By Tim Allen and Meghann Wilhoite
Beginning the 26th of December, a globe-spanning group of millions of people of African descent will celebrate Kwanzaa, the seven-day festival of communitarian values created by scholar Maulana Karenga in 1966. The name of the festival is adapted from a Swahili phrase that refers to “the first fruits,” and is meant to recall ancient African harvest celebrations. Karenga drew upon traditional African philosophy to select the seven organizing principles (the Nguzo Saba) that structure the observance of Kwanzaa: umoja (unity), kujichagulia (self-determination), ujima (collective work and responsibility), ujamaa (cooperative economics), nia (purpose), kuumba (creativity), and imani (faith). Each day of Kwanzaa celebrates one of these principles, chosen for their emphasis on strengthening bonds of family, culture, and community among people of African descent.
In anticipation of Kwanzaa, the editors of Oxford Music Online and the Oxford African American Studies Center have put together a short playlist that celebrates the festival’s seven principles. Although these songs are not specifically tied to the Nguzo Saba, we feel that each piece embodies an important aspect of its corresponding principle. We could, of course, expand the list with hundreds of other tracks that are equally pertinent to the philosophy underpinning Kwanzaa. This selection is merely a starting point.
“Happy Kwanzaa”—Teddy Pendergrass (2001)
Our first pick, Teddy Pendergrass’s “Happy Kwanzaa,” provides an overview of the principles of the festival, and is one of the few Kwanzaa-specific songs ever produced by a major recording artist. The track is a smooth, buoyant R&B jam that not only lists the seven Nguzo Saba, but also expresses the joy to be found in celebrating them.
“Nation Time (Part 1)”—Joe McPhee (1971)
Joe McPhee’s funky free jazz classic “Nation Time” shares a title with a 1970 Amiri Baraka poem and captures the spirit of umoja (unity) that undergirded Baraka’s dream of black nationalism. (See below for more on Baraka.) In the early years of the Black Power movement, “nation time” referred to an ideal of African American political and economic cooperation that would result in a new black nation.
McPhee’s composition, recorded live at Vassar College, begins with a short call-and-response between the saxophonist and the audience: “What time is it? NATION TIME!” The band then launches into a fast-paced, densely-layered 18-minute piece that manages to showcase saxophone, piano, trumpet, bass, and organ, evoking Coltrane, soul jazz, early funk, and R&B in equal measure. However, the genius of the arrangement lies in the way in which all of these disparate elements are held together—unified—in an engaging, melodic fashion.
“Ain’t Got No, I Got Life”—Nina Simone (1968)
Nina Simone’s “Ain’t Got No, I Got Life” is the perfect embodiment of the principle of kujichagulia (self-determination). The song is divided into two parts, the first part using a minor-inflected groove to underlay lyrics written from the perspective of someone who has nothing in the way of family, love, or possessions. After a brief bridge in which the energy builds and the lyrics ask “why am I alive anyway?”, the second part begins, using a major-inflected groove to underlay a triumphant enumeration of what the person does have: arms, legs, ears, freedom—but, most importantly, life.
“What’s Happening Brother”—Marvin Gaye (1971)
Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Happening Brother” asks questions central to the principle of ujima (collective work and responsibility) within the context of someone (purportedly Gaye’s younger brother Frankie) returning home from the Vietnam War. The music itself is full of chromatic twists and turns, slickly navigating the central key and its related modes, as the song’s protagonist finds his way back into home life.
“Say it Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud”—James Brown (1968)
The principle of ujamaa (cooperative economics) is perhaps not one that lends itself easily to expression in music, but it probably wouldn’t find a clearer statement than in James Brown’s anthemic “Say it Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud.” The entire second verse of the song addresses systemic economic exploitation (“But all the work I did was for the other man”) and a solution that entails both personal agency and economic cooperation: “Now we demand a chance to do things for ourselves/We’re tired of beating our head against the wall/And working for someone else.” There’s definitely more to this song than its eminently-shoutable chorus.
“The World Is Yours”—Nas (1994)
Nas’s seminal “The World Is Yours” finds him rapping about the demands and tragedies of urban life in New York City, seemingly a million miles away from the fundamental Kwanzaa principle of nia (purpose). But while Nas doesn’t seem to hold out much hope for himself (“Born alone, die alone, no crew to keep my crown or throne”), he envisions a future in which his as-yet-unborn son will learn from his father’s mistakes and make the world his own. “My strength, my son, the star, will be my resurrection,” Nas says, confident in the knowledge that his son will find a purpose that will uplift them both. Pete Rock’s chorus (“It’s mine, it’s mine, it’s mine/Whose world is this?”) on the track is unforgettable, too, keeping nothing back in promising the world to those who endeavor to take it.
“Black Art”—Amiri Baraka (1965)
Amiri Baraka’s poem “Black Art” addresses the principle of kuumba (creativity) directly, but rather than engage with traditional ideas of beauty or aesthetics, the piece focuses, at least initially, on art’s ability to upset and destroy. In one of the poem’s early stanzas, for example, Baraka declares with a shout, “We want ‘poems that kill.’/Assassin poems, Poems that shoot/Guns.” The poem is a raw expression of outrage, full of anger and violence, that can be painful to listen to today.
“Black Art” ends, however, with a burst of positivity:
Let Black people understand/that they are[...]/
[P]oems & poets &/all the loveliness here in the world/
We want a black poem. And a/black world.
This coda comes across as an unexpected, inspirational call to unity. Nevertheless, the social implications of Baraka’s “black poem,” as delineated in the piece’s vicious early verses, have the potential to leave the listener severely troubled.
In this recording, Baraka speaks over an improvised track performed by an all-star avant-garde jazz band that included Sunny Murray on drums, Don Cherry on trumpet, and Albert Ayler on tenor sax. Ayler’s staccato bursts and Murray’s cymbal washes fill the spaces that surround Baraka’s words to create a thick, disorienting sonic cloud that amplifies the tension generated by the poem.
“Keep Ya Head Up”–Tupac (1993)
The seventh principle of Kwanzaa is imani (faith), which encourages African Americans to believe in the righteousness of the struggle for equality. Tupac Shakur’s “Keep Ya Head Up” is an anthem to strength and resilience in the face of devastating tragedies in life—but the title of the song keeps returning: no matter how impossible it seems, you have to keep fighting for what’s right.
Tim Allen is an Assistant Editor for the Oxford African American Studies Center. You can follow him on Twitter @timDallen. Meghann Wilhoite is an Assistant Editor at Grove Music/Oxford Music Online, music blogger, and organist. Follow her on Twitter at @megwilhoite. Read her previous blog posts on Sibelius, the pipe organ, John Zorn, West Side Story, and other subjects.
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