By 1939, Billie Holliday released an anti lynching protest song so potent that the owner of Atlantic Records called Strange Fruit "a declaration of war” and “the beginning of the civil rights movement” that dominated the ‘60s. Once this movement reached its crescendo, Sam Cooke’s eternal A Change Is Gonna Come was embraced to a point that it arguably functioned as a new national anthem to those for whom the country's actual anthem was eager to ignore. Like much of the music of this era, Cooke’s message was more conciliatory in tone, but by the ‘70s the nature of activism in music turned from a peace sign to a fist in a black leather glove.
The rise of the Black Panther movement coincided with more overt activism in music, prompting artists like Gil Scot Heron and The Last Poets to enlist spoken word to deliver this more comprehensive messaging. This vocal shift predicted a new genre that a generation later would again change the game. Like the invention of Blues a century before, hip hop emerged as a persuasive mode of political expression before redefining popular music on the whole.
It could also be said that establishing dominance in popular music was itself a form of activism, considering that just 20 years earlier MTV went nearly a year-and-a-half without playing a single black artist.
If the ‘70s saw black music make a fist, activist hip hop in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s leaned in and threw a punch. Seminal acts like Public Enemy and Boogie Down Productions more closely resembled Malcolm X than MLK in their revolutionary tone and the term “conscious rap” embodied a worldview in which intellectualism was celebrated. Leather Africa medallions replaced rope chains in solidarity with the exploited Africans tasked to mine gold, and selling out to the pop charts was regarded as nothing short of blasphemy.
This activist streak faded as the new century approached and this underground music went on to redefine the mainstream. The most defining music of the era was producer driven, and the most influential artists like Timbaland, Puff Daddy, and Pharell were more interested in bringing you to the club than to a protest rally. Political messaging was to an extent considered played out and gold was definitely back in style.
It could also be said that establishing dominance in popular music was itself a form of activism, considering that just 20 years earlier MTV went nearly a year-and-a-half without playing a single black artist. Black music now had a bigger platform than most religions.
Since then, things only became more dire. America’s black president was replaced by one with the soul of a slave owner, and the spate of minorities being killed by police became so rampant that even white people who thought that Rodney King was an aberration started to recognize an epidemic. Black Lives Matter found a second wave with public protests on a scale not seen since the Vietnam War, and inspired a generation more politically inclined than the last.
If Gil Scott Heron and Public Enemy are seen as emblematic of their respective eras, the mysterious collective known as Sault is poised to define this one. Their conscious presentation of funk, soul, disco, and spoken word remains in conversation with the entire lineage of activist musicians that preceded them, yet somehow manages to exemplify the present.
Specifics about these illusive artists remain widely unknown. Sault doesn’t give interviews, share photos, release videos, or do live performances. They aren’t active on social media and don’t have a Wikipedia page. Presumably this is to keep their artistic output in focus, but it would be easy to accept that they’re too busy making music to do anything else. The newly released Untitled (Rise) marks their fourth release in under a year-and-a-half, and their second double album during lockdown. More accessible and easier to dance to than their previous works without relinquishing any of the political impact, I’m comfortable describing it as the best album of the year, and I expect history will regard it as the most important.
For those wanting to dive deeper in the subject, I have posted a mix on my site that takes a chronological tour through the history of activism in black music, and makes a case why those of us consuming such content should feel inclined to contribute to a solution.