‘Revival’ reiterates the potential for music to facilitate collective healing.
A number of black Feminist thinkers have highlighted the relationship between such healing and activism. In A Burst of Light, Audre Lorde asserts, ‘Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare’. The description of her commitment to care as ‘warfare’ indicates the violence of the structures which she fights against. As explored by Lorde and others such as June Jordan, bell hooks and Gloria Anzaldùa, the hegemony of heteropatriarchy and racial capitalism strategically depletes the emotional resources of women, the working class, people of colour and the LGBTQ+ community. Healing justice, then, is a radical practice, one that is vital to sustainable activism. As Angela Davis puts it, ‘anyone who is interested in making change in the world also has to learn how to take care of herself, himself, theirself’. One way of doing this, is engaging with forms of art.
In addition to providing a space for healing, engaging our creative faculties can aid us in imagining a new world. In her book, Feminism, Interrupted: Disrupting Power, Lola Olufemi notes, ‘Navigating the world with a feminist consciousness requires creativity, it requires innovative responses to being consumed, surveilled, violated, denigrated, mocked and humiliated’. Although, of course, art alone cannot liberate the marginalised, as Olufemi points out, nurturing the imagination allows us to envision a world beyond the violent and oppressive structures that currently govern our lives. It is this ability to imagine a new world that is the very first step towards building it.
Some relevant donation links:
, Jonathon Bernstein, ‘Streams of N.W.A’s ‘F-k tha Police’ Nearly Quadruple Amid Nationwide Protests (2020), last accessed 16thSeptember 2020, <https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-news/fuck-tha-police-streams-protest-songs-george-floyd-1009277/>.  Larry Starr and Christopher Waterman, ‘”Rapper’s Delight”: the Origins of Hip-Hop’, American Popular Music: From Minstrelsy to MP3 (Oxford; Oxford University Press, 2003), p.449.  Ibid., p.449.  Cara Page and the Kindred Healing Justice Collective, ‘What is Healing Justice? (2017), last accessed 16th September 2020, <https://www.beam.community/healing-justice>. , Femi Koleoso, Ezra Collective- You Can’t Steal My Joy, last accessed 16th September 2020, <https://www.birdland.com.au/ezra-collective-you-cant-steal-my-joy>.  ‘Joy as an Act of Resistance’, last accessed 16th September 2020, <https://irresistible.org/episodes-1/resistance-revival-chorus>.  Audre Lorde, ‘A Burst of Light: Living with Cancer’, A Burst of Light and Other Essays (New York; Ixia Press, 2017), p.227.  Angela Davis, ‘Radical Self Care: Angela Davis’ (2018), last accessed 16th September 2020, <https://afropunk.com/2018/12/radical-self-care-angela-davis/>.  Lola Olufemi, ‘Art for art’s sake’, Feminism, Interrupted: Disrupting Power (London; Pluto Press, 2020), p.88.