Even though African American songs may never explicitly state it, they often reflect black people’s consciousness about racism or their experience of racism. Mamie Smith, Billie Holliday, Ray Charles, and Jay-Z: what unites these black singers? Through their song lyrics, they have expressed their negative perception of the existing racially oppressive reality and empowered African Americans to challenge the stereotypes related to their racial identity. In this paper, I will juxtapose the African American performers’ racial rebellion as expressed in the songs of the distant past (the 1920 and 1940s) with the similar racial ideas from a less distant past (in the 1960s) and from the present (the 2000s).
The first African American singer whose songs can be considered empowering for black people and defying the existing stereotypes about the inferiority of blackness was Mamie Smith. Even though Mamie Smith is not ranked as one of the greatest talents of African American jazz music, her contribution to the world of black jazz music was great. In particular, Mamie Smith was the first African American female performer to record a jazz song. When in the early 1920s Smith recorded the phonograph of “Crazy Blues,” she saw as many as 75, 000 sell within just one month. In “Crazy Blues,” Smith sang: “I can’t sleep at night / I can’t eat a bite / ‘Cause the man I love / He don’t treat me right” (lines 1-4) and “There’s a change in the ocean / Change in the deep blue sea, my baby / I’ll tell you folks, there ain’t no change in me / My love for that man will always be” (Smith, lines 9-12). Even though the performer seemingly talked about the change in romantic feelings, the lyrics came to symbolize the change in the position of female jazz performers on the U.S. scene. The change was the phenomenal interest that Smith sparked in the masses and the success of earlier unknown and underrated segment of performers: black female jazz performers.
Billie Holliday was the one who took over the baton among other black female performers of the time. At the peak of her fame in the 1930s and 1940s as well as later in the 1950s, Holliday used her songs to express her feelings regarding the experience of racism she regularly had. Through her works, she empowered other black women in a white male dominated American society and conveyed the message of confronting the oppression based on race. One example is Holiday’s song “You Let Me Down,” where she seemingly talks about a male who lets her down by his sexist behavior but in reality may allude to the grievances caused by the white society and its oppressive practices. This is especially evident in the last phrase – “How you let me down” – with its specific harsh shadows in the singer’s voice (“Black Feminist Thought in Billie Holiday’s Music”).
The next generation of black performers – the R&B singers – further expressed the ideas of rebellion against the existing oppression of black people. One of them was Ray Charles. The blind singer expressed his racial identity and his unity with the black people in his song “Drown in My Own Tears.” This song was recorded and rose to popularity during the first years of the Civil Rights Movement, namely the time when black people boycotted the bus system of Montgomery, Alabama (Lydon 128). It was also the time when the American nation began to hear the young pastor who led it to confront racial segregation through peaceful opposition. The song’s lyrics, even though seemingly romantic, show Charles’ attitude to the issue: “It brings a tear / Into my eyes / When I begin / To realize / I’ve cried so much” (Charles, lines 1-5).
Finally, in the modern days, Jay-Z, conveys the messages of opposition to the racial inequality. In particular in his song “Moment of Clarity,” the rapper reflects on the merit of his material success. It is a way to help other poor blacks, he says. Jay-Z’s opposition to the oppression of the black people, it appears, is in his hard work, talent, and effort. In his song, the singer says, “So you can feel my truths / I built the Dynasty by being one of the realest niggas out / Way beyond a Reasonable Doubt” (Jay-Z, lines 7-9).
In conclusion, all singers discussed in this paper opposed the racially oppressive realities of their time. They empowered African Americans to challenge the stereotypes based on their racial identity.
- “Black Feminist Thought in Billie Holiday’s Music.” December 5, 2011. Web. October 17,
- Jay-Z. “Moment of Clarity.” 2003. Web. 17 October 2016.
- Lydon, Michael. Ray Charles: Man and Music, Updated Commemorative Edition. Routledge,
- Smith, Mamie. “Crazy Blues.” Songlyrics. com. N.d. Web. 17 October 2016.