The murder of George Floyd was a tipping point for the Black Lives Matter movement during this current pandemic. The Coronavirus has been distressing the African American community. They are struggling to earn their income because of the lockdown and they have most virus infections. This is a result of historic structural issues that keep them at the bottom of American society. Christopher Cooper’s confrontation with a belligerent dog walker who refused to follow the park rules and leash her dog stoked the spirit of this social justice movement. She called the police and lied about being attacked by a Black man when he confronted her. This incident exposed the ways white privilege works. It could’ve been fatal for Christopher Cooper had he not recorded it. Ahmed Aubrey and Breonna Taylor were not so fortunate. They were murdered.
The cops that killed Breonna Taylor have still not been sent to prison.
When George Floyd died, Black America went to protest! They filled the streets of every major city in that country. There were protests around the world. Colonising countries had to reckon with their wicked past in ways they have never done before.
The classical music world was not spared. The calls to de-colonise music education grew louder. There was a possibility that “Rule, Britannia!”, “Jerusalem” and “Land of hope and glory”- perennials at the BBC Proms concerts – would be cut from the programme because of their associations with colonisation and slavery. They were performed. The organisers commissioned a Black composer, Errollyn Wallen to create a new arrangement of “Jerusalem” and “Land of Hope and Glory”. South African soprano, Golda Schultz was the soloist. Her participation in the concert as a ‘coloured’ South African adds an interesting flavour to this moment.
A few days before the Black Lives Matter Protests I discovered and shared Nina Simone’s brilliant version of the jazz standard, “You can have him”. The speaker in this song is disappointed by their beloved’s actions and says to his paramour that they can have him. It is very clear from the text that the speaker is still deeply in love. Why would you want to give your beloved a baby every year?
Ms Simone’s rendition is sublime. Her piano accompaniment depicts the text so well and her singing captures all the anguish of a disenchanted lover. It is my favourite song of this lockdown and the one I listened to regularly.
This is how I came across the civil rights anthem, “To be young gifted and Black”. I was sad and bewildered by these killings. The fourth stanza of this piece was the most reassuring during this time. It says,
“When you feel really low
Yeah, there’s a great truth you should know
When you’re young, gifted and Black
Your soul’s intact”
I spent time on this song and found different versions by different artists. Aretha Franklin turned the song into something she could only sing. Nonetheless, the different renditions reminded me of the lived experiences of Black people in South Africa and the rest world. We have to fight racists and sycophants to have peace in this world.
Bill Taylor’s “I wish I knew how it would feel to be free” was the next song that kept appearing on my playlist recommendations. The first recording I heard of this peace was by Ms Leontyne Price and the Rust College Choir. She sang it with the technical discipline that can be expected from an opera singer of her calibre. The recording sounds like a folk tune that was sung by the enslaved Black people during a rare moment of rest.
After I began teaching my singing students remotely. I had to focus on teaching their repertoire. I will share John Legend’s version of “I wish I knew how it feels to be free’ when I introduce the piece to my students. I hope this will lead us to a conversation on Nina Simone, whose rendition is my favourite, and how her music and work in social justice is still relevant today.
Sandile Mabaso 21 September 2020 in