By Kevin Cooper / Original to ScheerPost
Kevin Cooper writes regularly for ScheerPost from his cell on Death Row at San Quentin prison. To read about his case, visit kevincooper.org
It has been stated that “Freedom is a Constant Struggle,” and that in fact is a freedom song that was repeatedly sung in the southern United States during the 20th century freedom movement, as teacher, activist and symbol of the Black power movement, Angela Y. Davis, writes in her book of the same name.
If it is true that indeed “Freedom is a Constant Struggle,” then standing right beside this struggle, and moving, growing and evolving with this struggle is the music that has been, and still is, accompanying it, music that was invented and created seemingly for the purpose of helping this historic struggle find a language of its own.
Black people who came from Africa and spoke many different languages somehow found a way to communicate with each other, and it started with basic sign language and went to music by way of the drum. Communication by these many different tribes of Africans was very important to their collective survival in the new land of America and new life-changing oppression called American chattel slavery. There was an understanding that working together and finding new ways to communicate with each other would help them in fighting against the inhumane treatment they were experiencing with the yoke of oppression, racism, hatred and inhumanity surrounding them. Their fight for the dream of real freedom mainly depended on them working together, learning together, teaching each other, caring for each other and never giving up in their constant and never-ending struggle for freedom.
So, from the drums on different plantations that communicated with slaves on distant plantations, to the songs sung by the people who were enslaved, to the banjos and other instruments that were made from buckets and pots and pans and washboards, to anything else that could be used to create or make a sound, this is how the first music from Black people was started.
American, and Americans haven’t been the same since… It was in song, and in the singing of the slaves that other slaves learned about the events of the day, or times. No, none of this happened overnight, but over time. As time went by, slaves learned all these things, and so much more. They learned to sing about escapes and other things in ways that the slave owners or overseers could not know what was being sung. They sang about births, deaths, marriages, uprisings, sickness and everything else that was a very real part of their enslaved lives. They sang in happiness and in sadness, they sang to ease their pain, and to forget their inhumane situations as only singing can do. They sang to damn their oppressors, and to pray for an emancipator, and they sang for their motherland, Africa. They learned the power of song, the power of singing and what it could do. They sang about Moses coming to take someone to freedom. They went deep into the woods, or forest and sang songs to God, out of earshot of their constant watchers.
This is how gospel music first came into being.
All of this singing throughout their enslavement during the years of the first arrival of Africans in 1619 as slaves in this country helped to get those people through chattel slavery, their never-ending suffering in bondage. It then went on to help those Black men who were first called contraband, then Union soldiers, or colored soldiers, fight their way into the union army. It helped them prepare for battle, and helped them after they battle was over, win or lose, they still sang. As times changed and people changed, songs also changed, but they were still there, being sung by new generations of oppressed people.
They sang during reconstruction, when laws were changed to arrest Black people for vagrancy so that Black people could be placed back into servitude by way of the criminal justice system of that time. They were made slaves by another name, and went from private slavery to public slavery, but no matter what one called it, it was still American Slavery. These men and women who were forced against their will to work on chain gangs did so by using singing songs to help them cope with that backbreaking work. They broke rocks, built roads, built bridges and dug tunnels and they did so with song coming from their hearts through their voices.
This is the blues in all of its coldhearted truthful form. The people were forced to work as sharecroppers/slaves and had to go into debt to the owners of that land that they worked on for the rest of their pitiful lives. Many a sharecropper sang his or her way through that man-made madness.
This brief essay is to acknowledge not only the people who invented, created and sang the music, but the everyday people who, while living in pain, oppression and hard times, sang those and other songs to help them get through each day and deal with their situation in what was truly a hard-knock life.
From Reconstruction and all of its pain and suffering, Jim Crow segregation reared its ugly little head, and we kept on singing and inventing and creating new music, different types of music with different sounds. From the blues to jazz, to rock and roll and yes, we helped in the making of country music, too. Black people have sung our way through our historical existence in this country, through good times, but mostly in bad times.
