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The Sounds of Struggle

Sixty years ago, a pathbreaking jazz album from Max Roach, Abbey Lincoln, and Oscar Brown, Jr., fused politics and art in the fight for Black liberation. Today many Black artists—women at the forefront—are taking similar strides.

The pioneering jazz album We Insist!, released by Candid in 1960, with cover designed by Frank Guana.,

“A revolution is unfurling—America’s unfinished revolution.” These words of A. Philip Randolph are the first you read in Nat Hentoff’s liner notes to the legendary 1960 jazz album We Insist!: The Freedom Now Suite featuring drummer Max Roach and singer Abbey Lincoln with lyrics by Oscar Brown, Jr. The Black revolution, Randolph’s epigraph went on, was “unfurling in lunch counters, buses, libraries and schools—wherever the dignity and position of men are denied. Youth and idealism are unfurling. Masses of Negroes are marching onto the stage of history and demanding their freedom now!” The album, a seminal work in what has been called “civil rights jazz,” typified this moment: bold, militant, insisting on new directions—both musically and politically.

A seminal work of civil rights jazz, We Insist! tied Black arts to the Black freedom struggle.

Randolph, a union leader and towering figure in the mid-century Black freedom struggle, emphasized the political content of the album, but he just as easily could have been talking about the music. Roach and his collaborators—including several others besides Lincoln and Brown, among them saxophonist Coleman Hawkins—pushed the boundaries of “straight-ahead” jazz into the “new thing,” developing an early use of modes in place of familiar tonal centers, compositions without harmonic structure, and an emphasis on rhythm and African drumming. Released the same year seventeen countries in Africa gained their independence, the work also expressed the increasing radicalization and internationalization of the Black freedom struggle. The cover of the album featured three Black men at a lunch counter, a reference to the explosion of lunch counter sit-ins from earlier that year, where thousands of young Black civil rights activists occupied segregated public facilities and demanded to be treated as equals. Freedom now, their actions called; we insist, the album echoed.

The album pushed the revolutionary elements of Black arts forward in two directions. On the one hand, Roach and his collaborators picked up the power of the imagery—of the movement “unfurling” all around them, of the radicalization of movement activists—to produce a musical composition that remains an indelible contribution to both the politics of Black freedom and the expansion of musical horizons in mainstream jazz. On the other hand, they refused the choice between great art and political art, embracing a new unity of social context, personal expression, and artistic experimentation. We Insist! thus established itself as simultaneously a great work of art and a political one, and it has become a lasting testament to the expansive horizon of Black freedom.

At the same time, Roach and his ensemble faced considerable backlash for this achievement, and it was the lone Black woman on the project, Abbey Lincoln, who bore the brunt of the response. Listening to this album again today has a great deal to tell us about art, politics, and expression. In 2021 we face similar conditions: the same “unfinished revolution,” and similar reactionary backlash at efforts to complete it. Indeed, as Black Lives Matter movement politics builds its way into Black arts and entertainment, current struggles resemble those experienced by Lincoln, Roach, and others. Once again it is Black women artists and movement leaders who are pushing forward, taking us in new directions.

We Insist! was rooted in struggle: produced and released at the height of the first wave of civil rights activism, coming on the heels of the Little Rock Nine, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and the student lunch counter sit-ins in the months and years before. Roach was no stranger to civil rights activism. The same year the album was released, along with bassist Charles Mingus, Roach and others organized a protest of the Newport Jazz Festival, one of the premier jazz events in the country. The festival paid higher rates to big-name acts, often disproportionately white, while prestige artists, mostly Black, were paid less. Mingus and Roach hosted a competing festival called the “Newport Rebels Festival” in protest, one moment of many in an expanding field of movement inspired civil rights jazz.

The legacy linking jazz to political structure began decades earlier. From Duke Ellington’s 1943 Black, Brown and Beige suite to Charlie Parker’s 1945 record Now’s the Time, some postwar jazz artists had conscientiously explored the variety of Black experience in America. Later, in the years immediately preceding Roach’s work, several artists released explicitly political records. Mingus was one; his 1959 Fables of Faubus mounted a mocking and macabre response to Arkansas governor Orval Faubus’s attempts to block integration in his state. In 1958 tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins released his own Freedom Suite, a paean to the unfolding struggle for Black liberation which featured Roach as the drummer. The structures of white supremacy imposed on Black music and American society writ large were increasingly the subject of jazz compositions, performances, and recordings.

The “freedom” of free jazz hinted at the Black freedom movement, the open expanse of struggle, the boundless horizon of liberation.

