by Imani Mosley
The year 2016 has been lauded as a turning point in the age of television. With cable networks and content creators like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon flooding the market once commanded by network television, the space for different types of shows has emerged. 2016 has also been noted as a banner year for diversity in television. The types of faces we see have changed as well as the types of stories that are being told. Shows that focus on myriad aspects of the Black experience also base a great deal of their storytelling in music. More than a backing track or faint allusions in the sonic distance, music is interwoven throughout these shows such as HBO’s Insecure to FX’s Atlanta to Netflix and Marvel’s Luke Cage, highlighting deep emotional connections between characters, experiences, and the audience. While the idea of music being used as a narrative force is in no way a new concept — it is a common device in film and television — the music featured in these shows has a dual functionality. On the surface, the songs give coherence to the story’s plot, but they also serve as a conduit to a type of social memory. These shows, created by black writers and directors and aimed at black audiences, use their soundtracks to connect with that audience on a cultural level. Luke Cage, for example, is drenched in hip-hop history, both past and present, even down to the episode titles which take their names from tracks by rap group Gang Starr. This perspective can be attributed to the influence of musicians and artists in the development of these shows. Solange Knowles, Donald Glover (also known as rapper Childish Gambino and the creator of Atlanta), and music journalist Cheo Hodari Coker have their fingerprints on several parts of these shows and act as more than music consultants. ABC’s black-ish is the network television counterpart to the aforementioned examples and uses music in a similar way. With all the talk about black-ish’s recent episode on the election, I’d like to focus on how black-ish uses Black music to help examine political, cultural, and social issues both around African-American life as well as American life.
While black-ish aims to straddle some kind of sitcom middle ground (shown on ABC primetime as an appeal to a generation that grew up with The Cosby Show and A Different World and is now watching television with their children), it navigates its diverse themes through music, often underscoring the many monologues spoken by the father, Dre, (Anthony Anderson). The show is often described as universally relatable — the inner workings of an American upper middle class family — but black-ish’s creator Kenya Barris often uses Dre’s monologues to shine a light on very specific black cultural experiences. The monologues are often accompanied by pop songs. And more often than not, these songs fulfill a political purpose. Sometimes it is to highlight particular political and social movements. In other cases, the mere presence of the song is political. But this duality of function allows for the specificity of the black American experience to fold over into a type of universal relatability. These monologues guide the show, making the tie between the general and the individuated. The show’s third episode, one that addresses the (very understandable) issue of popularity and friendship in school, begins by focusing on the concept of “the nod.” In realizing that Junior, the middle child, did not acknowledge another black student in passing, Dre tries to imbue in his son a bit of culture lost. This all plays out over Jay-Z’s “Hard Knock Life,” a song that also connects the general and the specific by talking about issues of growing up (black) in the hood over a sample of “It’s A Hard Knock Life for Us” from the musical Annie.
But it is in more than just these moments that we find music playing an integral part in our understanding of the show. That same episode uses short clips as a sort of paradiegetic clue to the audience about plot aspects. Twins Jack and Diane (yes, named for the John Mellencamp hit song) tell Rainbow, their mother, that they are making posters for career day. Jack explains that he wants to be a teen sensation and begins dancing, with Rae Sremmurd’s “No Flex Zone” playing. It comes back again when Rainbow tells Diane that Jack might be a lost cause, as Jack break dances in the hallway. The song was the first hit for the young rap group and its inclusion here references the bright flame of young fame and also its ephemerality, its flash-in-the-pan-ness (though as of 2017, it would seem that Rae Sremmurd is no flash in the pan).
In another political episode from the second season, black-ish takes on police brutality. The episode begins with a standard monologue from Dre but his words are heard over Marvin Gaye’s “(Inner City Blues) Makes Me Wanna Holler” from the 1971 album What’s Going On. While the monologue features a collage of various images and video of unrest from the past fifty years, a moment stands out: the voiceover drops out and what was background music comes to the fore. At the moment we see a sign with Trayvon Martin’s face then cut sharply to images of police and crowds amongst clouds of tear gas, we hear Gaye sing “trigger-happy policing,” before receding into the background. The statement here is clear: police shooting and killing people of color, especially black men, was an issue at the time of the album, before, and still. The episode tries to deal with that issue with a new generation, confronting the problems previous generations have had: how American society perceives blackness and responds to it and how black parents try to raise children with the awareness of that perception.
In the second of the episode’s three monologues, we’ve moved from the confusion of the opening to an empty hopelessness. The family is waiting to hear the decision of a possible indictment against a police officer in the death of an unnamed black boy. We are treated again to another montage that displays that hopelessness — the funeral procession of John F Kennedy, Robert Kennedy before his assassination, the assassination of Malcolm X and Gandhi, followed by a headline stating no criminal charges would be filed in the shooting death of Tamir Rice — set to Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song.” Noticeably, unlike the clarity of the opening, Barris does not set these images to the lyrics “How long shall they kill our prophets/While we stand aside and look?” Focusing on the chorus (“Won’t you help to sing/these songs of freedom?”) allows for a possible pivot from hopelessness back to hope. This arc is one that Barris will use again. The episode ends with its third monologue. This time, however, it is of hope (like the episode’s title): featuring images of diverse, peaceful protesters, the first inauguration of Barack Obama, One World Trade Center, all over John Legend’s “If You’re Out There,” an Obama campaign-inspired call to action, to join hands and work together to change the world.
