Music’s Role in the Movement for Black Lives: An Interview With Robert Glasper

Robert Glasper performs live at Capitol Studios.Robert Glasper performs live at Capitol Studios. (Photo: robertglasper.com)

If you say to my 6-year-old son, “What do we want?” he’ll tell you, “Justice.” If you ask him, “When do we want it?” he’ll tell you. “Now.” He has marched and chanted, and he knows Black Lives Matter.

He knows he matters.

My husband and I want Ralphie fully invested in his own liberation. We want him to know – no matter what his history teacher might tell him – that Lincoln did not free the slaves. Black people freed the slaves. We want him to know he will be the one to free himself.

When the indictments came down for the officers charged in the murder of Freddie Gray, I cried and held him close and clapped and said, “Remember when we went to the march for Eric Garner and Michael Brown?” When he said he did, I told him he had done something great. “Well, you did it!” I said. “You and all those people we were with helped us take a little step toward justice. We are a little closer to freedom.” He asked questions about our liberation, about how he had participated in something that took us all closer to freedom, for weeks after. This freedom thing stayed with him. In him.

Ralphie, who contributed to Robert Glasper’s new album, rides on his father's shoulders at a #BlackLivesMatter protest in New York City. (Photo: Eisa Ulen)Ralphie, who contributed to Robert Glasper’s new album, rides on his father’s shoulders at a #BlackLivesMatter protest in New York City. (Photo: Eisa Ulen)So, when my friend Angelika Beener asked if we would let Ralphie contribute to a recording her husband was doing about the #BlackLivesMatter movement, my husband and I very quickly said yes. Of course, we knew it would be amazing for Ralphie to record his own voice for Grammy-winning jazz great Robert Glasper, even though, for Ralphie, Rob is just “Riley’s dad.” But we were saying yes to something more than an exciting opportunity for our son. We were saying yes to something we knew would honor the victims of police brutality, be in the tradition of the centuries-long freedom struggle, and pay tribute to all the multitude who added their voices to #BlackLivesMatter.

And the song does all of that.

“I’m Dying of Thirst” is the last track on Covered, Robert Glasper’s eighth album. Winner of the 2013 Grammy for Best R&B Album for Black Radio, and the 2015 Grammy for Best R&B Performance for “Jesus Children,” with Lala Hathaway and Malcolm-Jamal Warner, Glasper disrupts the categories that define and demarcate genre. His music is jazz, but it is also hip hop. It is also soul.

On “I’m Dying of Thirst,” a cover of Kendrick Lamar’s aching wonder of a rhyme, Angelika’s and Rob’s son Riley, also 6, Ralphie and three of his other friends recite the names of recent victims of police brutality. Like the track that precedes it – “Got Over,” featuring Harry Belafonte, which is one of the most powerful statements on Black life that you’ll ever hear – “I’m Dying of Thirst” is both politics and art.

In this exclusive Truthout interview, Glasper talks about working with Harry Belafonte, the activism of his peers in the industry, and the current state of Black entertainment.

The Robert Glasper Trio.The Robert Glasper Trio. (Photo: robertglasper.com)

Truthout: What kind of household did you grow up in? Was politics, or political consciousness, a big part of your childhood?

Robert Glasper: I was pretty much raised by my mother. She was the music director at the church and also sang a lot in jazz and R&B clubs. I was home alone a lot because my mom worked a day job and sang at night, so I was on my own a lot of the time. Because of that dynamic, there wasn’t much about politics being discussed in the house.

Harry Belafonte appears on Covered in a powerful song that kind of lets him rhyme a little, do a little spoken word, as he bears witness to his own experience as a Black man in America – and the world. It almost sounds like you were recording a conversation and decided to lay down part of what he said on the track. Where did the idea for “Got Over” come from? Did you specifically ask Belafonte to talk about his life or to talk about what the term “got over” means to him?

I had the honor of going to his home and sitting with him for a few hours. We traded music back and forth, and he told me many wonderful stories about his hand in history … very inspiring. He came up with “Got Over” himself. I just told him to say something that he thought people needed to hear.

