Why Music Must Be Revolutionary — and How It Can Be

Fred Ho

MUSIC, AND ALL artistic and creative expression, is intrinsic to and an essential characteristic of human species-being. Music is a form of language, a type of communication, a spiritual force, an aesthetic or artistic expression, social ritual, entertainment and recreational activity, and is socio-politically catalytic.

Some believe that music must not be contextualized by society, that to do so diminishes the artistry to servicing ideological premises. This is the bourgeois “art for art’s sake” argument.

Besides being existentially fallacious, or what Sartre would term “in bad faith” — meaning that it is impossible for any human being to create outside of history, independent of societal constructions and conditions of support or opposition (e.g. from artistic institutions or industries), separate from artistic traditions that develop within cultural patterns and practices — such an assertion for what music ought to be, i.e. apolitical and autonomously aesthetic or an individualistic expression, I will argue, actually makes for weaker or bad music.

How music is connected to society has been amply discussed by many -ologists (i.e. musicologists, cultural anthropologists) and I won’t repeat these analyses and contentions. Rather, I will argue what makes for revolutionary music, why it is revolutionary, and how it can deepen its revolutionary expressivity and function.

The Problem with “Jazz”

I will use the example of the foremost revolutionary music of the 20th century, not just for the U.S.A. but for the entire world of music, and that is what has been called “jazz.” I say quote-unquote jazz because the word itself is socio-historically problematic, reductive and insufficient, and politically inimical as a signifier.

It is problematic because I, like many, consider the word to be a racial slur. The two main theories as to the etymology of the term jazz are (1) that it comes from the degrading slang term for semen, “jizz,” as the music was originally performed in bordellos; (2) that it comes from the French verb, jaser, literally meaning “to chatter nonsensically,” or gibberish.

New Orleans was a French colony until the Louisiana Purchase of 1804, when it became part of the United States, albeit with its own African-French creolized cultural sensibilities.

It is reductive and insufficient because the term is conflated and confused with smooth (or snooze) jazz or easy-listening pop jazz such as Kenny G, or trad-jazz a la the reactionary Wynton Marsalis, or coffee table dinner hour light jazz….Commercial popularity, reverence of past styles, and an attendant innocuousness considerably outweigh anything creative, transgressive, adventurous or imaginative.

Lastly, the term jazz is politically problematic because it feeds a liberal multi-cultural democracy myth about America, which Wynton Marsalis and Stanley Crouch are so fond of extolling, that “jazz” is America’s music. But which America? The America of white settler-colonialism and imperialism — or the America of the African-American oppressed nation?

A music originated by oppressed Africans in America, “jazz” as a liberal multi-cultural entity is expropriated by the dominant oppressor nation culture as its own, i.e. as “American,” thereby deracinated and de-radicalized, made into another ethnic addition to the melting pot — which, as critics of the melting pot thesis sociologically noted, becomes whiter and whiter.

A Transformative Vanguard Force

So with what do we replace the term “jazz”? The profferings include “Great Black Music,” or “Black Classical Music,” or simply, “The Music” (for which an in-group vs. out-group relational is informally constructed; those who understand what “The Music” is need no explanation, and those who have to ask what is meant by “The Music” are clueless and don’t get it).

I prefer “African-American vanguard music,” for which so-called “free jazz,” the last great artistically revolutionary insurrection of the 20th century, is described by Robin D.G. Kelley as The Music of the Great Black Proletarian Cultural Revolution (or The Music of the Black Arts Movement).

Here is why The Music is revolutionary and how it is perpetually revolutionary: “Jazz” fundamentally changes the very concept, nature and characteristics of music not just for American culture, but for the entire world, and thereby makes The Music only meaningful, artistically and socio-politically, as a force for liberation and revolution.

Two major paradigm shifts in the very nature of music itself happened at the end of the 19th century and into the beginning of the 20th century, originating from the oppressed African-American nation.

Contemporaneously with the ascension of the United States as a multi-national rising imperialist power, both hemispherically and globally, the African-American proletariat emerges, with an attendant proletarian music that alters the vary parameters of music: time and pitch.

For the first time, what was the strong beat (viz. the down beat or beat one) now becomes the weak beat. In “common meter” (or 4/4 time signature), the former weak beat, beat two, or the off-beat, now becomes the strong beat. Instead of ONE-two-THREE-four, etc., the opposite occurs — one-TWO-three-FOUR.

This is a world-historic transformation that catches fire across continents to every culture around the planet. The off-beats become strong beats. This is more than syncopation, as it proliferates into many rhythmic progeny: including swing, funk, R&B, hip hop, etc.

This transformation in time and rhythm creates the dynamic tension of perpetually emphasizing the weak beats as strong beats, generating a rhythmic energy that is simultaneously laid back and pushing the groove forward.

That was the revolution in time.

The revolution in pitch, or sound, is what is called the Blues temperament. The eliding, melismatic, micro-tonal tension between the diatonic scale with its 12 fixed pitches, and the various west and central African pitch traditions which are not diatonic, creates a new, variable temperament that becomes indelibly the black sound, or as Phyllis Garland called it, “the sound of soul.”

