What’s the deal with joyfulness and fear, why are they so close to each other? Specifically and with regard to African and Black music, there appears to be a close relationship that is often misunderstood. I myself don’t understand it, but I’m finding the two emotions expressed jointly in more and more significant places.
For example, in The Black Atlantic
, Paul Gilroy
is writing about an early founder of Black Nationalism, Martin Robinson Delany (1812-1885). Delany was a “journalist, editor, doctor, scientist, judge, soldier, inventor, customs inspector, orator, politician, and novelist,” in addition to being one of the first black students ever admitted to Harvard and the first black commissioned officer in the US military to achieve the rank of major. Gilroy quotes the following:
“Princes shall come forth out of Egypt; Ethiopia shall soon stretch forth her hands unto God” Ps.lxvii.31. With faith in this blessed promise, thank God; in this our grand advent into Africa, we want “No kettle drums nor flageolets, Bag pipes, trombones, nor bayonets” but with an abiding trust in God our heavenly king, we shall boldly advance, singing sweet songs of redemption, in the regeneration of our race and restoration of our father-land from the gloom and darkness of our superstition and ignorance, to the glorious light of a more pristine brightness—the light of the highest godly civilization.
(Gilroy’s text tells us this is from the closing passage of Delany’s first book, The Condition, Elevation, Emigration and Destiny of the Colored People of the United States Politically Considered . But the footnote directs us to Martin R. Delany, Principia of Ethnology: The Races and Color, with an Archeological Compendium of Ethiopian and Egyptian Civilisation from Years of Careful Examination and Enquiry [Philadelphia: Harper and Brother, 1879], p. 95.)
So here we see an almost dangerously cheery statement of progress, and if we don’t read too much into the nineteenth-century verbiage, we might find the “joy” of our title. The direct and appropriate quotation in pop culture is Bob Marley’s cheerful song “Two Little Birds”:
Rise up this morning
Smile with the rising sun
Three little birds
By my doorstepSinging sweet songs
Of melodies pure and true
Saying, This is my message to you:
About a thing
Cause every little thing
Is gonna be all right.
Although I’m now beginning to reconsider it, this song was never a favorite of mine. I always placed it alongside Marley’s other early popular songs like “Stir It Up” or “No Woman No Cry” and more or less dismissed it as merely the economic means to his end of resistance, his real love, that we could see in the later songs, like those from Survival
. But even on that last album we can still see similar songs, like the infectiously bouncy “Could You Be Loved?” In his own repertoire, Marxist country star Steve Earle calls these kinds of songs—deviations from what is otherwise a doggedly determined socialist realism—“chick songs.” As in, songs about relationships, love songs, beautiful songs that have no purpose other than being pretty and good and true.
Already, we’re delimiting, and delegitimating, stereotypically women’s concerns merely because we perceive them to have no practical instrumentality. They are expressive in the worst way. Which is something I hate to do. These songs have a place, and that curious place—the place of happy, “high-life” songs—is one of my projects. But I really do love Nesta’s social conscience.
The other significant place that I can think of Bob Marley speaking of Delany’s “sweet songs of redemption”—in what is perhaps the most wistful and exquisitely sad dread song ever—is “Redemption Song,” the closing track of Uprising
Old pirates yes they robbed I
Sold I to the merchant ships
Minutes after they took I
From the bottomless pits
But my hand was made strong
By the hand of the Almighty
We forward in this generation
Won’t you help to sing
These songs of freedom
Cause all I ever had
Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery
None but ourselves can free our minds
Have no fear for atomic energy
Cause none of them can stop the times
How long shall they kill our prophets
While we stand aside and look
Some say it’s just a part to fit
We’ve got to fulfill the book
Won’t you help to sing
These songs of freedom
Cause all I ever had
This is a strange song, because it sounds so sad and nostalgic in my ear. Perhaps the instrumentation does it—just Bob and an acoustic guitar—or the fact that it was released posthumously, and we knew when we heard it that he was dead. Maybe it’s his voice, so frail and strong at the same time, with a great development through the song, nearly crack at the outset and really wailing by the climax. The lyrics, however, are not sad at all. They are positive and progressive and hopeful. They dismiss technological developments that might dishearten us, like nuclear radiation. They call us to action!
