The revolutionary soul of music: an interview with Shana L. Redmond
Shana L. Redmond is an interdisciplinary scholar of music, race, and politics and Professor at University of California, Los Angeles. Prior to receiving her combined Ph.D. in African American Studies and American Studies from Yale University, Redmond studied Music and African American Studies at Macalester College where she trained as a vocalist.
She is the the author of Anthem: Social Movements and the Sound of Solidarity in the African Diaspora (New York University Press, 2014), which is an interdisciplinary cultural history that tracks the songs that organized the modern Black world.
Today, she is the special guest of MentiSommerse for an interview.
How are you living these particular days?
I have the securities of stable housing and income, so I am living better than many, including the displaced and housing unstable populations of the country (a condition especially urgent in Los Angeles) as well as the service and health workers who risk their lives every day to provide for our needs. The injustices and precarity of so many has been shown in a starker light since the COVID-19 pandemic. Even with my relative security, I am a Black woman in this world; the rage and sadness elicited by the unconscionable failures of this political administration, the ongoing racial and gender violence (including transphobia), and the capitulation to capital that places people in harm’s way every single day is almost unbearable. It is daily draining to live in an anti-Black world that privileges profits over people. Yet, we continue fighting on and from many different locations and with many different talents.
“The old law of an eye for an eye leaves everybody blind. It is immoral because it seeks to humiliate the opponent rather than win his understanding; it seeks to annihilate rather than to convert”, said Martin Luther King. “”I don’t even call it violence when it’s self- defense, I call it intelligence”, said Malcolm X. Do you feel closer to the thought of Malcolm X or Martin Luther King?
I don’t know that either of these lines—though well-rehearsed—account for these men’s capacious investments and intellects. Both are held dearly by me and millions of others for a reason; they are able to cover a spectrum of ideas and feelings and political positions that align with what blackness has meant over the twentieth and now twenty-first centuries. We’ve carried these contradictions and various strategies with us, always, and they include both peace and violence (which need not be a bad word), silence and noise.
There are many artists who have put civil rights at the center of their lyrics and in your book “Anthem: Social Movements and the Sound of Solidarity in the African Diaspora” you track the songs that organized the modern Black world. What are, in your opinion, the four most significant songs about civil rights and black culture and why?
It’s very hard to rank or isolate songs because there are so many criteria to consider. In Anthem, my main focus in defining an anthem was on the song’s use; whether it was widely used, by whom, and when. There are songs that endure—those that have become a kind of shorthand for Black struggle. The first is “We Shall Overcome” (ca. 1945), which Black women brought to protest scenes and became popular thanks to its use in labor struggles in the U.S. south. It then marked the long Civil Rights Movement in the middle twentieth century and was taken up by activists all over the world for decades after.
“Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” (1899) is the Black National Anthem. It predates “We Shall Overcome” but was also carried through oral traditions in Black churches and schools for many years before it became the anthem of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Hip hop has been central to post-Civil Rights Black political cultures.
Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” (1988) was the sonic highlight of Spike Lee’s transformative film Do the Right Thing (1989), and is a loud, confrontational anthem for Black youth who saw the devastation wrought by the ideological and economic shifts that coincided with Reaganism, which included the defunding of the public schools and the rise of the prison.
These issues remain at the center of today’s protests. The most iconic protest song of the last decade is Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” (2015). In it he announces pressing problems with incredible clarity and an integrity that draws listeners close as he repeats “We gon’ be alright.” The song is still used in protests today and, undoubtedly, will continue to be.
– American history is full of athletes who, during their career, have taken a clear political position on the subject of civil rights. However, this has rarely happened in Europe. What is behind these differences?
I think the distinction between the roles played by athletes in the two locations is due to a couple of conditions. One of the more prominent of them is the celebrity nature of athletics in the U.S., especially men’s athletics. Because these individuals are in the public eye, they are often called upon to speak in moments of crisis by Black communities who need all of the voices and leverage that they can find. Athletes have that opportunity and some, like Paul Robeson (early football player), Muhammad Ali (boxer), Colin Kaepernick (formerly of the National Football League), and Maya Moore (Women’s National Basketball Association) have taken it very seriously and are tremendous stewards for their communities.
– “Everything Man: The Form and Function of Paul Robeson” is your most recent book. How this book was born? Is there a special memory about Paul Robeson that you want to tell to our readers?
This book was born of an ongoing relationship with Robeson and his legacy. He was a featured artist in Anthem and he never went away. I continued to see him arise in the poetry that I was reading and the art exhibitions that I saw. The number of times that he appeared made me curious about why he was coming back all of these years after his death and why. Why were younger generations of people clinging to his memory? In my research I learned that there are a lot of reasons but, perhaps, none more than his enduring commitment to the people around him. He was a steadfast servant of the people who compromised his health and lost his career as punishment for his beliefs. Some of the most compelling information that I used for the book was about his relationship to Wales. He is very well preserved there due to his long communion with and commitment to the Welsh miners and their union. A 1957 transAtlantic concert between Robeson in New York City and the miner’s union in Porthcawl, Wales is preserved as a recording and demonstrates his immaculate voice, deep solidarities, and the reverence in which he was held. That he returns today in many different forms, including a mountain in Kyrgyzstan, reveals that he is still present and working for the liberation of African and working people.