Using Music as an Escape in the Black Community

A view down an alley

An escape leads somewhere new. Be careful to not get stuck in that moment of safety.

A few notes float across my consciousness as I lie awake at 4:00 a.m., coasting through a gray night, inundated with news posts on TV, Facebook, and whatever meme posts about the failure of the American system come up. As a young boy, I was told—so often it felt scripted—that America was never going to work for me, that I would always be against it.

This internalized message gave way to a commonplace depression known in most black communities: a simple harsh truth that life isn’t and never will be fair, that the prosecution of our grandparents and the killings of our aunts and uncles are far too close to forget, that those ghosts are generational. With the sorrow of ancestors stacking worlds on our shoulders we became hard and cruel, products of the image we were presented, our escape was inward, as outside shows of strength were taken as aggression, joy as weakness.

Those escapes inward take many forms, but the most prevalent is in music, where all of us boys and girls can be the kings and queens of our own realms. Music is the first step into a new world. One of the first pieces of music that I can remember was “Green Hill Zone,” created for Sega in ’91, the same year as I was born. That song and that game got me through my parents’ fights, a haven where I could make stories. It was in 1997 that I truly began to feel what music and games could be, as many of my generation did, with the advent of Final Fantasy VII and the work of composer Nobuo Uematsu. VII was a game that bled emotion in every note and was my first true experience stepping into music that was more than a background—this was a way to truly tell a story and express yourself! It was also around this time that I began listening to the radio with attention.

“Dreams” by the Cranberries is far and away still one of the most-played songs on all of my music playing devices. Its almost haunting tone lent itself to my first experience with images of deeper emotion in music, and still to this day I look for the raw joyous love that can be found in that song. As time stretched on and I matured, I stepped back into a realm of music that I had been exposed to when I was younger but long since neglected: R&B, soul, and hip-hop, a land of terms foreign to me in music that flowed in everyday conversation. Here I found the voice of my people, the effortless swagger that accompanies the beat. It promised an escape, if not a doorway then at least a window out of the hard exterior of being young and black, a step beyond the anger of seeing fear in the eyes of grown adults, beyond the ridicule of peers. This was the promised land, this music, Digital Underground, Grandmaster Flash, Stevie Wonder, Prince. These names were and still are to this day immortals, the folk heroes of a defiant people, they are our freedom. and held in the collective consciousness as pinnacle to aspire and pay homage to.

Today those young adults like me who grew up in ’90s use music to demonstrate an open defiance of and anger with the systems of oppression that kept down our parents and grandparents. New idols rise to stand up for mental issues (Kid Cudi with Passion, Pain & Demon Slayin’), relationships (Frank Ocean with Blonde), and even whole cities to voice their frustrations and provide platforms for movements, leaving escapism behind in favor of the soundtrack to revolution. Artists such as Kendrick Lamar and his “The Blacker the Berry” express in no uncertain terms the feeling of an entire swath of young black men with a visceral intensity that ushers forward the discussion of race relations and does not allow the listener to excuse themselves. They open a dialog that refuses to be ignored, and in doing so they awaken a new perspective.

The danger when listening to these songs and feeling their words are our own is that we take the progress they’ve made as our own, too, and we celebrate without furthering the work for which they’ve laid the foundation. If we cocoon ourselves in the music without looking beyond, we are doomed to a life of just barely moving forward; the voices and idols we’ve aspired to will always be on pedestals beyond our reach. To get there, we have to move past the moment of reverie, get up, and get mobile. Use the voices to help us make our own voices stronger and engage with the public. Write, sing, talk, dance, but do it where everyone can see. This is how we can move beyond coping with a world that only permits us to live and begin to thrive.

Remember that fear and hate are born when people have no exposure to something, so let us expose our wounds and words to the world, and people will come to us. Remember that through exposure comes understanding, and that is how we make a better world than the one our parents knew.

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