When Black Artists Become Activists

Thursday, February 18, 2016 Written by 
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While black entertainers may be excluded from the short list of Academy Award nominees this year, their presence is being felt strongly through other high profile platforms.

 

Kendrick Lamar picked up 5 Grammys on Feb. 15, and more importantly, captured the world’s attention during music’s most watched awards show.  Dressed in prison gear, his hands in shackles, and his band caged behind bars, Lamar performed a rap medley of "The Blacker the Berry," a comment on the fact that 1 in 15 black men are incarcerated, followed by “Alright,” which featured performers dancing to African drums around a bon fire that symbolized freedom.  He received a standing ovation.

 

Lamar’s performance comes just one week after Beyonce surprised millions of viewers with a Super Bowl performance which gave a nod to the Black Panthers, Malcolm X and Black Lives Matter.  Dressed in military gear, with 50 dancers donning the iconic Panther black berets, her “Formation” video was a collage of images chronicling injustice endured by African Americans, from police shootings to the painfully slow response to Hurricane Katrina victims in New Orleans.  

 

With deep pockets and a staunchly supportive fan base, it is unlikely Beyonce will suffer much financial fallout for coming out politically.  Hubby Jay-Z recently donated $1.5 million to Black Lives Matter through his music streaming company.  

 

Other artists like singer, songwriter, classical pianist, arranger, and civil rights activist Nina Simone have paid a steeper price.  

 

Simone’s career began in the late 50s, with a broad vocal range which incorporated jazz, soul, gospel, pop and classical music.  By 1964, the lyrical content of her songs had turned to addressing racial injustice.  She sang about the killing of civil rights leader Medgar Evers in Mississippi and the bombing of an Alabama church that killed 4 innocent black girls. Her collection of soulful ballads gave way to more political anthems, like “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” which was rerecorded by Nora Jones and Indie Arie decades later.  

 

When political activism became a dominant theme in her music, Simone’s celebrity took a downturn.  Radio stations refused to play her music.  Venues were hesitant to book her, fearing she would speak her mind on stage. Simone’s outspokenness against injustice prevented her from achieving the artistic recognition that her talent deserved.  

 

During the last years of her life, the woman who once sold out concert halls, played at small clubs for a couple hundred dollars a night. She died in Paris in 2003 after suffering many years with breast cancer.  A new documentary, “What Happened, Miss Simone?” is currently airing on Netflix. 

 

At the end of the 1970s, Simone reflected that “artists who don’t get involved in preaching messages are probably happier.”

 

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