If you pay attention to the threads of music history, music and politics have a complicated interwoven pattern.
The political thread comes and goes, particularly in certain trends of pop music. But in 2016, the thread of politics is inextricably intertwined with pop music innovation, and it is perhaps more visible than ever.
Kendrick Lamar has seen a lot of press in recent years for his vocal support of the Black Lives Matter movement. For those living under a rock, his song ‘Alright’ became a de-facto anthem for the movement, and his live performance at the 2015 Grammys was probably the most powerful and politically charged the famously middle of the road event has ever seen.
All three singles from the critically acclaimed To Pimp a Butterfly became emblematic of the uproar over continued systematic oppression of Black Americans, but the one I find most interesting in terms of its pop history context is King Kunta. I see the piece as a conscious continuance of a long legacy of Black music as protest.
The song nods to many key figures in Black music history, such as George Clinton, Michael Jackson, Jay Z, Compton hip hop legends Dr. Dre and 2Pac, but for me the most interesting reference is to James Brown. King Kunta is said to have sampled the groove from Brown’s 1973 song, “The Big Payback,” a call-and-response revenge tune from a movie soundtrack. The groove is undoubtedly in the same spirit, and there are clear stylistic parallels – listen for yourself to compare below:
Despite this, I see a much bigger parallel with Brown’s 1968 hit “Say it Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud).” This composition was the first song to be played on public radio with subject matter that reflected Black pride. The song was a huge hit and reached number 10 on the Billboard Hot 100,