Don’t be fooled by a catchy tune

How the international soundtrack to Black Lives Matter critiques the present by reworking the past.

Still from “Geen Wedstrijd” by Akwasi, Bizzey.

The US Black Lives Matter movement is not showing any signs of slowing down. Recent weeks saw a new peak in demonstrations during the court case against Derek Chauvin, the policeman charged (and since convicted) with murdering George Floyd, as well as new instances of police violence directed at African Americans. High-profile African American artists have also been continuing their pledges of support for the movement: H.E.R. released her politically charged new song “Fight For You,” while CHIKA posted a series of heartfelt freestyle raps to Twitter and Instagram to address systemic racism.

This new musical material adds to an already impressive range of songs released in light of the Black Lives Matter movement. As many commentators have noted, releases such as Anderson  .Paak’s “Lockdown,” Beyoncé’s “Black Is King” and the cover of “For What It’s Worth,” released by the—admittedly, somewhat peculiar—duo of Stephen Stills and Billy Porter, have attempted to capture the widespread sentiments of anger and hope in the form of songs. On the other side of the Atlantic, artists have also been raising their voices; the Dutch variant of the Black Lives Matter movement was, for instance, applauded and covered in new material released by hip hop acts such as Akwasi, Bizzey and the #Adembenemend (“#Breathtaking”) song project.

Although the active production of these new protest songs has caught the attention of many newspapers and media, the soundtrack to Black Lives Matter not only consists of new material; through the active re-use of legendary protest tracks such as Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam,” Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” and N.W.A.’s “Fuck tha Police,” BLM has been emphasizing the past as much as the present. This is not entirely surprising; Ann Rigney, literary scholar and leader of the Remembering Activism research project, has pointed out that struggles for a better future often go hand-in-hand with memorializing past struggles.

The recent reappearance of Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam” in the form of online covers, live performances, and digital quotations is a great example of BLM’s tendency to engage with the past as well as the here-and-now. “Mississippi Goddam” is closely tied to specific historical episodes in the struggle for Black emancipation; Simone wrote the song during the 1960s in response to racist lynchings carried out in Mississippi and Alabama. The sarcastic show tune quickly became an anthem of the civil rights movement—but it also took a heavy personal toll on Simone. Igniting a backlash in Southern states, it led to a boycott of Simone’s work by the US music industry. The singer’s commercial success took a considerable blow, after which she retreated, disillusioned, to France.

Some 50 years later, the song resonated with protesters across the Atlantic. It was sung, played, and quoted during demonstrations and videos that addressed systemic racism—and crowds in London and Rotterdam seemed to feel as much for the song’s message as protesters in Minneapolis. Strikingly, Simone’s anthem was often performed in an unaltered form; aside from a few localized variants such as “Minnesota Goddam” and “Roffa (a slang term for Rotterdam) Goddam,” most demonstrations played and performed the song with Simone’s original lyrics.

This has everything to do with the implications of singing a classic protest song such as “Mississippi Goddam” at a modern day demonstration. The song reminds listeners of a long and intense history of struggle, and even after all these years, the song seems to say in 2020, the violence goes on. Singing Simone’s rousing song at a protest in Amsterdam or Paris not only places current-day events in a long history of emancipation, but also links the local struggles of these cities to a history of oppression and resistance on the other side of the Atlantic.

There are also other ways in which protest music has used the past to address the present. The Dutch hip hop project #Adembenemend, for example, addresses the daily impact of systemic racism by shedding a new and subversive light on the past. #Adembenemend—which literally translates to #Breathtaking, an allusion to George Floyd’s last words—is an online song chain instigated by Dutch rapper Manu, record label Top Notch, and Amsterdam institute The Black Archives. It asks artists to detail their encounters with racism over a freely downloadable instrumental track. The many versions of the song bring together a vast range of histories and experiences; Manu’s version of the track, for instance, covers the day-to-day racism felt by his children, the success of ethno-nationalist politicians in both Europe and America, the American civil rights movement, the fight for Indonesian independence, Dutch complicity in the transatlantic slave trade, and Zwarte Piet, a Dutch folklore blackface character that has come under intense criticism from anti-Black racism movements in recent years. By bringing together this dazzling repertoire of subjects, Manu produces a new story about the past—one that showcases the widespread and multi-faceted influence of systemic racism.

Whereas covering Simone’s anthem legitimizes contemporary protests by placing them in existing and accepted stories about the past (specifically, the story of the civil rights movement), #Adembenemend critically breaks down the dominant ways in which the past is represented. By linking the wealth of the Dutch royal family to the oppression and exploitation of the former Dutch Indies and the South African apartheid system, Manu brings together stories that are conveniently separated in the canonical outlook on Dutch history as presented in schools and museums. Thus, Manu bridges insights into the vast, systemic nature of racism and the pain of lived experience.

According to Rigney, remembrance is a dynamic thing. Memories of the past are constantly reused and reworked to make us understand our place in the present a little better, and to allow us to envision the future in a hopeful way. “Mississippi Goddam” and #Adembenemend show that remembering the past plays an enormous role in contemporary attempts to tackle societal wrongs. Don’t be fooled by a catchy tune—before you know it, it can kick down the doors of history and change your outlook on the past, the present, and your geographical underpinnings. And sometimes that can definitely be a good thing.

About the Author

Thomas van Gaalen follows a research master program in history at Utrecht University and is also a research assistant there.

Marit van de Warenburg is a research master student in comparative literature at Utrecht University and an editor at Frame, Journal of Literary Studies.

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