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Music has long been a driving force behind movements for social justice and racial equality. Hymns, gospel music and spirituals, collectively known as freedom songs, were central in the struggle for civil rights. Black American popular music helped frame the movement for the rest of the nation. Who can forget the stirring anguish of Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam,” a battle cry that transformed music into a weapon against violence and oppression that sadly continues to resonate today?
Decades later, spurred by the senseless killings of Black people at the hands of police, grassroots Black Lives Matter protesters marched, danced and sang to anthemic rallying cries released by pop, R&B and hip-hop artists like Beyoncé, Kendrick Lamar, and D’Angelo, to name a few.
Black Lives: From Generation to Generation, a new double album produced by Stefany Calembert, founder of the Brussels-based label and music agency Jammin’colorS, adds to the collective sonic salvo. The collaborative effort of a remarkable array of more than 60 Black musicians and composers across genres, generations, cultures and nationalities was commissioned to create 20 original tracks reflecting on racism and its effects on the Black diaspora. “These musicians touched me before coming together on this album and that’s why I chose them,” says Calembert, reached by Zoom in March at home in Brussels. “For me, they were humanly and musically at the top. This group of musicians has something very special.”
Calembert, who grew up in Europe, never ceased to be dismayed by the acts of racism against Black people and minorities that she witnessed throughout her life. But like many others around the world, the brutal killing of George Floyd was a tipping point. “I just said, ‘I cannot take it anymore,’” Calembert recalls. Having received a loan from the Belgian government to keep her small business afloat during the pandemic, she opted instead to align her limited resources to her convictions in the best way she knew how — through music.
Calembert relied on her and husband, veteran bassist Reggie Washington’s, connections, diligently assembling a collective that includes Washington, as well as: Malian bandleader Cheick Tidiane Seck, American vocalist Alicia Hall Moran, American saxophonists Oliver Lake and Marcus Strickland, Guadeloupe-born Gwoka saxophonist Jacques Schwarz-Bart and South African vocalist Tutu Puoane, among many others. The vast amalgam of artists was united by their experiences, lineages and a desire to offer a musical response to one of greatest moral challenges of our times. “It was also important to me to say, ‘Stef, you shut up and let others speak about what they know, because you are angry, you feel horrible about plenty of things, but you cannot speak for a Black person,’” Calembert explains. “What is important is to have all these voices say what they have to say because they live it.”
Recorded between February and April 2021, against the backdrop of a still-raging pandemic and the ever-evolving racial reckoning of our times, the tracks on Black Lives confidently hopscotch across an all-encompassing assortment of musical styles — from Afro-Caribbean jazz to hip-hop, classical to funk, and opera to spoken word. And while there’s no shortage of music that confronts otherness and discrimination, moments celebrating the rich nuances of Black joy and resilience abound in the hope pouring out of trumpeter Jeremy Pelt’s “Anthem for a Better Tomorrow,” the contagious camaraderie spread through Martinique-born pianist Grégory Privat’s “Friendship,” and in Schwarz-Bart’s elegantly flowing ballad “Dreaming of Freedom (For Tony).”
A third and deeply personal element woven into the fabric of Black Lives is the importance of community and the familial ties that bind some of the musicians. In addition to Calembert and Washington, other families on the album include Lake and his brother, drummer Gene Lake; Strickland and his drummer twin, E.J. Strickland; and brothers David and Marque Gilmore. Hall Moran’s “Walk” speaks to a mother’s concern about her sons growing up within the paradigm of white supremacy, while husband-and-wife team Schwarz-Bart and singer Stephanie McKay collaborated with their 12-year-old son Ezra on “Phenomenon,” a song about joy and resiliency as a form of resistance.
“We don’t want our son to only believe the narrative that is given to him in society,” says McKay, reached by phone in Massachusetts. “We want him to understand his personal power, like so many others before him, in that he can take that energy and reframe it, reimagine it, and turn it into something beautiful. And this was an opportunity to model that for him.” — Lissette Corsa