All the way through Jim Crow and beyond, we as a people—women, men and children—kept singing while fighting, dying, working, living, praying and sacrificing for a dream called freedom that most of us never experienced in our lifetime. This fleeting thing called freedom came for some at the end of a rope because lynching seemed to be the way that many white Americans passed their time, even before Billie Holiday sang “Strange Fruit” which is about Black people, mainly men, being hanged from the poplar tree. Many others had sung similar songs throughout our torturous and horrific stay in this country when their family members and or friends were lynched.
Before Nina Simone sang “Mississippi Goddam,” many Black people who had to live in the white supremacist and racist state of Mississippi had been singing songs damning Mississippi for its historical ill and inhumane treatment of its oppressed Black residents.
While the blues helped us cry in a public way about our plight in this country, other types of music helped us to say other things about us as a people. Soul music allowed us to dance, just as jazz music did, but only to a different beat. That beat, that rhythm, and that beat along with the blues created rhythm and blues, which is popular music based on blues and Black folk music. Yes, we were there at the beginning of folk music, too.
R&B music, as it was later called, did more to help with integration than anything else in this country. Many a white person danced to Black music, listened to it, and some even stole it and re-produced it as white music. Nonetheless, the music that Black people gave to this country changed this country for the better in its own way.
When Sam Cooke sang “A Change Is Gonna Come,” we believed him, so we fought on. When the Impressions told us to “Keep On Pushing,” we did. They also told us that “We’re a Winner” and asked us “If You Had A Choice of Color,” which one would you choose, my brother”? Throughout the 1950s and 1960s and early 1970s, more revolutionary music, music of the soul, heart, mind and conscience came into being. Too many, much too many to name in this brief column. But when James Brown sang “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud,” light seem to come on collectively in the Black people of this country. When the music program Soul Train came on TV in the 1970s, Black music was at the forefront of the world, more so than it ever was before.
I write this essay because now more than ever before in my life, I truly understand the importance of music in the struggle for human rights. From the historical struggle to the present-day struggle. I am in a constant and seemingly never-ending struggle for freedom from a cage on death row at San Quentin prison. This modern-day public plantation has taken a toll on all parts of my life. As I fight to prove that I am truly innocent of the murders that I did not commit, and was wrongly convicted of, I know that each and every day that I am warehoused on this plantation under the sentence of torturous death, a little bit more of me dies.
I am engaged in this war for my life not to be taken from me by people and a system that do not have the right to take something from me that they did not give me, my life. It has made me depressed many a time, and made me want to give up, even though in my heart, I know that I would never give up. One of the few things that keeps me going, fighting, staying strong, educating myself, reaching out to others to educate them about this barbaric and historical and horrific crime against humanity is my innocence, my cultural awareness of the historical plight of Black people in this country, and my music.
I need to listen to music here to help me survive this man-made madness, just as my ancestors needed the music of their day to help them survive as well. I watched the award-winning PBS documentary “Eyes On The Prize” mostly shown during Black History Month, where there is a great deal of singing in the documentary, from children as well as adults.
They sing “I’m Not Going to Let Nobody Turn Me Around,” I’m Gonna, Keep On Walking, Keep On Talking Walking Up to Freedom Land!’ Or songs like “We Shall Overcome,” for example and they do so, well at least some of them did so, with tears in their eyes. These and other uplifting songs helped to make the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s what it was. It also helped me to understand the importance of music with a message in times of oppression.
So every once in a while, when I get down, or even when I just want to tune out the sounds of this madhouse that I am forced to live in against my will, I put some music with a message in my CD player. I listen to Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On?” and “Inner City Blues,” Nina Simone’s “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free,” Gil Scott Heron’s “The Revolution Won’t Be Televised,” “Winter in America” and “Home Is Where the Hatred Is,”among other songs he wrote and sings. I consider myself an old school funkateer, meaning I like funk music most of all, from James Brown to the Isley Brothers to all things considered old school funk music. I need the funk to help me get out of this cage, to use it to exercise, to make it through another day and get through this nightmare of a reality called death row.
I also love Motown and most of its artists, especially all things Temptations. Though I cannot sing, or keep rhythm, I try… But those people, other inmates who live around me and happen to hear me singing, some of them call out loud “K.C., shut the fuck up, you can’t sing!’ But to me it’s not about my singing, it’s about using my music to practice escapism, because prison, especially death row, is an unreal and unbelievable way to live.
