June is Black Music Month. This year, embracing the spirit of Juneteenth, our friends and collaborators at WURD Radio are celebrating Songs of Freedom. All month long, they’re spotlighting music about Black liberation. Located in Philadelphia, WURD Radio is Pennsylvania’s only Black-owned talk radio station.

To kick off Black Music Month, WURD Radio host Tiffany Bacon interviewed musicologist, pianist, composer and University of Pennsylvania professor, Dr. Guthrie Ramsey, to get his take on the history of “Freedom Music” and its impact on Black culture and community. 

The following is a much-shortened version of this beautiful interview. We encourage you to listen to the embedded interview in full, and to take a tour of Freedom Music through the ages by listening to a groovy series of musical vignettes, produced by WURD. 

Reasons to be Cheerful is proud to partner with WURD to bring this content to you. WURD is a founding member of URL, a network of high-performing Black and Brown media outlets. Read them. Hear Them. Follow them. Support them. 

WURD Radio:

Q: Can you give us a synopsis of the importance and the necessity of music in our culture and in our journey in America?

Dr. Ramsey:

A: Well, first of all, something we need to understand is that music making and the creation of this thing called “African-American music” was one of the first activities that we as a people participated in and that united the different African cultures that comprised our different traditions. 

I'll Take You There

Secondly, it was one of the first expressions that made us hold onto the idea that we were more than human tools; that we were fully human. And in fact, many of the people who were abolitionists pointed to the profound music we had created here as a sign of humanity and one of the reasons they argued that we were not to remain enslaved

… So if the culture that we call African-American music began in the crucible of profound beauty and horrible violence, we can trace the trajectory of African-American music through those two lenses as number one, a source of beauty and number two source of resistance in the sight of the horrible silence that had connected us to cultures in the new world.

Good Times

WURD:

Q: So when we talk about freedom music, what does that phrase mean to you and what artists come to mind to reflect that?

Dr. Ramsey:

A: Well, the thing that I think about personally is that we have to move beyond the lyrics of a song to understand if something is denoting or connoting freedom to us. 

Redemption Song

[We always talk about] freedom songs that say “let my people go,” or, “mother, mother there’s so many of us dying,” you know, we want it to be this didactic idea that [mainly] the song lyrics say something about freedom. I like to push it a little further though, and say that we can think of music that we’ve made in this country [itself] as being symbolic of the search for many different kinds of freedoms. [Especially] in this quest for equality, that we’ve been on for the last 500 years.

It can even be as simple as artistic freedom when an artist decides to ignore doing what the record label wanted them to do, and to switch paths to show the audience the expansive musicianship that they actually have. Or when they choose to respond to things outside of the culture industry, which places value on how much things sell.