I’ve collected myself long enough to write something in honor of the late Abbey Lincoln. While I’m aware that Abbey was elderly, it still saddens me when someone of such caliber leaves this earth without a designated torch bearer. Upon her ascension though, we can gather her accomplishments in order to justify her legacy, and when it’s all said and done, that’s what matters. Succumbing at the age of 80, Ms. Lincoln, as she is known professionally, had a full and eventful life, something that many of us are striving for each day.
Born Anna Marie Woolridge in August 1930, she picked up the name Abbey Lincoln at the suggestion of a friend. Abbey is derived from Westminster Abbey and Lincoln is the last name of the Great Emancipator. I was introduced to Abbey Lincoln several years ago when I came across her performance in the controversial 1964 film, Nothing But a Man, starring opposite the late Ivan Van Dixon. Then, I happened upon a chance to see her opposite Sidney Poitier in 1968’s For Love of Ivy. While the latter movie is arguably regarded as one of Poitier’s least memorable performances, I enjoyed it because of the relativity of Lincoln’s character, Ivy Moore. Technically, Poitier was Lincoln’s supporting character. Lincoln was the subject of attention and she proved that she was strong enough to handle a lead role against an Academy Award winning actor. In both movies, she was captivating in her emotional delivery, however, in For Love of Ivy, Abbey gave the lead character a kind of complexity that transcended her markedly invisible status as a housekeeper for a White family. That performance made me wonder why Abbey was not able to secure better acting roles. Ok, wait. I know why but still….
As for her music, Abbey’s version of Skylark is incredibly beautiful and soulful. Many of her earlier works showcased a rich, full, and engaging voice. My favorite album from that era is Abbey is Blue. Now, contrary to the subservient roles she portrayed in those two films, Abbey was actually quite outspoken about civil rights as she linked up with Max Roach; providing lead vocals on Roach’s Freedom Now Suite, releasing We Insist! in 1960. Abbey’s haunting vocal renditions on the album resonated of deep yearnings of better days for Black people, both here and abroad, as two of the songs are aptly titled, All Africa and Tears for Johannesburg. Jazz was not meant to be protest music, however, artists such as Abbey Lincoln and Max Roach as well as others such as Sonny Liston made their definitive musical statements, supporting the cause.
What happened? Given the conditions of the global Black community today, do Black artists even deem it necessary to sing about relevant social issues anymore? In the 1960s, there was a movement afoot so Black artists gathered around those unifying pushes for racial equality. These artists informed the masses about the plight of the people while entertaining them simultaneously. Now, we can easily assert that singing protest music is not profitable, but here’s the question to counter that thought–has it ever been? Considering that many of these artists were largely managed by recording labels with White executives, their whole careers rested on being in the mainstream, very much like it is today. However, they made the sacrifice to say something on behalf of the marginalized and advocate for change, much to the chagrin of the executives and the well-being of their wallets and purses.
Nina Simone’s protest music is legendary (Mississippi Goddamn) and eventually her strong opposing views to the racial construction of American society forced her into a self-exile in France, where she lived until her death. Another one of the most popular protest artists, James Brown, did suffer a bit monetarily with his release of Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud, but his iconic status continues to live.
Motown’s The Temptations really couldn’t afford to produce any protest music, taking a real risk at losing their White audience acquired in the 1960s, but the group did so anyway, releasing socially conscious music in the 1970s.
The good thing is there’s a few contemporary artists who are still making an effort to make socially conscious music, but I can guarantee that they are starving for radio airplay. Nevertheless, they seem to persevere through their underground status and continue to provide a voice for the voiceless. Most recently, Nas and Damian Marley recognized this void and embarked upon an ambitious musical effort called Distant Relatives, which features several tunes that speak directly to the plight of the downtrodden, especially in Africa.
Here’s Asa’s Jailer/Fire from the Mountain and Nneka’s The Uncomfortable Truth.
And lastly, at least for this post, Donnie’s 911.