So many of our Baby Boomer artists and entertainers are activists and continue to participate in social justice causes as they age. I’m thinking of everyone from Danny Glover to Stevie Wonder, from Ruby Dee to Lena Horne. Do you think our generation of artists and entertainers has honored their legacy with their own political activism? Of course, there are important artists and entertainers in our Generation, Gen X, who infuse their work and their lives with a political consciousness – I’m thinking of Q-Tip, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Russell Simmons, Don Cheadle, Azealia Banks and Amandla Stenberg. I’m even thinking of Prince, who made an important statement at the 2015 Grammys about #BlackLivesMatter, when he announced the Album of the Year award (after receiving a standing ovation for simply walking on stage). But I do think many African Americans look at the most financially successful entertainers of our generation and wonder where the take-a-risk activism is. Stevie Wonder wrote the anthem to make MLK’s birthday a national holiday, but he was also arrested because he protested apartheid. Where is that level of political engagement? Is there work – organized activist work – that our generation’s entertainers are doing that we need to know about?

I don’t think artists of today show enough support in the struggle at all. And if they do, it’s only for a hot second, or they give money on the low to an organization but don’t want people to know. … There are many artist who do speak out about #BlackLivesMatter: Mos Def, Qtip, Talib Kwali, Erykah Badu and the list goes on. I am referring to the artists who have a huge stage and can reach more people at one time. The people who can actually make a change on a big level fast don’t really speak out.

What is the current state of affairs in Black entertainment?

Black entertainment has become humorous entertainment for white people to watch. … Intelligent, great art isn’t radio-friendly, so everybody is going for the same dumbed-down sound to make it on the radio and get “the hit.” Every song talks about being in the club, money or sex. That’s the majority of what you hear from Black music these days on the radio.

Has the organized struggle of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, this newest iteration of the struggle for social justice in our community, influenced some of your peers in entertainment? Are artists, actors and musicians talking about, even participating in, #BlackLivesMatter?

Yes people are aware and are definitely talking about it, but not everybody will reflect it in their art or do much of anything to make change. Artists are struggling nowadays, so it’s a risk most are not willing to take.

How did “Dying of Thirst” happen? Where did the idea for your haunting tribute to the most recent victims of police brutality come from?

I love that song. It’s my favorite from that particular Kendrick Lamar album. I knew I wanted to speak on that topic for this record but wanted to do it in a way that would hit home. Children’s voices are so innocent and honest. … Since I’m a father now, I process matters of the world differently.

At what point did you come up with the idea to include your own son’s voice on this record?

My son was the first person I thought of when I decided to do this particular piece. He is 6 years old but very aware of who he is and what color he is. My wife makes sure of that. That’s him talking uncoached at the end of the song. Those are his own thoughts.

Thank you so much for including my son on this song. Why was it important to you that some of Riley’s friends, including Ralphie, also speak the names of those victims?

I wanted to use Ralphie and other friends of Riley to represent the many victims. I wanted the listener to hear different voices and realize these victims could easily be our children.

Robert Glasper's song I'm Dying of Thirst, incorporates the words of Riley (second from right), who is shown here with three friends, two of whom also participated in the album. (Photo: Angelika Beener)Robert Glasper’s song “I’m Dying of Thirst,” incorporates the words of Riley (second from right), who is shown here with three friends, two of whom also participated in the album. (Photo: Kelley Bruso)

What are your greatest hopes for Riley’s future? And, as you think of him growing into his own manhood, what are your greatest fears?

My hope is that he continues to be fully aware of who Riley Glasper is and will be as he grows up and never waver from that. My fear is that America will try its hardest to take that away. My son is strong and has a strong foundation with me and his mother so I ain’t really that worried about that. But you can only control so much …

Did you hear that Angelika, Dara [Roach] and I just cried as we listened to the Robert Glasper trio perform “Dying of Thirst” at the Blue Note? I think we are all walking around with so much feeling, including fear, frustration, even rage, because of what is happening when our people interact with the police – and because this has been going on for nearly 500 years now – but we have to put on our face to go to work, to buy groceries. We have to put on our face to interact with our young children. So, “Dying of Thirst” just, I think, let us release all that feeling pent up inside. We cried because your song gave us permission to express our real selves. Thank you for that, too.

Thank You. I cry damn near every time I play it live. I love my son so much …