I already knew the song in 1987, when Ghana’s socialist experiment came crashing down. It’s a point of pride for me that Uprising
had been the first tape I bought with my own money, three or four years before. In 1987, however, J.J. Rawlings—chairman of the Provisional National Defense Council—banished Ghana’s socialists to Cuba and made nice with the International Monetary Fund. The same year, Captain Thomas Sankara
was assassinated by unknown assailants, and the man who is still president of Burkina Faso, Blaise Campaore, came conveniently to power. From 1983 to 1987, Sankara and Rawlings had been so close, so young and hopeful and successful at really getting things done in terms of public education, health, and social development. In some ways, Sankara was more attractive than J.J., more of a visionary and a peacemaker, less violent and paranoid.
We were “comrades” with the Burkinabes, and working together to advance. The old regimen, under which Senegal alone among the former French colonies would stand against capitalism, was crumbling. There was even an idea that Ghana and Burkina could unite. But of course the capitalists were unhappy.
When Sankara was killed, I remember reading this line under the masthead in the Ghanaian government daily, the People’s Daily Graphic:
“How Long Shall They Kill Our Prophets, While We Stand Aside and Look?”
I was 12, and I didn’t realize at the time that Rawlings, too, was in the process of selling out to stay in power. Perhaps this gesture from a radical editor of the paper was one of the last radical things he did. In any case, “We”—the government of Ghana—did stand aside and look. A few years later People’s was dropped from the paper’s masthead. Sankara Circle in Accra, though, had to wait until after John Kuffuor was elected in 2000 before the name could be conveniently taken off. On this old map
, "Captain Thomas Sankara Circle" can still be seen, north of "Ringway Estate." Sankara Circle is now “Ako Adjei Flyover
,” and Thomas Sankara has officially been forgotten by Ghanaians.
(I don't have anything against Dr. Ebenezer Ako Adjei
(1916-2002), the last surviving member of the "Big Six" leaders who oversaw Ghana's independence movement until being swept aside by Kwame Nkrumah. Some, like Adjei and J.B. Danquah
, were later imprisoned, persecuted, and killed by Nkrumah, acts that earned the left the undying hatred of the right, the Danquah-Busia tradition currently incarnated in the ruling National Patriotic Party. Rawlings already paid tribute to Prof. Danquah with a statue at Danquah Circle, just to the south of the former Sankara Circle.)
What’s really sad is that, the only reason we went to Burkina Faso was because Ghana’s economy was in a severe recession. We went to buy canned food and basic staples. And cassettes. Yeah, I bought Uprising
from a street vendor in Ouagadougou at some point when Sankara was in power. And there was a lot of guilty pleasure in Ghana after 1987.
That year, the factories started producing again, and we could buy consumer goods in the stores. The economy had been in such shambles by the late 1970s, it was a novelty for me to think of buying bread or ice cream or orange juice on the street in Bolgatanga, since I couldn't remember being able to do something like that. (I was 4 years old on June 4, 1979, when Rawlings took over the first time.)
And so began my guilt at reaping the benefits of an unjust system. And of course, the injection of cash that Rawlings used to start up the food factories again and rebuild the infrastructure eventually led to much bigger money once the right-wingers came to power in 2000 and brought the present chaos, crime, and corruption that free-market capitalism appears to be wreaking on Ghana. Along with liberal democracy, which gives us an outlet for political action. Along with economic development, which gives us jobs. And along with open markets, which gives us cheap trinkets on which we're free to waste our hard-earned money.
How long? I guess a little bit longer. At least we have some sweet songs to keep us going until that day of redemption.