With that being said, I do not let anyone take me out of my groove. I need music, I want music. All music has its place, and the music that has been in the hearts, minds, souls and lives of Black people no matter when it was made it just as relevant now as it was when it was made in the past. When I listened to Public Enemy’s “Fight ‘the Power” or other rap music that has the meaning of resistance in it against the oppressors, I truly understand why so many people have had a positive response to it. I cannot listen to any music that speaks negatively about women, especially Black women who are and have been our historical backbone in our fight for our human rights in this country, our historical and constant struggle for freedom.
I realized while writing this that the vast majority of writers and singers of songs that have contributed to our struggle for freedom can never be mentioned by me. Some I don’t know who they are, and there are far too many others to put in this essay, even though I know who they are. I feel that in some ways by writing this I have done a disservice to the people who I did not mention. There are so many songs and singers who made a real and powerful difference just by opening their mouths and singing a certain song that their contribution must never be forgotten or overlooked.
Whenever I think of certain images of Martin Luther King Jr. I see him with the one and only Mahalla Jackson, who some believe, and rightly so, that she is the greatest singer of gospel music that God ever created. Or Aretha Franklin, the queen of soul, who both were with him often, and sang at many of his events for the masses that came.
The Staple Singers also did their part doing the freedom movement to help bring music with a message to the people who needed it the most, the poor and oppressed. I listen to Michael Jackson’s “Man in The Mirror” and it helps me to want to make a change in my life, which I have done.
As new music artists are born and do their part to contribute to the history of our struggle by way of their music, we all should feel better knowing that our music, like our struggle, will never die. Yes, Freedom is A Constant Struggle, and without this struggle our lives may not have the meaning and purpose that they do now. We as Black people know that it has been said that “Struggle” is our middle name, that there has never been a time in this country that we as a people had not had to struggle for something, even our very existence.
As I stated early on, along with this struggle has been the music that has accompanied it from 1619 into 2021 and beyond.
Here’s a brief list of other songs from the past that have a message and I like:
The Ohio Players, “Want To Be Free”
Arrested Development, “People Everyday”
The O’Jay’s “Don’t Call Me Brother” and “Ship, Ahoy”
The Chi ‘Lites “(For God’s Sake ) Give More Power To the People”
Stevie Wonder “Living for The City” and “Frontline”
James Brown, “I Don’t Want Nobody To Give Me Nothing’”
Ray Charles, “America The Beautiful”
The Staple Singers, “Respect Yourself”
Mavis Staples, “If All I Was Was Black”
Curtis Mayfield, “We the People Who are Darker than Blue”
John Coltrane, “A Love Supreme”
Bob Marley & The Wailers, “No Woman, No Cry”, “Get Up, Stand Up”, “Exodus”
The Temptations “Ball of Confusion”, “Cloud Nine”
Fred Wesley & The J. B.’s “Damn ‘Right I Am Somebody”
Bill Withers “Grandma’ s Hands”
Eddie Kendricks “My People, Hold On”
Earth, Wind & Fire “Devotion”, “Keep Your Head To ‘The Sky
Aretha Franklin, “Amazing Grace”, “Bridge Over Troubled Water”
Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland, “I Wouldn’t Treat A Dog (the Way you Treat Me)”
B. B. King, “Why I sing The Blues”
Jimi Hendrix, “Machine Gun,” “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)”
Curtis Mayfield, “(Don’ t Worry) If There’s Hell Below, We’re All Gonna Go”
Alicia Keys, “A Woman’s Worth”
Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five, “The Message”
India Arie, “I Am Not My Hair”
Jasper Isley, “Caravan Of Love”
Janelle Monae & Erykah Badu, “Q.U.E.E.N.”
Sly & The Family Stone, “Everyday People”, *Don’ t Call Me N***** Whitey”, “You Can Make It If you Try”
The Last Poets, “Kings Of Pain”, “For The Million”
These are just some of the old songs and artist that I listen to in order to stay motivated, focused and engaged in this struggle for freedom. I hope, and even pray that whoever reads this has a playlist of your own to help you get through rough times such as these, especially if you’re part of this “Constant Struggle For Freedom’” with the understanding that freedom means different things to different people.