Perhaps it all started with “Go Down Moses” or maybe “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” African-Americans have been using music and song for decades to protest slavery, oppression and discrimination. In recent months, there’s been a reawakening of sorts.
Be it Beyoncé and her Super Bowl performance and new album, “Lemonade;” Prince who, before he died, recorded the protest song, “Baltimore,” after the death of Freddie Gray; or Kendrick Lamar’s fiery Grammy performance of “Blacker the Berry,” which shined a light on the epidemic of mass black incarceration.
Add to the list Ben Harper.
To be sure, the Grammy Award-winning singer’s music has had plenty to say about social issues in the past, but now he’s making a bold statement like never before. His new album, “Call It What It Is” does not hold back. On it, he tackles the issue of police brutality against African-Americans in the United States.
“People will get on you when you do this kind of thing,” Harper recently told CNN. “They’ll come after you.”
Twitter trolls certainly have, but the singer remains resolute.
“If you’re gonna test my resolve, I’m not backing down,” he said. “Collective consciousness is change. Collective silence is doom. Hopefully that song can be a voice in the choir of collective consciousness in the name of change – whether that be in the way people act and react on a daily basis or whether that’s a change in policy. We all want our voices to be heard somehow in what we do, (be it) CNN or B-E-N.”
The issue of police brutality remains in the spotlight, months after the riots in Ferguson, Missouri. On Monday, the city swore in an African-American police chief. A day later, a police officer in South Carolina was indicted on federal civil rights charges after shooting a black man in the back. The officer in that case has pleaded not-guilty to all the charges.
For many, it marked a week of progress and change. Then, George Zimmerman came under fire for trying to auction the gun he used to shoot Trayvon Martin.
On his title track, Harper is taking a strong stand about shootings of unarmed black men.
Harper singles out three cases:
–Trayvon Martin: The Skittles-carrying, hoodie-wearing teenager was shot to death by George Zimmerman in Florida in 2012. The former neighborhood watchman was later acquitted of second-degree murder.
--Ezell Ford: The 25-year old was shot during a scuffle with Los Angeles Police officers in 2014. His family said he was mentally ill. An oversight panel found one officer acted improperly, but he was not charged.
–Michael Brown: The 18-year old was fatally shot by Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014 during a robbery investigation. Brown’s death led to riots and looting. Wilson was not charged.
Harper stopped at these three examples.
“Otherwise it would take me the entire record to name them all,” he said.
Harper knows all too well the burden of being black in America. In 1999, he was handcuffed at gunpoint by two dozen members of the Los Angeles Police Department, after being suspected of stealing a truck, the victim of mistaken identity.
“Call It What It Is” was born during a discussion with fellow skateboarders at Stoner Hill in Los Angeles. The Ford shooting had struck a chord with this socially active community and then, two days later, Michael Brown was killed. Ferguson became their collective tipping point. Harper grabbed his vintage Weissenborn guitar and wrote the song in one night.
“In its best day and in its strongest voice, (the song) draws a distinct line in the lyrical content,” he said.
They shot him in the back
Now it’s a crime to be black
So don’t act surprised
When it gets vandalized
Harper is no stranger to protest songs. Tracks like the Maya Angelou poem “I’ll Rise,” “Don’t Take That Attitude to Your Grave,” “Excuse Me Mr.,” “Oppression,” “You Will Learn to Fear Me,” “Black Rain” and “Better Way” have tackled the issues of income inequality, pollution and political corruption.
“It’s what I do,” he said. “It’s who I am. I’ve never shied away from that kind of thing.”
The singer sees the microphone as a way to affect change.
“Something’s going on (in black music),” Harper said. “I hope it equates to change before it gets past a tipping point. I hope there is a shift in the way we approach race in America, especially through law enforcement and black youth. I have a great deal of honor and respect for the necessity and role of law enforcement.”
But, he says, the killings have to stop.