I was in the fourth grade when my white best friend told me a racist joke.
“Why are black people so dark?” he asked a group of us at lunch, with a mischievous grin.
I looked at him dumbfounded. I put down my milk box, wiped what had dribbled down from the corners of my mouth and prepared myself for what was to come: “Why?”
“God left them in the oven too long! Get it?” The group burst into laughter, and since I was the only person of color sitting at the table, I faked a laugh to fit in—but things between us would never be the same.
There is a special kind of pain you feel when people you thought were friends turn out to be racists. It’s not that you are necessarily surprised that it was possible, but it hurts nevertheless. As Bomani Jones pointed out recently on his podcast, The Right Time, that’s the kind of pain people of color in this country are feeling—except it’s not just about a friend, it’s about the entire country.
Tuesday night was a political upset that almost no one saw coming. (I say almost no one because ol’ boy at the barbershop with the perpetually empty chair told me that Donald Trump would win the other day, but who listens to the empty-chair barber?)
When Florida went for Trump, I furrowed my brows and sighed deeply. When Ohio was called, I invoked the expression of disappointment used by almost all black Southern grandmothers everywhere: "Mm, mm, mmm."
I guess America is great again.
In the wake of this election, violent acts of racism are widespread—and this was only after a day. Historically, black folks have used music to help sustain us in trying times, and I suspect that while Trump is in office, we will need our musical artists to help us keep our equilibrium in a world that feels off-balance.
Below are a few songs to help you endure … to add to your soundtrack of survival.
A Seat at the Table is arguably the best album of the year, and "Mad" is one of the album’s most empowering songs.
“It gives me permission to be angry at everything marginalized people have to endure in a bigoted society,” said Robert Jones Jr., the creator, writer and curator of Son of Baldwin. “Usually, marginalized people are shamed for how they feel about the overt and covert abuses we suffer. Part of liberation is being able to be emotionally authentic without fear of retaliation from those who wish to continue trampling over you. When I hear Solange sing, 'Youuuuuuuuu oooooo have the right to be mad,' I feel that deep down, and it makes me want to scream.”
Let’s be honest—Mr. Harris had fallen off. Since Paper Trail, his albums have been uninspired and tepidly received. Then came Us or Else, a trap protest EP with the standout track "40 Acres." On this song, T.I., Killer Mike and B. Rossi discuss the various ways a person’s love of money can lead them to betray their sense of self and dedication to the black community.
When Killer Mike says, “I'mma tell y'all what the ancestors shoulda done did when they seen the first boat comin': Killed every man, child, woman/killed every damn thing on it/Killed everything if it looked European/send it back to the Queen like ho,” he expresses an Afro-pessimistic sentiment inspired by centuries of violence visited upon black bodies. If you’re looking for a song that gives voice to your rage, this is it.
Mournful and expressing bewilderment, this track off the 2010 mixtape K.R.I.T. Wuz Here reminds me of the confusion I felt as I slowly realized that Trump was going to win the election. I’m not alone.
“This song got me through some of the heaviest times of my life over the past six years,” says Kiese Laymon, professor of English at the University of Mississippi and author of How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America and the forthcoming memoir Heavy.
“The way he spins that Al Green sample is just perfection," says Laymon. "It's where I am soulfully, spiritually, when I'm at my most afraid and most capable.”
Her voice is incomparable, and sometimes you just need something to remind you that your blackness is beautiful. Nina Simone is #BlackGirlMagic embodied.
I suspect that black churches will be full Sunday. Trump’s election shook many of us to the core, and during times of distress, black folks have often found solace in God. A song sure to inspire the "black preacher is about to close the sermon" stank face is "His Eye Is on the Sparrow”; and yet the legendary Marvin Gaye makes the song his own.
“He just brings something different to it,” says poet and artist Eve Ewing, a sociologist at the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration.
“He doesn’t sing it like one would a gospel song," she says. "It’s soulful.”
Donald Glover is a Renaissance man. His FX show Atlanta has tested the limits of what is possible in a 30-minute comedy, he dabbles in stand-up comedy and he has a role in the upcoming Marvel film Spiderman: Homecoming. Oh, and he moonlights as Childish Gambino, a singer, producer and experimental hip-hop artist who frequently collaborates with Chance the Rapper.
"We Ain’t Them," the second track on his 2012 mixtape, Royalty, is a cautiously optimistic song about family, blackness and self-determination. He reminds us of the strength of our ancestors when he says, “My great-granddad bought his own freedom/Walked barefoot to Virginia to start his own peanut farm/So don't be alarmed—man I'm royalty.”
Yet, even as he looks back, he is focused on the present: “Speak from your heart and never compromise what you feel is real/ And never let these white people tell you how to feel.”
We will need that kind of resolve as we face the days to come.
Listening to the Jamaican singer-songwriter, musician and humanitarian makes any situation better, but it’s his ability to lay bare the emotional and existential realities of black people that places him in a league of his own.
“I don't think anyone could accuse the majority of people of color and other minority groups of living in a fantasy when it comes to America, but that didn't mean the election result wasn't still a ghastly wake-up call,” says Aisha Harris, Slate culture writer-editor and host of Slate’s podcast, Represent.
“‘Think you're in heaven, but your living in hell,’ sung so calmly, yet ominously, seemed to capture everything so many of us were feeling in that moment,” she says. “Time did tell, and will continue to tell, just how far back we've truly gone.”
The fifth track on Ye’s 2013 album, Yezzus, is experimental, minimalistic hip-hop.
“It is a beautiful, furious and melancholy song,” says Damon Young, editor-in-chief of VerySmartBrothas and contributing editor at Ebony—and I agree. It’s a song that inspires antagonism. It makes me want to walk into Trump’s White House and put my feet on the coffee table without first wiping them at the door. The song’s unsettling electric hum is the sound of rage seething just beneath the surface.
The organic sonics and playfully sensual tone of the final track on BJ’s 2016 album, In My Mind, remind us that we cannot forget to make room for love, sensuality, affection and joy. Because, without it, what the hell are we fighting for?
“I gotta be honest. It's been pretty quiet around here,” says Emily Lordi, associate professor of English at University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and author of the book Donny Hathaway Live. “In Billie Holiday's memoir, she says that while in prison for drug possession, she didn’t sing a note. I’ve been thinking about that.”
As have I: There is a role that silence plays.
We must make room for the possibility that there may be nothing but anger and rage. Sometimes, no song fully expresses the grief, and no melody is able to calm the anxiety. In those moments, we need to tarry with what our spirits express and listen to the song sung by our disquiet.
This is going to be a trying four years. Here we go.
Lawrence Ware is a progressive writer in a conservative state. A frequent contributor to Counterpunch and Dissent magazine, he is also a contributing editor of NewBlackMan (in Exile) and the Democratic Left. He has been featured in the New York Times and discussed race and politics on HuffPost Live, NPR and Public Radio International. Ware’s book on the life and thought of C.L.R. James will be published by Verso Books in the fall of 2017. Follow him on Twitter.