Various ‘Black Songs Matter’ (Ariwa) 4/5

Reggae has always had a strong socio-political ethos and represented those in society whose voices have not been heard, or been ignored. In the case of the ‘Black Lives Matter’ campaign, young black males in particular have tended to be pigeon-holed and stereotyped. In their dealings with the police and criminal justice system, this has resulted in a disproportionately large number of incarcerations, perpetuating and worsening their condition, and ultimately resigning them needlessly to a life of criminality in order to survive. This when other alternatives are available, if only time and care is taken to deal with the specific needs of the youths and a recent parliamentary report has explicitly pointed out where the current system is going wrong. Neil Fraser, as a creative black man, is clearly sensitive and receptive to such issues and with this excellent compilation, that spans some twenty years of musical activity, has sought to attract attention to their plight, and how their struggles are mirrored elsewhere on the planet, from Kingston to Paris (where males of North African origin are the most discriminated group), to just about any town or city in the United States with a significant African-American presence.

A reprise of a 1970s roots classic by Wayne Wade, ‘Black Is Our Colour’, is a positive affirmation of blackness and this version has a lovely retro feel with sublime harmonies and this message is reinforced by Earl 16 on ‘Black Man’. Of course, Bunny Wailer cut arguably the finest example of with his mid-1970s album, ‘Blackheart Man’, though there are other worthy contenders. The commonality of conditions for youths is alluded to by U-Roy on ‘Ghetto Youths’, and their vulnerable status, while Big Youth expands the subject matter to debate the oppression of an entire continent with ‘Free Africa’.

Sometimes, it is the gentler sounding songs that carry the strongest message with a powerful punch and on this compilation, a cover of Deniece Williams’ opus, ‘Black Butterfly’, by Aisha, proves to be an uplifting lover’s rock inspired number with a metaphor that is most apt to convey the underlying message behind this anthology’s title. Carroll T is even more to the point with ‘SOS’, and the lyrics speak volumes, “Calling all mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters. I’m sending out an SOS. Save our sons”.

An appropriately simple black cover with a clenched fist in solidarity sends out a powerful message of the music within and this does not disappoint. This will be of interest both to roots reggae fans and those passionate about seeking justice for the human condition more generally.

Tim Stenhouse