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How black music shapes history

NEW PORT RICHEY — Cultural critic and author Mark Anthony Neal spoke to students and community members Thursday about the impact that popular music has on social change.

"It's impossible to think about the life of Martin Luther King without the role that music played in that movement," said Neal, 44, whose presentation was part of Pasco-Hernando Community College's 25th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Commemorative Lecture Series.

Songs like We Shall Overcome played an important role in mobilizing and inspiring individuals to act during the Civil Rights movement, he said.

Neal, a professor of black popular culture in the Department of African and African-American studies at Duke University, interspersed his lecture with music clips to take the audience through a century of music and its connections between culture and social change.

The spirit will not descend without a song, Neal said, quoting an African proverb.

Music often includes hidden transcripts for how oppressed people deal with the world, said Neal. Songs were used as a way to code messages for slaves to think about planning a revolt.

"You say one thing but you mean a host of other things," Neal said. "It means one thing when one group of people hears it, but it means something totally different when another group of people hears it."

Neal played a song by Ray Charles called Night Time is the Right Time.

"What is this song coding politically?" Neil asked. "When you talk about working class cultures, folks working 6 to 6 shifts, 12-hour days, nighttime is the only time you can pursue any kind of leisure or any kind of pleasure."

At one point in the lecture, he queried the audience.

"Anybody," he said. "What do you know about Billie Holiday?"

Someone offered that she had been a drug addict.

"Rarely do we think of her as an intellectual or a musical genius," said Neal.

In 1939, Holiday recorded a song that caused the FBI to add her to its watch lists.

She had become too political, he said.

Neal played the beginning of the song, Strange Fruit.

Southern trees bears strange fruit,

Blood on the leaves and blood at the root.

Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,

Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

"She's talking about lynching ... ," Neal said. "Pound per pound, in the 20th century, the most important song was Strange Fruit."

Booking agents no longer wanted to book her shows, he said. She just wanted to tell a simple story about the lives of terror.

Neal played a version of the song Young, Gifted, and Black.

"I'm 3 years old in the fall of 1969 when Sesame Street came on," he said.

"Literally, our teachers, our parents would put us in a room and put this song on. If we don't do anything right, you're going to listen to this song so that by the time you're an adult, you have no choice but to know that you're young, gifted and black."

Shary Lyssy Marshall can be reached at

How black music shapes history 01/14/10 [Last modified: Thursday, January 14, 2010 9:07pm]
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