For me, waking up to racial injustice began with music.
I grew up in East Tennesse; my family of seven listened to different kinds of music, but mostly music composed and performed by white people. Even so, it was the work of those white artists that introduced me to my favorite music: Soul, rhythm and blues and Motown.
Drums were the only instrument missing in my family of guitarists, pianists, violinists and flutists. But I also loved rhythm, and I didn’t want to learn to read music, so my parents gave me a drum kit for my tenth birthday.
I discovered and soon idolized Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham, whose power, speed and technique revolutionized rock drumming. Some of his greatest influences are swing, funk, samba, jazz, and doo-wop, all of which come from artists of African descent. Bonham combined those styles of percussion to create his own groove full of feeling, which is why I loved him.
A deeper look into who influenced the Beatles and Stray Cats, my family’s favorites, led me to the black artists of early rock ‘n’ roll, such as Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and my favorite, Sister Rosetta Tharpe.
In middle school, I got an iPod, and my dad stocked it with eight gigabytes of music. I skateboarded around my family’s unfinished garage repeatedly listening and singing to the Marvelettes’ “Please, Mr. Postman” and Martha and the Vandellas’ “Jimmy Mack,” both Motown classics. I clutched my 3rd generation Nano, having never before heard such fun, catchy music. I asked my dad to add more music like that, and my obsession with Motown began.
Music has also carried me through difficult times and has served as an unique way to learn about different experiences.
My parents divorced while I was in high school. I sang to cope with my feelings of sadness and isolation. Sam Cooke’s legendary 1964 single, “A Change is Gonna Come,” gave me hope. I often hummed the famous lyrics, “It’s been a long, long time coming, but I know a change gon’ come” to comfort myself.
I had no idea that Cooke wrote the song after being arrested and jailed for refusing to leave a Louisiana hotel canceled his reservation based on his race. I didn’t realize the song served as an anthem for the civil rights movement until I, as a senior in high school, chose to write an essay on the song. My love for the song led me to take a extensive look at the civil rights movement for the first time.
During my first year in college, I had a hard time adjusting to life as a student athlete. My rigorous class and volleyball schedule left me mentally and physically exhausted. I’d often retreat to my car and belt Etta James’s 1964 hit, “All I Could Do Was Cry,” about a woman who watches her lover marry another woman. I’d never experienced that situation, but I connected to the loneliness and betrayal the song expresses.
Depression dominated my third year as an undergraduate student. Through my studies and experiences, I acknowledged many of the world’s injustices in great depth. And I didn’t know how to manage as a deeply empathetic person. Stevie Wonder’s 1976 album, “Songs in the Key of Life,” largely helped me regain hope and emotional stability. His music, promoting reconciliation, harmony and love, was my religion.
My family had few friends of color when I was a kid. Bristol, my hometown, is known for two things: NASCAR and country music. The fact my family and friends never talked about race negatively affected how I viewed people of color in subtle ways that I’ve since been working to unlearn. But my love for different types of music by black artists positively shaped my perspective of the black community. And it motivated me to learn more about racial inequality in America.
I didn’t always understand the cause of the emotion in much of the music I listened to, I but I felt the pain of the blues, the joyfulness of doo-wop, the lightheartedness of ‘60s girl groups, the optimism of Motown and the freedom of funk.
Now, the lyrics, “It’s been a long, long time coming, but I know a change gon’ come,” not only serve as a source of hope but also as motivation to work toward a more just society.