I was living and minding my own business on Thursday when Janelle Monáe blessed us with a new track out of nowhere. In case you missed it I’m talking about “Hell You Talmbout”. If you haven’t heard it yet, I invite to pause for a moment and go listen to it here: https://soundcloud.com/wondalandarts/hell-you-talmbout
No really, I’ll wait. Go listen. https://soundcloud.com/wondalandarts/hell-you-talmbout
I’m a fan of Janelle Monáe, but this isn’t just about my fandom (she’s awesome though) – how does she do this? Why does she do this to us? I’m still trying to recover from “Yoga”.
There has been a lot of talk about Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” being the song of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. I’m not fighting that, but it’s never really resonated with me in that way. I needed something more – something to evoke fight in me when I got tired and not a ‘feel good’ song. Then my girl Janelle showed up right on time. Oh! let me count the ways…
The name of the track is “Hell You Talmbout”. I actually just stared at it for several moments to process and eventually just nodded my head in agreement. I get it. Off top, she’s letting you know she doesn’t have the time. It’s not even a real question, it’s rhetorical. It’s a question that you ask with a screw face because you’re letting the person know you already don’t believe their answer. Why? Because we already know what you’re going to say won’t make sense. It’s actually in your best interest to acknowledge that the question was asked, but not attempt to answer it. Just stand there in silence and accept judgment. Kind of like when your mom asks you if ‘you’ve lost your mind’, but you don’t actually answer because you know better – an answer will only escalate the situation.
AND the phrase is written and said in the African-American Vernacular (some of you call it Ebonics) as if to say, no one gives a d**n about you and your proper English. She’s not here for your respectability politics, but we knew that when she told us to “get off my areola”, right? LOL! Unashamedly Black. PS: That’s STILL the greatest line I’ve ever heard sung.
Ok, so I get past the title and the track starts (music and melody will be addressed next). The entire track is simply calling the names of those who have been slain at the hands of various levels of law enforcement and there are so many reasons why this is important.
a. No one was expecting this because…. how could we?
2) She has clearly aligned herself with the #BlackLivesMatter movement – on the slight chance there was any question. #SayHerName / #SayHisName has been one of the main campaigns of the movement to acknowledge that people of color are not just statistics or media headlines, but also people. They are full, entire human beings with families, friends, life goals, emotions, failures, ambitions, etc. and their humanity matters even in death – say their names. Those names…. those lives matter. Don’t forget that and ask yourself why there are so many names to be said.
And the *way* the names are said… with unexplainable levels of passion, exhaustion, and desperation. Is it just me or do the background vocals on the hook sound like the chorus of an old negro spiritual?? No? Just me being extra? Ok, fine.
iii. Context – She took me out by saying Emmitt Till. I wasn’t expecting that. By acknowledging that this is not merely current event content for our 24hr news cycles or add-ons to campaign reporting, she is reinforcing the message that these conditions of government-sanctioned abuse on Black bodies are the norm that Black people have been living under for generations. And like the race riots of the late 60s, we’re tired of it. The acknowledgement from Emmett Till to Sandra Bland is powerful. This is no new news, the struggle continues. That awakened something in me.
Life. I got life from this track. I’m not a musician (unless 3 years of piano lessons counts for something), but I can recognize certain elements in how this song was composed and produced. And the first thing I heard was the drum. War drums were used for centuries in battle. It was a part of the communication system for troops and they were also used to let the soldiers know they were marching into battle and to help keep the pace. But the African in me loves a good drum. Drums are very an important symbol in African culture and they are present at practically every important event and/or celebration. We have celebration drums, talking drums, drums used in healing ceremonies, drums for rites of passage, drums to represent royalty, drums used in worship….. Listen… Africans love a dance ceremony and we love drums. I won’t lie; it took me a minute to even get past the drums and hear the rest of the song because there was something in that drumbeat that my body responded to immediately. Like performing a dance that pays homage to departed loved ones or that acknowledge the ancestors at the beginning of a ceremony. A dance that originates from deep in one’s spirit – from a place of reverence and respect. A dance that causes your body to move without you even noticing. This song activated that part within me – my African roots – almost immediately. And the more I listened to it, the more it gave me Fela Kuti type vibes. I like it.
THEN when I finally heard the HBCU marching band feel of the song I was done. I got all the feels. There is no mistaking there is something in this composition that links it back to African and/or African-American culture. I don’t even have words for it, just pure genius.
Well, this is it. This is what I was looking for – a battle song. A song that pulls from, as one person said, “deep in your spirit”. As far as I’m concerned Janelle Monáe has provided us with the protest song of the #BlackLivesMatter movement because it captures the rebelliousness, resilience and unapologetic attitude of our generation. This for me is our “We Shall Overcome” or better our “Strange Fruit”. But don’t worry, just like there are several songs associated with the Civil Rights Movement, there’s a place for “Alright” in our playlists as well. “Hell You Talmbout” just blows it out the water. #SorryNotSorry 🙂
“This song is a vessel. It carries the unbearable anguish of millions. We recorded it to channel the pain, fear, and trauma caused by the ongoing slaughter of our brothers and sisters. We recorded it to challenge the indifference, disregard, and negligence of all who remain quiet about this issue. Silence is our enemy. Sound is our weapon. They say a question lives forever until it gets the answer it deserves… Won’t you say their names?”