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Indeed, the impact of white supremacy was felt all over the jazz world, even for those who chose not to express their experiences artistically. Trumpeter Miles Davis, for example—arguably the largest figure in jazz—was beaten and arrested by a New York City cop for standing on a street corner outside his own show in 1959. Although Davis did not respond to the assault in his work, his experience with police violence was just one incident of many visited upon Black jazz artists. Just the year before, pianist Thelonious Monk had been dragged from his car and severely beaten by state troopers for asking for a glass of water at a Delaware hotel. In 1943 pianist Bud Powell was hospitalized after being beaten by Philadelphia police, a tragedy that preceded mental health crisis, experimental electro-shock therapy, and his early death from tuberculosis in 1966. For Black artists in a profoundly segregated society, with separate circuits for Black and white musicians, discriminatory pay, and constant exposure and threat of white supremist violence in the North and South alike, the feelings of political immediacy were growing.

It was in this climate that We Insist! was born. Growing out of a collaboration originally intended to be performed at the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1963 but released early for Candid Records amidst the growing political crisis, the album moved listeners through Black history, away and back again to Africa, slavery, liberation, civil rights, and decolonial movements. As musicologist Ingrid Monson notes in her book Freedom Sounds: Civil Rights Call Out to Jazz and Africa (2007), the exact origin story is unclear. Roach recalled receiving a commission from the NAACP, whereas Brown thought it originated in a large choral work to be called The Beat, an exploration of the trajectory of African diasporic musical traditions with an emphasis on rhythm—perfect for drummer Roach. However the project came together, three of the five tracks released on the 1960 album had been originally conceived for this other work, beginning in Africa and ending in America: “All Africa,” “Driva’ Man,” and “Freedom Day.”

Over time this original design morphed under Roach’s influence. As Monson explains, Brown recalls a falling out over the substance of the work:

I was preaching love. Max thought that Malcolm X had a better solution than Martin Luther King. That was the end of our dispute at the time, which was a very serious one. So that whole collaboration was aborted, and at that point it was never completed—although it was pretty near completion when we fell out.

In Roach’s recollection, the problem had been to “understand what it really is to be free.” The disagreement was so consequential that Roach proceeded with the recording for Candid in late August 1960 without telling Brown, who learned of the album only from Hentoff’s request for biographical material for the liner notes. As they appeared on the album, the three tracks—rearranged from their earliest conception, with Africa at the end rather than the beginning—take on a more direct political valence, reflecting internationalism, Black power, and militancy in the face of oppression. Despite all this, Monson observes, “Brown stressed that he and Roach were in basic agreement over the need to dedicate one’s artistic work to social justice.” While they mostly agreed, the artists diverged in the expression and specific political direction of their work.

Nowhere was this disagreement sharper than in the album’s third track, “Triptych: Prayer, Protest, Peace,” its artistic centerpiece. The wordless song traces the psychological process of struggle against white supremacy in a spare instrumentation featuring only Roach’s drums and Lincoln’s voice. (The two were in a relationship at the time and married in 1962.) It is an arresting work: a cry, a plea, a kind of expressive outburst of frustration, preparation, and exhaustion from struggle, a moving synthesis of artistry and politics. The song opens with “prayer,” a subdued improvised spiritual, with singing from Lincoln expressing pensive resignation, Roach’s sparse but dramatic playing building a sense of expectation. The middle of the song, “protest,” explodes as Lincoln begins to scream into the microphone—at times in wincing pain and panic—while Roach beats out a wild and raucous rhythm to match. Finally, the song collapses into exhaustion, “peace,” as Lincoln and Roach return to a more subdued, breathy, and recognizably metered section for the musical resolution.

This was politics of different kind—expressive, emotive, personal, uncompromising and uncontrollable.

The track was instantly controversial, both for its politics and its music. The artists did not shy away from the affective aspects of political struggle—the anger, outrage, excesses, and violence that come from injustice. Hentoff’s liner notes made this explicit. “Protest,” he wrote, “is a final, uncontrollable unleashing of rage and anger that have been compressed in fear for so long that the only catharsis can be the extremely painful tearing out of all the accumulated fury and hurt and blinding bitterness.” This was not the pacificist politics of the mainstream civil rights movement, the patient but persistent and strategic work to upend white supremacy. This was politics of different kind—expressive, emotive, personal, uncompromising and uncontrollable. The difference filtered into the dispute between Roach and Brown. In an interview with Monson, Brown recalls: “during that whole period we were not estranged. We were together in a sense; we were arguing. We were arguing about the screaming. We were arguing about the image he wanted Abbey to have.”

