Amiri Baraka’s quotation “The song and the people is the same.” questions the philosophical conviction that the essence of a thing predates its existence and tells us something about music’s nature as an art form created mainly by cultural osmosis. A song, such as any other work of art, is shaped by the circumstances it is created in, by the living conditions of its creator, and by society’s needs and wishes, fears and hopes. It is not something artificial, invented in a test tube, that would come to life in exact the same form at any time in history, in any place; but it is sincere and “real” —a term that leads us to the second aspect of Baraka’s quotation. This aspect contrasts the legitimacy of a song, a musical genre, or a phenomenon developed by and out of “the people” with the lack of authenticity displayed by the industry’s attempt to make money by emulating popular trends artificially. This rational treatment of music as a science and its effort to regulate the taste of the masses leads to a constant battle carried out by musicians, music magazines, and fans over what is “real” and what is not; thus denying music that is not considered to be “real” its right to exist.
“Existence precedes essence” is a major claim by existentialism, formulated by Jean-Paul Sartre. It suggests that a thing is determined by what surrounds it instead of believing in an essence that defines a thing, such as a soul, a deity, or a cosmic order. The latter view would say that the nature of a song already existed before the song was written down, whereas Baraka’s existentialist quotation implies that a song resembles the people, so that it is determined by the circumstances it is created in. A song written by a white, middle-class American citizen in the 1930’s differs from a song written by an Egyptian Muslim in the 1990’s because their realities differ from one another.
Eric Lott applies this existentialist view to bebop, noting that “it is impossible to absorb the bop attack without its social reference, as it is difficult to understand New York at that time without consulting the music” (Lott, 597). This quotation also points to the existence of a symbiotic relationship between bebop – i.e. music in general – and society. As much as music is determined by society, by “the people”, it also helps to determine the existence of the very people themselves in a never-ending dialectical process. Lott draws a connection between the music and the (African-American) reality in the 1940s. For him, “bebop was the war come home” (Lott, 599), alluding to the fact that thanks to rationing and conscription World War II played an important role in people’s lives, so that it certainly influenced the sound of bebop. Especially for African-Americans who fought a war abroad against Hitler and a “war” at home against segregation and racism, the sound of bebop with its roughness was reminiscent of that struggle on two fronts. He also mentions that bebop was a combination of various regional styles; a process that was only possible in Harlem, where thanks to migration jazz musicians from all over the United States intermingled. These migrants needed to improvise to make ends meet, implementing one of bebop’s characteristics into their lives (or vice versa). Bebop’s fast tempo and dissonances can be seen as the result of social unrest and rapid political and cultural progress. Consequently, the whole genre can be described as the musical embodiment of the living conditions of a certain group of people at a specific time in history.
In order to fit in more appropriately to the second aspect mentioned above, i.e. the question of authenticity, Baraka’s quotation can also be paraphrased as “the song and the people should be the same”. Many musicians, critics, and fans are afraid of their musical genre or their subculture “selling out to the industry”. Every movement has its humble beginnings, usually in a club or a certain neighborhood with a limited number of talented musicians. Usually people develop a feeling of possessing the “holy grail” as they think they belong to a small innovative community and that they share a secret kept from the world outside. The appropriation of their music or their style by the masses consequently turns out to be a starting point for their paranoid discussions about what is “real” and what is not. They try to categorize every musician and every song as either being authentic and sincere or as being musical fast food, created with the purpose of making money. They feel unable to apply Baraka’s quotation to the latter musicians and songs, since for them there is no “people” involved in the process of creation of these songs. This clash of the purists who feel they have the right to speak for a movement and define its canon and the ones who use the popularity of this movement to make money and even soften the music to sell it to the masses can be observed in the history of almost any musical genre.
