A Curated Playlist: Revolutionary Music

When you think about revolutionary music, you might think of music that catalyzed or was an integral part of a political movement, or music that had a message so powerful that it was hard to deny despite societal norms. Well, what about music that says nothing at all? What about the music that does not initially sound like music to our ears? Revolutionary music – more specifically, Black revolutionary music – is not solely about overt expressions of refuting the status quo. It’s not about simply raising a fist, or taking a knee, or yelling a catchphrase at the top of your lungs to light a fire under a collection of people that feel the exact same way that you do. To me, it’s about starting with an idea, that leads to a sound that challenges people to deconstruct their ears, decolonize their thoughts, and reorient their focus to new meaning, new significance, new purpose, and new expressions that guide us towards our new realities. Black music is not a monolith, and neither is this playlist, but I hope that you find that each of these songs serve a purpose greater than simply existing within the confines of their era of influence. They all transcend and speak to us beyond time and space, even if their songs don’t speak at all. I hope you enjoy!

B.B. – Old Alabama

Jazz’s roots are certainly American; however, they are strictly derived from the African-American experience and inextricably linked to African idioms and traditions cultivated both before and during slavery. In Blues People, Leroi Jones (later known as Amiri Baraka) links the blues, jazz, and American popular music back to African-American musical and cultural traditions to indicate how African-born slaves and their descendants (unknowingly) cultivated the music of an entire nation. He states jazz “is a native American music, the product of the black man in this country: or to put it more exactly the way I have come to think about it, blues could not exist if the African captives had not become American captives.”

“Old Alabama” is a Negro Prison Work Song from the 1940’s, but it is is a continuation of the singing that regularly occurred on the grounds of slave plantations. The song itself captures the arduous work that Black people were tasked with completing by hand. It also captures the beauty and unique timing and rhythm that these imprisoned, Black people brought to their work in the face of danger via supervision from armed, White guards. If that’s not revolting in front of the master, then I’m not quite sure what is. Of course, this was recorded well before jazz’s official birth in the 1910’s, and it may not sound like jazz, but this is where jazz started: in the fields, on the plantations, and in the slave houses.

Blues In Space

Yusef Lateef has always been left of center in jazz. As a master woodwind instrumentalist (most notably as a flautist) receiving critical acclaim from his peers, his music still fell out of the focal point of what jazz was “supposed” to sound like to the average listener. After converting to Islam, Lateef focused himself and his work on creating “global music” and incorporating sounds resonant with other parts of the world to make his music far more diverse than what mainstream record labels regularly presented to the public for jazz consumption.

“Blues in Space” is quite eclectic to the ear, yet this song’s motive, composition, and execution start and end with the blues. What makes this song special, yet so unfamiliar, is Lateef’s willingness to rely on notes outside of the key in which he plays throughout the song. In abstraction, this practice is not out of the ordinary for jazz artists. In fact, it’s what makes the blues so intriguing, evocative, and unique. However, it sounds far more unique when Yusef Lateef does it. Like the other artists below, Lateef functioned in his own world and successfully created his own world with his music. However, he never imposed his “global music” on anyone, and even to this day, it makes his world all the more enticing to enter.

esperanza spalding – Formwela 1 (Official Music Video)

Esperanza Spalding is a revolutionary jazz figure for many reasons, but I think it is worth noting her presence and prowess as a woman in jazz and a virtuosic bassist. Jazz has been gendered for an incredibly long time, but Esperanza Spalding deviates from the norms of what a woman is expected to do as an active participant in jazz. People know women like Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, and Billie Holiday for their contributions to the genre as vocalists, yet seldom mention Elvira Redd or Terry Pollard in the same breath for their efforts to break down barriers of what a female instrumentalist can do for herself. Nonetheless, Esperanza takes the bass, an instrument not typically seen as a bandleader’s instrument of choice, and pushes it to the forefront without sacrificing the sound of her music.