In his own interviews, Roach explained that for him, the song wasn’t one of uplift, progress, and eventual redemption but one of struggle, and without clear resolution. Regarding the final section, he said, “it was a prayer not of supplication, but a prayer of preparation. And the protest section followed the preparation section, which meant that then you went out, and you, if you will, you screamed . . . Your pain, you just expressed your pain in the protest.” That expression ended in “peace,” but it “was a peace that you get from just exhausting yourself.” And, Roach concluded, “there was no peace.”

Roach called “Triptych” the most abstract work of his career, and it can rightly be called a masterwork because the meaning, the politics, and the artistic form are so closely matched. Breaking the standards of Western harmonic music was one element of a growing movement in the early 1960s that was pushing the boundaries of jazz. At the time this new force was referred to variously as the “new thing,” “free jazz,” or the “avant-garde,” and contrasted with “straight-ahead” jazz, the kind of Miles Davis, Dave Brubeck, and the leading figures of jazz modernism. Just three months after Roach and company recorded We Insist!, Ornette Coleman recorded Free Jazz. Soon after, John Coltrane and others pushed jazz even further, experimenting with modes that had been introduced on We Insist! and delivering outrageous performances in New York jazz clubs, some of which began to appear on recordings.

Many jazz critics, especially of the left, saw the new music as intrinsically imbued with the politics of Black struggle. As the Black freedom movement pushed the boundaries of respectability politics and liberal integration narratives of progress and “racial uplift,” they argued, so too did the new thing push the limits of Western music. As many artists emphasized eastern and African instrumentation, particularly the drum, and modal or harmonically loose structure, critics saw a greater awakening of pan-African and internationalist sentiments in the music. Even the “freedom” of free jazz, as it came to be known, hinted at the Black freedom movement, the open expanse of struggle, the boundless horizon of liberation.

But at the same time, many artists themselves rejected this link between music and politics, going even further than Brown’s disagreements over the exact form that link should take. Monk, for one—the “high priest” of modernist jazz—once told a reporter that his music “is not a social comment on discrimination or poverty or the like.” Coltrane was particularly strong on this point. For him, his music was political, but it was also something more: a way to experience or communicate or meditate with the divine. When his work was more overtly political, as with his composition “Alabama” (1963), it took the form of lament, carrying the deep grief and persistence that came from bearing witness to white supremacist violence. Coleman and others of the new thing movement also eschewed an overtly political stance with their music. While the musical freedom of free jazz spoke to politics of liberation, its leading practitioners shied away from these associations.

Roach, Lincoln, and Brown did not. They embraced the Black radical, internationalist, and liberatory meaning of the artistry, and though the album itself mostly got positive reviews, they still took shit for it, especially the lone woman on the album. Lincoln viewed We Insist! as springboard for her artistic, personal, and political development. Early in her career she worked as a supper club performer before she was picked up by Hollywood and featured in hits like the Marilyn Monroe film The Girl Can’t Help It (1956) and the variety program The Steve Allen Show. In the late 1950s she had released several albums, and by 1958 was wearing her hair in a “natural” close cut style. But We Insist! made a statement, and her performance was key to the overall success of the work.

On her follow-up album, Straight Ahead (1961), Lincoln extended these themes of musical exploration and radical Black politics. Her solo album put to music the famous Paul Lawrence Dunbar poem “When Malindy Sings,” added lyrics to Monk’s composition “Blue Monk,” and explored race and class in the dissonant “In the Red.” In the title track, “Straight Ahead,” she sang that the straight road “can lead nowhere” and goes “oh so slow,” when it takes a “trusting soul astray.” They words plainly resonate as a metaphor for Black struggle, her career, and her politics all at once, all of which she was recalibrating in the early 1960s. The title track was itself a clever double entendre: the “straight ahead” path in jazz, as in politics, was not moving fast enough. Most provocatively, the closing refrain of album, from the song “Retribution,” capped the dissonant sound and militant politics of Lincoln’s work: “Let the retribution / match the contribution,” she sang.

Once again it is Black women artists and movement leaders who are pushing forward, taking us in new directions.

For any of these advances, or simply the talent assembled on her tracks (the album featured Roach, Hawkins, and Eric Dolphy), Lincoln’s work was significant. But, as Monson notes, the album received a harsh review in the jazz magazine DownBeat. The reviewer, Ira Gitler, one of the leading figures in jazz commentary, dismissed the album, lamenting Lincoln’s political awakening and calling her a “professional Negro” for dispensing work increasingly focused on Black politics for Black audiences. “Now that Abbey Lincoln has found herself as a Negro,” he wrote, “I hope that she can find herself as a militant but less one-sided American negro.” Gitler’s stance was part of a broader backlash in jazz criticism. In 1962 Time also published a feature article on Black music in which they claimed jazz was subject to “Crow Jim” reverse racism whereby white musicians faced discrimination in Black musical spaces. “The white man has no civil rights when it comes to jazz,” the magazine wrote. Never mind that jazz originated in Black musical idioms, that leading earners in the jazz world were white performers like Brubeck, or that white players like pianist Bill Evans achieved the height professional and artistic acclaim. In DownBeat and Time the backlash came from leading liberal and progressive voices upset with the direction of Black politics and music.