Due to slavery, segregation, and racism there is also a racial component in these debates in the United States. Jazz purists were not necessarily fond of Benny Goodman’s or Paul Whiteman’s success, not only because these bandleaders were not “real” for them (because they did not have the same social background and because their music sounded different), but also because they were white musicians making a lot of money with African-American music. This fear of the white man’s commercially successful but artistically inferior appropriation of African-American music continues until today. Elvis Presley and many other early white rock and roll singers had to deal with the black community’s suspicion because they “stole” rhythm and blues. New Kids on the Block were criticized for being a white counterpart act of the unsuccessful r’n’b group New Edition, which led people to believe that their success was based on their race; and even today there is much controversy every time a white rapper sells a large amount of copies. Bebop was a direct response to this development in the 1940’s. Virtuosity and improvisation were key elements of the music because they turned bebop into a style that was hard to emulate. The intention was to keep the masses, especially white America, from appropriating their music the way they had done with swing music. For Dizzy Gillespie “[i]n those days, there were supposedly hip guys who really were squares, pseudohip cats. How do you distinguish between the pseudo and the truly hip?” (Gillespie, 297). In this quotation “hip” could be replaced by the term “real” to show that the question of authenticity played an important role in the self-perception of such an important musician as Dizzy Gillespie.
There are also a lot of examples for an obsession with authenticity without a racial component. When grunge emerged in Seattle, Washington, it was considered to be a sincere kind of music that came from “the people” as opposed to the then current artificial rock bands that had no relation to their fans and their real life problems, such as Bon Jovi and Extreme. However, for many it died as soon as it became a nationwide phenomenon with the success of Nirvana’s Nevermind and Pearl Jam’s Ten. Whenever a majority appropriates a style, those who belonged to the movement when it was only accepted by a minority lose their interest in it. When people started to dress like Kurt Cobain and Eddie Vedder, their fan base from Seattle felt betrayed. For them, grunge had stopped to be the people’s music to turn into what they had originally opposed – mainstream conformity and a tool of the “system”. Only a few bands continue to be “real”. Although they were an alternative band signed by a major record label, no one considered R.E.M. to be a band that was “selling out to the industry”.
Sometimes there is also a retrospective lack of authenticity. For many bebop, cool jazz, and free jazz musicians Louis Armstrong (and Dixieland jazz in general) was not “real”, because he represented the way the white man wanted to see an African-American. In James Baldwin’s short story “Sonny’s Blues” he is described as being anti-bebop. If we have a look at what bebop represents in this short story and especially for Sonny, then it is reasonable to argue that Armstrong functions as a symbol for anti-individualism, i.e. conformity, and anti-black self-confidence, i.e. assimilation. Louis Armstrong’s songs are therefore portrayed as being created with the purpose of appealing to the white masses instead of dealing with their creator’s life and embodying the social background of the African-American people.
Baraka’s quotation shows that there is a close interrelationship between music and the social reality it is created in. If a song is the people then it belongs to the very same people. This view defies elitist conceptions of music such as the one that is propagated by the recording industry and that was about to be politically implemented with the SOPA bill. This recording industry is also responsible for the innumerous clashes over authenticity. It expropriates the people for the sake of earning money, so that the people develop a manic fear of this process. In the United States this fear becomes even more important because of its long history of racial segregation. Interracial suspicion still plays an important role and uses the language of disputes over authenticity to promote racial exclusivity over a movement. Ultimately, there can be no exclusivity over a musical genre when the song and the people are the same. The white man’s appropriation of hip hop may not resemble the way it was intended to be, but it develops an own, unique form that addresses a different reality in an appropriate way.
- Amiri Baraka, “The Changing Same (Rhythm and Blues and New Black Music)”, in: Gayle, Addison (Ed.), “The Black Aesthetic”. New York, 1971.
- Dizzie Gillespie, “To Be, or Not… to Bop: Memoirs of Dizzie Gillespie with Al Fraser”. New York, 1985.
- Eric Lott, “Double V, Double-Time: Bebop’s Politics of Style”, in: Callaloo, no. 36 (1988).
- Jean-Paul Sartre, “Existentialism Is a Humanism”. New Haven, 2007.