Reflections: On Loving Soul Music After the Charleston Shootings

This past week’s episode of Soul Sessions was tough.

Over the course of the 13 months that I’ve hosted the show, I’ve gone on the air to reflect for a few moments about Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, #BlackLivesMatter, the Santa Barbara shootings and so many others. Every time I did, I deliberately chose music that I felt would give me some comfort to play and in sharing it, that others who might be feeling as sad about the state of affairs might feel comforted too.

Even when there isn’t some massive disaster or painful act of violence throwing the country head over heels into a ball of confusion, I refer back to the themes that interest me the most in soul music: its connection to social justice. You just can’t get away from the fact that Nina Simone, James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye and Sam Cooke wrote songs calling for change and reflecting on their struggles — they lived in a country built on a foundation of racism. The country deprived them of civil liberties at the very least; they were killed because of their skin color and they watched their children die without impunity at the very worst.

Every week I’m reminded of the strength and power of music, how this music inspired and encouraged people of color to keep going in the face of horrible racism. These songs continue to remind us allies to hold steady our support and help make way for positive change. These songs, even 50 to 60 years later, they seem to tell us not to give up hope in the face of adversity. They also remind us of how bad things used to be, and though we’re not perfect, we’ve made some progress. Musicians like Jill Scott and D’Angelo, 15 to 20 years ago, they encouraged their brothers and sisters to be proud. They inherited a legacy of music, of soul, R&B and hip hop that sprouted from gospel music and protest songs.

It’s very difficult to try to immerse myself in this music every week, and then watch news roll in of the shooting in a historically black church in the American South. It’s just too familiar.

The first thought that came to my head when I heard about it was Birmingham. The 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing of 1963 was an act of white supremacist terrorism that killed four girls and injured dozens of others. On Twitter and Facebook, my friends and acquaintances, activists and journalists posted pictures of the victims who died in that historic violence.

In the wake of the Charleston shootings, it feels like not much has changed. Nina Simone’s Mississippi Goddam and Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit could be composed today. In 1963, the Birmingham bombing was widely considered a turning point for the Civil Rights Movement, a milestone in the passage of the Civil Rights Act and then the Voting Rights Act. Would something, anything happen in the wake of this most recent tragedy in Charleston? Would #BlackLivesMatter turn into some kind of legislation that could change the fact that there are racist people in this country, large amounts of them, with whole institutions built around their worldview, a worldview that kills innocent people?

The first song I wanted to play for Saturday’s show was Lean on Me by Bill Withers. I thought if anything, that song, of all songs, would help me at least feel connected to this idea: “Where ever you are, what ever you’re feeling, lean on me, I will support you, I will fight for you, I will be your friend.”

But I couldn’t make it through the end of the song without losing my composure. There were just too many feelings. I decided to speak as little as possible on the air because my heart was just stuck in my throat and I couldn’t say much before getting choked up.

I felt helpless. I felt like there should be something I can do. I know I’m in Guam, I know I don’t have any personal connection to Charleston, but for some reason I felt like I should be doing something. I really wanted to help. I really wanted to help change things.

As a mixed-race half-white half-Japanese hapa-girl, I had to learn about the privilege I was born with and it changed a lot of my perspectives on race and how racism manifests in subversive and overt ways. At the very least, I wanted to make a stand that I wasn’t going to be part of the problem. I guess I hope that everyone will have their own realizations, that they’ll acknowledge their privilege and they’ll evolve their beliefs about race. But the cynic in me is… well… cynical.

The naive thing to do would have been to wonder how this could have happened. It’s obvious how this happened. It happens every day.

Shootings like this are preventable, and something has to change to prevent them. How do we do that? No clue, and I have no suggestions. I don’t have any suggestions about how to help change racism, either. Part of me thinks we have to turn back time and prevent slavery from ever happening in the country to begin with so that ignorant folks won’t develop this idea that one group of people is genetically superior to others because of skin color. Since time travel is not yet possible, there has to be some other way.

There was no release for me, no real way to mourn for strangers I’ve never met. No way for me to empathize with people who were hurting worse than me because of the shootings. I was just sitting with this sadness, and for the first few songs of the show, that sadness never left.

That’s just what needed to happen. I sat with sadness. I decided not to take requests. I wasn’t going to play “Love Train” by the O’Jays, not then anyway.

The more I sat with this sadness, the more I listened to Solomon Burke singing “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free,” a surprising thing happened: the sadness lifted.

There are two reasons I host Soul Sessions. The first reason is to share beautiful, interesting, funky music with listeners who can appreciate everything from Otis Redding to Bobby Byrd to Lion Babe. I do it to discover and share new music and new ways R&B artists reshape the legacy of their genre.

The second reason is because I love the work and artistry of social justice activists. I love when music makes you “Think” as Lyn Collins would sing. I love when music makes you shout, “I love myself!” thanks to Kendrick Lamar. It’s the music of self-determination and community that I love.  Even though history repeats itself over and over, music allows us to keep finding ways to take part in revolution. The revolution will not be televised and filtered through corporate interests. The revolution will not go away anytime soon. Don’t let it. Be an ally to the efforts of those holding their hands up and chanting “Black Lives Matter.”

As a music listener and radio show host I must continually educate myself in what it means to Eat the Other and continually refuse to do it. I won’t sugarcoat someone else’s struggle for the sake of entertainment. I won’t exploit someone else’s culture for the sake of my own satisfaction. I will continue to try to make myself an ally where ever I can. That is the personal revolution I was reminded of during Saturday’s show.

The Revolution will not be televised. The Revolution will be Live.

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