The sound of Black protests

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Zahyia Rolle is a Rochester-based vocalist, entertainer and media production specialist.

Music has long been the backbone of Black American protests. 

From the beginning of the Black experience in the U.S., it has served as a way for people to uplift each other, share messages and, ultimately, pass on their history. While singers like Nina Simone and Beyoncé are iconic for continuing this legacy, using their platforms to create freedom songs, the tradition of Black music as a form of storytelling, healing and resistance began long before these two women and continues to this day. 

In Rochester, many of our most talented musicians are using their platforms to support the current civil rights movement—#DefundThePolice and #BlackLivesMatter—and strengthen local organizations that are pillars for Black folks in the Rochester community. 

The evolution of movement music

In the former Mande Empire of West Africa (now Mali), beginning in as early as the 13th century, music and storytelling were combined and performed by griots to commemorate important events and rituals, and keep historical records of communities. 

When the period of African enslavement began in the U.S. in 1619, stolen Africans carried with them the tradition of music as a form of vital communication. As their circumstances changed, they transformed and reshaped it to support their movement toward freedom. Enslaved people protested their conditions, lifted their spirits and planned their freedom routes through traditional Negro spirituals like “Go Down Moses.” The refrain of the son—“Let my people go”—was a demand that watered seeds of confidence in the Black imagination that freedom was possible and imminent. 

Black movement music, like each movement itself, arises out of the needs of the moment both spontaneously and strategically. Traditional Negro spirituals were adapted and evolved into freedom songs in which activists remixed lyrics and song meanings with familiar melodies, unifying Black Americans on the front lines of a new mission. “Tell old Pharaoh to let my people go” became Tell old Jim Crow to let my people go.”  

Later, James Brown’s iconic “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud” became an anthem for people transitioning from the civil rights movement into the Black Power movement in the 1960s and ’70s. At the same time, hip-hop, rap and the surrounding culture and community was born in the New York City Bronx. It emerged naturally as a way for youth to be heard, release their pain, and avoid self-destruction. At a time when violence and poverty were widespread—and authorities were extremely corrupt—hip-hop spoke to the needs of the moment.

By 1988, hip-hop was in its Golden Age and when N.W.A’s “Fuck the Police” was released that year, it became a rallying cry for those confronted with the violence of police brutality in their daily lives. In the second week of June, the song had a 300 percent increase in streams across all platforms. It will likely be a refrain people turn to until policing is abolished.

The role of black women 

Nina Simone

Women have played a particularly powerful role in the use of music and performance to provoke change. In freedom songs, the performance structure—or lack thereof—allowed women new opportunities to step into leadership roles normally held by men due to traditional Black Church hierarchies (an unfortunate result of the influence of White Church practices). As song-leaders, women like Fannie Lou Hamer—and countless women inspired by her—could galvanize protesters and lead “from the pulpit.”

Women in the streets inspired women on the stage. When the civil rights movement in the U.S. was at a fever pitch in the 1960s, it was a risk to Simone’s career and against the advice of her manager (and husband) to loudly honor and uplift movement leaders and youth involved in the struggle, or publicly mourn the experience of freedom Black Americans never got to have. She did it anyway. When Simone had the mic, the Black experience was not to be ignored

Racism and inequity have again returned to the forefront of the national conversation and Beyoncé has cemented herself in the lineage of artists who use music and performance as a form of protest and resistance. From her iconic Super Bowl performance in 2016, in which she and dancers paid tribute to the Black Panthers in black, leather and berets; to her vanguard Coachella festival performance in 2018 (Beychella), which was a tribute to Black music history and HBCU traditions and a love letter to Black youth; to her latest release “Black Parade,” a ready-made Black Lives Matter anthemreleased in the waning hours of Juneteenth—she has used her art to center and uplift Black people, and reject illusions of inferiority. It’s clear Beyoncé’s recent body of work is a modern Black civil rights movement project.

In Rochester

Zahyia Rolle is one such female artist. A Rochester-based vocalist, entertainer and media production specialist, Rolle runs booking and management for Silver Arrow band. She is passionate about Black music history and two of her projects, Diva Goddamn and the Vagina Musiclogs, are dedicated to honoring impactful women in music in the past and the present, respectively.

I spoke with Rolle about the history of Black protest music, the role of artists in a world of Black Lives Matter uprisings and a global pandemic, and how this impacts how she writes and performs. Our conversation, edited and abridged for clarity, follows. 

“One of the only things that we’ve always had power (over) is our voice,” Zahyia Rolle says.

IRENE KANNYO: Nina Simone said “an artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times.” What do you think is an artist’s duty in 2020?

ZAHYIA ROLLE: I believe it’s the same as Nina Simone stated. We absolutely must be a voice when we have the platform. One of the only things that we’ve always had power (over) is our voice. I absolutely feel that I have no choice as a Black woman, that that has to be at my forefront at all times. Right now, we have a double importance of not only addressing the injustices, but also trying to figure out that way that will unify and make others open to hearing about these injustices, because there are so many people who are very much in their echo chambers and can’t even hear the things that we are trying to say.

KANNYO: I had a little bit of resentment —I feel like I’m forced to be creative right now during this time when everything is so, so traumatizing. I know that Nina Simone dealt with mental health issues that went unaddressed because of the greed of her husband/manager. I always want to bring that into the conversation, the self-care piece. 

ROLLE: I totally agree. Those moments—I have them frequently where it’s like, I just wanna lay down. But now especially, I feel like for the first time in, what 20 years, we have their ears again. Especially with our specific issues right now of injustices, with police brutality … oh my god, N.W.A was talking about this in 1988. So, here we are today and the conversation has been going on for so long and we’re so tired. I really wish I knew how to balance mental health and continue to create and produce and amplify voices, and now especially.

