Jazzinuf on shuffle is my go-to study soundtrack. Jazzy, swinging instrumentals are usually good for reading, writing, and playing around with my online calendar. But, usually, I’m not reading Saidiya Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments. The way Hartman animates not only the unjust imprisonment and persecution of Black folks, but the vibrant loves and lives that precede those terrible events, just doesn’t work with coffee shop jingles.
Hartman knows this—she evokes the blues: “If their refusal to submit and battle with the law were celebrated or memorialized in The Ballad of Arthur Harris or May Enoch’s Rag, such tunes have been forgotten.” She speculates what lyrics that ventriloquize Arthur Harris might have sounded like, using lines from his trial transcript.
In the notes, Hartman cites Bryan Wagner, a scholar she says “contends that the blues emerge in the confrontation with police power.” Wagner discusses one popular song by Jelly Roll Morton about Robert Charles, who, after being assaulted by the police, killed several officers; this song was never recorded.
Harris and Charles were able to fight back against the police officers, who both initially used billy clubs. Charles was later shot non-fatally in the leg. Today, police using guns with a hundred years of improvement behind them and lethal force with the support of the legal system and huge police unions prevent Black targets’ stories from even reaching the point of self-defense or retaliation.
Music about these killings also has the advantage of a century of technological advance. Whereas the song about Charles was popular but never got recorded, protest music today gets recorded first and is distributed that way, not relying on individuals learning and performing the songs around town or waiting for an artist to get their big break in recording—Jelly Roll Morton was touring for decades before he got into a recording booth. Today, artists like Noname can release their very first mixtape online.
Noname, by the way, is the one to listen to while reading Saidiya Hartman. Last month, Noname Book Club, a nationwide organization the rapper runs online, read Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments. Noname, too, speculates what lyrics might speak to people after a noted confrontation with police power. Unlike Hartman, however, Noname’s work is putting those lyrics to music.
In “Song 33,” Noname elegizes George Floyd and Oluwatoyin Salau, a young activist who went missing in June 2020 and was found dead. She also responds to J. Cole, whose first release after the murder of George Floyd was largely a critique of Noname’s online activism: “shit, it’s something about the queen tone that’s botherin’ me.” Noname asks in “Song 33,” “When George was beggin’ for his mother, saying he couldn’t breathe / You thought to write about me?”
Noname has cited blues musicians Buddy Guy and Howlin’ Wolf as inspirations; she is familiar with the tradition in which she has made a space for herself. She is friends with and collaborates with Chance the Rapper, a musician who, like her, writes and speaks about Black struggle. Reading Hartman, Noname’s words from June 2020, noting those in her industry who were absent from the conversation, rang in my ears: “poor black folks all over the country are putting their bodies on the line in protest for our collective safety and y’all favorite top selling rappers not even willing to put a tweet up. n[*****] whole discographies be about black plight and they nowhere to be found.”
The historical record—and record executives—left Jelly Roll Morton and any Harris/Enoch lyricist behind, but today’s artist-activists are everywhere. Noname wants them to sing, yes, and also to speak.