I've loved hip-hop music since I was a kid. It's filled with vivid imagery, anchored by defiance. Local rapper Nur-D, real name Matt Allen, and I laughed last week — "Yooooo," we said to one another a few times — as we discussed our shared interest in a genre created by Black youths who had been left for dead in this chaotic world.
His 2020 projects "38th" and "Chicago Avenue" detail the real-time evolution of a 30-year-old man willing to address the pertinent issues affecting Black and brown folks in this country today. Something he said in our conversation made me think about the power of Black music and my gratitude for the art generations of Black musicians have produced.
After George Floyd was killed, Allen formed an organization to offer first aid and other resources during the protests. When officers shot rubber-coated bullets into a crowd, Allen got hit. He didn't know the rounds weren't live.
"I remember thinking to myself, 'This is where I'm dead,' " he said. "I thought to myself, 'Have I said everything I needed to say?' "
I'm in awe of the Black artists, then and now, who all asked themselves that question within the turbulence of their lives before deciding their art was essential and the only irrefutable documentation of our story. They had to make music.
That music is my life force, the warmth that pulls me through the chaos and the stillness, refusing to let me drown. I've always turned to Black music for inspiration. It's the tangible testament of Blackness and its power and it's also a living mantra: The heaviness in this life will never take our voices or our swagger.
On family trips to Mississippi, we'd drive past cotton fields once picked by slaves who sang to keep their spirits high. It's where some of the great blues artists, such as Robert Johnson, produced a genre of music that acknowledged the lows but also spoke to our perseverance. At those family gatherings, someone would play the guitar while middle-aged men wailed about a woman who'd left or a childhood dream that had not yet died. The next morning at church, my aunts would bounce in the pews, clap and sing "Amazing Grace," hands lifted, in recognition of the faith that had carried them to another day.
"Black music has always been in tandem with Black struggle," Allen said. "Think back to 'Follow the Drinkin' Gourd' (per folklore, written by slaves to signal the route to freedom). We've been singing since we got here."
I'm glad the music never stopped. Today, I preach lessons from the book of Nina Simone, Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin and Roberta Flack, Black women who lent the purity of their voices to songs of revolution. In 1939, Holiday first recorded "Strange Fruit," an anthem against lynchings in the South that was later covered by Simone and others.
Marvin Gaye, Bill Withers and Al Green, artists I discovered later in life, told me what to say when you love someone. In my teen years, I would fall asleep to Erykah Badu, Mary J. Blige, TLC and SWV, R&B giants of the 1990s. By then, I'd already nose-dived into hip-hop.
Nothing I'd ever learned or read in my English classes had felt as powerful as the late rapper Notorious B.I.G.'s lyrics on his "Ready to Die" album. Rappers in the 1990s taught me how to tell a story long before I got a degree in journalism.
Black music has no shape or form. Only a feeling. It's coming home from a tough day at work. It's the party in your living room once the weekend comes. It can make you smile. It can make you cry. You might do both in the same song. It can make you dance. It can make you jump. (Thanks, Kris Kross.) It's peace and it's pain. It's the Temptations. It's Jimi Hendrix. It's Brittany Howard. It's Beyoncé.
Local artist Lady Midnight, real name Adriana Rimpel, exemplifies the diversity within Black music on her 2019 project, "Death Before Mourning." Rimpel is of Haitian, Afro-Indigenous, Mexican and European descent. She identifies as Black.
Her genre-breaking product refutes any label. It's soulful and breathtaking. It's also real. She said she believes in the "spirituality" of music. Her song, "Bloodsong," offers an acknowledgment of those who've come before her. In "Fake News," she says, "Read nothing but tomorrow's sorrow in the headlines."
"Black music is this need to process what our bodies are feeling," said Rimpel, daughter of a Haitian father who played the drums in a Kompa band and a mother who sang with salsa groups in the Twin Cities.
Over the last year, Rimpel said, there were chapters when she didn't have the energy to make music. She instead focused on employing her efforts in the fight for social justice and sorting through her own life amid a pandemic that has robbed artists of a stage and an audience.
She persevered, however, through those emotions and now has a multitude of projects in the works. Her next release might have a dance vibe, she said.
"I think that being an artist is just another way of communicating," she said. "It's another language. And you can't communicate to another human being without it."
That spirit has survived within Black music for centuries. I'm thankful for our song.
Myron Medcalf is a local columnist for the Star Tribune and a national writer and radio host for ESPN. His column appears in print on Sundays twice a month and also online.