Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Social Consciousness of Esperanza Spalding

A few weeks ago I reviewed Esperanza Spalding's new CD, Radio Music Society. Not only do I recommend it, but it has been a constant favorite for me, I have it on all the time.

One aspect of Esperanza's art that is coming to fore on this CD is her social consciousness. I have always been aware that she has strong social consciousness; Esperanza almost went into political science instead of music. Her mother worked with the great labor leader Cesar Chavez.

It is not surprising that this thoughtful, intelligent artist, with her Angela Davis hair, will have something to say about social issues.

This is always a risky thing for artists, especially young artists and rising stars, such as Esperanza. But Esperanza has never compromised her artistic integrity, and if she has something to say, she will say it.

A recent New York Times article about Esperanza, The Rookie of the Year, One Year Wiser, highlights the songs with social commentary on the Radio Music Society:

Befitting that lineage the album mingles love songs with social commentary. Its lead single,“Black Gold,”is an exhortation aimed at African-American boys, calling up a cultural legacy that predates slavery. The Wayne Shorter fusion anthem “Endangered Species” comes with new lyrics framing an environmental parable. “Land of the Free” reflects on the exoneration of a Texas man, Cornelius Dupree Jr.,after 30 years of wrongful imprisonmentfor rape and robbery. “Vague Suspicions” is about America’s violent incursions in the Muslim world: “They are faceless numbers in the headlines we’ve all read/Drone strike leaves 13 civilians dead.”
These songs raise questions but don’t exactly point fingers, a distinction Ms. Spalding drew at lunch, hours before attending a reading at a scruffy downtown gallery by the firebrand poet Amiri Baraka in tribute to his fallen comrade Gil Scott-Heron. She listened raptly as Mr. Baraka read, backed by the jazz pianist Steve Colson. On her way out she bought a couple of Mr. Baraka’s books, including “Somebody Blew Up America.” Later she said, about her new songs: “I don’t think I’m taking a stand. I’m inviting a listener into a dialogue.” The difference between those two actions seemed as clear to her as the difference between a lead vocal and the interplay of a band.

I find Esperanza's lyrics on some of these songs quite clever and poetic. For example, for the Wayne Shorter song Endangered Species, for which she wrote lyrics, Esperanza has this clever metaphor about ignoring the environmental crisis: “Mother Nature's trying to reach you, hasn't heard from you in years...”

In the song, Vague Suspicions, which is about America’s violent incursions in the Muslim world, Esperanza's ends the song with the line, “next on channel 12, celebrity gossip...” - quick, witty way to remind us that we often do not pay attention to what is really important. We are distracted by the trivial.

On the Gospel-tinged song, Land of the Free, she sings, “How can we call our home the land of the free? Until we have unbound the praying hands of each innocent woman and man in these lands of the free...” The story of Cornelius Dupree Jr. is truly horrific, spending 30 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. His story is a reflection of the struggle African-Americans still face in our society, and of the Prison-Industrial Complex.

Fittingly, the next song on the CD after the Land of the Free is the wonderful song, Black Gold, written to encourage young African-American men. I had this to say about the song in my review:

A few weeks ago, when the single Black Gold was released, someone commented on Esperanza's Facebook page that he felt the song was ethnocentric, and not very good. Of course, I do not agree at all, it is a wonderful song. But his wrong-headed comment raises an issue that is very important. I think Black Gold has a very appropriate message. African-Americans have been oppressed historically in this country. They have been in the minority. History is told from the viewpoint of the dominant culture. Yet, Africa has a very rich cultural history. As the lyrics of the song and the video point out, some of the earliest civilizations and democracies developed in Africa. Africa has a rich heritage for science, humanities, religion, politics, and civilization.

Also, we all have been outraged by the death of Trayvon Martin, and the refusal of the authorities to arrest his murderer. This was a classic case of someone “guilty of walking while black.” As long as young black men are characterized as criminals, there is need for songs like Black Gold, which celebrates the Black/African heritage. It is a prophetic song for this moment.

I have seen a few people, who while liking the Radio Music Society CD, dismiss what they call it's “left-wing” character. I however, as one who grew up with the music of the 1960's, welcome Esperanza's messages. I like it when artists express social concern. Esperanza Spalding has brought her social consciousness on her new CD to the fore in an artful and thoughtful way. 

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