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Proglodytes Playlist: Black Lives DO Matter

Proglodytes Playlist is a curated list of songs that I’ll add to each week. Most of them will feature new(er) bands, because the most important mission at Proglodytes is to share currently active, progressive leaning groups with the world, but occasionally I will include older songs as a tribute or a commemoration of an anniversary.

One time I was talking to a friend about why art matters. He said, “History is what happened, art is how it felt.” We are all limited to our own subjective experiences, but we are blessed to have art and music to learn about the experiences of others. One of the most important things to realize as a music consumer is that the influence of black culture on music can’t ever be overstated. Yes, even prog, which was called the “whitest Music Ever” in an Atlantic article, was prominently influenced by American rock, jazz, and R&B, along with more Euro-centric classical music, as the article points out. To try and divorce early prog from the rock, blues, and jazz it drew from in its creation is futile. Prog rock, at its best, was always a fusion of various styles, and thus, a fusion of cultures and histories.

The recent deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor (in my own home state!) and George Floyd have shocked the nation, but anyone who is paying attention knows that racism in America has a very long and challenging history. Progressive rock, if one defines it as “music that sounds like Yes or King Crimson”, might not have a lot of songs that tackle issues of race, but I’ve tried to curate a list of songs and videos that help me see through the eyes of another, and follow the progressive spirit- boundary pushing, complex, challenging. I hope that these messages are as impactful for you as they were for me.

Aaron Emmanuel: “v a p o r w a v e against systemic racism” (on Ben Levin’s channel)

Thank you to my friend Ben Levin for sharing this video by Aaron Emmanuel. He shares an amazing perspective from a black male artist, as evocative music and images are shared in the background. Aaron shares his experience with power and candor, and the result is moving and illuminating. “As long as some of us are bound, none of us are actually free”.

Living Colour: “Funny Vibe”

Living Colour never minces words, and while this video might seem light-hearted, the words and images in it manifest long and insidious history of racism. I have been a fan of Living Colour since I first heard their hit song, “Cult of Personality” in the 90s, but I had forgotten about this powerful song until my dear friend and Proglodytes conspirator Cedric Hendrix shared it on his Facebook feed. The lyrics are simple but frank, and speak to something that my black friends have reiterated to me countless times- “funny vibes” of suspicion and awful stereotypes that I will never experience as a plain-looking white dude from Kentucky. This video includes imagery like blackface, different racist stereotypes, as well as examples of racist language that African Americans in the United States have had to endure.

Janelle Monae: “Cold War”

Over the last decade, Janelle Monae has risen the ranks to pop stardom, as an accomplished artist, actress, and advocate. But I’ll never forget the first time I heard her amazing debut album, The ArchAndroid. While many only heard the James Brown-influenced single “Tightrope”, the album was an incredible array of styles. From the bright pop of “Oh Maker”, to the psychedelic “Mushrooms & Roses”, to the jazzy “BabopbyeYa”, to the electro-funk collab with of Montreal’s Kevin Barnes (“Make the Bus”), this album truly runs the gamut.

My favorite track on this album is “Cold War”, which takes on an even more powerful meaning now, in times of tense division. Though the album is about robots escaping oppression in the distant future, the parallels are clear, as Janelle movingly sings “I’m trying to find my peace/I was made to believe there’s something wrong with me”. Janelle speaks not only to her experience as a black female, but also her pansexuality, which led to isolation as a young girl growing up in Kansas. While her music might be more straightforwardly poppy as of late, this album’s complex story and adventurous musical excursions make it one of my favorite albums of recent years, and this simple but powerful video always gives me chills.

P.O.S.: “sleepdrone/superposition”

Minneapolis, Minnesota has been in the news lately, following a video of police brutality that shocked the nation and the world. Minneapolis based Stefon Alexander, known in the indie hip-hop world as P.O.S., shared spoken word lines that seem as haunting and harrowing now as they did in 2017: “I’m Eric Garner I can’t breathe/We face down, our teeth are touching the concrete/They curb stomping us, wearing a crown in our streets”. P.O.S.’s music has always been brilliant, as it infuses hip hop with a punk energy (P.O.S.’s other acts are punk and hardcore groups), and the words, though a few years old, feel more prescient than ever.

King’s X: “King”

I’m not alone when I say that I believe King’s X might be one of the most underrated groups of all time, despite accolades from critics, inclusion on countless “Greatest Rock Bands” lists, etc. Their incredible fusion of sounds made them truly unique in the rock music landscape. “King” was from their first album, and while it may have originally been an allusion to Jesus, frontman Dug Pinnick has stated: “When I sang, King is coming, it’s sort of like saying, ‘Whoever is going to come and fix everything, they’re on their way. Your big brother, your lover, your God, Jesus – whatever.’ It’s sort of a victory song. A song of hope, of, ‘Hey man, these people have been f–king us over for a long time, but your time is coming – someone is going to come fix this.’ The lighthearted images of the video are countered by images of a young black student, hiding in the bathroom from bullies.

Kendrick Lamar: “The Blacker The Berry/Alright”

While popular music has long veered away from complex and challenging themes (both musically and lyrically), Kendrick Lamar has always chosen to dive in headfirst. His powerful album, To Pimp a Butterfly, managed to blend musical influences like jazz, funk, gospel, R&B, hip-hop, and avant garde to discuss the complexity of racial history and the black experience in the United States.

I, for the most part, despise things like the Grammy Awards for a host of reasons. But, this performance was one of the most impactful videos I’ve seen from an awards show. I remember a friend of mine, who was unacquainted with Kendrick and the album, said, “I found that performance to be totally jarring”, which makes me believe that Kendrick achieved his goal. Featuring images that highlight mass incarceration, lyrics that speak to racism, colonialism, fame, all in a brilliantly choreographed presentation, this video remains one of my favorites.

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