Respect Yourself

February 17, 2019

Respect is often the reward of dignity. 


I’ve been thinking lately about the topical debate around the fashion label, Gucci. The fact that one of their items of clothing brought back the collective cultural memory of black face and the minstrel shows. 


It reminded me that when minstrel entertainment shows started to become popular in the 1800s, they were well-liked because black people were being paid for their entertainment value and used as an object of amusement. They were little more than commodities (often sexually) and figures of fun. It is true that many black people became fairly successful (financially) as a result of being part of these shows. However, I wonder how much respect and dignity these entertainers were treated with by white society? Probably, very little. Many had few choices for careers. Yet the contribution that these musicians and entertainers made to the birth of Vaudeville and later, popular music is staggering. 


Still, respect is often the reward of valuing one's own personal dignity.


The moment we choose not to be simply a ‘figure of fun’ or commodity for entertainment only – the world will take notice. Obviously, we all need and want entertainment but surely there has to be more to life than being a court jester for the masses?


The very first music to be taken seriously by the Western European world was that of the Arranged Spirituals sung by the Fisk Jubilee singers. W E B Du Bois called it, “the articulate message of the slave” and spends a whole chapter on it in his book, The Souls of Black Folk. Du Bois places music as a central sign of black cultural value, integrity and autonomy. Wherever this group went, the respect for the music was unquestionable (in spite of initial ingrained and sometimes violent racism). 


There are some artists who know how to entertain but also to bring a message of deep spiritual dignity - these are the artists we need. We are sorely in need of those artists who will say – “I am capable of entertaining you but don’t get it twisted – I’m bringing a spiritual message”.





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About Black Music History

Matthew Williams MA, PGCE, LLB is a PhD research student at the University of Bristol. He began this initiative in February 2017 in order to aid his studies. It has since blossomed with an online following on Instagram of over 15,000 followers. He continues to document on social media when he is not studying or working.


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