All those bluesy, gospel-like, jazzy embellishments upon standard fixed pitch melodies give the music that soulful “cry” (akin to the Islamic call to prayer or the voodun possessional trance states). To be black is to be blue, in terms of sound and sensibility.

The Revolution in Music

These two basic revolutionary transformations multiplied and extended into all aspects of music, including new ways in which European instruments were played (taking on a ubiquitously percussive or rhythmic quality), creating new instruments (such as the trap drum set), constructing new musical forms and structures (such as the blues form, not to be mistaken with the blues temperament, something more pervasive and fundamental and less delineated and codified), and the very process, location, function and role of music creation and performance.

Spaces of recreation and ill-repute (so-to-speak) are turned into experimental performance venues and laboratories, collective methods of collaborative and interactive creation inseparable from performance, eliminating the gulf between composer and performer, expanding music to be a total expression of human experience, including sexuality and desire, political protest and revolt.

The political function of music has been common to all peoples and all music styles, most conventionally signified in politicized lyrics, song titles and interpenetrated with social life and social movements in varying struggles across the planet. However, in “jazz” it is the music itself, not only its ideological, spiritual and emotional expressivity but its emanation of musical creative innovation, or the quality that Dr. Salim Washington has called its “perpetual avant-garde” nature, that is its greatest revolutionary profundity.

It’s what Archie Shepp has succinctly described in stating, “Black music is quintessentially existential and improvisational. There is nothing sacred.”

Why does this happen, particularly as created by African Americans? It doesn’t happen in Africa or other parts of the African diaspora. Although such forms as mambo, samba, merengue, calypso are black New World creations, these variegated African New World musics don’t have such a thorough and comprehensive paradigmatic shift as the black American “back beat,” or a tonal impact and profundity as the blues temperament (a combined shout and cry that makes for its soulfulness), or the “perpetual avant-garde,”existential and improvisational nature to the music that pervades, animates and energizes the entire culture and socio-dynamic character of Blackness in the U.S.A.

The Call-and-Response Aesthetic

The “jazz” aesthetic, its essence, is what Dr. Salim Washington has called its fundamental, pervasive and catalytic macro-antiphony. Antiphony is the musical term for “call and response.” But for “jazz,” everything about it, if practiced with vital authenticity, is macro-antiphonal — it calls and the artist, the audience and the music, everything in the universe, must respond.

That is The Magic of Juju: Shaman-istic, transcendent, evocative, provocative, catalytic, procreative, experimental, perpetually avant-garde, restless and bold, adventurous, exploratory, creatively irrepressible, futuristic, imaginative, and innovative.

Every performance prefigures, anticipates, and is a musical vision-quest for what will be next, discontent with past and present meanderings and the status quo, demanding, So What? So What if this is cool, people dig it? So What if the performer is technically brilliant? So What if millions of records are sold? So What if the artists become stars and win Grammies? So What? So What? So What?

It don’t mean a thing if there’s no liberatory and revolutionary swing!

Macro-antiphony means that the music must perpetually demand, insist upon, change. As Amiri Baraka said, the new Black theater of the Black Arts Movement “should force change, it should be change,” and so too should the music be a force for, as well as posit and prefigure, a revolutionary transformation of aesthetics and artistry.

So-called “political music” is often merely calling for protest or change in the lyrics or song-titles, while musically it simply reiterates prevailing or past forms and styles. This is the case with all music that has been regarded or referred to itself as “political,” in the U.S.A. predominantly a reiteration of Pop Folk music, some of it purveyed from the 1930s and 1940s guided by the Zhdanov policies of Stalinist Soviet prescriptions about “socialist realism.”

The main quality of this “political art or music” was its promotion of populist labor causes and ideology, mainly though song and solely through the lyrics of the troubadour solo or small group performance. Furthermore, it was a white American-appealing style.

Macro-Antiphonal music is a music that challenges artists, audiences and the art form itself. It can never be complacent, but perpetually transgressive. The revolutionary dynamism of Black American creativity reflects the unrequited aspirations for nationhood, for the full equality and cultural respect accorded to peoples who have won national self-determination.

This perpetuality of the macro-antiphonal, its quintessentially transgressive and prefigurative zeitgeist, comes from the fact that the Black oppressed nation still has not gained independence, whereas nations in the Caribbean, other parts of the Americas, and in Africa, all have!

Failing to gain a requital for slavery and oppression generates a perpetual psychic discontentment with the oppressor nation and all of its social and cultural glorifications, making for a culture of transgression, rebellion and revolt that is the wellspring for artistic innovation. In other words, an assassin’s heart makes for the killer art!

That is how the music can and must be revolutionary: It is revolutionary in both content and form, and beyond as well, by prefiguring new forms of production. Ultimately, the revolutionary process of cultural production must end the music industry — as part of the overall restoration of the commons, the abolition of private property and the elimination of all divisions that make for the profound and pervasive alienation from our species-being.

There will no longer be divisions between artists and audiences, between professional and amateur, between tradition and innovation, between work and pleasure.

African-American vanguard music of the 20th century introduced macro-antiphonality. Revolutionary music and social movements in the 21st century must expand upon, deepen and intensify this inextricability between the imagination, the impossible and the innovative.

July/August 2012, ATC 159