In an interview with NPR, Barris stated that Donald Trump’s election win pushed the sitcom back in the direction of dealing with more serious issues:
From Tuesday night to Wednesday morning, I think my show changed. I think that, you know, all of us came in here today and we felt like, you know, we're in third season, you know, we've had some great episodes, you know, that I really was proud of. You know, we did a gun episode and hope and we did a voting episode. But this third season, we didn't want to become just a soapbox.
So we sort of calmed down and we were like, you know what? We have to talk about things that people might not want to talk about openly. But we have to dig in deeper and stay later and have more real conversations and argue amongst ourselves more and really bring our emotions to the surface and really say things that people want to hear - have said. We have to do that more. We have a responsibility. It's not just TV for us anymore.
This decision, to “have more real conversations,” resulted in the season three episode “LEMONS,” which aired on 10 January 2017. Like the “Hope” episode, “LEMONS” begins with a voiceover from Dre. The voiceover talks about upsets and our fascination with them, here referencing Donald Trump’s win over Hillary Clinton. We see various historical upsets — Dewey defeats Truman, the USA Olympic hockey team, the Revolutionary War — over Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On.” Unlike the pointed use of “Makes Me Wanna Holler,” “What’s Going On” here speaks to a family trying to find its way in a new post-election world. The revolutionary elements of Gaye’s album, including this song, can only be grafted on to this episode in hindsight as the episode could only look forward towards America post-inauguration. But the sort of disarray that lives inside this song, the confusion surrounding the events of its time and how we arrived at that place, allow the episode to speak to a time beyond its airdate. Barris used music once again in this episode, to highlight Dre’s most powerful monologue to date. Dre and his co-workers have spent an entire day rehashing the results of the presidential election, revealing their stances, and arguing their positions until one of Dre’s coworkers accuses him of “not caring about this country.” As Dre launches into an emotional speech about the unending pain of being black in America, the unrequited love between a country and its citizens, we see images of Jim Crow, voter suppression, and black resilience set to Nina Simone’s rendition of “Strange Fruit.”
Strange Fruit,” written in 1937 by Abel Meeropol, was first performed and recorded by Billie Holiday in 1939. Her performance has become intimately linked to the song, with Holiday’s somewhat gravelly, echo-like, restrained soprano voice pulling the listener close as if there were nothing in-between. But there is a kind of wounded femininity in Holiday’s performance, vacillating between sweetness (especially at the ends of phrases) and wailing. Barris’s decision not to use that version, but rather one by Nina Simone speaks to Holiday’s rendition. All of Holiday’s slow solemnity is replaced here with bluntness that does not allow for any reading of beauty. Simone said of “Strange Fruit,” “that is about the ugliest song I have ever heard … ugly in the sense that it is violent and tears at the guts of what white people have done to my people in this country,” and she performs it as such: brutal, unsentimental, cold. Simone’s voice was a complex one: deep, at times hoarse, always powerful, it countered ideas around black female vocal performance. At times, the sonic gender of her voice was hard to pin down, neuter, fluid, androgynous. This stands in stark contrast to Holiday’s at-times achingly feminine voice. The body that houses Simone’s voice is hard to locate apart from her own construction of blackness. This plus her delivery of the words creates a different kind of sonic world for Dre’s monologue. No solemnity and no closeness, no feminine, agony-tinged softness. There is no space for rumination, only bleak despair. Additionally, the political act of choosing Simone’s version should not be overlooked; Simone was always in conversation with her blackness, aware of how it shaped her life. Dre’s monologue is not to be misunderstood; it is a sermon on what it is to be black in America.
Unlike Barris’s police brutality episode, “LEMONS” does not end with a song. Junior’s recitation of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech dovetails into Dre’s final monologue, one that foresees a better America. Here is Barris’s well-used arc returning again. And while Dre’s Strange Fruit monologue does stand apart from other moments in the show’s history, it never feels like the last word. Even if, for a moment, things are dark, hope always returns. Between the second and third seasons, ABC put out a promo for black-ish featuring rapper Kendrick Lamar. The promo showed the family singing along with Lamar to his song “Alright” from 2015’s To Pimp a Butterfly. The song became an anthem of the Black Lives Matter movement and offers hope to those listening. While this could be viewed as political on Barris’s part (and most likely is), this promo speaks to Barris’s thoughts around music in the sitcom: although these songs can and do speak to a black American cultural experience, in the right light, they can be understood and appreciated by all. And like every good network sitcom family proclaims, we gon’ be alright.
 Rachel Martin, “'Black-Ish' Creator Kenya Barris Says Show Will Take New Direction Post-Election,” NPR Weekend Edition, http://www.npr.org/2016/11/13/501904251/black-ish-creator-kenya-barris-says-show-will-take-new-direction-post-election 13 November 2016
 Dorian Lynskey, “Strange Fruit: the first great protest song,” The Guardian 16 February 2011 https://www.theguardian.com/music/2011/feb/16/protest-songs-billie-holiday-strange-fruit
Imani Mosley is a PhD candidate at Duke University and her dissertation focuses on the relationships between reception, queer, and social history around the premieres of Benjamin Britten's post-war operas. She specializes in mid-twentieth century British music, contemporary opera, masculinities studies, and sound studies. She is also an avid bassoonist and baroque bassoonist.