From my experience listening to Spalding’s music, her appreciation for music shines in everything she does, but she is also one of few artists that challenges music’s boundaries as a cathartic tool for healing. Her work in the Formwela project is extremely experimental, playing with sound and our perception of it in space, and I think her focus on not placing sounds in opposition to one another and letting it fill space in unique and authentic ways make for an interesting listen. “Formwela 1” is the first musical offering for healing that Esperanza Spalding produces for her interdisciplinary collective, the Songwrights Apothecary Lab, a lab Spalding curates at Harvard.

Find out more about SAL here: Songwrights Apothecary Lab (S.A.L.)


Sink into the ground wide and steady while the burning

Flickers to a glow out the temple of your ear

While the levy of our predicament’s unyielding

Love come flood through here

In and round the walls of your heavy-minded palace

Suddenly, the air goes miraculously clear

Un-cupping your brim of the never-ending chalice

In rushes love’s atmosphere

Body, you’re the bell sounding through the heavy pulling

Ringing out a calm from the belly of your sway

All there is to do now is really re-remember

That love is and tune its way

Body is your bell sounding through the heavy pulling

Ringing out a calm from the belly of your sway

All there is to do now is really re-remember

That love is and tune its way

Thelonious Monk Quartet – ‘Round Midnight

Thelonious Monk came up in our capstone seminar discussions of surrealism in and its direct relationship toward decolonizing our minds, thoughts, and practices. Monk’s surrealism, as well as his sound, comes from his lived experience as a Black man in America. This sound did not resonate with everyone, and it certainly did not resonate with the critics of his time. In fact, his critics perceived his musical prowess as elementary and uninspiring since his movements on the piano were unorthodox to most. However, Monk – like Lateef – was unafraid to build his own world and live in it.

While staying true to jazz’s essential feature of improvisation, Monk’s approach was filled with intention. This primarily shows itself in the manner in which he, literally, strikes the keys on the piano in his unmistakable solos. Despite befuddling the critics of his day, the Rocky Mount native still gained the respect of his peers in America and abroad. “‘Round Midnight” is one of the most recognizable jazz standards ever, and beyond what you hear in the recording, “‘Round Midnight” is actually a love ballad. There is no question that Monk knew exactly what he was doing every time he played, including in this 1966 recording of him playing in Norway with his quartet. Like Robin D. G. Kelley said in Freedom Dreams, the night “represents pleasure and danger, beauty and ugliness. Besides its blackness, with all its mystery and elegance, richness and brilliance, the night is associated with hooded Klansmen and burning crosses, the long night of slavery, the op- pression of dark skin.” (157) Monk’s music encapsulated all of these sentiments through his complex melodies and harmonies throughout the performance.

Christone “Kingfish” Ingram, 22nd Birthday Celebration (Concert Performance)

Last, but certainly not least, this playlist will end where it all began: the Mississippi Delta. Turning our attention to the birthplace of the blues is a beautiful way to realign ourselves to the past with an eye toward the future. While Christone Ingram’s work is not necessarily innovative in the same manner that Esperanza Spalding’s is with the Songwrights Apothecary Lab, Ingram’s work on guitar is single-handedly reviving the blues. In a time where the blues was thought to be lost to technological advancements and musical trends, Ingram’s style of play is some of the most authentic blues that anyone could offer in modern times. Ironically enough, he has cemented himself as the second coming of an art form originally deemed demonic music in its inception. Better known as “Kingfish”, the 23 year old from Clarksdale, Mississippi is already a Grammy award-winning artist, winning “Best Contemporary Blues Album” for his work, 662 (2021), paying homage to his roots in Northern Mississippi. This performance was a livestream of Kingfish’s 22nd birthday celebration from the famous Ground Zero Blues Club in his hometown of Clarksdale, streamed a few days before his actual birthday on January 19th.


  • Cameron Obioha

    Cameron Obioha is from Columbia, South Carolina, and majored in Philosophy, Politics, Law major with a music minor. As a baritone and member of Emory University Concert Choir for all four years of his collegiate career, he served as Concert Choir’s president for the last two school years. While studying in Atlanta, Cameron maintained close ties to home as a museum educator and program coordinator of the Museum Apprenticeship Volunteer Program at EdVenture Children’s Museum in downtown Columbia. Here at Emory, Cameron has served on the Emory College Appeal Panel as a hearing board member and as a student investigator for Emory College’s Honor Council.

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