Lincoln responded to such claims at a symposium on Gitler’s review organized by DownBeat that featured Roach, Gitler, herself, and others. “There was a time when I was really a professional Negro,” she said, referring to her period as supper club singer and Hollywood star. “I was capitalizing on the fact that I was a Negro,” she said, “and I looked the way western people expect you to look. I was a professional Negro. I was not an artist. I had nothing to say. I used inane stupid material on the stage.” By contrast, her latest period of artistic expression, self-development, and political exploration, she insisted, was something different. And it was not merely political, but part of a process of self-discovery and maturation. Despite this artistic growth, Lincoln suffered professional consequences; she did not record another album until 1973, a dozen years after Straight Ahead was issued.

This episode, the claims of reverse racism, and the growing backlash against Black political artists from mainstream white critics, led poet and essayist Amiri Baraka, then writing as Leroi Jones, to pen one of his most famous essays, “Jazz and the White Critic,” in 1963. “Most jazz critics have been white Americans, but most important jazz musicians have not been,” the essay began. The arrangement mattered because “it strips the music too ingenuously of its social and cultural intent.” “To be fully understood,” Baraka wrote, “the blues and jazz aesthetic . . . must be seen in as nearly its complete human context as possible”—which meant attention to class, race, and the “socio-cultural philosophy” out of which art was born.

Some six decades later, we are in a new era of militant Black politics and political art. The movement and artistic call and response continue with familiar echoes, but also with its own distinctive “socio-cultural philosophy.” After the Black Lives Matter movement gained national recognition in 2014, political songs like Childish Gambino’s “This is America” and YG and Nipsey Hussle’s “FDT” were inescapable during the Trump presidency. The 2018 Grammy awards included a performance from rapper Kendrick Lamar that featured Black men getting picked off one-by-one, symbolically killed, as he listed structural impediments to Black freedom. Yet as the movement progresses, so too does the backlash; the 2018 Grammy’s were criticized by U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley and others for being “too political.” And again, it is Black women artists that face the brunt of the reaction.

It is up to all of us—creators, listeners, activists, critics, fans—to choose to embrace this moment and to recognize the many tones of struggle.

In 2020 a flurry of right-wing media attacks targeted rappers Megan Thee Stallion and Cardi B—who is outspoken on political issues and shot an ad for Bernie Sanders—for their sexually explicit song “WAP.” Meanwhile, Chicago-based rapper Noname has taken a political stance in music while pursuing a book club, other political projects, and extensive social media commentary on political issues, which has elicited public criticism from fellow musicians. A song from Grammy-winning rapper J. Cole in the summer of 2020, “Snow on tha Bluff,” included oblique references to Noname and called for a slower, more deferential attitude from “queen tone” activists. Within a week Noname responded with “Song 33,” her statement on Black arts and political music, a reckoning with the stakes of political inaction for Black life. The song calls other rappers to account for failing to take a public stand against anti-Black violence. Her work asks listeners, how do we understand ourselves and our moment? What are we going to do about the conditions we find ourselves in? Noname pushes us forward: “I dream all Black,” she raps, “We burn down borders / This is the new vanguard / I’m the new vanguard.” Militant, unapologetic, movement-focused, personally expressive, Noname’s work echoes Lincoln’s in its directness and self-possession.

Sadly, Lincoln, Roach, Brown, and the other contributors to We Insist! would recognize 2021 all too well, but with revived movements for Black liberation we are seeing revived artistic and political expression as well. Whether in music with Noname and Cardi B, visual art with Kara Walker, Ebony G. Patterson, and Mickalene Thomas, or community organizing under movement leaders such as Nikkita Oliver, Robin Wonsley Worlobah, and Patrisse Cullors, Black women are pushing artistic and political horizons forward. It is up to all of us—creators, listeners, activists, critics, fans—to choose to embrace this moment and to recognize the many tones of struggle. As Black artists and activists move forward for liberation and artistic expression, we all have to choose to move with them—to create movement, to take steps toward personal, political, and collective liberation. With these voices beside and before us, we must insist on it.

Michael Reagan is a historian and activist living in Seattle, Washington. He is the author of Intersectional Class Struggle: Theory and Practice, published AK Press and IAS. Find him on Twitter @reaganrevoltion.

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