Words by Charles Odugbesan
There are almost 200 countries on planet Earth and almost 7000 living languages today! But despite our differences in race, nationality and speech, we all understand music. Music is colourblind and music is a universal language regardless of genre. It is the ultimate vocal and rhythmic expression of art and one the oldest of all known languages. For Black History Month, 14HQ highlights a set of musicians who not only possessed sublime talent, but were also groundbreaking artists whose music represented the voice of a culture.
Mum used to ride the ’95 Nissan through Grahame Park singing along to all her Fela Kuti tapes (when she wasn’t hitting her high notes to some Whitney of course). Fela Anikulapo Kuti is an icon in African music. He brought a whole new sound to the continent in the 1970’s, mixing the jazz instrumentals he learned from likes of Miles Davis with the existing Afro ‘Highlife’ music to create Afrobeats. He was masterful in his use of subversive satire and his lyrics were powerful and penetrating. He used his music as a weapon to speak out against the political state of affairs in Nigeria. The powers that be were greatly unsettled and lashed out in retaliation: he was beaten within an inch of his life; his house was burned to the ground; his mother was killed and he himself was imprisoned. Yet he persevered with his music career, boasting that ‘they can never kill’ him or his spirit. As long as he was alive he could use his music to speak out for justice and as such, long after his death his music and lyrics still hold true in some aspects and resonate throughout not only Africa, but worldwide.
Tupac Amaru Shakur is one of the most influential figures we have ever seen in Hip Hop. His rise and demise 20 years ago (along with a certain fellow New Yorker) would shake the genre to its very core. He was raised by his Mother Afeni Shakur (a member of the activist group the Black Panther Party) and schooled at the Baltimore School of the Arts – he had a true artistic craft as a poet and an actor long before becoming a rapper. Fast forward to 1991 where Tupac sky rocketed into history. 5 years, 4 albums including the first double album in Rap and 2 of the greatest albums of the entire genre. 3 big screen movie roles including Juice and Poetic Justice (GO AND WATCH THEM IF YOU HAVEN’T). A 2 year spell (’92-’94) that included 5 arrests. 2 shootings, only one of which he survived. And from that first shooting, the single greatest and most devastating feud in Hip Hop history. Oh… and he was with Madonna at some point in all that.
Tupac was a complex artist. Beneath the Thug Life tattoo, the bandana and the ‘gangsta’ demeanour was a socially conscious, sensitive and revolutionary thinker. All these traits were portrayed through his range of music. The same person who gave us songs such as ‘Hit em up’ and ‘2 of Amerikaz most wanted’ can also give us ‘Changes’ and ‘Brenda’s got a baby’. And all of this at lightening speed – 5 short years. It’s mind boggling to think of what he could have become to Hip Hop… no, in BLACK culture today. He died aged 25.
As cultural icons go, Robert Nesta Marley is always worth a mention! Marley was the pioneer of Reggae music. He was a peace activist who brought the genre of Reggae to the attention of the world through use of strong sociopolitical lyrics and ‘anti-war cry’ messages earlier in his career (particularly in the 1973 album Burnin’). From, 1963 right through to his passing, he created his sound with the help of his supporting act The Wailers (Peter Tosh, Bunny Wailers et al.). When you speak out against authority and people gravitate towards your words, it is historically proven that your own life may be in danger. Perhaps Marley knew this. It’s widely believed that his three albums between ’73-’76, his righteous stance and the increasing following he had led to a politically motivated assassination attempt he suffered at the end of 1976. He would move to London from Kingston after this and adopt a new approach in his music which prompted the 1977 release of ‘Exodus’, perhaps his biggest and most successful album. Elsewhere, Bob Marley also popularised Rastafarianism internationally. Surprisingly it is not common knowledge that Marley was biracial – his father (Norval Marley) white and his mother (Cadella Booker) black. It was said that his father’s absence in his early life greatly frustrated Marley and that was almost ashamed of his white heritage. This led him to seek Rastafarianism as a means of faith and belonging.
Cancer took the great man’s life aged only 36, but arguably his spirit and legacy lives on stronger than perhaps all of these individuals.
I couldn’t choose between the King and the First Lady of Jazz so here they both are – Louis Daniel Armstrong and Ella Jane Fitzgerald.
At the age of 11 Armstrong was sent to the Fisk School for Boys, where he learned to sing and play instruments such as the trumpet. The Louisiana native then moved to Chicago, joined the Tuxedo Bass band and the rest was history. He and his fellow band members would go on to alter the sounds of jazz forever and Louis famous raspy voice, skat singing and charming smile were signature signs in his act. He had 19 top ten hits in his career including ‘What a wonderful world’ and ‘Ain’t misbehaving’.
Lady Ella rose to fame after winning a talent contest held at the Apollo theatre aged just 17. There she caught the attention of band leader and drummer Chick Webb who helped propel her career. In that time, (until going solo in 1942) Lady Ella earned her nicknames and American hearts through classics such as ‘Love and Kisses’ and her first number 1 hit song ‘A tisket A tasket’. Fitzgerald would go on to have a music career lasting over 40 years and yielding over 200 albums in the process.
Perhaps, even above all of their musical achievements, Armstrong and Fitzgerald will go down in history for breaking down significant social barriers for black people not just across the pond but worldwide. In the late 30’s Louis would become the first African American to host a radio broadcast show and the first to also feature in a Hollywood movie. Black musicians today would not have seen the bright lights of Hollywood if Armstrong hadn’t paved the way! And as for Ella, a black woman in America in the early to mid 1900’s… to have had a career which includes 13 Grammys, multiple features in film and television and collaborations with icons such as Armstrong, Frank Sinatra and others speaks for itself. Literally! Though these musicians may not have been the most outspoken in their generation, we can certainly say that their music and their hard work helped define and influence generations that stretch to this very day.
The work of a truly great artist is appealing to the mind, the soul and the culture they represent. So I think it’s very safe indeed to say that these musicians are truly truly great. To Fela, Tupac, Bob, Louis and Lady Ella… Thank You!!