Music can be an outlet of activism in almost any sense. Whether that be political activism or not, music is about storytelling, it is about singing the words that you may be too afraid to speak. Music provides a voice without the need to create the words. Finding a song that perfectly speaks to your emotional state is an unexplainable feeling and one that keeps music as a constant backdrop in most people’s everyday lives.
Political activism is at the forefront of our lives at the current moment. With the Black Lives Matter movement making headway, it is only right to trace back to when artists used their voices to speak on racial injustices in the only way they knew how: music.
“Singing as a form of communication is deeply rooted in African American culture. It began with the African slaves who were kidnapped and shipped across the Atlantic during the Middle Passage. Slaves from different countries, tribes, and cultures used singing as a way to communicate during the voyage…Music was a way for slaves to express their feelings whether it was sorrow, joy, inspiration, or hope. Songs were passed down from generation to generation throughout slavery” explains Erik Heinila with PBS.
This music transpired into jazz music and has since then continued to evolve. One man who truly utilized music’s ability to speak out about politics was Charles Mingus.
Charles Mingus: the man who could ignite a flame and shock the world through plucks of a string and the tones in his voice. A man with a mind that would instill a sense of liberation into the ears of his listeners, Charles Mingus was a pioneer in the world of jazz music. He had a vision of a free world, a world where he was not seen for his skin color, but of a world of harmony, ridded of the discrepancies he so passionately composed his music about.
Charles Mingus’s, Mingus Ah Um, released in 1959 by Columbia Records, was a hard-bop album that stylistically incorporated hard bop, modal jazz, avant-garde, and free jazz. Charles Mingus defied the conventions of bop and the formless freeness of free jazz to encapsulate this time period’s evolvement towards a more equal and racially accepting community.
His music, especially prevalent in this album, had the ability to tell history while encapsulating everything that made jazz such an explorative and malleable art form. He dabbled in many different styles but his album, Mingus Ah Um, is categorized as hard bop. Hard bop was, in part, a reaction to cool jazz, which some artists began to feel was too classical in nature and artists felt that jazz needed to revert back to its more African, bluesy origins. So, not only did lyrics stem from political unrest, but the actual style of music played did as well.
Music, for Mingus, was an art of expression. According to Scott Saul, “Mingus’s music expressed feelings of outrage, jubilation, revolt, swooning passion- states of emotional intensity rather than distraction- and his satire was not indirect but bruising”
Being the fiery, “angry man of jazz” makes it easy to assume that Mingus’s Ah Um was a response to political events at the time of his album’s release. The civil rights movement can be categorized as common knowledge, and the entirety of “civil rights” could be argued to have inspired Mingus’s music. But, there was a significant event that occurred in close proximity to Mingus’s album release that caught my attention. In 1957, two years before the release of Mingus’s album, an interesting event took place in Haiti.
According to “Presidents of Central America, Mexico, Cuba and Hispaniola” by Robert Alexander, Daniel Fignole was a very controversial man in Haiti. It is explained that he was temporarily head of state in Haiti, and was amazingly popular among urban workers. Alexander goes on to say that he was so popular due to the fact that he would call on these workers to hold mass protests; he allowed them to voice their freedoms. This was lacking in the United States at this time. Mingus still felt oppressed and I can imagine that a leader such as Fignole would be supported and respected by Black Americans during this time. Nonetheless, Fignole’s designation was short-lived due to the fact that the US Central Intelligence Agency had their concerns about Fignole and his connection to the working class and leniency towards protests.
Alexander reveals that the US CIA had eyes on Fignole and warned President Eisenhower that Fignole had a strong “left” association and therefore was comparable to the soviets. Eisenhower then refused to recognize the Fignole government. Assuming that this news had made its way to American people, such an event, stripping a loved man from power, would only add fuel to Mingus’s fire.
Mingus, being so open and passionate with his music, could have easily taken inspiration from these events in Haiti to create the intense moaning sound in “Better Get Hit in Your Soul” or the somewhat depressing, bluesy notes of “Self Portrait In Three Colors”. Black history at the time of Mingus’s album release was flooded with inspiration to create an album that was heated with emotions, whether the songs were sad, angry, or simply a response to being annoyed.
Mingus was always attempting to use music to inspire and expose what he witnessed in the civil rights movement. Mingus was bold, unafraid to voice his opinion, and crafted a sound unlike any other. He was the voice to what so many men and women felt and thought but could not say.
To not be afraid of the repercussions of playing around, musically, with a topic such as race and oppression, is intriguing and forever will be one thing that makes Mingus’s music so intoxicating.
So, although this is only one example of a man who utilized his musical talents for activism, it shows that music, since the days before Spotify and Apple Music meant something. It was more than a melody. So, rather than listening for numbing enjoyment, consider listening to the lyrics of a song, maybe something will pique your interest.