KANNYO: What other names come to mind for you when you think of Black protest and movement music?

ROLLE: People don’t know this, but actually Duke Ellington is another big protester, and he did it in a way that was just absolutely necessary for the time in the late ’20s, early ’30s. He got criticized for this by a lot of other Black musicians, but he was able to translate the voices of the oppressed to a wider audience. Now he’s considered like a jazz classic artist, but our voices were not being amplified in that way in jazz music until Duke Ellington, really.

Billie Holiday for multiple reasons. She not only was very vocal on issues of mental health, and the injustices that were done to her because of her outspokenness, and I mean, of course, the classic “Strange Fruit.” That just (changed) people’s hearts in so many ways when they just had no idea. 

I’d say another one, one of my all-time favorites: KRS-One. He’s from Brooklyn. I think the biggest hit that I can remember, this one spoke to me, was “That’s the Sound of the Police.” It came out in maybe ’93? Really close to Rodney King. He refers to himself as a philosopher and really referenced a lot of injustices through his music and hip-hop. 

KANNYO: How has your life shifted during the world of COVID and the second wave of civil rights, and how has that affected your creativity?

ROLLE: Realizing the levels of divisiveness that have just increased to a very disturbing point for me personally, it’s turned my music a lot darker. I just finished doing another track and I was listening back to it and I was like, man, this is like Billie Eilish type dark! Like, I don’t think I’ve gone this dark before. The energy that I feel right now does not feel optimistic. When it comes to the overall goals, which are pretty lofty, I mean it’s basic for our human existence, but the things that I feel we as Black Americans have to do in order to just have those basic—it just seems monstrous. And I think that’s where the darkness energy is coming from. … It’s a very strange place to be where we’re creatively thinking about okay, how can we keep the hopes up, how can we keep our voices going to continue to motivate people to continue to protest and continue to push our congress members. … How do you create something motivating like that when there’s this current of … unpleasant, nay pessimistic, energy (inside)?

KANNYO: Is that something that you want to do? To be able to process your emotions through music and be able to share that with your audiences? 

ROLLE: Creating music is definitely a form of therapy for me, anyway. But I will say, historically, for me, I’ve always been able to kind of find that light within it. … I’ve always had this kind of way of it being optimistic, almost like irony, optimism speaking about struggle has always been the way that I’ve created. This is really the first time where the darkness is merging with the—(laughs)—which is not my normal go to! I find it very interesting and I honestly am wondering where this is gonna go, and maybe that’s something that just is needed that I’m not even aware of. 

KANNYO: What does it mean to you to be a Black woman and a creative right now?

ROLLE: Speaking on mental health and things like that, I feel like my role as a creative is to be honest about what I am experiencing right now. I also feel like it is definitely my job to create, lyrically, things that will unite people. I’m very much interested in transforming hearts. I’m very much interested in sharing the stories that will allow people to empathize with our existence and struggles that many of us have.  

KANNYO: You called yourself a stage whore (laughs). What role do you think performance has in an audience’s relationship to the song, and what does that mean to you in the way you perform a song?

ROLLE: I completely draw from African roots whenever I perform because my mother, she’s part Kru from Ivory Coast and she was very much into storytelling. And that’s why I take those lyrics so seriously and why performing is so serious for me, and why I often refuse to do anything more than a full performance. Even the costumes, the words, it’s all combined for me. And in that moment of me on stage, my hope is that people will see a new image that would not be in their vocabulary and would now be able to see me as a human and not just what they—not just an expectant artist or a specific label that they automatically tend to place people in. I want it to be greater than that. 

KANNYO: What I’m hearing you say is you take ownership of your image, not your audience.

ROLLE: Yes. And providing something different. A lot of times we are so often placed in boxes of what a Black woman is supposed to be, or what they anticipate how we will sound. You know, automatically, “oh, soul singer!” You know what, actually there is so much more to what I enjoy. I love musical theatre, I love hip-hop and I bring all of that into what I write—and jazz—and then not only that but I bring all of those expressions to the stage. However, I can capture that art of storytelling, I like to present that to an audience and change the narrative. Have you think a little differently. 

KANNYO: I know that when you did your residency at Three Heads, when you did Diva Goddamn, you highlighted Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, Tina Turner. We could talk about why and what they mean to you—if that feels relevant to the conversation, definitely share.

ROLLE: The thing that runs deep with all of three those women for me is … just that voice of the violence and oppression that Black women have consistently faced throughout our existence in these Americas and just everything that those three women went through. It’s just unacceptable that … we still are existing with these things as Black women. And that’s really the double reason for me, not just their civil rights for Black Americans in general, but also just women and our respect. That Black women—who are the nurturers of this country, and still we are treated as property by so many—that’s huge for me. 

KANNYO: Who in Rochester is making music that is reflective of these themes and who is inspiring you right now, locally?

ROLLE: Danielle Ponder. I am so grateful that she has really brought to light—and has done exactly those things that we all are really hoping for, that people will have empathy toward this situation through the stories that are told with music. And I think Danielle has done an amazing job with that and I’m very grateful that she comes from Rochester. 

And then also a hip-hop artist, his name is Skribe Da God. He just recently, through this whole COVID thing, just released a bunch of stuff on YouTube. He’s another one just raising the voices of the melanated.

Irene Kannyo is a technical and culture writer, editor and radio producer at No Labels, included on WAYO 104.3 FM.

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